Disruptive success depends on preparation

By Elizabeth Harper, CIO, GHD
Friday, 30 June, 2017

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Researching the risks is just as critical as anticipating the rewards when it comes to embracing digital disruption.

Digital disruption has been the phrase on everybody’s lips ever since Uber challenged the taxi industry, since Apple transformed the way we listen to music… and even since the checkouts at supermarkets became self-service. What made these disruptive influences so successful is those companies made everything more flexible, agile and attainable.

This has been the Holy Grail for businesses that look at digitally disruptive initiatives; otherwise, why not just stick with the status quo? Anything that ‘disrupts’ a business has to enhance it and take it forward. Things such as automation, the IoT and cloud are only beneficial if they bring flexibility and agility to a business’s operations.

Digital disruption in a business sense is much more complex than it is in the consumer space, where often you can simply download an app and be disrupted for the better. Take the cloud: the benefits are clear, but many companies are simply flying blind when they make the shift. They often lack visibility into how their applications, networks and users are being affected until it’s too late and those users start complaining about network performance. Or some companies are simply, and somewhat understandably, risk-averse when it comes to disruption.

As a CIO of a large professional services company, I’ve seen the challenges many organisations are no doubt facing — especially when it comes to collaborating globally and connecting new offices, people and systems from across oceans and time zones.

Our company, GHD, founded in Melbourne in 1928, now has 8500 people and 200 offices in 10 countries. We know from experience that expansion across continents becomes immediately complex: apps and services need to travel over longer distances, which can impact performance, and traditional approaches to networking weren’t built for the cloud and digital era. Yet global collaboration is part and parcel of the value we deliver to our clients — we need to ensure our applications and services are available at all times.

Accepting the challenge

It’s a challenge we recently faced when, in 2014, we merged with a North American engineering consultancy and welcomed 3000 new employees. Of the new offices we had to integrate into our wider business, 50 had fewer than 10 employees each. While we took a traditional approach to bringing the larger offices onto our network — which took a year to complete — we simply had to get the smaller offices online faster, as they were set up specifically to be close to, and provide particular services for, clients.

Our challenge was clear, and one that many organisations our size are facing — how do we enhance business agility and flexibility while making sure those offices remained online and operational? No more than a decade ago, this would have required experts visiting every site, provisioning new network devices (routers, for instance) and physically configuring each device one by one.

To get these offices integrated, we had to reimagine our global network architecture. The networks we relied upon in the past simply weren’t built for this kind of expansion, for the applications we now rely on or for the collaboration we need to serve our clients. In short, we needed to digitally disrupt our entire network.

That sounds like a risky proposition, regardless of the size of a company or its network. But success with this kind of shift came down to planning and research.

Preparation prevents poor performance

We began looking at emerging technologies, and the one that made the most sense to us was a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN). The theory behind it was simple: it gave us the agility and security that serving global clients demands, as well as visibility across the network and branches, ensuring we could identify issues and enable application availability and performance, regardless of location. We did a thorough assessment of the SD-WAN space and chose Riverbed’s SteelConnect, which provided us with a very low, almost zero-touch deployment, low levels of ongoing maintenance, improved support and cost savings.

Once deployed, it enabled us to preconfigure a device using a cloud portal before delivering it to the physical site. This meant that any non-IT person at one of the small offices could follow simple instructions, plug the device in and have everything up and running in minutes instead of days. Had we taken the traditional route towards integrating those smaller offices, we estimate the project would have taken at least three months to complete. Instead, we were able to complete the entire rollout in just four weeks.

Shifts as large as reimagining an entire network architecture aren’t without risks. Moving IT operations to the cloud, for instance, isn’t as simple as finding a provider and saying “hey, presto”. There are latency concerns, a need for redundancy and the fact that, if hosted, connectivity to the cloud can be out of an organisation’s control. These are just a few of the inherent complexities in the shift that many organisations don’t consider ahead of time; only when it’s too late do they realise the shift required more planning and research than they initially believed.

Companies need to embrace disruption; the benefits are too immense to simply stay with the status quo. We also need to be wary of its complexity and make all risks calculated ones, because only through understanding those risks can we begin to mitigate them and realise the benefits we know exist.

Elizabeth Harper began her career as a data entry operator and has since blazed a trail for women in the traditionally male-dominated IT industry. Her contributions have been recognised through the InfoTech Outstanding Achievement Award at the 16th Annual Women in Technology Awards in Australia and the Gold Disruptor award from the Australian Computer Society, among others.

Pictured: Elizabeth Harper.

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