Global IT: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are ComingBy Dean Lane | Posted 04-13-2006
Global IT: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
Last fall, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at the Adam Smith Institute's "Corporate IT Strategies in Russia" summit, which was held at the Le Meridien Moscow Country Club, from February 28 through March 2, 2006. In the months before I flew to Moscow, I spent some time learning about my audience.
I began to consider the mindset of the Russian business community, and how their daily practices might differ from those to which I've become accustomed. I wondered, Do businesspeople in Russia address business issues in the same way as Americans do? What means or processes do they employ to resolve issues, innovate and move initiatives forward? Is the Russian business community behind the U.S. conceptually, or are they aware of the latest advances in technology, techniques and tools? What interests them beyond the business world?
I landed in Moscow and was met by a driver who delivered me to Le Meridien Moscow Country Club, deep in a forest of birch trees many miles from the city center. I arrived in my room just after 11:00 p.m., only to find that the hotel's wireless network was limited to . . . the lobby.
SMTP was blocked, making Web mail the only option, and at $25 for one day of access, it wasn't exactly a bargain. My other option was dial-up in the roombut where would I dial, and how much would it cost? Frustrated, it seemed to me that technology hadn't quite made its way to Le Meridien. But over the next few days, I would learn otherwise.
The conference started out like any other: registration, introductions, opening comments. But unlike other conferences I've attended, I had a clear mission for the next three days: to meet and understand my audience. One thing was quite apparent right awaythe Russians have a thorough understanding of the past and present states of information technology in their business community, and a clear vision for where they are headed.
Our attention was grabbed by two teaser topics covered in the afternoon; the managing directors of both Gartner and Elashkin Research gave a sneak preview of what would be discussed in more detail on the final day of the conference:
Russian Take on CIO
At the beginning of the second day, I was energized, wondering what would be revealed to me in the day's sessions, and a touch nervous about delivering my own speech: "The CIO's Mission Is to Be CEO of the IT Department." Several of the Russian CIOs were eating a European-style breakfast, so I brought my plate to the table and tried out my subject on them.
They liked the concept and were enthusiastic about all the variations on the theme that could be used.
The first session, "A View From the Top: Defining the Role of IT and the Leading CIO," consisted of five presentations, and featured executives from H-P, BearingPoint, JSC TVEL (nuclear energy), MTS (telecom) and the CEO of Vneshtorgbank.
Each presentation explored the CIO's role as a business leader, as part of the executive team, and as a member of the Board:
I used the break to interact with several conference participants. They were astute, and eager to learn as much as possible. Everywhere, inquisitive businesspeople were looking to their peers for insight they could take back to their companies. Most interactions occurred in Russian, so I can't tell you exactly what was discussed. I can, however, tell you that information technologists in Russia are open, eager, informed and not at all arrogant.
Our second session, "The IT Landscape in the Next Five Years," featured the general manager of Aeroflot Russian Airlines, the commercial director of RusTelecom, the general manager of RT Communications, the CIO of CROC (IT systems), the CIO of Ford Russia, and the vice president of IT for Mondi Business Paper Syktyvkar.
This session considered the evolution of IT over the next five years, and explored:
The one notable difference was the number of enterprise-architecture changes and integrations due to mergers and acquisitions. The Russians did have to deal with this, but to a lesser degree than did the non-Russians.
The final session of the day addressed how to spend strategically while undertaking goals similar to those discussed earlier in the day. The presenters were the managing director of IBS (IT services), the CIO of Akonit (pharmaceutical holdings), the CIO of Eurochem, and the general manager of JSC LenPoligraphMash (printing machinery).
What I thought was going to be just another discussion on "staying within budget" and "meeting the schedule" developed into a serious exploration of "Best Practices of the Strategic Spender." This session provided lessons of a practical nature:
The contrast between the Russians and the U.S. in this area is pronounced. U.S. firms are paring down requirements so that they are in 90-day "implementable" chunks. This is touted as part of the longer term, strategic plan, but the business and the requirements may change prior to implementing the whole system. The Russians, on the other hand, are planning multiquarter, and in some cases multiyear, projects. This method, too, can result in changes in the business and processes before a system is implemented.
