Thursday July 16, 2020

You need to have an open mind and be prepared to be different, as innovation by its very nature means doing this differently

"Consumers are becoming more sophisticated, and in five years’ time, I think employees’ expectations will be that their work-place matches their personal lives in terms of the sophistication of technology available to them", says, Frank O'Dea, Chief Innovation Officer, EY Ireland

13th September, 2019

What is your Name?

Frank O'Dea.

How long have you been in your current role?

I joined EY as a partner to lead our Performance Improvement practice in 2012 and took on the role of Chief Innovation Officer for EY Ireland at the beginning of this year.

What is your day to day responsibilities?

My role is split into two parts. On the one hand, I am responsible for overseeing the growth of the services we provide to clients in integrating new and emerging technology into their businesses, in the right way. My job is to ensure what we’re doing is focused on ‘what’s next’ by encouraging innovation and creating the right conditions for it to flourish. Using our global capabilities, local market knowledge, and sectoral expertise, I’m committed to delivering technology solutions that help our clients seize opportunities, seek growth and mitigate risk.

The second area I’m responsible for is looking at our own business, and disrupting ourselves. Like our clients, we’re continuously looking for new ways to integrate technology into the day-to-day running of our business, using advanced analytics and technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Robotic Process Automation to streamline what we do, get our people concentrating on what really matters and improve the services we offer to clients.

What is your professional background?

I’ve spent most of my career shaping and leading major business transformation programs, particularly in the implementation of large-scale international business change, outsourcing and information technology projects. I’ve worked across a number of sectors over my career, including telecommunications, technology, software and IT, both in the UK and in Ireland.

Directly before joining EY, I was Managing Director of a network-sharing venture between two major telecoms companies, where I led the transformation of their mobile networks into a new single shared and integrated network organisation.

Before taking on the role of CIO at EY, I led our Performance Improvement practice within the Advisory side of the business.

How do your particular areas of expertise manifest themselves in your current role?

I’ve spent the majority of my career working with clients in a consultancy capacity, so I’m naturally client-focused. The vast majority of my experience is in helping clients apply technology to business problems. I’ve lived and worked through the explosion in technology across a range of industries, and witness complex changes in business over the last 25 years. The nature of technology is changing, but the fundamentals remain the same – clients today are facing similar challenges as their predecessors did 20 years ago, and it’s my job to help clients understand the opportunity, and to guide them along the way. People are the constant in any technology-related revolution, and the people side of technology projects is the most important part to get right. Implementing a new technology solution involves technical considerations, but it’s often the people element that can be overlooked, yet people are key to the success of any tech solution.

How do you see your role developing in 5 years’ time?

Whereas innovation and the mass adoption of technology were prevalent in certain industries and sectors five years ago, we’ve really seen a change in how businesses of all sizes and types are now looking to integrate technology across a range of functions. The acceleration that categorised the last five years is likely to continue for the next five, so the challenge will be to stay ahead of new developments and to continue maintaining a clear focus on cutting out the noise and separating the hype from the big, value-driving opportunities.

Consumers are becoming more sophisticated, and in five years’ time, I think employees’ expectations will be that their work-place matches their personal lives in terms of the sophistication of technology available to them. As technology continues to proliferate at speed, effective change management will be a very important element of the CIO agenda. Understanding the non-technical facets of technology transformation is key. There is a need for clear focus also on the up-skilling of the workforce to facilitate increasing technology. At EY, we have a program called EY Badges, which is designed to everyone working at the firm the opportunity to develop future-focused skills, including Digital, AI, Data Analytics, Design Thinking, and a huge number of other areas. This area will continue to increase in importance for CIOs, and should be a board-level consideration in all businesses. Businesses and teams need to ensure they remain relevant and fit for purpose as work evolves, and it’s essential to stay on the front foot.

What advice would you give to someone adopting a CIO role for the first time?

Firstly, you need to have an open mind and be prepared to be different, as innovation by its very nature means doing this differently. It requires you to have an open mind and to be prepared to look at problems in a completely different way than you might be accustomed to. Open-mindedness naturally spurs creativity, which is another central element. Often the solutions to the problems you’re looking at have never been found before, so there can be big leaps of faith, which when successful, are incredibly satisfying.

The CIO will succeed or fail on the basis of collaboration. An effective innovation program relies heavily on the right mix of skills to come up with answers to the toughest challenges. Ensuring you have the requisite diversity of thought to be successful is extremely important. You need to understand where people’s skills, talent and knowledge lie, so you need to develop a strong network of relationships with people from a wide variety of backgrounds within the organisation. Crucially, you’ll also need to develop the capabilities to facilitate the combination of tech and business skills. This will involve creating teams of people who are often very different from each other, who have different backgrounds and different ways of working.

Finally, you need to be prepared to challenge and be challenged. As a CIO, you’re an agitator, a disruptor – and it will lead to some difficult conversations along the way. Strong emotional intelligence is a big asset in this respect. If you can understand people’s pain points effectively, and get under the skin of what their barriers are, it will pay off hugely in the innovation process as you bring people along.

What are the greatest challenges facing modern technology leaders?

Integration of new technologies

New technologies are accelerating rapidly, and in some instances, businesses and legacy systems aren’t fully equipped to incorporate new, cutting-edge solutions. We speak to many clients who can see the massive opportunities that exist through new technologies but are struggling to make them a reality.

Talent

In Ireland, where we’re nearing full employment, talent is a major challenge facing all technology leaders. Competition has heated up in the market, and businesses across all sectors are changing the mix of skills they’re recruiting for, with a far greater slant towards technological and analytical skills. Because of that, employee retention is extremely important, and we need to ensure we keep our eye on the ball, giving our employees the experience, opportunities, and culture they need to continue progressing.

Fear factor

A combination of the rapid pace of technological advancement, and a widespread lack of understanding of how these technologies work has provoked an element of fear among some people – both consumers and business leaders – around how technology will impact industries, individual business, and jobs. We all have a duty as leaders to help educate people around these topics and to help allay fears. While some manual jobs will inevitably become redundant due to automation, the future will see the creation of new roles and functions that haven’t even been invented yet.

How do you think a CIO can best support company revenue growth?

Arguably the most important and value-driving skill a CIO can bring to drive revenue growth is the capability to understand exactly what’s happening in the market, and separating opportunities worth pursuing from the hype. Technology solutions can be extremely expensive to implement, so the ability to be astute in deciding where the money is invested, and having the supporting infrastructure to manage change effectively, is of paramount importance.

CIOs can drive a lot of value to the business by disrupting traditional teams and work-streams. Bringing together people with different skills across different areas of a business can lead to the generation of new products and services, but can also help grow existing business by enabling people from different business units who ordinarily may not cross paths, to create opportunities that may have existed in one corner of the business traditionally.

Innovation drives innovation, so it’s about creating a culture that spurs people on and that gives them energy. There is also a huge increase in employees’ output and productivity when they are engaged. Being a part of projects that involve new and cutting-edge elements can be very rewarding for people, with the added bonus of their thinking style adapting, meaning they carry out their day-to-day roles more effectively as well. They also become quicker at seeing opportunities and find new approaches and different ways of doing things.

Frank is speaking at the Business Post's CIO & IT Leaders Summit on Sept 25 in the Aviva Stadium.

Visit www.ciosummit.ie for details

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