The thing Andrew Crabb is most proud of from his time as TelstraClear's CIO has more to do with business transformation than technology.
When logistics company Toll NZ needed a new desktop service and infrastructure partner, TelstraClear's managed IT&T outsource offering enabled Toll's information services group to complete eight major projects in just six months.
"It's not so much delivering a technology, which does have a level of satisfaction," says Crabb, who was recently promoted to head of business and government at the telco. "It's seeing someone use that technology to improve their outcomes" (see interview with Toll NZ Group IT manager Allister Lowe "Programmed for growth" on page 23).
The role of a telco has shifted from technology to services in recent years, says Crabb. Solving today's business problems involves anything from deploying contact centres to managing IT services and security -- it's certainly more complex than connecting customers to a landline in your own sweet time and then mailing them a whopping bill.
"With deregulation and separation, new entrants coming into the market, new technologies and products evolving all the time, we really have to remain current and innovative," he says.
Crabb views his previous role as one in which you chose to stay conservative or become a game-changer, and he says that seeing the IT function from the other side has led to a few surprises. "Working alongside an IT group rather than within it, some of the processes and disciplines and policies you relied on as CIO can be very frustrating, and the extent of that frustration really comes to light."
Crabb has discovered a contrast, too, between the character of technologists -- many of whom are pre-programmed not to be beaten by technology -- and that of other executives, whose emphasis is on achieving business objectives.
"I've found the staff motivators are completely different. As CIOs we need to ensure we don't lose sight of the business objective and focus purely on the technology -- after all, it's the outcome that's important. It's not necessarily a case of my sales targets or what I'm trying to achieve. Success will follow if I'm satisfying my customers."
He recommends CIOs who have an eye on a higher executive post should spend time away from information technology. "Don't just look inside your organisation but expand your network to the business functions of similar or parallel industries."
A perennial challenge for CIOs is maintaining the operational status quo with no additional money or, in the worst case, less. Replacing one short-term fix with another is an easy trap to fall into. "We have to be continuously questioning ourselves and making sure the solution is the best fit for the current business needs."
When selecting and managing external business partners Crabb looks for a company that doesn't place its own product at the centre of the world -- if its product can't solve the problem it's incumbent on the supplier to engage with others.
"The number of one-stop-shops is few and far between and getting fewer. Quite often, vendors want to get you involved in their delivery timeframes and other business challenges. As a customer I don't really care. I don't want to understand all the logistics and the supply chain challenges, I just want my needs sorted."
Crabb's preference for solving business problems is to avoid a reactive, technical approach. "Quite often when you have performance issues or a problem with an application you look at that problem in isolation. Sometimes you have to step back from that because there's a better way of getting that outcome using a completely different technology, or it may not involve technology at all. If you just continue you end up with the same challenge in three to five years' time when you're at that refresh point again."
Waving, not drowning
Centralised procurement is set to challenge the government's traditional suppliers, as well as create huge opportunities for those agile enough to transform outdated models. "We've got to focus on how we're going to address that market, building the right relationships and the right value-add stories."
Transitioning to his new role has required him to fit a wide-angle lens as well as a filter: "There's no end of sources of data and information -- it's very easy to get information overload and you need to focus on what's relevant to you, otherwise you can drown."
Only a small part of his day is now spent on operations. "I've got 300-odd staff and I entrust them with the day-to-day operational activities. I want to spend my time working on the business."
He devotes much of his time to coaching his team, offering guidance and development opportunities and, above all, encouraging them to get out and talk to customers. Technology's depersonalising effects are a recurring theme for IT sceptics. While Crabb is an advocate for eyeballing customers on their own turf, he practices what he preaches by championing new technology -- provided it meets a business need.
"We've got a Cisco Telepresence suite in each of our major centres and it's like you're sitting around a table with people who are hundreds of kilometres away." It's used for leadership meetings and customer appointments, and Crabb's an evangelist.
"After the first five minutes, once you get past the technology, it becomes just a way of working and you can share documents and information as if you were in the same room."
Technology won't supplant face-to-face meetings for a while but good managers know it transforms the way organisations communicate, and a telco should be all about communication.