Cinda Daly, with David Michael and Illysa Ortsman
InformationWeek’s 2012 IT Perception Survey, “How IT’s Perceived by Business,” revealed that most non-IT people don’t consider their IT teams to be very innovative, but most also say they need great technology more than ever. Eric Lundquist, VP and editorial analyst for InformationWeek, concluded that “innovation is in peril…[and] businesses doubt their IT teams can save the day.”
For UBM Tech, HDI’s parent company and a global live media and B2B communications, marketing services, and data provider, innovation is one of the four underlying corporate values leading the company down the path to be the best—and biggest—event business in the world. UBM Tech’s David Michael understands how IT technology solutions support that goal and he embraces the role his entire organization plays on that journey. David Michael and Illysa Ortsman sat down with me to discuss their deepening influence on enterprise innovation and the challenges inherent in managing a culture of innovation.
Cinda Daly: As the CIO, your role is changing—along with many of your peers in the C-suite—such that you can no longer be simply the caretakers of information and data systems; instead, you must lead toward technological innovation. At the core of this shift is the requirement for the IT organization and the overall enterprise to share the same goals. How are you leading the innovation effort at UBM Tech?
David Michael: Innovation has been a part of our culture for a long time, and innovation is always a group effort. Enterprise innovation usually comes down to whether you have a culture of innovation—so that when good ideas come to fruition, people listen—and a culture of collaboration, where people want to rally around good ideas and turn them into experiences that delight customers.
Daly: That suggests a very tight connection between all the business units and the IT organization. How would you characterize that relationship at UBM?
Michael: UBM has been on a very exciting journey over the past five years, under the leadership of CEO David Levin, who really changed the way we operate. We’re no longer discrete business units that go off on their own separate missions. Our new organization now encourages, rewards, and supports people working together, creating products that engage our customers. Technology has enabled that. The Hub, our corporate internal collaboration platform, is a good example of an enabling technology that makes it easier for people to share and work together on new ideas that ultimately turn into better products and experiences for our customers.
Daly: Many IT organizations struggle to identify their value propositions and are pegged as barriers to innovation. What’s your perspective on that struggle?
Michael: All companies struggle with innovation. I think there are very few companies that would say they don’t struggle with innovation, because it’s really, really hard. Innovation costs money. It carries lots of risk. There’s no guaranteed profit. It can dilute your margins. It requires people to go above and beyond. It requires people to work together who, historically, may not have worked together. So, there are a lot of things that can get in the way of innovation in a company.
Innovation is more than just coming up with an idea. It’s taking an idea and making it a reality, a profitable business venture. For a company to succeed with innovation, it needs several things to work together harmoniously. I suspect that a lot of people who say they’re struggling with innovation, who feel they’re either responsible for or a barrier to innovation, probably have larger problems at hand. Unless everybody rallies behind how they are going to make innovation work in their enterprise, it’s going to be really tough to make it happen. Likewise, if you have silos in your organization, you’re going to have an innovation problem. And a lot of companies have silo problems.
Daly: Innovation breeds innovation, demanding agility and flexibility from every layer of the IT services organization. From your seat, Illysa, how you are adapting the service management organization in this press toward innovation and collaboration.
Illysa Ortsman: On a day-to-day basis, we’re trying to free up our resources from doing what legacy IT organizations do—keep the lights on, maintain hardware, manage operating systems—so they can be directed toward helping the businesses innovate. As new ideas take hold, our ability to support them obviously comes into play. But we want to understand and partner more with them on the business needs, to move things forward rather than just maintain the back-end infrastructure. We’re the technology experts, but the people in the business units are obviously the business experts. We’re actively meshing that together.
Daly: Customer expectations are high, and demands to move farther, faster put a real strain on the technical support organization. What do you expect from your team as far as keeping pace or even getting ahead of the curve?
Ortsman: Listening to the business and understanding its needs are the main requirements, and not just at David’s level. A really good working relationship between IT and the business is key. The only way to get that is by staying constantly in touch with the business, with the guys in the trenches. Everyone wants that latest and greatest gadget. That’s fine. But ultimately you have to understand the business benefit of that gadget. Then, if there is a business benefit, we can determine how to support it within our current environment while also maintaining some type of structure. So, for us, it’s about being open, being agile, and having the tools and ability to adopt and adapt quickly.
