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CIO100 2018 #31-100: Craig Columbus, Russell McVeagh

  • Name Craig Columbus
  • Title Chief information officer
  • Company Russell McVeagh
  • Commenced role May 2008
  • Reporting Line Chief executive officer
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Technology Function 30 IS staff, five direct reports
  • Related

    “Law is traditionally a conservative business that is slow to change,” says Craig Columbus, CIO at Russell McVeagh.

    But over the past 20 months, he says, the relatively traditional law firm has transformed its physical and technical environment, without interrupting its ability to provide excellent service to clients.  

    “A transformation of this scale cannot be accomplished without a great deal of communication, collaboration and determination.”  

    “We had many challenges along the way, but we overcame them as a team and I could not have delivered without having excellent and capable people around me.”

    As CIO, there is no formula for leading a transformation of this scope, says Columbus.

    “I worked hard, but I led from the front, never asking my team to work harder than I was willing to work myself and I communicated as much as I could, doing my best to ensure the team understood the vision of what we are trying to accomplish.”

    He says the greatest satisfaction he had over the project was being told by one of those who who had doubted the IT team’s ability to pull it off that the business technology transformation was a success and “they would never go back to the old way of working.”

    Craig traces the seeds of the programme to 2015, when the senior leadership team recognised that they needed to be more nimble to better position the firm for the future.

    “We came up with a plan and began a full corporate transformation project that ran from mid-2016 through to the present.  The CEO asked me to lead a good portion of this business transformation project.”

    One component of the transformation was a building project to transform the firm’s offices physical premises from cellular office, to fully open plan.  

    The refit required that the company completely gut two floors in its high rise and create a large atrium featuring a bespoke spiral stair connecting the space.

    They also installed 10 “smart” videoconferencing rooms across the firm. The new smart videoconferencing rooms have proven so popular that they are investing expanding this capability, says Columbus.

    “Another component of the transformation project was a complete revamp of our technical infrastructure,” Columbus says.

    With the mandate for mobility, the technology team removed desktops and physical phones and gave every employee a high-end 2-in- 1 laptop running Windows 10, Office 2016, Skype for Business, and new versions of their proprietary core business applications.

    “Security was a key concern, so we deployed a number of state of the art security controls to ensure the confidentiality of our systems and associated data,” says Columbus.

    “The construction project and the technical infrastructure projects were completed on time and under budget and the payoff was immediate,” he says. “Within hours of launch, we had people using all aspects of the new facility, working in new ways and using the technology to the fullest.

    One last major phase of the transformation was to provide Russell McVeagh lawyers with better insights into clients and their needs. To accomplish this, the firm needed a change in technology and a change in the way the lawyers worked with data.  

    “My team replaced our old CRM system with a modern system that allows us to have better insights into our data stores at the click of a mouse and we worked closely with our head of business development to ensure our lawyers were fully trained to take advantage of the new technology.  

    “We have already seen significant business benefit, as the technology allows us to better understand our strengths and weaknesses and tune our approach to ensure a better outcome for our clients,” Columbus says.

    As for lessons learned, he says the biggest challenge to date with IT is striking a balance between the need to change along with a rapidly changing world and ensuring that the firm doesn't get sucked into the hype of solutions that aren't yet ready for commercial use.  

    “We must choose our path thoughtfully and strategically to ensure the best outcome for our clients and for the firm.   

    “One of the best ways to help non-technical people see past the hype is to bring them to technical reviews and demonstrations, highlighting the often non-trivial shortcomings of some cutting edge offerings and pointing out the areas of true differentiation in others.”

    While overseeing the traditional projects, Columbus also spends a great deal of time working with the company’s cross disciplinary Innovation Committee, looking into new and exciting technologies, including AI and machine learning.

    “Sometimes, however, the benefit gained isn’t in what technology you deploy, but in the time spent learning about some areas in sufficient depth to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff,” he notes.

    He says this especially applies to artificial intelligence.

    “Not all that glitters is gold,” he says. “It has taken a fair amount of work to narrow down potential solutions that work as advertised and will provide meaningful and differential results to our clients. Anyone with a credit card can buy ‘AI’ from a cloud provider, but without careful due diligence and a well-crafted, strategic approach, the investment won’t provide meaningful benefit.”

    Thus, he says, “we have decided to take a careful, thoughtful approach to AI investment,” and is able to bring this year “some true innovations” through this technology to their clients.  

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