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How Illumina re-invented IT to support data innovation

Deloitte’s most recent global CIO survey found that most CIOs continue to function in primarily operational roles. But they understand that leadership expectations and CIO responsibilities are evolving to be more transformative and growth-oriented over the next three years. They also expect their roles to change as companies look for CIOs to enable and lead technology-driven initiatives that have little to do with typical IT and business operations.

Information Management recently spoke with one technology leader—Norm Fjeldheim, chief information officer and head of global facilities at Illumina since 2016—who has fully embraced the opportunity to not only support but to enable business innovation.

Illumina, the global gene sequencing company, develops and manufactures tools and systems for large-scale DNA analysis. Innovative technologies have made Illumina a leader in genomics. Fjeldheim spoke about the role of IT—and of the CIO—in enabling business and product innovation.

Information Management: How does your IT organization maintain operational excellence while it executes Illumina’s innovation agenda?

Norm Fjeldheim: The business expects us to be a world-class IT organization that can meet its needs across multiple dimensions—and of course, operational excellence is a big part of that, but so is supporting business growth and delivering technology capabilities that help the business launch innovative products and break into new markets.

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A technician handles a sample at a Prenetics Inc. laboratory in Hong Kong, China, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

In the last several years, many of our investments have been foundational because we had many legacy systems and data and a fair amount of technical debt. What’s more, we had to support new compliance obligations. So I focused on improving operational capabilities to set the stage to support innovation.

The goal is for the IT organization to become an enabler of innovation. As we have become more effective and have far more capabilities, the business will proactively look to take advantage of that. As we continue to become stronger, the business will shift more work to us. For example, the engineering team has already shifted product development work to IT, and we have plans to shift other product development work to IT as well.

IM: How are you driving innovation in product development and manufacturing?

Fjeldheim: We’re getting more involved with product strategy by enabling engineering to combine Instrument data with business data as part of our IoT strategy. We developed an enterprise analytics platform (EAP) that is used to provide the business with analytics metrics and dashboards, and now the business utilizes it as the source of truth, instead of shadow IT.

The analytics platform we’ve deployed provides data virtualization, a high-performance in-memory database, as well as self-service analytics and reporting. IT also provides master data management and data cleansing services to the business.

We’re developing solutions to enable machine analytics, predictive analytics and a managed product environment for SaaS solutions design and delivery. We also provide the very specialized infrastructure and tools required to design, build, and manufacture products, including transactional systems, robotics, and automation on the factory floor.

IM: In your role as head of facilities, how do you support innovation?

Fjeldheim: Leading facilities and IT makes it easy to bring the two domains together and create synergy between them. It allows facilities and IT to work together seamlessly to enable innovation by applying technology to make facilities more efficient and collaborative, which also has the benefit of making them easier to manage.

For example, Illumina went from investing very little in collaboration systems to a point where we couldn’t put them in place fast enough. Collaboration systems are a good fit for our culture and the organization is hungry for it, so employees adopted it very quickly.

IM: Has this journey required you to take a different approach to IT talent?

Fjeldheim: When I first started as CIO, one of the first capabilities I built up was the enterprise architecture function. All the systems were in siloes, and if you want to bring them together you need data and systems architects, software engineers, system engineers, and so on. I’ve decreased dependency on consultants, increased in-house employees, and established offshore resource pools. And we in-sourced architecture work and business knowledge.

We have very strong IT talent, starting at the leadership level and working down. We look for our employees to embrace change, risk, and new ideas and ways of thinking, because that goes a long way in helping us solve business problems. This came as a shock to some employees at first but when they got used to it, they embraced it.

For example, I specifically go out and search out new technologies and expect my team to do that as well. I'm comfortable being at the leading edge and switching to a new technology if there’s a good business case for it. This can make some people nervous, but sometimes you need to make these kinds of shifts to enable the business. Ultimately, it can help drive IT satisfaction because IT gets to work with the coolest new technologies and that’s exciting.

IM: How do you expect your team to change in the next three years?

Fjeldheim: If we’re as successful as I hope we are, we will be doing even more of what we’re currently doing to help the business innovate. More of everything—I hope we’ll be deeply embedded in engineering processes and helping enable engineering with predictive analytics, machine learning and better collaboration tools. And we will hopefully be in new markets.

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