Daly: The skills your people need to keep the lights on, as you say, are quite different from the skills they need to function as a business partner. In fact, in The War for Talent, our research project with Robert Half Technology from earlier this year, we learned that business, communication, and customer service skills are among the top five skills technical support professionals need to be successful. Technology expertise, while in the top five skills for desktop support, doesn’t even hit the top five skills list for managers. It’s clearly a different mix today. How are you addressing that skills shift?
Ortsman: Obviously, we need very highly technical people. But it takes a different skill set to build relationships in a business partnership, understand the needs, and develop business solutions. We’re not completely there yet, but we recognize the need and are working toward that goal. One thing we’re doing, however, is moving some of the old-school services out of the business IT environment and leveraging other companies and managed services providers to do that for us.
Michael: Too often technology departments are policemen, writing and enforcing rules and maintaining a very rigid structure to keep everything secure and avoid problems. That’s a rather stone-age approach. People have become very tech-savvy and often spend quite a lot of money acquiring personal technology. Almost everybody has a smartphone. Everybody has a laptop; many have tablets. So it’s not about teaching someone how to use Microsoft Word or locking down the desktop anymore. Our job is to create an environment that allows people to find their own solutions to their own problems. We need to enable them rather than actually do the work. You’ve got to be quite open to relinquishing control, allowing people to do more themselves. That takes a different sort of mindset.
Ortsman: To add to that, we’re moving away from all those routine day-to-day calls and empowering the end users more. Whatever we can do to allow more automation, more self-service so we’re not getting stuck on password resets or software installations, we’re doing it. People will do those kinds of mundane tasks themselves, if they’re empowered to do so. As a benefit, we can focus on being innovative and working with the business to identify its true needs.
Michael: It’s a fine balance. There’s a certain amount of technology governance that’s necessary to ensuring that confidential information and business assets are secure and that we aren’t breaking any laws in using unlicensed software.
Daly: So, back to the question of skills. What’s the new skills profile?
Michael: I think a combination is very, very important. People still need strong technical skills, but they also need to be incredibly collaborative. They need to be able to partner with other people in the business, understand the real challenges and the impact of those challenges, and be creative in developing a road map of solutions that will resolve those problems. They also need to be flexible and agile enough to help create an environment that allows people to be much more in control themselves.
Daly: What key technological innovation is going to help us move the needle as an organization?
Ortsman: It’s been talked about so much, but pushing BYOD to the next level is a priority. It’s not something new for someone to come into the company with their own devices. The question is, how do we make that work best? For example, when a new salesperson comes in with tools they are comfortable with, how can we allow them to use those tools, be productive from day one, and at the same time maintain the security of the environment? That is critical.
Michael: One of the key things that we do is allow people to choose. If someone is a Mac person, we don’t force a PC on them, and we support them equally as well. If they want an iPhone, a BlackBerry, or an iPad, they choose. We’re very happy to support whatever works. It sets the tone from the beginning: “IT is partnering with me, not just maintaining a standard.”
Daly: What advice you would give other people in your position to help them make the transition toward innovation shepherd?
Michael: Honestly, I think the only barrier is oneself. I’ve been a senior IT person my whole career, and for the longest time I thought I was the smartest guy in the room when it came to technology. That changed a long time ago. We have many technically skilled end users. My job isn’t to tell them how to do things or to come up with the solution for them. My job is to help create an environment that allows them to be successful, to work as a peer alongside everyone else, and to create value for our customers. So, for me, it’s a mind shift. You have to change the way you think about the way you bring value to the business.
Ortsman: I’d also add that you don’t have to create the ideas yourself. We’re collaborating with the other IT groups around UBM Tech, with our offices in the UK, and with other IT leaders around the industry. That’s key. We see what they are doing, how they’re managing, how they’re making the shift, and we bring those great ideas back. We talk about innovation and transformation. Our IT group is definitely transforming. We aren’t necessarily where we need to be, but we’re definitely taking the right steps forward.
For more than twenty-five years, Cinda Daly has managed teams, written dozens of industry articles and thousands of pages of technical documentation, developed training courses, conducted sales and service training, and consulted in the technical support and customer service space. In her current role, as HDI’s director of business content, she is responsible for HDI’s virtual events, research, and print and electronic publications.