Khushnud Irani
Khushnud Irani
Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer

Professional Background:  Khushnud Irani joined Holcim in 2006 and became SVP and CIO in 2012. At Holcim, he has put a renewed focus on IT strategy, enterprise architecture, and a global project portfolio, with a strong emphasis on IT functional excellence group-wide. Prior to joining Holcim, Irani was EVP and CIO at Qualiflyer Loyalty Ltd., a former Swissair Group company responsible for managing the frequent flyer customer loyalty programs of several European airlines, encompassing several million members worldwide. In addition to IT, he led various operational shared services areas, including member servicing and back-office operations.

Education: B.Sc. in Physics, Mumbai University; Honours Diploma in Systems Management, National Institute of Information Technology, Mumbai; Mastering Technology Enterprise, Joint Program EPFL, ETH, IMD — Lausanne; Executive MBA, IMD Lausanne.

Personal Passions:  Playing chess and badminton, customer loyalty programs.

By Khushnud Irani, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Holcim

As one of the world’s leading suppliers of cement and aggregates, we have production sites in about 70 countries on every continent. That can make communication and collaboration difficult. To meet this challenge and to unify the many platforms in use across the group, our executive committee decided to roll out Google Apps worldwide to our more than 45,000 IT users. We chose Google Apps because it will help us concentrate on our core businesses and bring our employees, customers, and partners across the globe closer together. Over time, we believe Google Apps will help create stronger relationships with customers, suppliers, and other business partners by directly involving them in online discussions, idea exchange, and project work.

Our first question was whether we should be revolutionary or evolutionary in this whole community and collaborative space. We decided to start a revolution, ridding ourselves of legacy systems and embracing state-of-the-art technologies. In the past, we used several different platforms for collaboration. Replacing them with a single platform in the cloud not only simplified our IT infrastructure but also enabled us to focus our efforts further up the value chain, better supporting the business in areas of much greater value.

However, opting for a plug-and play cloud solution did not absolve IT of all of its responsibilities. Things became more straightforward from a technology perspective, but we had to rethink some of the processes, governance, security, and audit procedures that had been in place for years.

Starting at the Very Top

In many cases, IT will pilot a new system in a particular region to work out the kinks away from the spotlight, providing some cover if a particular technology turns out to be disastrous. This pilot, however, could not have been more visible. After our top 150 IT technical professionals tested the tools, we actually started right at corporate headquarters with our executive committee. As CIOs, we often talk about how important it is to get buy-in from corporate leaders when introducing this kind of transformational technology. In this case, our top management didn’t just lend their support to the effort; they were the earliest adopters of the tools. It’s a risk. You don’t typically test something with the CEO or the CFO.

But our top executives were eager to lead the change of behavior in this space at Holcim. We created a VIP training program for them.

After gaining acceptance at the top of the organizational chart, the change flowed down and throughout our various regions. We were able to replicate our early success with our executives pretty quickly in different regions, learning from each as we went along and using local work groups to drive the change.

We also sought out ambassadors among our frontline employees — enthusiasts and younger workers who were eager for the suite of Google Apps and would promote their use throughout the functions. We set up training sessions to help these workers figure out how to get others on board, role-playing the best reactions to users who resisted the change.

Mass Marketing the Transformation

These kinds of innovative and interactive electronic workspaces help us attract future generations of young talent to our organization. Generation Y intuitively understands these consumers’ applications, and Generation Z will have grown up on them. This positions us as a more attractive workplace to the workers of the future. It wouldn’t take much to get those latest generations on board with the change.

The rest of the organization was a different matter. We knew this was going to be more than just a technology replacement. We realized very early on that if we presented this as an e-mail or collaboration replacement, our existing employees would concentrate on comparing the tools to the ones that have come before. Instead, we promoted this as a game changer — one that would transform the way we communicate, the way we collaborate, the way we create transparency. It would also enable our different operating companies to work together in this manner for the very first time.

This wasn’t a typical IT project with simply a technical project plan, followed by testing, implementation, and optional training. Together with our business partners, we engaged a design agency to help us create an internal marketing campaign for the rollout of Google Apps, using the initiative’s “Together, faster” name as a theme. This was the furthest thing from a typical IT project for us. We approached it as a transformation that required effective communication and change management. We had mandatory training sessions. We set up Google Booths to answer questions and solve issues. We had signs and banners throughout our offices asking, “Do you want to enter a new era of working together?” One sign, outside the bathrooms, stated, “Flush your old communication habits here.” A bit crude? Maybe. But it caught people’s attention and got them on board. By spreading our message enterprise-wide, we created strong momentum and set the stage for company-wide adoption.

Rather than take the typical IT help desk approach to support — which would have been overwhelming, given that we were rolling this out to tens of thousands of users — we held open forums. Tellingly, three quarters of the questions people had about Google Apps were answered by business people.

We also introduced Google Stories: every month we asked each region to submit success stories about using the apps. They shared how this technology was transforming some aspect of the way they worked. And those stories further stoked interest in adoption of the apps.

Under-Promise, Over-Deliver

The beauty of going with a cloud solution is that people’s expectations are lower than they would be for a customized solution. As a result, we could have very frank discussions about what was possible and what wasn’t. We were able to make it clear that certain functionality would take some time while other capabilities just weren’t in the cards. We were open and transparent. If there were alternatives, we’d offer them.

With traditional, customized on-premise software, you can wind up in endless debates about what button goes where. That wasn’t possible with Google Apps. There were no false promises, and that was appreciated. Expectations were clear and, as a result, user acceptance was much higher.

But the functionality the apps could offer was valued. Users could create and edit documents collaboratively. Employees could work from the same Google Doc in meetings. It really was a game changer with regard to communication and collaboration. It’s not that the apps don’t change. Quite the contrary. Google releases new functionality all the time, and that makes it challenging to keep up. People are on board with the new apps and get used to the way they look, and then something changes. That means our training and awareness programs are not onetime events but ongoing occurrences designed to keep everyone in the organization abreast of what’s happening.

Grounding IT in the Cloud

The shift to Google Apps was not only a big change for our business users, but it shook up the way we run our IT organization. It’s a huge shift. We had some folks managing our legacy collaboration technology and infrastructure who were worried about their jobs. And, indeed, their roles would no longer be necessary once we moved these processes to the cloud. But our collaboration revolution opened up new career opportunities for them.

I explained their options: They could take advantage of our offer to train them in the new technologies, which would not only enable them to keep working for us but also make them more marketable to other companies. Or they could get scared and run off to find a job where they would still be responsible for the older traditional technologies. Most people opted for the training and embraced the change.

In addition to the suite of communications and collaboration apps, we also set up three other Google Enterprise solutions: Google Search Appliance, Google App Engine, and Google Apps Vault. Wherever they make sense and have a sustainable architecture fit, we are embracing cloud-based delivery models, which simplify the technical environment and allow IT personnel to create deeper business value.

Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 6 (February 2015)

The Takeaways

Introducing a new communication platform throughout the workforce may involve more than testing, implementation, and training. It may require a full-scale internal marketing campaign, much as any major change initiative would.

The beauty of a cloud solution is that people’s expectations are lower than they would be for a customized solution. That can make it easier to have candid discussions about what functionality is possible and what isn’t.