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Strategies, advice and opinions helping to define and develop the role of IT leaders and their staffs.

How to Make IT the New Cool

Q & A with Renée McKaskle, CIO of Hitachi Vantara

I had the opportunity to interview Renée McKaskle, CIO of Hitachi Vantara, at HitachiNEXT, the company’s global customer and partner conference. Renée joined Hitachi three years ago and has led her organization through a successful transformation by leveraging the power of data. I was curious about her journey, best practices she could offer to fellow CIOs, and advice she might provide to encourage more women to reach for the stars.

Renée in your keynote this morning, you mentioned that there are three things that attracted you to Hitachi: diversity of thought, start-up spirit, and double bottom line. Can you expand on them? Why do you think they are important for CIOs when deciding to join a new company?

I believe these factors are important for the contemporary CIO because they’re about the business and the context. Diversity of thought is how you can provide the best answers to the biggest problems, typically enriched by data. A data and fact-based approach helps CIOs to be more collaborative and solution driven. The ability to understand your C-suite peers is key. CMOs, CFOs, and CHROs are my best allies because I help them do their jobs better by providing data that allows them to make sound business decisions. It’s all about data. Executives want it clean, they want it now, they want it secure, they want insight, they want algorithms that make sense, then they want time to layer their own judgement and intuition on top.

Second, start-up mind set. It’s easy to get buried in a company or to ride the ship because of hundreds of years of policies and procedures. My point is that this is a 108-year-old company and they have spun off 800 companies in many industries. That message resonates with CIOs, because it doesn’t matter how big or small you are, it’s about using sound judgement, being a risk taker, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s an important quality for the roles that we play today. For me, the role of a CIO has really evolved from being Chief Information Officer to Chief Innovation Officer. It is about business values and business outcomes, so it’s extremely important to have a start-up mindset, be entrepreneurial, think creatively, and act curiously.

And lastly, double bottom line focusses on achieving both business and social outcomes. We talked about the crumbling walls of the data centre. Data is everywhere and we only use 5% of it. We have to consume it differently and if we do it in the right way, we’ll unlock new opportunities and new clues. When you augment and enrich your data, you are going to find a solution that not only helps our businesses, but also results in the betterment of society at large. That is extremely rewarding.

What are the steps you’ve undertaken to transform your IT organization over the past three years?

Our transformation of IT is really a part of a broader initiative within Hitachi called Mirai (Japanese for future). We are digitizing everything to ensure better business outcomes for all. We knew that this is where we had to navigate the company because of the commoditization and the consumerization of certain parts of the technology. We had to tap into the knowledge of what’s in the data and how data could drive new disruption. So, three years ago, Hitachi IT got to modernizing our core environment — the ERPs, the network, the storage, the data centre. But, modernization didn’t mean copy and paste a new shiny version; it meant understanding the market trends. For example, we saw a lot of integration of cloud solutions but not big “ginormous” clouds. So, who was going to govern that? Technology people needed to understand what was out there; the technology, the data, and the end-to-end processes. We started to tell stories to our teams, such as the explosion of the Googles and the Amazons in the world. We made sure we understood what that would mean.

So, my first step as an IT leader started with education. We needed to leave breadcrumbs to our teams so that they could start transforming the way they thought and acted. IT must stay 6-9 months ahead because we know what the business would be asking us to do and our IT teams continue to stay ahead. This initiative really reinvigorated IT and we became cool again. For years, IT was in the support role and now we’re front and centre to help the business innovate. That’s exciting because both my team and the business are really inspired since the barriers and the silos are broken down. We’re all talking the same language now.

In a transformation, people become afraid of change. What was some of the resistance you experienced and how did you overcome it?

A great example is service desk. Once you say we’re going to use data; we’re going to find patterns and clues to take some of the redundancies out of your jobs; that sounds scary to people who have done that job for a while. You have to be very thoughtful in the change management of company culture because the people asset is number one. Data is number two, but your people are more important. You have to say “some of the things that are probably not your favourite things to do, like helping people reset their password for the hundredth time this week. How about we create a chat bot and you become the governor of the chat bot? You become a handler of this autonomous thing that’s going to help you save time by doing the repetitive things better and quicker so that you can spend more time on the technical stuff you love doing.” We call it shifting left — everything moves down one level. As a result, we actually inspired a new round of leaders and technologists to do things they never thought they would have time doing. Things such as investing time in training.

A data strategy drives business outcomes. What are some of the IT initiatives within Hitachi that have made an impact to your business?

Let’s start with operational efficiency. I talk to my team about harnessing the power of data as if they’re at home. A great example is when you’re at home and you forget the password to your bank account or Netflix account. Do you call the help desk? No. You get a link. You chat with a chat bot. You never have to bother calling anyone and waiting on the phone to interface with a human. So, think about that in the context of a work place. Why do we make our internal employees call help desks? One of the operational efficiencies is trying to implement some of those basic things we as consumers do at home. We depend on our phone for many applications. We can deposit a cheque without going to a bank. Why not think like that to make our employees incredibly efficient?

