It will, however, involve a deep dive into what Knight refers to as “the old chestnut of, how do you align IT and business strategy?”
“It is about staying engaged with the business to ensure you remain relevant. Otherwise, you just become a cost,” says Knight. “IT can add value and can save money particularly when the focus is reducing budgets because of the efficiencies it can bring in.”
He says the economic climate also provides an opportunity for IT to look at “synergies” that can be delivered through business technology. “When the business is growing rapidly, the focus is on customer and simply moving products through the business as fast as they can possibly move it. The business has become more interested in sharing and collaboration when the pressure is on.”
Fletcher Building was ranked number two in the 2011 MIS100 report on the top IT using organisations in New Zealand.
Knight is working on a range of projects that will enable collaboration across the Fletcher Group, which is the number one private organisation in the MIS100 list of top IT user organisations in New Zealand. Collaboration is vital in the context of Fletcher, which he describes as a completely decentralised organisation. “We are a business made up of smaller businesses,” he says, referring to the more than 40 businesses in the six divisions of the group. “Each business can range from $20 million turnover to $1 billion turnover, each of those businesses has its own leadership business teams that include finance and IT.“The strength of our decentralised structure is that our businesses are competitive, very focused on their customers and cost. They are light on their feet, they are agile they can move quickly,” says Knight. “My role is much about facilitating as it is about doing.”Fletcher uses a range of collaboration tools throughout the entire group. There is a SharePoint site where all the IT managers list the projects they have recently completed or are working on.
“We ask people to put up there projects that may be of value to the members of the group, like a CRM or videoconferencing systems,” says Knight.Fletcher has communities of practice (COPs) which draw on staff in New Zealand, Australia, North America and Europe. They are virtual teams and use a combination of SharePoint, videoconferencing, and web cast to share information and tackle group projects. “It is something we are continuing to do better, as new tools come out so constantly,” says Knight.
He says that in order for COPs to work well, they need strong governance around them. “We put a lot of emphasis on COPs for understanding who the players are, where they live, what are their priorities, what are they trying to achieve, how they are going to work together what the outcomes are. We try to understand that before we put an IT system in place to support them.”“You can have great technology and if you don’t have that common understanding, the technology just doesn’t work,” he says.
This year, Fletcher Group is moving to telepresence, and this will allow him to meet both New Zealand and Australian IT managers at the same time.The executive team was the first to trial the system, using the Cisco telepresence facilities in Auckland.
“We had people online from Melbourne and Cincinnati using their meeting rooms,” says Knight. “I have high hopes that will change the ways we communicate with each other.”An area he is focusing on is governance. “We aren’t driving a singular IT strategy from New Zealand,” explains Knight. “Each business has its own strategy. To support that business strategy, my role is to ensure things are being executed consistently and in line with our policies.“A lot of what I do is policy setting and ensuring that projects are executed for the right reasons and stand a higher chance of success than they might do otherwise, understand risk and mitigating that risk.”
In the area of procurement for example, Fletcher has group-wide deals with vendors and these apply to both local and offshore offices. This enables the company to get a better price from a provider, for instance, through a group rate.Knight meets with the IT managers — around 20 — of Fletcher businesses in New Zealand every month. These meetings last from two to three hours. He also meets the offshore IT managers every month, through Skype or by phone. Each of the IT managers report into the leadership team and have a “dotted” line reporting to Knight.
Reaching out to customers
He says customer facing systems will continue to be key themes in the next 12 months and beyond. “How do we use IT to better work with our customers, to better add value to our customers?”
Knight says the end users of their products are rarely direct customers. He uses the example of one of Fletcher’s products, GIB board. The company does not sell it to the business or the builders directly but it would like to “reach out” to these end customers so they are aware of the product and its capability.
“Our customer is successful when they are able to buy our products fast,” says Knight. He cites their work with a Fletcher company in Australia, Fair Dinkum Sheds. Fletcher has written an app for the distributors which they use to sell Fair Dinkum products. The end customer can look at the options for buying a shed in real time and just press a button to order, and the order goes to Fletcher. “It is one example where we use the technology to help our customers be more successful.”
Knight says Fletcher continues to acquire companies, from the corporate office buying a big business such as Crane, to one of their member companies buying another business. “We are very diverse geographically in terms of our markets,” he says, which is why the focus on customer facing systems will continue.
Like many CIOs, consumerisation of technology is something that Knight and his team are working through. There are different layers for bring your own technology, he says, but at Fletcher, “the one that is coming out and is most immediate - whether we like it or not - is the strong desire by many of our employees to use their phone of choice”.
It could be an iPhone or Android and they want to use it for work. “Gone are the days when phones are so expensive that you just have one and you want it to be provided by work,” says Knight.
Save for some roles like sales where the contact between the staff and customer is the telephone number, Knight explains Fletcher is willing to take the staff number and put it in the corporate network. “When they leave we will remove it from our network and give it back to them.”
“What is more of a challenge is ensuring we can connect a variety of phones to our network in a way that doesn’t threaten our network from a security point of view and is sufficient and cost effective.”
“You can configure an Android phone badly and it will burn lots and lots of data just doing nothing, just roaming and downloading GPS information. If you don’t configure these things properly they can cost you money.”
“That is just phones and we recognise we need to move beyond that,” he says. “Should we be allowing people to bring their own laptops, their tablets, their PC of choice in connecting to our system? And if it is a good idea, how do you manage that?”
Cloud technology, particularly Salesforce, is also being increasingly used across business units in the group. “We are increasingly using different forms of cloud technology. It requires different skills, introduces different problems. Simply managing access to your systems is an example. Back in the good old days when you had no cloud technology, if you wanted to have somebody access the system you created an account on the network. These days you have to create an account for your network, and the Salesforce network [system], or whatever. The management of security and access needs to be tackled in a different way.”
Mobility is also impacting the way Fletcher works with customers. For example, builders use their mobile phones and even tablets for business. So they are developing apps where builders can use mobile devices to show customers their different products and finishes. “The consumer can then be excited about the possibilities for the products. It gives our products a fresh and modern look,” says Knight.
When Fletcher staff were working with the Earthquake Commission on the remediation work in Christchurch, the EQC developed an app to run on the iPad. When the assessors and their staff went to the site, they carried their iPads and entered the details on these devices. “Five years ago you would not be able to do that,” he says, “so mobility continues to be an area of interest and growth.”
Leading the way
On the shifting role of the CIO, he says, it is about working with the business to ensure the business understands the capability of IT, and to work with the business to support the development of their business strategies.
He also attends informal get-togethers with his CIO colleagues. “You have to develop a decent network of other CIOs and other business people not just in your industry. If you are looking at customer intimacy, banks are good at that; the fast food market has been leading the way in supply chain optimisation.”
“I am not a believer of IT strategy to be developed in isolation,” he says. “IT is very much a part of the business. I don’t think we can lead and have the business follow. And I don’t think business can lead and IT will follow. They have to work together.”
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