Martin Catterall says the CIO function has a professional responsibility to understand what is happening in the marketplace, to think through what the impact could be for the company, and share that with the executive team.
"The role nowadays is less that of a technologist," says the CIO of HW Richardson (HWR), the largest privately owned transport company in New Zealand.
"Staff need to see IT as the group they can share their problems with, who listens and contributes to their business, and also is open to new ideas.
"You need to support them," he says. "Ultimately, it's not about where the idea came from, it's all about achieving the results for the business."
These are some insights Catterall has gained following more than 20 years in CIO roles across the globe.
Before joining HWR in Invercargill, Catterall was the CIO for St John New Zealand. He also spent 10 years as global director of information technology and telecommunications for the World Health Organization centred in Switzerland.
Catterall started his IT career in 1986 as a programmer/analyst for the Department of Labour in Wellington, before he moved into database management. Leaving NZ in 1992 to take up a DBA role with Dairy Farm Ltd in Hong Kong, Catterall later moved to Australia in 1996 where he became the Asia Pacific Year 2000 Project Manager for Kellogg.
Catterall says he is able to bring what he learned from the wide range of companies he has worked with into the work he does for HWR.
"HWR is a group of more than 50 companies with different stages of technology deployment," he says. "It takes experience with those types of needs to be able to match them to appropriate solutions; something we definitely need to do if we are going to be effective moving into the future."
The group also owns Bill Richardson Transport World, the largest private collection of vintage trucks and cars started by HWR founder Bill Richardson, and more recently added Motorcycle Mecca to that collection.
"At HWR we have superb programmes to manage our gear, and manage our people," he continues. "We put a lot of time and effort in repairs and maintenance with over a thousand trucks on the road at any one time. These trucks are constantly monitored and tracked for safety and performance."
"I've been given the authority to lead us to new technologies and new ways of working. But I also have the responsibility to make sure that adds value to the business."
"The CEO gives me the space to do what I need and he is always there if I need to run something by him or get advice."
Catterall, a member of the HWR executive team, reports to CEO Brent Esler, who held the same role at Farmlands, New Zealand's largest farmer owner co-operative.
"With that freedom and authority comes an equal measure of responsibility," says Catterall. "It is not uncommon for the chairman of the board to just walk into my office and ask me to explain what it is I am doing and why, or seek advice on a particular project. That is a wonderful scenario to be in."
"HWR has a culture of being a great partner with other businesses. We try to keep our business profitable, but not at the cost of the industry. HWR is all about maintaining a sustainable marketplace."
The CIO role has a broad remit in the company. Apart from technology, Catterall is actively involved in discussions around keeping up with the changing environment that will impact the organisation.
"A big aspect for us is innovation," he says. "How do we inspire and encourage people to be comfortable and say, 'I have got an idea. Can we evaluate and run with it?'"
"If I lecture people about technology, they will just get bored and tune out. If instead I talk to them about end results, how this technology will add value to their business, then suddenly people are more interested."
"In order to do that though I need to understand what they do, how they work, what's important to them and explore how I can promote the idea of making change that will make a difference to them."
"I need to keep my head on what is happening within the company and within the industry so I can better understand the business."
Catterall visits plants to observe first-hand about the operations and staff that will be impacted by business technology. Once, he joined the crew of a concrete truck and watched them as they poured concrete for customers.
Catterall also did a similar immersion when he was at St John. On his first week on the job, he spent several hours at the Auckland Clinical Control Centre at headquarters, observing call handlers taking emergency 111 calls.
He smiles and says as CIO, he can take on different personas, from "a provoker of thought, to an IT nerd".
"The advent of autonomous or driverless vehicles is an exciting prospect for the not too distant future," he says. "You have got to be open and see these possibilities and the impact they will ultimately have on our work.
The advent of autonomous or driverless vehicles is an exciting prospect for the not too distant future.
"In the immediate short term, we are about looking after our people from a health and safety perspective, but recognising that this will all change 20 years from now when vehicle safety is centrally controlled."
In the meantime, the organisation is moving to cloud services. The company currently uses an IaaS (infrastructure as a service) environment, but will be expanding this into a hybrid approach combining both the Microsoft and private cloud options.
"We are evaluating various hosting options and we see this as a great opportunity to move our people into more flexible environments that better suit the way they need to work."
"The organisation requires greater mobility with greater access to resources they need, without layering them with an infrastructure that is expensive and hard to use," he states.
"We have a vision of having a driver in our truck with a tablet who is able to record their activities throughout the day. At the same time during the non-driving times, they can access our SharePoint site and look at our online training system. They can get a lot more communication with the group as a whole all through the same device," says Catterall. "That is a wonderful opportunity for us to be inclusive with all our company employees."
