Technology across borders: CIOs' tips for international success

Tech chiefs share their experiences of doing business internationally and their tips for success.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
"Understanding how to do business in new regions can be tough for both CIOs and their teams," says Top Right Group IT director Sean Harley.
Digital technology has made it easier than ever before for organisations to enter new territories and to take advantage of the global market. But how does this complicate the life of the IT team, and how do CIOs manage working across borders? Five technology chiefs offer their tips on dealing with the challenges of the global workplace.

1. Talk to everyone and be constructive

Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks says successful approaches to IT management across different regions focus on four factors: authenticity, consistency, value, and people. "If you're successful in the first three areas - and you treat people well - then you'll get the right response," he says.

As CIO of a global oil business, Marks works with colleagues around the world, and mentions a recent visit from a colleague from Uganda to the UK head office. Marks spent time - both during and at the end of the placement - asking the individual about the lessons he had learnt from the experience.

"I guess the lesson is to give time to as many different people as possible. People matter, so look for the opportunities to talk and be constructive. You should extend your communications to your global ecosystem of partners, too."

Marks refers to his ongoing communications with a major supplier. His IT team and the partner have bi-monthly meetings. For the past two sessions, Marks has attended and provided a 15-minute show-and-tell feedback session. "They said they'd never had a CIO do something like that before and the feedback was great," he says.

2. Learn lessons from your experienced peers

Top Right Group IT director Sean Harley says globalisation can present significant challenges, especially for firms that are looking to grow into new regions. The publishing firm is able to take advantage of an approach where IT systems are shipped in a box to new regions and rolled out as required.

Yet Harley recognises that a transition to a new area can also create unexpected cultural concerns. The firm, for example, opened a new office in Sao Paulo recently and he says the move into Brazil presented a significant challenge, both in terms of IT kit and technology staff.

"Understanding how to do business in new regions can be tough for both CIOs and their teams," he says. "The assumption that you'll just be able to ship kit and get started isn't always right. You learn from scars - and, like other companies, we've got some deep ones."

Harley says CIOs looking to go global should learn from the experiences of others. "Speak to someone that has already been to the region you're going to," he says. "Also work with your provider to establish who's moved into the region and shipped kit before."

3. Actively embrace different perspectives

Enterprise-Rent-A-Car European IT director Jeff King made the transition from St Louis to manage technology on the other side of the Atlantic. He is reticent to resort to stereotypes, yet he says he has noticed some broad trends. "There are so many cultural differences between the United States and Europe," he says.

"In the US, there's a culture that it's normal to work as hard as you possibly can, including not necessarily taking holidays. In Europe, people really value their downtime and they want to take advantage of the opportunity to shut off from work for a period of time.

"It's a strange situation and there's probably a healthy mix somewhere between the two positions. While many Europeans can't understand why US citizens don't take time to re-charge, many Americans can't comprehend how Europeans could possibly go on holiday from work for two weeks at a time."

It is a balance that King has struggled to adjust to, since moving to the UK from North America two years ago. "I've had to actively learn how to take a two-week vacation," he says. "But I'm really keen to embrace the European approach and change my perspective."

4. Adapt your processes but keep your principles

Omid Shiraji is CIO at Working Links, an organisation that helps the long-term unemployed back into work and which is currently looking at ways to expand its services beyond the UK. Shiraji says culture plays a key role in global working and that executives must pay attention to the subtle differences they encounter.

However, good technology leadership is, it is - in many ways - a transferable process. "The basic principles of IT management don't change," he says. "My department is always focused on meeting business outcomes, rather than delivering technology projects." And those principles, says Shiraji, remain constant across all locations.

"Every CIO has customers, both internally and externally. The role of the IT leader is to attract money from executive sponsors and to deliver value through IT for the organisation. That focus is always the same, regardless of the country in which you're operating," he says.

"CIOs, however, cannot be successful working on their own. Technology is only ever one component of a successful organisation. Successful IT leadership is reliant on a close working relationship with different business functions and cultures. So adapt your processes to suit the cultures you find, but don't change your fundamental leadership principles."

5. Use your core competencies to help the business

Former CIO and now consultant at Axin, Ian Cox, says geography is increasingly becoming less relevant to the issues, challenges, and opportunities facing businesses across the world. "Whilst the maturity of markets and business models may vary by country, the broad trends are the same," he says.

Cox says such commonality is being driven by digital technology. Whatever part of the world they are in, organisations need to challenge established business models, take a different approach to meeting customer needs, be agile, and use data to create insights to be successful in these new markets.

"The IT function needs to be helping the business respond to the challenges and opportunities of the digital age. As these challenges and opportunities are the same across the world, it follows that IT management - at least in terms of how the role the IT function plays, how it is organised, and its core competencies - should also be based on the same model across the world," he says.

"However, there will always need to be a different approach across the soft skills areas, such as communication, motivation, and staff engagement. These areas need to reflect the local culture, customs and values, and cannot be standardised from country to country."

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