The tech industry likes to attach a certain amount of mystique to its executives: the visionary CEO, the dynamic marketing leader, the dogged chief technology officer. But there’s one function of the business that’s often overlooked and has no role in the industry’s self-mythologizing, even though entire organizations would fall apart without it: IT.
In enterprise organizations, information technology teams are typically led by the chief information officer, a role that has changed over the last several decades. Though IT teams were once in charge of simply “keeping the lights on,” the CIO role has evolved to incorporate a degree of forecasting and anticipation of technological trends — and investing accordingly.
This creates a fundamental tension at the heart of the CIO’s role: A 2020 Deloitte study found that the average IT department invests more than half of its technology budget on the maintenance of business operations in their current state and “only 19 percent on building innovative new capabilities.”
We checked in with two chief information officers at Chicago-area enterprise organizations to learn how they negotiate the tension between day-to-day operations and long-term vision. Their responses speak to a philosophy that emphasizes testing and building business cases before big, new system roll-outs, while maintaining an agility that has seen one company, Shure, remain at the cutting edge of its industry for almost a century.
But first, let’s meet our CIOs:
Teffani Zadeh, CIO of Growth Enablement & North America IT at Aon Corporation
The company: Aon is one of the world’s biggest professional services firms specializing in advice and solutions in risk, retirement and health — fields that have become particularly relevant in the last year. Headquartered in London, the company helps businesses manage and direct some $3.5 trillion in retirement assets, $180 billion in annual health care premiums and $125 billion in annual risk premiums.
Background: Leading tech infrastructure teams on Aon’s growth enablement and North American IT organizations from Chicago, Zadeh is charged with procuring, building and maintaining technology that supports the company’s revenue generation teams. She recently led digital transformation efforts to move from multiple CRM and marketing systems to a unified cloud-based system.
Zadeh’s essential skills for future IT leaders: “Understand the importance of process. Too many tech professionals run straight to a technology solution before fully understanding the business process that needs to be supported. Always keep learning. Learn how to facilitate productive conversations between technology and business partners, which means understanding the business and their challenges and working as a team to develop solutions. Build strong relationships with your business stakeholders. The IT versus business mentality that pervades many companies is not helpful and not necessary.”
Robin R. Hamerlinck, Senior Vice President of Global Information Systems and Chief Information Officer at Shure
The company: Founded as the Shure Radio Company way back in 1925, Chicago-based Shure made its name designing and manufacturing microphones, phonograph cartridges and radio parts. The company now brings that historical expertise to bear on modern audio technology, producing wireless headphones, video conferencing devices and music production technology.
Background: Hamerlinck oversees IT strategic planning, infrastructure development, application systems, operations, networks and security at Shure. Throughout her career, she has helped develop and expand globe-spanning IT systems and organizations for large and mid-sized tech businesses alike.
What Hamerlinck looks for in potential new hires: “We look for team members who are customer-focused — and those customers can include our own internal employees and our partners as well as the customers themselves. Our goal is to provide the best IT experience possible for our stakeholders, so we actively recruit and retain those who focus on delivering premium service. We also love people who are forward-thinking and help us project and prevent issues before they happen.”
The average IT department spends just 19 percent of its budget on building new capabilities. How do you balance innovation with the need to drive revenue and keep costs in check?
Zadeh: “Innovation doesn’t always have to be big and expensive. We look for ways to introduce innovative functionality, sometimes in small ways. A series of small innovations can lead to big impacts. We also will rarely make a large bet on a new, innovative technology without first running a small pilot for a fraction of the cost. This allows us to implement it with a small user group very quickly to understand if the benefits meet our expectations. If the pilot proves itself, it makes it much easier to build the business case for more significant funding as we have confidence in both the cost and benefit estimates based on pilot results.”
Hamerlinck: “There’s an important balancing act to perform between IT infrastructure that supports an evolving business landscape and stays within cost parameters. Certainly, the need to have a robust IT infrastructure is essential, but even more so is the need for IT support staff to be armed with the tools to provide essential services. Investment in IT is essential to keep businesses running smoothly. The last thing a global business needs is a server to go down because the right investments weren’t made in maintenance or having the proper backups to ensure business continuity.”
“The one common denominator is the need for solid IT infrastructure for global communications.”
How does your product offering or organizational structure affect your team’s work on underlying tech infrastructure?
Hamerlinck: “As a global, 96-year-old company we’ve come a long way. And because we have facilities in nearly 40 countries worldwide, our technology has to work everywhere at all times of the day. This is important not just for our own internal work purposes but for our various customers who rely on Shure technology for customer support, training, purchasing, software downloads and more.”
Zadeh: “This is an interesting question, as the underlying tech infrastructure often depends on the complexity and age of the platforms being supported. I manage two major portfolios. One of them supports straightforward and globally standardized business processes, and therefore, the systems are less complex. This portfolio is almost entirely supported by SaaS applications. The infrastructure is handled by our vendor to allow my teams to focus on functionality and innovation.
“The other portfolio supports a highly complicated and segregated set of business processes, which has resulted in a proliferation of complex systems. It’s much harder to manage the tech infrastructure, as moving these systems to the cloud or to SaaS applications requires large shifts in organizational thinking and large investments. As a result, my teams spend a large percentage of their time managing the underlying infrastructure.”
What’s your team’s biggest challenge in 2021, and how are you planning to solve it?
Hamerlinck: “The world is trying to reconfigure to a pandemic that is scaling down in some areas, but not yet everywhere. IT needs are different in various parts of the world, but the one common denominator is the need for solid IT infrastructure for global communications. As we work in the virtual conferencing industry, it is essential that our team ensures a smooth delivery of conferencing amenities for our associates, partners and customers. While we were already in a good position here, we know that the world will move to a hybrid model of in-office and at-home working more than ever before, requiring IT needs to be addressed in a multitude of ways.”
“We’re using machine learning to extract relevant information from a variety of intake forms to then relay that information into our transactional systems.”
How do you evaluate and incorporate new technology into your business or products? What technologies are you currently keeping an eye on?
Zadeh: “We are always researching technology trends to understand what’s on the horizon, and we’re watching to see how more seasoned technologies are being used and adopted across other industries. In our business, we are handling millions of transactions and are always looking for opportunities to drive efficiency in our operations. We’ve employed AI in areas to automate manually intensive operations where possible. In one specific example, we’re using machine learning to extract relevant information from a variety of intake forms to then relay that information into our transactional systems. We’re also using AI to innovate our sales pipeline. We’re experimenting with the use of AI to evaluate past buying patterns to suggest sales opportunities. In addition, we’re becoming far more cloud-enabled and have a mobile-first strategy for the majority of our applications. Finally, we’re keeping an eye on blockchain and have deployed it in certain areas.”