CIO interview: Omid Shiraji, CIO at Working Links

Just a year into his first IT leadership role and Working Links CIO Omid Shiraji is already busy with a digital transformation programme

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Omid Shiraji, CIO at Working Links, is just one year into his first technology leadership role, but is already simultaneously embarking on a team rebuild, a cost reduction plan and a digital transformation programme.

“I’ve had to keep the lights on, make sure the cost of IT is appropriate and help support the business as it seeks out new opportunities,” he says.

A specialist organisation that helps the long-term unemployed get back into work, Working Links set itself the goal in 2013 of doubling its size and services within three years. Shiraji has used IT to deliver that target in just 12 months.

“I wear about four different hats,” he says. “You have to take a different perspective to everything. But I enjoy the role because the organisation is values-driven. The way we behave and the principles we hold are at the core of the organisation.”

Working Links is an expert in complex case management and has helped more than 50,000 long-term unemployed people return to work in the past three years. After honing his IT professionalism in the academic sector, Shiraji is pleased his first IT leadership position gives him the opportunity to continue working for an organisation that is not simply focused on pounds and pence.

“Very few CIO roles give you the opportunity to live by strong community values,” he explains. “So I might be wearing many different hats but I’m also able to transform the business through IT in an ethical manner, which I find extremely satisfying.”

A next-generation IT leader

Shiraji joined Working Links in August 2013, having spent more than a decade at City University in London. His first position at the university was as a contractor on the helpdesk; after moving into a permanent role, he eventually landed a series of management positions.

During this period, he moved functions every 18 months or so, becoming involved in project management, network implementation and strategy development. His final role at City, prior to joining Working Links, was as director of service.

“Five or six years ago, I came to the decision that I wanted to be a CIO one day,” he says. 

His manager at the time inspired a passion for technology leadership in Shiraji. “He was the first boss I’d had who didn’t just talk about the technology. What really interested me was how organisations can derive real value from the exploitation of technology.”

Shiraji’s interest in IT leadership led him to actively manage his career. “I realised pretty quickly that I’d get nowhere if I just talked to my business peers about the bits and bytes of technology,” he says, suggesting that language is a crucial component for a business-focused CIO.

“I’ve always been positive about new opportunities and tried to understand people’s business problems rather than thinking in terms of technology projects.” 

Shiraji says he was able to hone these skills while completing a master’s in information leadership from Cass Business School between 2010 and 2013.

I wanted to move away from the internal building of IT systems and towards a cloud-first approach. On-demand technology provides the scale and agility we need

Omid Shiraji, CIO, Working Links

At the same time, he planned and implemented an IT transformation programme at City. It was at this point he started to think about his next move. Rather than launch another change project at City, he opted to leave and seek new challenges.

Recruiters gave him the option of Working Links or a position at a finance firm. Working Links provided the best fit, both personally and professionally. “One of my key drivers was to work for an organisation that I felt was doing something worthwhile,” he says.

“The chief executive had a vision of what he wanted to achieve and recognised that technology would play a critical role. I realised I had the opportunity to become a crucial element in the radical transformation of business operations.” 

Now over a year in and Shiraji says he is relishing the role and that there are still many new targets to hit.

“It’s challenging but very enjoyable,” he says. “I’ve achieved some of what I wanted to do and there’s still a lot more to do. There has been lots of organisational change at Working Links and I and my senior colleagues have had to work hard to help everyone across the organisation to really understand the transformative power of IT.”

Transforming IT operations

Shiraji inherited a mix of contactors and permanent IT staff when he joined Working Links, many of whom had limited experience and knowledge of the organisation. He felt the IT setup would not support the chief executive’s growth strategy, both in terms of staff and systems.

Working Links was reliant on legacy infrastructure and Shiraji wanted to boost the internal reputation of IT. The organisation, he says, was not an IT-enabled business. Prior to his appointment, IT procurement tended to be handled by individual teams, such as HR and finance, that would go out and try and find spot solutions to the challenges. It was an arrangement Shiraji recognised was unsuitable for an organisation aiming to grow quickly.

“I started looking at how we could build a platform to enable growth,” he says. “I wanted to move away from the internal building of IT systems and towards a cloud-first approach. On-demand technology provides the scale and agility that we need.”

Shiraji says he was upfront about the changes to the in-house IT team that would be required. He says the transformation has involved some tough conversations – but being honest meant his core IT team responded well.

“I knew we didn’t have all the skills and capabilities internally to meet the growth agenda of the business,” he says. “So I started looking for external partners who could bring global IT excellence, but who also understood UK operations and shared our organisational values.”

Shiraji is now working through a series of negotiations with service providers to help further transform technology activities during the next 12 months. The key, he says, will be to move as many back-office IT functions as possible to the cloud.

“As an IT department, we must understand the needs and motivations of the rest of the business. IT is not a core competency and that’s why we’re looking to outsource more technology systems and activities,” he says.

“My aim is to take current IT operations, improve the quality of service and reduce the overall cost to the business. By freeing up resources in operational areas, I can start thinking about how I can use IT to help the business develop new capabilities.”

Going global and finding new business opportunities

This kind of IT-enabled business thinking is new to Working Links, says Shiraji. Since becoming CIO, he has worked hard to change the way staff think of – and then use – IT systems. For example, a year ago the organisation did not use basic communications technology. Shiraji’s ongoing transformation project is working to make collaboration, via digital and cloud-based platforms, the new norm.

We’re going to take what we do, bottle it and use our technology platform in other countries. The key will be cloud-based systems which will provide a platform for change

Omid Shiraji, CIO, Working Links

“Real innovation comes from the capabilities of the technology and how we can then change the engagement model with our customers,” he says. “We’re looking to create communities based on social technology, so that we can help like-minded citizens to help each other. If we get that right, we can try and transform what the organisation offers and how it works with people.”

He says that international expansion provides a key opportunity for digitally enabled change. Working Links is keen to find ways to use the expertise it has developed in the UK across other regions. Shiraji says it is exploring how to use its model elsewhere, including in the Republic of Ireland. Technology will play a crucial enabling role.

“As a business, there is a huge opportunity to work internationally,” he says. “I have the chance to help the organisation grow globally through the use of IT. We’re going to take what we do, bottle it and use our technology platform in other countries. The key will be cloud-based systems, such as Salesforce.com, which won’t just deal with customer relationship management, but will also provide a platform for change.”

Other sectors

The organisation is also keen to find ways to use its knowledge in other areas of UK provision. One potential area is offender rehabilitation. 

“We want to take on – and then transform – service provision,” says Shiraji. “So in the area of offenders, that might involve working with community rehabilitation organisations to work towards reducing re-offending in the most effective manner possible. Technology will always play a crucial role as we move into new business areas.”

Just one year into his first CIO role, Shiraji is focused on the aims of the business and is clear about how technology can help meet Working Links’ long-term aims. As far as his own aspirations are concerned, Shiraji says he wants IT to be viewed as a key differentiator that helps the organisation generate new benefits as quickly as possible.

“I want the way that we help people to be digitally enabled,” he says. “I don’t want IT to be viewed as a separate area, but as just another part of the business. And I want the technology we provide to help engage people and change lives more quickly that would have ever been possible before.”

 

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