Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How IT Leaders Can Prepare for the Future

An interview with
Niraj Jetly
Senior Vice President - Chief Information Officer/Chief Operating Officer

Interviewed by Sam Narisi

As CIO and COO of Nutrisavings, Niraj Jetly helped his organization earn Frost & Sullivan’s 2014 CIO Impact Award for Big Data and Advanced Analytics. The company was recognized for its innovative employee wellness solution, which uses big data to score thousands of food items and help people make smarter choice.

Frost & Sullivan recently spoke with Niraj to talk about another area of IT  change and innovation: how the nature of work is evolving and what IT teams can do to prepare and better support their businesses.

When you hear the phrase “The Future of Work,” what are some of the things you think of? What trends are occurring that are changing the ways people work?

Multiple trends are converging together, including the rise of unified messaging and communication, along with a drop in bandwidth costs. As a result, people are more inclined to use remote meetings. A few years ago there weren’t any instance of the remote collaboration tools we have now. As these tools advance, people are becoming more likely to collaborate remotely rather than in person. However, there’s a flaw in the collaboration tools. In many cases, you can have verbal communication, but not visual. I think these tools are going to evolve to include features like handwriting recognition and remote white boarding capabilities. That exists to some extent right now but when you’re using a PC rather than a touch-sensitive device, they are not really practical. With the rise of tablets, they’ve become a lot more practical in terms of remote collaboration.

In another area, I think the keyboard interface will continue to exist for some period of time, but many functions – especially starting with sales and marketing – will go to voice-oriented commands. Some functions like the call center, graphic design and programming will continue to use the keyboard for a longer period of time, until other types of input gain traction in the marketplace.

Companies are also under more pressure to focus on the health and wellness of employees. We live a very sedentary lifestyle, and employees in desk-based jobs have a higher risk of diseases. It’s just a matter of time when we start weaving an active lifestyle into day-to-day work. If you look at the new Apple Watch and Nike Fuel band, there are a lot of activities which will be tracked in the workplace to ensure people are healthy. We’re also seeing employers become more and more conscious about providing healthy meals. If you look at vending machines in offices, usually they have a lot of junk food. With increasing healthcare costs, that will encourage employers to replace that with much healthier food and provide incentives to employees to buy healthy food items.

In a lot of companies, there’s at least some sense that IT is holding workers back or getting in the way of innovation. What are some of the ways IT could can overcome that and better support the ways people work?

Historically in IT, we’ve valued things like transactional expertise and knowledge, database knowledge, and security knowledge when hiring. The emphasis on communication, organizational and user experience skills were minimal. But now, more and more IT teams are reinventing themselves and customer-focused skills are becoming more valuable. I don’t just mean, for example, a business analyst, which is usually a customer-focused position in the IT department. User experience, customer engagement, intrinsic motivation and other softer skills are what we’re looking for now. The technical aspect will still be there, but the value of it will go down. Within IT, the tools are getting so sophisticated that we’re doing less custom development  and so the ability to create a compelling user experience becomes all the more important.

The concept of a data scientist is another big thing. I’ve talked to people in the industry who claim to be a data scientist, but in reality we don’t even know yet what we want in a data scientist. Transactional knowledge is not what we’re looking for. A true data scientist has a combination of database and statistics knowledge. Again, that’s a big shift from what we’ve looked for in the past.

Security is another huge thing that’s only going to get more important. All these things we’re talking about could be delayed by another couple of years if we continue to have these high profile breaches. Security, especially in the mobile space is a huge thing, and as more compelling interfaces come to market so are the loopholes in securing these architectures. When you mix cloud and mobile you have essentially an uncontrollable environment. In the past, we were able to get away with setting restrictions and enforcing standardization, but not anymore. We have to learn how to scale without standardization. I don’t have an answer for that myself, but those are the challenges IT teams are going to be facing in the near future.

Have you implemented BYOD within Nutrisavings?

We haven’t, because we’re still figuring out how to handle security. We’re a PCI-, SOX-, HIPAA-compliant shop and we have a lot of sensitive data. I’ll be the first one to acknowledge: I know we have to go to BYOD. And we have policies there, but I have no uniform way to ensure data safety and security. Even if I want to, I can’t do it unless I figure out how to do it.

Nutrisavings is part of a global entity, Edenred, and we are a Cisco/Microsoft shop. But now we’re building mobile apps, so for instance, take a change agent who wants to build an app for the iPhone. Suddenly you have an Apple laptop on your network. I need to do a security check with Active Directory, fully encrypt the disk, do remote backups and push policies. When you’re dealing with Apple those tools do not exist to a large extent. We also want to use Windows 10, which is coming out next year. But first we have to do a security check, and that takes time. The devices are coming at a much faster pace than you can screen, scrutinize and verify them. There has to mind shift in how you do those things faster.

It’s going to be a challenge for everyone, but what are some things IT can do to get ready or at least minimize the risks?

Retrain your team. But the first thing before that is to start getting the team sensitized to the new way, which is going to come sooner than we think. That’s very important, because if I send someone for training without getting them sensitized first, they may not even acquire any new skills because they didn’t acknowledge they needed to. It’s important that they first realize there’s a skill gap.

You also have to acknowledge the fact that the managers of the future may be younger than the employees. Historically in IT, the longer you worked and the more knowledge you acquired, the higher you went in your role. But now, knowledge of legacy technologies, including web technologies, is not as important, and a lack of that knowledge is not a handicap. As mobile, social and cloud become more important, anyone with those skills suddenly become a lot more valuable to the enterprise than someone who has worked with older technologies. Unless IT teams train and retrain themselves, they’re going to be managed by someone younger than them.

You need to keep your eyes and ears open. If you can’t see the train coming, put your ear to the track. It’s going to get noisier and noisier, so unless you have your ear to the track, you’re going to get run over by somebody.

And good luck to all the CIOs, including myself, because our jobs are going to get harder by the day. If I didn’t like challenges, I wouldn’t be in this job. From a CEO standpoint, companies need to get more done. But as CIO, I need to maintain my legacy, which is the iceberg no one sees – they just see tip, which is mobile, social , cloud and UX. For us those to deliver the results, we need to do all the work behind the scenes that no one sees. It’s going to get harder and a lot more fun for me, personally.

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