Coming into Greg Farr's legacy

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Coming into Greg Farr's legacy
Peter Lawrence (Courtesy: Defence)

Exclusive: Private sector IT chief settles into Defence.

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Organisational complexity attracted Peter Lawrence to Defence’s chief information office late last year – and with two months under his belt, the role has not disappointed.

The former computational chemist took the reins at one of the Australian Government’s largest departments amid a major consolidation program and IT reform.

Last month saw the completion of a three-year effort to move 150 enterprise systems to a state-of-the-art cage within Sydney’s Global Switch data centre as part of a massive consolidation project that will do away with more than 190 disparate facilities.

Defence will shortly begin replacing disparate war fighting and administrative networks in a billion-dollar terrestrial communications project expected to turn it into “the biggest ISP in Australia” by early 2015.

And by Valentines Day, Lawrence’s chief information officer group (CIOG) will have absorbed some 197 Melbourne-based logistics staff under a billion-dollar shared services strategy that was set in motion in 2009.

As one of the few Australian Government CIOs with no prior public sector experience, Lawrence has been pleased so far with the reliable operations and achievements of his predecessor, Greg Farr.

“I am still trying to get my head around piles and piles of paper [and] also the whole process of approvals and governance and things that go on in government,” said Lawrence, who has held IT leadership positions at ANZ New Zealand, Shell and Origin Energy.

“One of the biggest differences for me is just the role of Defence ... its role in national security is different to what I did in oil & gas or banking. We have to be right the first time, for example. We [in IT] have to be able to react to demands Defence puts on us.

“What I like so far is that day-to-day things seem to run fine. I don’t get calls to say that things are failing. I have been quite happy with the fact that we are not in crisis mode every day.”

Farr appears to have been immensely popular within Defence, despite having sparked significant change as part of Defence’s Strategic Reform Program 2009.

The veteran government CIO sought to draw $1.9 billion in cost savings from IT by 2019 by simplifying, consolidating and standardising the way Defence went about its business, eyeing an end to stovepipe management and opaque processes.

Early last year, Farr revealed a shared services proposal that could see Defence cut 1000 jobs, including 300 in IT. The department began moving all hardware procurement responsibilities to the CIOG in February 2012. Farr said at the time that he had expected “World War III” but was pleasantly surprised by how the change was embraced.

CIO Group review

In light of the shared services changes, Lawrence noted that Defence would review the structure of its CIOG but said he had yet to set a timeframe for the review.

“There’s a general understanding across Defence that we should place the right activities with the right groups,” he said, noting that the CIOG’s absorption of Defence’s logistics team would not trigger immediate calls for staff or resource savings.

“We’ll continue to work with the other groups to identify where activities are most appropriately done.

“As we start to look at what the future holds for us, that’s when we’ll start asking questions about whether the structures and the staff are right. That’s always been an ongoing job; you are always looking at where you are and how well you are positioned for the future and making sure you have the right skills and capabilities in the teams around you.”

Pragmatic IT management

Like Farr, Lawrence favoured a “pragmatic” approach to shared services and control, noting that there would always be exemptions to centralised schemes for business reasons.

Farr told iTnews last year that his shared services model generally supported requests from Defence line areas, as long as there was a budget and projects were backed up with a good business case.

Lawrence said that model was consistent with his experience in the private sector: “My previous employers [Shell and ANZ New Zealand] have gone down that consolidation, shared services route, but we never pushed it to 100 percent.”

“In any business, there are specialist things that don’t make sense to move to a shared service,” he said, highlighting the specialist requirements of trading desks at ANZ New Zealand and sub-surface IT and modelling at Shell.

“You need to be sensitive to the business environment. Where it makes sense, we’ll push it [shared services]. Where it doesn’t make sense, you have to be pragmatic and say, ‘we understand that’.”

Read on to page two for Peter Lawrence’s views on staffing and vendor relationships.

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