So, if a new technology is purchased for a particular project, some of the investment part of the equation may be shared with other (planned) activities or applications because the underlying technology is pervasive to several applications. Although this spreading of the cost over multiple projects allows the Russians to show a greater return per project, the true benefit, in my mind, is the recognition of the value of infrastructure.
Day Two filled my mind with what I thought were plenty of insightful and meaty topics. I was ready to relax, network a little and have a shot of vodka. To my surprise, the Russians were just getting warmed up. Into the evening they had four workshops, or special-interest groups. The speakers for each of these groups were equally impressive and included chairmen, CIOs and other C-level personnel. The workshops addressed explored the following verticals:
As the evening wore on, the formal sessions ended and the informal, vodka-enhanced discussions ensued. In some instances it was more difficult to understand the conversation, as my interpreter had retired for the evening, but I easily understood the passion aroused by such topics as employee retention and how to address a lack of capacity if management says "do more with less."
: What Problem Should a "Solution" Solve?">
I woke up early in the morning to pack my bags. Why is it that you always bring home more than you start out with? Airy flakes of snow had begun to build a wall against my windowpane. I didn't give it much thought, as I wasn't flying out until 7:50 p.m.
The first session, called "How to Ensure Information Technology Delivers" included a managing director at Deloitte & Touche, the CIO of Petersburg Fuel Company, and the CIO of Saturn Automotive.
Most of the time during this session was spent discussing:
The bottom line was agreement by all that if you do not ask the right questions, there is no way to provide the right answers. Therefore, a well-defined and valuable project would provide shareholder value as a result of undertaking the project.
In this case, the cost will be monitored, but not of primary concern. Other questions pondered here included: When should ROI be defined and measured? And who should have the responsibility of performing the ROI measurements?
Right after lunch I stopped by my room. The wall of snow on my windowsill was now somewhere between six and nine inches high. I began to wonder if the snow would continue, and if I would be able to fly out that evening.
The second session of the day was a panel discussion called "Adopting Best and Innovative Practices." The panelists included a senior consultant at Deloitte & Touche, the CIO of THK-BP (oil company), a managing director at OTIS EE Group, the CIO of Alfa Bank, a general manager at Rosgosstrakh (insurance), and the CIO of Sheremetyevo International Airport.
The main themes and examples discussed were:
It was recognized that best practices create improvements; however, they can still represent a change to the organization. The importance of having a standard change-management process was restated.
I rushed back to my room so that I could finish packing and prepare for what would turn out to be a two-hour interview with Russia's iOne magazine. This magazine is the equivalent of a BusinessWeek, with sections on business, finance, information technology, human resources, sales, etc. The windowsill snow meter had risen significantly, and I began to question whether my airplane would be allowed to fly out. The Russians assured me that this was "normal" weather and that there would not be an issue with taking off.
The drive to the airport was about an hour and 45 minutes. As I sat on the airplane I reflected on this three-day conference: It was clear that the U.S. information-technology community is respected by the Russians for their position and contributions.
Early in my career, I remember that IT groups would hire business-unit personnel into the IT department, the logic being that it was
easier to teach people how to code than it was to teach them marketing, manufacturing or other disciplines.
Many in the U.S. still operate under this belief because we see companies change out their CIOs and simply have CFOs and other execs "take a turn" at being CIO. Within a short period of time, a real CIO invariably must be engagedand usually has a mess to clean up.
The Russians told me that at the coder/programmer level this was absolutely the case. However, the Russian C-level executive understands and appreciates the increasing complexity of infrastructure, applications and technology as one ascends the IT career ladder.
Overall, the conference was time well spent. The Russian IT community is a professional group, serious about their careers, their direction, and their results. The conference sessions went into the night and the after-hours, informal sessions went into the wee hours of the morning. The speakers were well prepared on their topics, and the conference format was to hold questions until the end of the speaker's presentation.
The interest and participation by the group were noticeable, and there was not a single session where there was enough time to answer all of the audience's questions.
A few specific takeaways for me at this conference were:
It is easy to see that the Russian IT-business community will be competition for us in the years to come.
And yes, my plane took off on time.