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The biggest challenge isn’t technology or even the pandemic. It’s communication.

By Kevin Haskew, SVP and CIO, ON Semiconductor

Problems look very different depending on where you stand. To most people, COVID-19 has been a hugely disruptive crisis, a potentially life-shattering calamity. But if you ask me what I think of it as a CIO, I would describe it as an incident. An extreme case but just an incident, which you have to wrestle to the ground like any other crisis. If you are in IT at a large global company like ON Semiconductor, managing incidents like this is just part of what you do.

We were lucky in part because we have good business partners and because we had some early warning, thanks to our operations in China. We started to run scenarios in late February, and then in March, began to get our response into high gear. By the end of March, we were obviously working 24 hours a day on this, but we were executing to a plan, the biggest part of which was setting up the infrastructure to quadruple the number of ON Semiconductor staffers who could work remotely.

But as disruptive as that sounds, from my point of view, COVID was just an incident, which we were able to get through relatively unscathed in part because we were able to get hold of the bandwidth and capacity we needed, and in part because we are pretty good at managing multiple things in parallel and at communicating with other departments.

Technology is just the beginning

The communication aspect is particularly important. Whether you are dealing with an incident or driving a modernization program, mastering the technology is just one aspect of the IT challenge. The other part is communicating with your internal customers. You might have the right observations and the right solutions, but if you can’t get the chemistry right, you are never going to be effective. You need to understand the business and the people who run that business, including what makes them tick.

This is even more crucial if you are working in a global organization. If you take the viewpoint that “I know how to do this; it worked for me in Company A in Country B last time, and I’m going to do the same thing this time,” you will fail. You can draw on your prior experience, but you need to go into every new situation, analyze it, and determine the effective way to move forward.

To me, it’s obvious that communication and influence with the customer matters a lot, but we seem to miss this point all the time. We are a technical department, and so a lot of the team obviously have very strong technical backgrounds—that’s a given—but at ON Semiconductor, we have a list of 15 skill competencies that IT people here need and technical skill is only one of them.

Typically, when new hires don’t work out, it’s because they lack people skills – the ability to work with others, to problem-solve, to analyze properly, to influence, to have the right attitude or behavior when you are speaking to customers, or being able to work with difficult customers. Many people just want to work on one thing; they like to solve technical problems, but they aren’t too interested in talking to people.

Limited horizons

I think this is a more serious problem today than ever because we are more specialized now. People just don’t get the same kind of business-wide exposure they once did. For example, I began my career as a mechanical engineering apprentice at a large manufacturing company back home in the UK. As part of that apprenticeship, I had to work in every department, so I learned how every department works. I also spent a lot of time on the shop floor, so I understood and got to like the mindset of the people who worked there.

My early IT training was around data modeling and structured systems design with entity modeling to third normal form. I had to map all kinds of processes and understand in detail how many things operated in the company. This experience was invaluable to me as it showed me how a company runs, the linkage between people, systems, processes and data, how to solve the kinds of problems that arise, and how to make improvements.

In addition, IT itself used to be structured in a way that meant more people focused closely on the customer. Thirty years ago, we had two tribes in IT: the programmers and the business analysts. The programmers were very technical and skilled in programming in very complex languages, and doing it in a cost-effective way, because computer time was expensive. The business analysts focused on business analysis and structured design. This second group, which I belonged to, normally didn’t do any programming. We just talked about business processes, data, and entity modeling.

I believe the general analytic skill levels have fallen over the last 15 years. As storage and memory have come down in price, systems have become more inefficient and more complex, and programming languages have become easier. People can get things up and running much more quickly now, but the ease of use means they often miss a step—they don’t do the same level of business process and data modeling analysis that we used to do.

To compensate, I have added training modules that show people how to do old-fashioned business analysis—how to be a good internal consultant, problem-solver, and data modeler. We are also looking to hire more people who have those skills.

We also need to be aware that IT’s role is changing. Today, people in every department have IT skills, and we can’t stop them from using them. Some people are talking about disbanding IT departments altogether, but I think that would lead to a free-for-all in which the company lost control of its standards, let its costs and inefficiencies increase, and its level of security fall.

Our new role should be to provide the overall guidance, oversight, and governance structure for technology. We have to be seen as stewards for IT in our company. We can’t just be saying no to everybody. Somehow, with a smile, we have to be saying, yes, you can do that, but you have to do it to within this framework to ensure we maximize use of IT across the whole company but stay cost effective, integrated, safe and secure.

The Takeaways 

Whether coping with a crisis or driving a transformation, success in IT depends as much on good communication as on good technology.

IT people are no longer learning the business analytics skills they need to provide good internal customer support. It is easier to improve a process if you understand it.

Over time, the role of the IT department is evolving from providing hands-on technology to being a facilitator.