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The CIO as peacekeeper

In the next six months, John Holley will be taking time off from being an ICT executive to work in an area where few, if any, CIOs venture.

Holley is leaving at the end of this month to become the deputy planning officer for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.

"I will be assisting in the planning of UN operations in South Sudan, which is the newest country in the world," Holley says in an interview on the eve of his departure to the east-African nation just established in July 2011.

"The UN's job is to encourage and support a stable government in order to enable progress in good governance, allowing it to develop and flourish, because if you don't have that stability that is where the problems occur," says Holley, who will be based in Juba, the capital.

Holley left his role as general manager operations for Visible Results, to be able to take this mission. He is a reserve officer at the New Zealand Army, and has held several ICT executive roles, including CIO of the Auckland Regional Council.

He says the South Sudan assignment is a 'step up' from his previous assignment to East Timor in 2001, where he was a planning officer for the New Zealand Battalion, with 700 members.

He describes his new workplace as "an amazing country on the banks of the White Nile", surrounded by Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Sudan.

The difference with East Timor? "Bigger arena and different problems," says Holley.

He says South Sudan has oil reserves, so economically East Timor is much more behind. There are similar issues, though, with regards to health and having just basic facilities.

"A lot of the infrastructure is not there, clean potable water is a challenge."

When it comes to how Holley melds his CIO role with that of being a reserve officer in the Army, he says, "I can certainly bring the IT expertise to the army, but certainly I find in my civilian life you don't tend to get the formal training in operational and strategic planning or leadership.

"The army is giving a whole extra set of skills that you will not normally get as a CIO basically."

He says since his junior days in the Army, he has been "trained extensively" on tactical, operational and strategic planning. He has also taught the same at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto.

"I understand the military but I also understand how the political world works as well and the economics," he says, on what he will bring to the role. "It is an an ideal role for someone in the Reserve forces because you bring your civilian environment and your military background as well and blend them.

"My IT and strategic planning background comes from my military training. What the Army taught me about strategic and operational planning, I apply to IT, not the other way around.

As to what he will be able to achieve, Holley says he has spoken to some people who have completed similar assignments. "There is a strong sense of personal satisfaction when you have gone out to do the stuff. It may just be a small contribution but it all adds up to making the world a better place," he says.

"Often, we spend so much time stuck on the business. This will allow me to step back and reflect.

"There is a lot to be learned when you are doing a lot of planning where people's lives matter.

"If someone's life is really at risk, and I have been in those situations when you know people can die, it is no longer an academic exercise, or something for the business.

"If we get this wrong, we put people's lives at risk and that is a significant responsibility. It is not about [saving] a few dollars here and there."

He believes other CIOs can benefit from a similar experience. "Some sort of sabbatical, moving sideways from your normal role or into a different organisation or culture adds real context and strength to your job," he says, especially for CIOs who work on a lot of innovation and organisation change.

"CIOs can work for a period of time in a sister organisation in the company, do some volunteer service abroad," says Holley. He says he has friends who have taken three months leave of absence to help build schools in Cambodia.

"It is all about enriching you as a person because the technical side is quite easy; the leadership and how you engage with other people... that is the challenge.

"That is an experience I can apply when I come back to my CIO role," he says. "This is about sideways, picking up on other skills, which is often why you have senior managers taking a sabbatical or work in a different area."

At the time of the interview, Holley was finishing pre-deployment training and taking on the inoculation shots for diseases such as typhoid, cholera and rabies.

"To be honest it would be nice for the next six months not to be doing any IT strategy work," he says, smiling.

The upside of the job? "You are helping grow a country and that is a pretty cool thing to do."


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