Now let me talk about customer experience. An “Ah-ha” moment for IT was really understanding an end-to -end process. We looked at how we market-sell-serve our customers as a result of doing transformational work with cloud providers that offer CRM plus ERP plus supply chain services. We understood that data has to flow through the veins of the enterprise over the entire process. If you don’t have an end-to-end market-sell-serve framework, then data is going to get injected along the way by someone who probably shouldn’t be creating data. My team understood the 360-degree view of a customer because we’re the custodians of the data. From a customer perspective, we provide our customers and our sales folks, at a mobile device level, quality data when they need it. Also, helping to increase the adoption rate is important because if people aren’t using the process and not enough data is flowing, then you are back to speculating the pattern with very fragmented pieces.

During your keynote, you cited an IBM study that suggested that 90% of all data in history was created over the last 2-3 years and yet only 5% is being used. So why do you think that’s the case and as a CIO what would you do to change that?

As CIOs we can absolutely relate to that. We know how many times we back it up, restore it, take it offsite, and bring it onsite again. We know how much data there is. I think the obstacle, until recently, is how do we unlock it? It’s just not readily available. Are you going to look at the segment of data or are you going to look at the end-to-end stream of data? Those are not simple topics to have a conversation with the business. What CIOs should do is to start to tell stories and apply analogies by using a business value lens to explain why is it that we need to get to that data. I run my own IT department like a business. What did IT do to demonstrate the power of data? We invented some things that show how we use our data; like how we no longer have to have as many people watching to make sure the servers stay up; how we make sure the quarter-end closes on time; or how we make sure we’re being energy efficient in our data centres.

I think the business of IT has to be told in a story format that has business value to our C-suite peers. We didn’t always know what we were looking for, and that’s the other challenge. If we knew what we were looking for, we’d just go get it. Now, we’re looking to do the hypothesis on patterns. That’s why data scientists, those brains that understand the data at an industry level, are so valuable. Hypothesize it, test it, and go back to find a pattern. You start before you know the answer. I think that’s part of the challenge. 5% is the easy predictable part. The 95% is the unknown and that’s where you have to take the systematic, algorithmic approach. You’ve got to go after it because you know there’s value in there. You just have to find it.

That’s a good segue to my next question. Often times we hear from CIOs that they don’t have a seat at the C-suite table. What advice would you give them?

I just started this role three years ago, but I was interviewing for a while before deciding to accept the offer from Hitachi. I have suggestions for those CIOs who are looking for a change and I have some suggestions for those already in the seated role. Statistics say over 80% of CIOs report to CFOs. My number one question during the interviewing process was, “who does the role report to and tell me about that person”. If the individual perceives the CIO role as nothing but a support function and a cost centre, then that’s going to be very difficult. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but you will have to try to change this person’s mind by demonstrating the value of IT and the value of data. Who you report to is going to help you be that much more, or less, successful.

Now let’s talk about the CIO already seated in the role. I’ve never had an issue of getting a seat at the table as long as I get out of my comfort zone. If I go in there with geek speak, no one is going to care; but, if I’m talking about revenue being impacted and how we can make it better, then I get the attention of my C-suite peers. If your language is not business focused and backed by data, then you won’t have a seat at the table. It’s all about aligning with the business objectives of the company and if you can do that, budget and support shows up.

Excellent perspectives. This leads to my last question. Women in IT, or the lack thereof. As an accomplished woman and a senior leader in technology, how would you advise women who are thinking about a career in technology or are aspiring to reach the top?

A couple of pieces of advice. First, kudos to my parents who always encouraged me to reach for the stars. It wouldn’t even occur to me to not do this. I was going to be a vet before I was going to be a CIO. So, it’s important to have the right environment. In my case, it was my parents, but it doesn’t matter where you are in your career. It’s important to look for who your influencers are and who can be your mentors. Second, I would say that women need to recognize their strengths. Stop playing the boys game. I have two brothers, so I don’t want to make this a gender thing. We multi-task better than anyone else. Statistics say that we’re better designed thinkers by nature because of the way we’re wired. We are curious. We raise our hands in a different way.

The problem we have is that sometimes we don’t want to raise our hands or stand up in a room and ask the question. We have to be less timid about that. Ask those uncomfortable questions publicly and have your voice heard. Don’t get distracted by the numbers. There is data and then there’s intuition. Yes, the data needs to get better, but don’t let it scare you. Shame on us that this is still so topical today, but don’t let the statistics discourage you and be an excuse to prevent you from doing what you love to do. I get up everyday and I love my job. I think it’s so cool to be in IT and the timing couldn’t be better.

Nasheen Liu is the Managing Partner and SVP, CIO Program Strategy at the IT Media Group spearheading the company’s business plan and leading our media and executive branding practice. She also chairs our CIO Advisory Board comprised of senior IT executives from industry and academia.

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