"Once we start to collect operational data like that, we can share that with our customers and give them insights on what is happening with the work we are doing for them."
He says the group has also started looking at virtual reality technology for training.
"We would love to do driver training with VR," he says, "but I understand such VR training can induce nausea. If this gets cracked and improved, we certainly see that as a great opportunity."
Catterall leads a team of 18. When he joined HWR nearly two years ago, there were only two people in the ICT team.
"We are growing and will continue to grow, and do it in a meaningful way rather than hiring lots of people."
An upside of the role is the five minute commute to work.
"It is a lovely place to live," he says of the company headquarters in Invercargill. "Employees who have families can leave work, be home in 10 minutes and spend dinner time with their partners and children."
Catterall is no stranger to the Southland, he grew up in Dunedin and his wife is from the area. "So for us it is a coming home."
An important part of the CIO role is to make the time to meet regularly with ICT peers.
"Our technology partners are willing to introduce you to other people in a new town," he states.
"I take those opportunities to get to know other IT professionals within the local environment. It's a way of grounding our knowledge. Other CIOs want to talk to you because they have similar questions and want to share what they are doing."
"Your companies may be competing, but at the IT level, there is a lot you can share without giving away your intellectual property. This is because we all face the same challenges: staffing, budgets, security, and technology. All of these things you can discuss openly," he explains.
"We have a role within society to help nurture the younger generation and help them be prepared for life outside of academia."
He says since HWR moved to Skype for business, colleagues in different industries are talking to him to tap into his experience. For example, Catterall joined the advisory group for the IT curriculum of Southland Institute of Technology. The group meets every quarter.
"That is another forum where you get to meet IT people," he says. At the same time, the advisory board brings a private enterprise view on where and what the students need to know in the future.
"We are at the leading edge where we can hire graduates who already have the skills we are looking for. Everybody is going to the cloud or IT as a service so this commoditisation of IT means we now focus on hiring business analysts and people who work well with business groups."
"We are commoditising many things within IT," he explains. "You used to have teams to install products. Now it is all done for you."
He says his involvement with SIT is a continuation of the advisory work he was involved in when overseas. When he was with the World Health Organization, he used to sit in different advisory committees in Europe and the US, mainly user groups for technology companies.
"We have a role within society to help nurture the younger generation and help them be prepared for life outside of academia," he states.
He says when he joined HWR, the group had very little investment in IT. Part of Catterall's mandate was to improve usage of technology within the group as they had previously had a number of ICT projects where people were not enjoying the benefits.
"As a CIO, you need to think about how you can solve problems like that. How do you get people on board so that they can appreciate and leverage of technology, rather than loathing it and aggressively not using it?"
He says the company undertook an "interesting exercise" involving listening to what the people were experiencing, talking them through it and acknowledging when things were not going well.
"You take responsibility for the problems, say you understand it is not working and why it is not working," he says on how ICT teams can manage the situation.
"But then you say, 'this is what I propose to do to solve the problem'. And you need to sell that back to the business to get their involvement and sponsorship. When the solution is implemented it is not just another iteration of the same problem."
An example of this was the deployment of SharePoint before he came in. "It had been thrown in [with] no end user involvement," he claims. "People were trying to use it, but it was not working because it was not built for them. It was a major inhibitor towards collaboration within the company.
"We brought end users into the upgrade project itself, created focus groups and end user management groups including subject matter experts from companies within the HWR group. We needed to make sure we were able to handle all those different needs."
"We went through quite a large consultation period. We built up the idea that a new product, a new idea, a new way of doing things was coming and had been designed by end users."
As a result, those staff at HWR who were already trained on the system could answer queries from the users. "They are able to talk in their own language with their own colleagues."
He says continuous upskilling is critical as a CIO. "It means you are taking the time every week, setting aside time to know what is going on.
"You have to continually be on the lookout for new opportunities for your company. A CIO has a role to play in talking to other CIOs and others from their executive peer group (CFOs and CEOs) to better understand what they think, so you can gain a different perspective."
Catterall takes the time to talk to younger staff members in the company.
"See things through their eyes," he says. "Lots of bright young people see things differently. Being able to see things their way can also give you a eureka moment.
"You have a reverse mentoring situation when that happens," he says, "it can be most enlightening."
At the same time, Catterall applies a pragmatic lens to these conversations.
"Yes, it is fun to come up with ideas to drive forward, but we also have a responsibility to produce and deliver."
Like a reality check? "Exactly," he says with a smile.