Q&A: A Veteran APAC CIO Offers Ideas That Stimulate Innovation
For nearly two decades, Suk-Wah Kwok has been a familiar face on the APAC technology scene, with management roles in financial companies like Baring Asset Management, QPI International and, for over 10 years, Aon. She’s now APAC regional CIO for the Lockton Companies.
On a recent visit to Singapore, she shared her views with fellow technology executives at a CIO Roundtable that was produced by Transform to Better Perform to examine how IT teams can provide the type of innovation needed within their companies.
...the lack of innovation is not due to a lack of innovative solutions in the market, but more due to the CIO’s reluctance to venture into them.
Following the two-hour session, we asked her about the shifting role of IT as business leaders demand demonstrable business benefits from the technology team. She obliged by sharing some of the personal experiences that have shaped her successful career.
Transform: Many business leaders complain there's a lack of innovation coming from IT today. From the IT perspective, what are the roadblocks there and what can be done to remove them?
Kwok: I think such complaints fall into two categories. One category is the slightly shallow and naive complaint from business leaders. These days, every consumer is exposed to a lot of innovation and technology in their everyday lives – computers, smartphones or other gadgets. A lot of business leaders are probably more aware of innovation out there, but at a very shallow level. Either they're using those technologies themselves or their kids are using them. But they use them without understanding there's a difference between using technology at a consumer level and applying it to an organization. To address this type of complaint, it’s up to the IT leader to communicate or to educate them, to make them understand the difference between applying innovation on consumer products versus bringing it into a corporation.
That said, there is another category of complaint that is a 100 percent valid,. That is, the lack of innovation is not due to a lack of innovative solutions in the market, but more due to the CIO’s reluctance to venture into them. I think some CIOs are too conservative and too concerned about their job security as being innovative comes with the inevitable risk. It's like the old Chinese saying: "If you don't do anything, you don't fail." So I think most roadblocks are psychological rather than technological.
Transform: When should the IT team be brought in – before, during, or after business leaders choose a new technology?
Kwok: To me, the final choice of technology should be made by the IT leader of the organization, not the business leader. Of course, the IT leader should take into account what the business thinks, but ultimately technology choices should be made by the technology leader as they should be the one with the foresight and experience to make a better choice. I can't see why the business leaders should be making the technological decisions and have the IT team brought in afterwards.
Transform: Do IT teams have enough resources to make a true transformation?
Kwok: It depends on the size of organization. For very large organizations, they can afford dedicated resources within IT who have a financial background and also understand IT. These resources have the skill to help estimate the financial impact and the operational impact of any IT investment. But for most organizations, like the one I'm currently working for, it's up to the CIO or the head of IT to analyze the financial reports available to them. And when the CIO doesn’t have sufficient financial understanding, they should at least work with the CFO or the finance team. Before embarking on large innovation projects with a lot of operational impact or transformational impact, the CIO must work with a CFO on the financial impact, and to stretch it further, also need to work with a COO on the operational impact.
Transform: What metrics, if any, should companies use to evaluate the business contributions of the IT team?
Kwok: Two of them spring to my mind immediately. One is on improving operational efficiency, the other is on revenue generation. If I focus on the first one, it's not hard to come up with a quantitative measure. For example, we can estimate how much manpower we can reduce to do the same task or perform the same function. And if reduction of manpower level is not an option, we can at least estimate how many hours we can save or free up doing the same function with or without IT. That's how we can measure improvement in operational efficiency quantitatively and quite accurately.
On revenue generation, again, it's not hard to estimate. I've done it before. For example, the extra revenue the company can generate as a result of applying IT. This includes all new revenue generated, as well as current business or current revenue that can be retained as a result of IT. If you add up both new revenue generated and existing revenue retained, we can estimate quantitatively how much revenue is contributed by IT.
Transform: What advice would offer your fellow CIOs who want to enhance the level of innovation?
Kwok: I don't like giving advice to my peers as I think we are all experienced in our own right. I've been a CIO for 14 years and I'm regarded in the industry as somebody who's willing to transform, willing to take initiative, and rather innovative, so I can share my personal experience on what it takes to be a more innovative CIO. Number one: We need to improve our own technology awareness. Within an organization, the CIO should be seen as somebody who knows more about technology than the average users. And therefore, we have to work hard ourselves to improve and maintain that constant awareness. We also need to have more in-depth understanding of any technology compared to our users to get that respect.
Number two – I think it has been said before, but it's easier said than done – is to have a genuinely open mind. I’ve seen very conservative CIOs, and the reason why they are not doing much innovation is because they are closed-minded themselves. In my opinion, that sort of mindset is in direct contradiction with a CIO role. If a CIO doesn’t have an open mind, you would not be willing to explore innovation and go down an innovative path. Basically, if you're not willing to transform yourself, there's no chance you can transform your organization.
My last piece of sharing is again based on personal experience. To make anything happen, one needs courage. An organization needs a courageous CIO to make a decision on something in which he/she might not be 100 percent confident, to make a selection of a solution that might not be 100 percent perfect, and to be willing or courageous enough to be accountable for these decisions. Just think about it, CEOs are not going to make decisions about innovation. They're just going to make decisions on business. CFOs will challenge you on your decision, but they too are not going to make decisions on innovation. That is, we are not going to find another C-level staff in an organization who will make decisions on innovation. So if the CIO doesn’t have the courage to do it, no one will. Personally, if I have made more things happen in my career, I don't think it is because I know any better than any of my peers, but rather I may simply have more courage than most of them.
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