All great business leaders try to understand their customers as thoroughly as possible, but Mike Strople has an unusual affinity with Canadian IT executives: He came from their ranks.
Although recently appointed president of Allstream, Strople has a bona fide IT background that included stints as vice-president of technology development, CTO and later COO. expertIP recently sat down with Strople to discuss his outlook on IT in 2014 and beyond. This interview has been edited and condensed.
expertIP: Allstream recently hosted an evening with Chris Hadfield to discuss his experience in outer space and his lessons on leadership. What stood out to you?
Mike Strople: I guess the biggest message that I got out of Commander Hadfield’s remarks was the importance of, in his words, the over-arching mission. That played into questions about risk, it played into questions about managing potentially competing interests. It also played into long-term thinking, and fundamentally played into motivation and issues of accountability and empowerment. The principal mission was helpful in all those areas — when confronting risk, when confronting what to do in decision-making.
eIP: CIOs are often criticized for not understanding the business. Is there a failure to grasp the over-arching mission that could explain the tendency in Canada to under-invest in IT?
MS: When we compare (IT investment in) the U.S. to Canada, one of the questions I ask is, are Canadian CIOs fundamentally different than American CIOs? I would suggest the people aren’t necessarily that different, but their organizations have a different risk profile and tolerance. It comes down to weighing the benefits of success with the pain and the costs of being wrong. My observation, having worked on both sides of the border, is that in general, Americans put a bigger bonus on the reward side and a smaller penalty on the “getting it wrong” side. Canadians tend to be more afraid of failure than excited about the prospect of success. It’s interesting we’re talking about Chris Hadfield, because he gave a TED talk recently on fear and danger, and I asked him about it when I met him. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said, ‘There’s nothing I’m afraid of, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see danger all around me. I take the time to prepare, I think of all the things I would do when confronted with those dangerous situations.’ I think that’s a lesson that can be translated to Canadian businesses.
eIP: What do you mean?
MS: I think in general, Canadian businesses tend to be a little bit more prudent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if I look at the banking crisis of 2008, you could argue that prudence was very good for the Canadian economy. The question would be, when are you too prudent? How long do you wait to decide, to make the decision? When is the risk acceptable enough? Those are incredibly hard questions to answer under any circumstance, and there’s always that terrible question, “Are you sure?” In the technology space, the answer almost has to be “No, I’m not sure, but I’ve got enough evidence to tell me that now is the right time to make a particular investment.”
The other thing I’ve learned over time is that sometimes you make the investment and it may not turn out the way you wanted, but sometimes it may turn out better than you wanted, or different than you wanted, and you may get different gains than you had expected. But if you never go on the journey, if you never go out there and take the risk, you’re never going to find out.
eIP: One of the big barriers to innovation, of course, is bureaucracy. IT departments that once had complete control over technology are now sharing authority with line-of-business units, for example. What advice would you offer them about dealing with this?
MS: I do think we’re finding massive change in organizations in terms of command-and-control, and the advancement of technology has levelled the playing field in a lot of ways. Where traditionally an IT organization may have had complete dominion over something, now for a couple of hundred bucks anybody can do it, and “expertise” might be popping up across the organization. It’s certainly a challenge, but it’s one of those tidal realities. It’s like trying to hold water back; you’re wasting your time if you think you can keep water from finding the lowest point. It will find it. The question is, how can you be effective? And while I think IT organizations may have thought of themselves as on the side or adjacent or a support function, in the 21st century, IT is an essential part of the organization. I cannot think in terms of IT being separate from “the business.” That’s one of those phrases that drives me crazy, “What does the business want?” We’re all in this together.
eIP: In the past, the performance of IT organizations tended to be judged on things like uptime and availability. With what you’re describing, how will those metrics change?
MS: Well, nobody’s going to give up on uptime and availability. It’s one of those things where you don’t trade one for the other, you just layer on other expectations, because while 15 or 20 years ago, failure of an IT system may have been an annoyance and a moderate problem, today it probably brings the enterprise to a stop. It has a material impact on profits and earnings and revenue. There’s no going backwards on reliability and availability. But in terms of expectations going forward, I believe you’re going to see metrics around how we use IT to drive revenue, to improve customer experience, to improve the quality of products, or the timeliness of information. Reliability becomes table stakes and the new metric is, how do we use technology to enable us? This is where I think we’ll get to the real balance of risk and reward. In the past, the objectives for an IT organization may have been, “Don’t screw us up. Do what is absolutely necessary in terms of upgrades and maintaining infrastructure, but spend as little as possible and don’t disrupt the operation.” The expectation is now probably going to be the same, but now layering on top of that using technology to move the organization forward.
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