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CIO Interview: Vesa Pirinen, YIT Group

When Vesa Pirinen became CIO at Finnish construction firm YIT Group, he set out to question the norm

Vesa Pirinen, CIO at YIT Group, one of Finland’s largest construction companies, believes the most important quality for IT leaders today is the ability to question existing operational models.

This was his mission statement when he began his role at YIT two years ago.

“We are in the midst of a major transformation,” he says. “We are thinking about how to make our organisation more service-centric, make the opportunities of digitisation more visible and bring IT closer to business [activities].”

A major step in this transformation has been to change the way IT is led at YIT. In practice, this meant aligning IT management with the company’s business management models and involving top leadership in strategic IT decisions.

“IT cannot be different from the company it serves,” says Pirinen. “The business side is very strongly represented in our IT board today. The group CEO, CFO and development director are all part of it and help to direct our long-term plans.”

Pirinen says the example set by leadership is crucial to a large corporation such as YIT, which employs almost 6,000 people. The group’s leadership has been vocal in its support for digitisation, which has led to greater collaboration between IT and business activities across the company.

Pirinen says this has also contributed to greater work satisfaction among IT staff.

But this is only the beginning of Pirinen’s vision for wider IT transformation.

Technology is not the key

Pirinen’s focus on making IT more service- and business-oriented stems from his non-technical background. He joined YIT after completing a master’s degree in construction and for the past 20 years has held many positions in various departments at the company.

In fact, before Pirinen was appointed CIO, he was IT’s biggest internal customer as director of YIT’s risk management and believes such varied experience brings many benefits for a CIO.

“I don’t have an educational background in IT, but I think having good contacts in the business divisions, understanding the business and a positive attitude to technology are more important,” he says.

“A CIO doesn’t have to be a deep technical expert. Of course, you need to be able to understand these things, but that can be learned. I have told my staff they are here because they have deep knowledge.”

Pirinen’s staff comprises 80 IT experts in Finland, a team of 40 in Russia and 10 people in YIT’s other markets in the Baltic countries, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. YIT’s internal IT is focused mainly on project management and architecture, while basic IT infrastructure and services are sourced from 10 suppliers.

The next stage in Pirinen’s transformation journey is to shake up this structure and make IT experts work more directly with their business counterparts. A new communications channel will be opened between the two by naming a specific IT contact for each of YIT’s business divisions and segments, which include housing, business premises and infrastructure.

This new operational model has been planned by IT and accepted by YIT’s leadership, but Pirinen says it will take a few more months to implement.

“IT staff still need to adjust to discussing issues on the right level, without going into too much technical detail,” he adds. “If you strictly follow technology’s lead, the contact points between IT and the business become very narrow.”

Create mutual understanding

Pirinen acknowledges there are challenges in introducing new approaches and digitisation into a traditional industry – particularly for a company that was founded in 1912.

“There is one major challenge and that is people,” he says. “Our own people have to change their mindset from individual systems to complete services. In the same way, business people have to learn to see IT not only as an expense, but as an investment that should to be used to its best capabilities.”

Pirinen believes the most effective way to tackle these issues is to help IT earn its place in the eyes of the business. To this end, he has created a ‘YIT Wow’ training programme that is based on interviews with YIT’s business units and focuses on how IT staff can take their end-users and customers more into account.

“No matter how great a solution is technically, if it is too complex for the end-user, it is not the right solution,” he says. The training will be completed this year, he adds.

Pirinen is also preparing another change to drive a more service-centric operational model. This will see different IT service areas, such as construction systems, come under the guidance of both an IT service manager and business owner, whereas previously they were just in the hands of IT.

“Together, they will have an ongoing debate about how to measure [the success of the service area], whether they are going in the right direction, what could be done differently and what are the long-term goals,” says Pirinen. “It is one more direct communication channel between IT and business operations.”

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What has surprised Pirinen most since becoming CIO is how few of IT’s business development ideas make progress.

He wants to change this through a new concept, ‘YIT Garage’. This is a virtual laboratory that allows anyone at YIT to use work hours and resources to quickly develop and trial ideas for new digital products and services. The condition is that all projects in the lab need to have an owner from both the IT and the business side.

The concept was launched in December and its first project – the use of augmented reality in marketing – has already moved from the virtual lab into production, while staff interest in the Garage is growing steadily. Pirinen hopes the initiative will not only help to advance YIT’s digitisation, but also encourage employees to take more risks and innovate.

“If employees spend a week of their work time on one of these projects and that helps us generate some good ideas for actual products and services, then the initiative has paid for itself,” he says.

The Garage is another example of the importance Pirinen places on close collaboration between IT and business to advance digitisation. He will have his hands full for the next few years in creating a new business-oriented IT, but he recognises that the time for transformation is now.

“The world is transforming quickly and digitisation is breaking into every sector,” he says. “If IT is not involved in this [change], someone else will take its place and develop solutions for the business side.

“The question is whether IT is alert and participating [in its future] or not, because the change will happen with or without it.”

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