For a CIO, the real trick lies in asking the right question

  • New trends aside, it has always been about technology becoming cheaper and faster
  • In adopting new tech, don’t be afraid to experiment because there are lessons just from the journey

For a CIO, the real trick lies in asking the right questionTHE notion of a ‘next generation CIO’ may make for an evergreen keynote topic, but there hasn’t really been a fundamental shakedown of the core role, according to SingTel group chief information officer (CIO) Choy Peng Wu (pic).
During her keynote speech at the CIO Leaders Summit in Singapore on Nov 5, Wu noted that certain issues stay the same – such as finding the balance between ‘insourcing’ versus outsourcing, and security versus convenience.
“Many of these questions are fairly relevant to every CIO regardless of the era, but what’s interesting in this conference is all the talk about big data, mobility and cloud. For those of us who have been in the industry for a very long time, some of this is not new. The technology just becomes cheaper and faster,” she said.
Wu did admit, however, that some things have changed, with the way people adapt and adopt technology now being different; along with the emergence of a new and younger workforce with different expectations when it comes to technology in the workplace.
Despite that change though, the role of the CIO fundamentally boils down to asking the right question, said the CIO from the Singaporean telco giant.
“Technology will always become better but I’m not convinced we know the problem. Today’s technology gives us the capabilities to process data in real time, but having it has not made us wiser in asking the right questions.
“When I have people say ‘I want this,’ I ask them to tell me what question they are trying to answer. When you know what question the business is trying to answer, then you know where to find the information or whether you have that information in the first place,” she said.
Wu noted that most business requests and use cases could be satisfied with today’s technology and even an organisation’s current investment.
“Very few questions require an immense investment in things such as big data. But should there be a push for it, via your senior executives who read the cover stories and headlines of publications like The Economist or Times on their international long haul flights, don’t fight it,” she said.
For CIOs considering taking their first meaningful steps into leveraging big data tools to add business value, Wu advocated action over hesitation.
“Just start doing something. If nothing else, it can be seen as a learning journey for both the business and the technical team. The core focus should be to try and understand what today’s technology solutions can provide and where they can add value,” she said.
Wu said that rather than trying to solve everything in one go, especially in the case of big data, CIOs should take small steps and invest in some proof-of-concept projects and to not be afraid to experiment because there are benefits to be gained in learning along the journey.
For a CIO, the real trick lies in asking the right questionIf there is one thing that Wu herself as a CIO is currently grappling with, it’s the issue of big data analytics or rather, its place in the organisation.
“I still don’t have an answer. Where should analytics sit? Marketing? IT? Strategy? Operations? Because this is truly an area where it is hard to say whether it is one or the other,” she said.
“In the past it was easy to figure out, but when it comes to big data and analytics, the two roles become very blurred and merged. If we insist on separating both tools and people, putting them in the ‘right box,’ my suspicion is we don't get the full benefits,” she added.
Wu said that the reality was that it is hard to find one person within any organisation who actually has an enterprise-wide view of where all the bits of information sit and of all the systems in place to lend insight into how each and every department will benefit from a big data investment.
“Most of you probably have way too many analytics tools in the company, and way too many enterprise data warehouses, some of them you’d probably didn't know existed – in addition to having hundreds of people churning out reports,” she added.
On the topic of cloud computing, Wu admitted she doesn’t devote much thought to it, as to her it is just virtualised infrastructure, arguing that the issue is probably quite overplayed, especially when it comes to securing it.
“People are still very physically-bound in their thinking. They believe that if it sits in a room near them that it’s more secure than if it’s out there – but that’s illogical,” she said.
In her view, there is a bigger and far more important consideration and issue that has yet to be fully played out.
Recent developments in the past year surrounding clandestine digital surveillance activities by national agencies have brought many questions to the forefront, especially around data sovereignty, compliance and sharing.
“IT people usually just zoom in and think about whether the box or data is secure but I believe the vendors have pretty much solved 85% of that concern. The real consideration for CIOs and business leaders is: What are the limits of power for various governments? What are the limits of their jurisdiction?
“Because for all the talk about the cloud, the physical machine still sits somewhere in the world. This issue needs a lot more discussion with business leaders and legal departments rather than security, to think about and try to address for the future,” she said.

The CIO Leaders Summit was held from Nov 4 to Nov 5 in Singapore and is organised by Media Corp International.  Digital News Asia (DNA) is the official media partner for the event.
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