CIO Spotlight: Sal Laher, IFS

What's the best career advice you ever received? "Stay focused on delivering value and that having an ability to problem resolve overcoming any difficulty is a rare skill, make the most of it."

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What was your first job? I started my career as a computer operator for a large retailer called Checkers in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Did you always want to work in IT? No. I wanted to be in the medical field. That said, I am so very pleased and grateful that my path in life turned out this way.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? A firm believer in keeping my skills relevant, I have invested in my education throughout my career. Having completed the A-Level equivalent in South Africa, I went on to take many IT related trainings and certifications such as ITIL, Prince and so on.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My 39-year career has been wholly in the IT industry. The only detour has been switching between working customer side and supplier side.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? For 2020, we continue to complete the major transformation programme implementing the final outstanding items: 1) Partner Relationship Management solution; 2) Implementing ServiceNow for our Cloud Operations and upgrading our ITSM to take advantage of Virtual Agents and Machine Learning; 3) Continue the Cloud Payroll roll-out to a further 13 countries; 4) Complete the project to implement an Applicant Tracking System to support the business as part of ongoing growth plans. We will also focus on shared services; optimisation of the ERP processes; and bringing in innovation of AI where we have good use cases. We will also move our IT Service Desk wholly offshore to our facility in Sri Lanka with ServiceNow supporting this and visit a model for Remote IT Desktop support. 

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? The CEO is driving a growth plan for IFS that will see us deliver targets way above the rest of the market. This includes transforming the business, recruitment of a sales staff and maintaining the general and administrative cost base. There will therefore be many projects and initiatives supporting all parts of the business [as above].

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? The CIO role within IFS also includes global facilities and procurement. Global facilities is linked to IT in many ways - cloud printing, AV for example. At IFS we also have a growing base of immersive customer experience centres. Most of our procurement is for IT, but it also links to a global travel platform.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Just like our customers, IFS relies on technology to help us operate and grow our business.  In early 2019, we formally acknowledged the opportunity to improve the way we work, to use our own technology to break down regional barriers, and to enhance our ability to operate as one global team. We knew we needed to modernise our business operations, and get ourselves onto our own latest solutions, so we took the decision to experience what our customers experience, the way they experience it. In short, we moved from seven disparate instances of IFS Applications onto a single instance of IFS Applications 10 - some of our challenges are shown pictorially below. We launched a major transformation under the banner of Programme THOR!

As of today, I'm pleased to report, that we have successfully walked six months in the shoes of our customers. Major parts of the Programme, including the major IFS ERP implementation, APPs 10, were delivered in just six months - along with some major other third party solutions like payroll in the cloud; marketing in the cloud; electronic invoicing in the cloud; and a single company wide new Intranet on Sharepoint (called My IFS). We have since added further cloud solutions as part of our Transformation Programme and within 12 months have achieved automation, digitisation and consolidation across all of IFS processes globally.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We are certainly in the early stages of the ‘adopt' stage of the Digital Benchmark. We have moved to cloud-based processes, solutions and SaaS. We have digitised our global travel, pay slips, invoicing, time recording, and expenses and are in the early stages of digitising some further processes. We launched our first digital Bot on this track to now focus on more intelligent processing.

We have a defined SLA document along with defined KPIs across our service desk, incidents, projects and product catalogue.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? The digitalisation project I've already mentioned is a good example. For that, we undertook a change management exercise to ensure every single IFS employee knew what was coming and how to use the solution. Working together with process owners and super users, we ran roadshows, prototype sessions and training to get people comfortable and confident with the new solution.  Through Global Processes and a single version of the truth we have made the lives of our staff much better as they are able to be more productive; find data quicker and have outcomes much faster. We have significantly built relationships and collaboration between the ‘Corporate' and business ‘Regions' exercising our values of agility, collaboration and trust.

The key elements for success have been:  

1. Senior stakeholder support - our CEO set the tone by emphasising the importance of the programme and ensuring the whole organisation was behind it. The senior management team naturally supported this and aligned their people accordingly.  

2. Defining a clear scope and structure - to get the system up and running with the fundamental capabilities was the focus. Our strategy was to get the platform in and ensure the business was operational and to then start to evolving to the innovation and features. Naturally, we will build on that, and as our business grows and evolves we have the confidence that we're doing it on a solid foundation.   

3. Focus - governance, including a dedicated team of business process owners and process specialists  

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Security roles offshore for the service operations centre. Reporting roles for Power BI and generally getting more women to apply for our vacancies in tech globally. ERP roles to support functional areas of finance, HR and the front-end of our Aurena product on IFS Applications 10.

What's the best career advice you ever received? Stay focused on delivering value and that having an ability to problem resolve overcoming any difficulty is a rare skill, make the most of it.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Yes, I have purposely brought in new talent at my senior leadership team level to challenge their peers and to create a succession plan. One of them will stand out. High performing staff need a retention plan, attention, mentoring and constant feedback. The challenge is getting them to think and operate at the strategic level.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Innovation is key to any business and your executive team want people who challenge the norm with ideas of innovation that bring value to the business. Keep yourself constantly dated in an industry that is rapidly changing each month. Invest time in your development and in keeping up to date with key tech trends. Stay focused and always work on projects, initiatives and change that bring benefits and value.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I have been fortunate to work on many large transformation programmes globally. For example, self-assessment at HMRC and recently the global transformation at IFS. But my greatest achievement has been in the many CIOs I have developed over the years.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? In my working life, nothing, but in my personal life maybe had more children. I have been very lucky to have worked with some of the best people, in the best places, at the right time. I could not ask for more.

What are you reading now? On holiday I'm a John Grisham kind of guy. But right now, I'm expanding my passion for inclusion and cultural understanding with an English translation of the Quran and some documentaries on the Ottoman empire.

Most people don't know that I… Went to three football world cup finals, a cricket world cup final and a rugby world cup final.

In my spare time, I like to…Watch live sport, especially Manchester United, go to the movies and spoil my grandchildren.

Ask me to do anything but… go shopping.

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