People and personality before process

Strategic human resources - matching individual staff characteristics to appropriate IT roles - matched with a high performance culture, are keys to enterprise success.
  • Peter Hind (Unknown Publication)
  • 05 November, 2008 22:00

I have just returned from organising and chairing the annual New Zealand CIO conference. It is an activity I really enjoy. I am friends

with many IT executives there from my days when I ran the InTEP

executive group.

The IT community is resourceful and you tend to

encounter many innovative approaches to common business problems. I

also enjoy the intensity of an IT conference. In a short space of time

you get the opportunity to network and discuss problems with like

minded souls. In addition, it provides you with an up-to-date snapshot

of what's going on in the industry. However, I also find that in each

conference I attend there is usually one common thread that runs

through the proceedings. This was again to be evident for me.

Beforehand I caught up for dinner with Garry Collings, an experienced

CIO who has held prominent senior IT executive roles in several major

companies in the country. If there is a fine art to being personable

Collings has mastered it. However, he is also passionate about the IT

industry so it is as much stimulating as engaging talking to him.

Interestingly, in recent years Collings has elected to step outside

the corporate world. He now works as something of a CIO

trouble-shooter. He gets called in to organisations having difficulty

with IT to assist them establish effective structures and disciplines

around the delivery of IT services.

It's not about processes

Collings told me that in his work as a trouble-shooter he has come to

realise that ultimately IT is not about processes. As someone who

regards service delivery as sacred, Collings was challenging one of

the tenements I hold about IT. However, he argued that the first focus

for a CIO must be on the people. He believed you must understand the

characteristics and traits of your IT staff so you can match them to

the most appropriate roles in the service delivery processes. Collings

now recognises that it is a recipe for disaster trying to shoe horn a

staff member in to a role that is outside their comfort zone. Instead

he believed the challenge was to identify which personality traits

were needed to fulfil each part in a process.

In effect Collings was the first person at the conference to raise the

topic of strategic human resources (HR). It was a subject I was to

hear again and again over the two days of the event. The opening

keynote speaker was John Key, the current Leader of the Opposition in

the country. His speech outlined the role he saw for ICT in a future

New Zealand. Encouragingly he did not see IT as a cost to be

curtailed. Instead he recognised that the challenge was to release the

potential of IT to be a catalyst for change. In his view if New

Zealand was to compete in a world of globalisation government needed

to inculcate a creative attitude to IT within its populace.

A 'high performing' culture

Next was a presentation from Ron van de Riet, the CIO at Kiwibank. In

the space of six years since its inception in 2002 this company has

shaken up the banking sector in the country. It has won awards for

offering the best value products and has higher customer satisfaction

ratings than the four large Australian-owned trading banks that

dominate the banking scene in New Zealand. Van de Riet credited much

of Kiwibank's success to a willingness to be innovative with

technology. However, the Bank has also recognised that the strength of

its brand is underpinned by a high performing culture among its

employees. Van de Riet described this as championing human capital

management and a major part of his speech looked at how the bank was

developing this within its staff.

The importance of people in the success of an organisation was next

raised by Jon Macdonald, the CEO of Trade Me. Trade Me is a true dot

com success story. It began life in a small apartment in Wellington in

1999 as a New Zealand equivalent of eBay. Seven years later the

founders sold the company to Fairfax Media, for $700 million. Today

research shows that the Trade Me group of web sites collectively

generate just over 50 per cent of all web-page traffic originating

from New Zealand-based servers.

Look after your staff

Among the seven key points for success that Macdonald outlined was the

importance of looking after your staff. The company is consistently

rated one of the best places to work in New Zealand. The studies

identify that Trade Me staff feel respected and engaged and

acknowledge that the executive give them the trust and freedom to

perform. The result is that the company rides on their enthusiasm.

The final speech on the first day was a dinner talk from Dave Currie

who was the Chef de Mission for the New Zealand Olympic Team at

Beijing. For a country of four million people New Zealand consistently

punches above its weight in the Olympics. This year it won five gold

medals. However, Currie's speech was about the challenge of managing a

team of single-minded, competitive, high-performing athletes. His

message though was equally applicable to a CIO running an IT

department. To get the support of your team you first have to

understand everyone's individual needs and then show them trust.

The need for staff empowerment also featured prominently in a

presentation delivered the next day by John Peebles, who runs an

executive recruitment company in Auckland. His speech looked at the

skill set challenges facing the IT industry and highlighted the fact

that with the increasing retirement of the baby boomers there is going

to be a huge shortfall in the job market around the world. As such,

Peebles argued that people with skills will be in the ascendancy and

are going to be much more selective about where they work. In Peeble's

opinion this trend would be compounded by an excessive executive focus

on cutting overheads like staff to improve short term bottom line

performance. In his mind, if you want loyalty, you have to give it.

Peeble highlighted the benefit of doing so. He quoted research from

the Australian Graduate School of Management that there is a strong

empirical evidence of a relationship between how you manage people and

corporate financial performance.

Quality people critical

I suppose that in the end the New Zealand CIO conference only

reinforced what I already knew. The only difference in any business is

the quality of its people. As my mother used to say: you need to treat

others how you would want to be treated yourself. Unfortunately, this

basic common sense is something that many businesses have overlooked

for far too long. However, the lesson I took away from New Zealand

seemed to be that the IT industry is starting to make amends for that

lost time.

Peter Hind is a consultant with many years of

experience in the IT industry.