Global IT challenges: Privacy, standardization, transformation top the list

Technical issues like network availability and stability usually pale in comparison, say IT execs from the likes of GE, UPS and Merck.

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It's one of an IT leader's biggest nightmares: Imagine you've got a division in Russia, which has very strict privacy laws regarding employees' rights to control their information, and there are 12 employees who refuse to allow their information to leave company walls.

"Then the reality is you need to then manage the data around those 12 individuals and then it comes down to scope, scale and size," notes Clark Golestani, CIO of Merck. Sometimes, if there is a small amount of information company officials need to work with, "paper may be the most efficient method," he says. If it's a larger amount of data, "putting in a locally based system will be necessary."

And there are other global challenges, like how to handle systems that capture information about customers through all forms of communication -- especially in highly regulated industries like healthcare.

IT also has to, of course, grapple with issues that are more technical than regulatory, especially in countries with less-developed infrastructures. "So you've got the technical challenge of network availability and network stability and power availability and stability," Golestani says. "I think those actually are easier to [solve] with technology than the information privacy aspects, because one can employ all sorts of technical techniques to build robustness into the technology."

Today's global challenges

These are not the logistical challenges of days gone by, when offshore outsourcing began and companies started developing IT in different countries where technology was being consumed. Back then, when it came to global deployment of technology, size and complexity used to give IT the jitters.

Nowadays, it's the need for speed, staying flexible while trying to standardize processes as much as possible and engaging in digital transformation -- all while operating globally -- that are keeping IT leaders up at night.

"More is possible now because of what's happening around the world -- telecom costs are continuing to come down as deregulation costs come down," observes Frances Karamouzis, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. As a result, there is a big push to get to a single instance for deploying apps and analytics.

"People want real-time dashboards and analytics," she says. Executives in Walmart or the Gap, for instance, "want to be able to walk around wherever they are on an iPad and have conversations with people in other regions around the world and look at real-time data," so they can make decisions proactively, she says. She terms that a "persistent digital experience."

All of this requires a single instance, says Karamouzis. "I can't have my databases in Russia, Brazil and the U.S. and every week sync them up. They have to all hit the same database. That's the single-instance structure."

More standardization required

As companies implement their technologies around the world, the biggest trend Karamouzis sees is the movement to create more process standardization and to digitize as many processes as possible. "Gone are the days of every business unit saying 'I'm special or unique so I need a different system in Brazil or Russia,'" she says. "We're in this mode where you have to more highly justify why something is new or unique." Software as a service or in the cloud are "based on a repeatable model where if things aren't customized they are configurable."

She admits that getting to a single instance is not easy, given corporate politics, "but at the end of the day, senior people in an organization have to really put their foot down and embrace the idea and permeate it down."

Security is of course, another challenge -- how to stay compliant with multiple countries' regulatory requirements as they change and how to stay secure in a dynamic environment when you're developing new functionality.

A third big area for global companies is figuring out the key performance indicators -- how to measure success, Karamouzis says. "Can you come up with global standards to measure our success consistently from country to country? How do I develop these dashboards?"

A single-instance strategy

Merck operates in over 140 countries, and to effectively roll out technology worldwide, the company has adopted a global single instance strategy. In other words, systems such as SAP are made available to the majority of countries Merck operates in, says Golestani.

Clark Golestani, CIO of Merck Merck

Global technology issues are "are easier to [solve] ... than the information privacy aspects" says Clark Golestani, CIO of Merck.

Yet, even with such a strategy in place, operating globally has "all sorts of interesting twists that keep [a global single instance] from being full executed," he adds, such as data privacy concerns. "Another challenge is physics -- electrons and light travel around the globe only so fast," so there are things that have to be worked through to ensure adequate performance.

In countries with strict privacy laws "you end up compromising the global single instance, or you have to put in all the extra work to gain the agreement to be able to operate," Golestani says. In those instances, Merck has two options: Either gain consent from the individual to whom that data belongs, and/or put in place privacy provisions that allow the global movement of data, he says.

It's not just IT that gets involved in these situations -- it's a combination of regulators, compliance organizations and various business units that may be looking to utilize the data within their business processes, he says.

"As a company, we put in place very robust policies, procedures and technologies to enable the movement and management of data in accordance with Safe Harbor and binding corporate rules," says Golestani. "To achieve that takes a very high level of rigor and discipline globally."

Business rules mean you don't reinvent the wheel

With 3,219 sites in 220 countries connected to its network, UPS can't afford to have technology glitches. This is especially true when it comes to deploying mobile apps such as updates to scanning technology on its ubiquitous 128,000 Delivery Information Acquisition Devices (DIADs) that UPS drivers carry with them.

An engine containing business rules for various countries makes global tech deployments to existing systems like the DIADs more seamless, says Nick Costides, vice president of information technology at UPS. If the technology the company is deploying is itself a process change, then it's handled very differently, he says.

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