Straddling the business-IT divide

CIO Mok Sew Wah explains how Sunway Group ensures a higher success rate for IT projects.

ZDNet Asia goes one-on-one with Asia's top CIOs and IT directors, the senior tech decision-makers who matter. Find out what keeps them awake at night and how they tackle tight IT budgets.

CIO 1-on-1 IT is starting to take on the character, rigor and practices of a business within a business at Sunway Group, one of Malaysia's foremost conglomerates.

Sunway Group's core activities range from construction, education, property development and investment, to building materials, quarrying, manufacturing, healthcare, leisure and entertainment, and IT.

Mok Sew Wah, CIO of the Sunway Group, strongly believes in getting his team to look at a project from a business perspective rather than a technical point of view. That's because without an intimate understanding of both the business and IT sides of the equation, the project may not bear fruit.

"When I first took on this role as CIO, we initiated the so-called 'meeting of minds' between the IT people and the business people," he says. "We place a lot emphasis on it because we don't want to embark on an IT project just because there's cutting-edge technology. It has to be business-driven."

In this exclusive interview with ZDNet Asia, Mok shares his thoughts and plans on some of the group's IT strategies for the year.

Q: How do you ensure the IT folks get to see that aspect of the business requirements?
A: The Sunway Group creates forums for business people to appreciate and understand IT. By the same token, the IT folks must try to understand and think like a businessman. We get the IT people involved in management meetings and operations so that they can understand the business challenges. For the business folks, we organize regular sessions to update them on what other alternative technologies are around. A lot of managers are still apprehensive about IT.

What are some of the key IT projects for Sunway this year?
A: This year we embarked on two major projects. The first is the consolidation of our back-end ERP (enterprise resource planning) solution and the other is data center consolidation.

For ERP, we are using JD Edwards, which has now been acquired by Oracle. In the past, we were quite decentralized. We have so many different industries, all growing at different rates. Most of us are scattered around, and hence, we have individual IT departments. In order to make sure that none of the companies were being held back, we allowed them to move at their own pace, and that is why some of the companies ended up with different ERP versions. So we recently took the opportunity to consolidate them into a single version, running off a single server, plus another one for disaster recovery.

We don't change technology just for the sake of changing.

So do you have plans to move to Oracle's ERP suite?
There's no necessity to make any changes now, because whatever we have implemented is serving our needs well. Of course, as per the roadmap drawn up by Oracle, they are supposed to come up with a new fusion solution. We'll consider moving to Oracle then. But at this moment, we don't change technology just for the sake of changing. Our group of companies is being standardized on JD Edwards version 8.10. We hope to complete this major IT exercise by the end of this year.

Can you elaborate on the data center consolidation project?
We have shrunk our total area size from over 2,000 square feet to 900 square feet. And that's savings of space. We have physically relocated all our servers in Menara Sunway into our new data center.

What about your IT plans for next year?
We definitely plan to invest more next year for two simple reasons. We have more companies venturing overseas--so it's the sheer number of physical locations, and obviously more places have to be connected; and not to mention the so-called obsolence of certain applications.

What future technologies are you exploring?
We have been looking at RFID for a while. Our approach is that we don't need to be the prime mover. We are looking at it next year when the technology will be a lot more stable. Unless it is something that's proven, we will not deploy it on a group wide basis. Often times, we implement it under a small controlled environment.

We are also exploring open source. All types of software have a version in open source. Currently, we are trying out OpenOffice for some of our companies. Of course, there are so many other areas to look into---from operating systems right up to Web servers. But that's where we are at now.

When something is free and relatively new, obviously there are certain limitations. At the end of the day, I believe it boils down to the expectation factor. As long as it meets your requirements and makes commercial sense, we don't mind trying out the technology. We have been using OpenOffice for the last six months. Strategically, we also have to keep ourselves abreast of technology changes.

What is the breakdown of your organization's 2005 IT budget, in terms of hardware, software, services, and info-security?
As of this year, we use a portfolio management concept where we dissect the budget by whether the required IT investment is meant for running the businesses; growing the business; transforming the business; or research and development. For sensitive reasons, we are unable to share the percentage. Generally, this percentage figure will change year on year, depending on the business needs.

For most matured companies like the Sunway Group, we have put in place all the necessary hardware and software. Therefore, a relatively significant portion still goes towards running the businesses, such as maintenance and licensing.

Who makes the final decision on IT investments for the Sunway Group?
There are two types of purchases: strategic and transactional. For strategic investments, that's where the group IT general manager, as well as the IT heads of the different businesses, will evaluate and come up with a proposal. They will discuss it with me. If I think it makes business sense, we'll bring it up to the IT steering committee. And that's where the final endorsement is given.

For those decisions that are more transactional-based, and at a company level, the initiation comes from the individual business people and respective IT head.

This works out well for us, because firstly, it makes use of the expertise of the different people; secondly, there's the meeting of minds between the business and technical folks; and finally, there's a lot more transparency.

How do you prepare your employees for change, and from past experience how receptive are they?
Whenever there are changes, there is always uncertainty and anxiety. That's why some people put a lot of emphasis on change management. To cite an example, when we first changed our collaborative tools from Novell to Lotus Notes, there was naturally some apprehension. It's not an entirely new application, but there were some notable differences. So what we did was to make sure we pre-empted people by explaining to them the reasons behind the change and the benefits of doing so. On top of that, we had to give constant education. For six months, we organized prescheduled classes every week. The entire Sunway Group had to be trained, including our top management.

A lot of companies don't worry about security attacks until it actually happens. How would you rate the importance of network security in your organization?
We take it quite seriously. There are two approaches: we make use of whatever technologies we have currently, and we educate our users, especially our mobile users. At this point, we are looking into an IDS (intrusion detection system) or IPS (intrusion prevention system). There are a lot of other priorities that are after the same amount of money. But we do have all the essential security policies and devices in place. So we've gone past the fundamentals, unlike some companies which are still wondering whether to have a dedicated firewall at all.

Cordelia Lee is a freelance IT journalist based in Malaysia.