The Journey to Swift Digital Transformation
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The Journey to Swift Digital Transformation

John Hill, Senior Vice President of Digital & Information Technology, Suncor

As the Senior Vice President of Digital and Information Technology at Suncor, what are some of the roles and responsibilities you are entrusted with on a daily basis?

Suncor is currently in the fourth year of its five-year digital transformation journey. Transformation here can be defined in terms of cash flow savings, improved overall employee and customer experiences, investments in cloud computing analytics, and taking advantage of data-informed decisions. I oversee the digital and IT team at Suncor, which means a normal day for me would typically be a combination of meetings, supporting delivery engagement with our business partners, monitoring cyber security and privacy operations, and engaging with DevOps teams as well. Given how the pandemic has changed the way businesses develop talent, there is a shift in organizational culture both in terms of multi-format working options and employee wellness initiatives. Our organization strives to strike the perfect balance between all these factors to maintain maximum productivity.

The pandemic has undeniably changed the workspace and work dynamics; as an organization, how have you pivoted to strategize the new challenges that came along?

The pandemic presented itself as an opportunity for us to explore digital solutions. From a workforce that was operationally focused in the office to an organization that needed to change on its feet, we had a swift shift to adapting to a remote work culture. But it wasn’t an easy switch at any point, managing ISP limitations for each employee spread out across separate locations to making sure it was a seamless experience for them; it was all a new experience for us.

The digital work environment works great when every employee is working remotely. But as regional pandemic restrictions lifted and employees were asked to come back to office, there were changes that we had to accommodate in terms of setting up hybrid meetings or facilitating meetings through conference apps. While some employees were back in the office fulltime, most were not, and a complete shift back to the pre-digitalization period became a non-viable option. To bridge the differences between the work environments of the employees, we came up with a few policies. For example, we suggested our employees carry their PCs with them and keep their cameras on, so employees who work from home and office would have the same meeting experience.

Moving forward, we plan to divide our digital technology workforce into primarily two categories: 1) employees who are vocationally sound and require tasks that require face-to-face interaction and 2) others who are comfortable with operations-oriented tasks with minimal necessity for face-to-face interaction. While some of our employees handle more operationally focused tasks like cyber security or cloud computing, there are many others for whom it is important to maintain a strong face-to-face collaboration and project engagement. But despite all the hardships the pandemic had to offer, the Suncor team has adapted well and fast-tracked itself through the entire digitalization journey.

Amid ever-evolving industry developments, it is important to accommodate the newer changes and overcome novel challenges that come along. Do you have any words or advice for your peers in that regard?

The best piece of advice for any transformational program is to look around your organization and identify the areas of waste and friction. It is important to build a base and process to map your transformation initiative beforehand rather than overwhelming the employees with technological stacks. Launching a system right out of the box without first understanding and adjusting the existing process, is the biggest mistake an organization can make. The first step in the process is to map where you stand as an organization, identifying the conflicts and wasted areas in terms of internal process. It is the simplest way of ensuring the best end outcome, which is always the primary factor to focus on. Data and technology will always follow suit.

It is also important to develop a level of core expertise within your team. Even though advisory services or system integration consulting services are viable options, a core group of thought leaders within the organization is non-negotiable.

Newer trends and technologies definitely have an impact on the future of cloud technology in Canada; How impactful do you think cloud computing will be two years from now?

I would say in the next 18–24 months, we would all continue to embrace cloud computing. We are taking advantage of the power of cloud computing in terms of efficient service delivery and improved security. Business automation, which involves automating complicated problems by first simplifying the process and then automating it to ensure reliable business results, has become a huge deal for everyone. Automating a bad process means bringing in bad results to the market faster. So, it is essential to fix the processes and then automate them rather than get caught up in what RPA and robotics are doing to unorganized processes. The advancements in predictive learning and machine learning will continue to grow.

In addition, numerous organizations are lagging behind in understanding the impact blockchain can have on the business processes of an organization. A few years back, blockchain technology was fairly complex, a bit nebulous in understanding, and difficult to scale. That is not the case today. Real-life examples are available across the digital economy, whether in retail or financial transactions. It is essential that organizations have a blockchain strategy that could be mapped to solve internal business problems. Even for an energy company like Suncor, which focuses on operational excellence, sustainability and greenhouse gas reductions, blockchain will play a significant role down the road. Also, in the wake of an increasingly data-driven global business landscape, taking advantage of machine learning and artificial intelligence should be at the top of any organization's priority list.

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