DigITal Magazine Snapshot – Interview with Nizar Ladak, President and CEO at Compute Ontario

Nizar Ladak is a seasoned executive with over 25 years of experience in Federal and Provincial Government agencies and non-profit organizations. As President and CEO of Compute Ontario, Mr. Ladak brings together scientific, technical, and policy-making communities using big data on advanced research computers (supercomputers). In 2019, Mr. Ladak was selected as one of Canada’s Top 25 Immigrants by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and Canadian Immigrant magazine. Mr. Ladak has completed Executive Leadership Programs at Harvard Business School, Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and Rotman Business School. He gives back to his professional communities by serving on numerous Boards of Directors and mentoring young professionals. 

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Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged and changed the way organizations work and interact on an unprecedented scale in such a short period of time. What are the top three issues you see organizations grapple with from a technology standpoint? 

A: One of the primary challenges that organizations are facing is the need to re-design work environments and implement adaptive organizational culture. Most organizations have pivoted from working out of a traditional office to employees working remotely from home. This raises several issues around communication, scheduling, and personal commitments. Meetings are now held over the phone or via video conferencing and for those with children, these meetings come between online school, cooking meals, and caregiving.

Team culture is another aspect of the workplace that can be difficult to maintain while working remotely. Without face-to-face interactions, morale and team-building can be difficult to achieve. However, leaders can still create a collaborative and inclusive work environment virtually, where colleagues feel valued, engaged, and part of the team. At Compute Ontario we dedicate time at the beginning of staff meetings to check-in and every staff has the opportunity to share updates about how they’re adapting to the new normal.  Virtual cocktail parties and Friday afternoon get-togethers are happening online.  While clearly not the same, adapting these team building rituals in this new environment conveys that, as leaders, we haven’t forgotten about the value of camaraderie and the importance of social opportunities to build strong team culture.

Sectors such as health, finance, and many others that deal with sensitive data as part of their business, now have to deal with employees working from home on their own personal internet. Moreover, malicious actors have proliferated in the time of COVID, specifically targeting data stores of information for espionage and for other detrimental intentions.  In that context, many companies cannot let data be accessed on unsecured networks. Not all organizations have VPNs for their employees, leading to technical issues they must grapple with in real-time as we rapidly transitioned to remote-work environments.

In a COVID work environment, intra-organizational collaboration and inter-organizational collaboration can be the difference between success and failure of an enterprise. Phrases like the Government of Canada’s: “we’re in this together” are not meant to simply create goodwill and patience, it can be a rallying point for organizations across the supply chain to support each other and enrich the economy. Organizations like the CIO Strategy Council are in a vital position to hear and act on our challenges. By virtue of the Council’s unique vantage point, the Council can converge on ideas quickly, motivate alliances, and sponsor innovative exchanges so that companies can execute ideas in rapid succession.

Q: As we view some of the new issues technology leaders and organizations are contending with, what do you believe is the role of organizations such as the CIO Strategy Council and Compute Ontario in helping leaders to navigate these uncharted waters? 

A: Organizations such as the CIO Strategy Council and Compute Ontario have to leverage their expertise in complex and specialized areas of technology to support the broader public sector and seek alliances with industry partners. For example, Compute Ontario is leading the design and implementation of the Ontario Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 Health Data Platform, a secure big data environment that will store and analyze Ontario health data for new insights on the COVID-19 virus. By leveraging the advanced research computing and big data expertise of its partners, Compute Ontario is helping to increase the detection of COVID-19, discover risk factors and vulnerable groups, predict when and where outbreaks may happen, along with other issues. More importantly, both the private and public sectors are collaborating in order to help our government leaders navigate these unchartered waters for the benefit of its citizens.

The other piece of advice both Compute Ontario and CIO Strategy Council can offer is to demonstrate the age-old adage that where there is crisis, there is opportunity.  This may be the time when challenges the technology sector has faced for years can be addressed because the environment is conducive to doing so. This is the time for technology leaders to use their experience and provide data that will allow clinicians and organizational leaders make more educated guesses in order to solve the problems that we face, and to try things that could turn out to be become the next disruptive technology.

Q: The increase in online collaboration and remote work has sparked frequent discussions around data collaboration within and between organizations and individuals. What are the top data governance challenges you see as the main areas that need to be addressed to move forward in the “new normal”? 

1) Data Management and Exchange Standards 

Organizations that do not have well-defined data governance models are working rapidly to develop standards and frameworks for data storage and management during these uncertain times. This is unquestionably the time for the CIO Strategy Council to solidify, codify, and spread standards in a rapid manner. Health data standards, cyber security standards, data management and data exchange standards are key to organizations and more broadly for economic re-start.

2) Data Governance is a Long-Term Project 

This rapid shift to the new normal has left some organizations rushing to developing data governance frameworks, but these need to be viewed as long-term assets. Rather than focusing on one short-term project that may be required during this pandemic, holistic, continuous, and stable data governance frameworks are valuable to any organization collecting, leveraging, and sharing data. Rather than seeing data governance as a band-aid until normalcy returns, the COVID environment should spotlight weaknesses in existing frameworks and accelerate efforts toward adoption of best practice.

Q: In the last few years, there has been a lot of discussion around the future of work and how the workforce is changing to adapt to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. How do you see the rapid change created by the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating that move and what are key initiatives organizations should focus on now to prepare? 

A: The Fourth Industrial Revolution is driven by exponential increases in computing power and by the availability of vast amounts of data, from software used to discover new drugs to algorithms used to predict our cultural interests.  In battling COVID-19, Compute Ontario was asked to lead the design and implementation of a COVID-19 Health Data Platform.

Moreover, we were asked to do so using a consortia-based approach with several collaborating organizations. The platform will provide access to researchers to answer a series of time-sensitive research questions. More importantly, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning approaches are being employed to accelerate our response to this disease. In doing so, sensitive information needs to be accessed. What is becoming increasingly clear as a result of this experience, is one of the greatest individual challenges posed by new information technologies is privacy.

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, governments will gain new technological powers to increase their control over populations based on pervasive surveillance systems and the ability to control digital infrastructure. During pandemics such as COVID-19, this power can save lives. However, governments will increasingly face pressure to change their current approach to public engagement and policymaking as they embark on these policy-decisions. Current systems of public policy and decision-making emerged during the Second Industrial Revolution, when decision-makers had time to study a specific issue and develop the necessary response or appropriate regulatory framework. The process was linear and mechanistic, following a strict “top down” approach. But such an approach is no longer feasible. Given the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s rapid pace of change, legislators and regulators are being challenged to an unprecedented degree to adopt “agile” governance, just as the private sector has increasingly adopted agile responses to software development and overall business operations. This is another role I see for the CIO Strategy Council. By virtue of the organizations the Council assembles and attracts, it can work with regulators to adapt to a new, fast-changing environment.  Governments and regulatory agencies will need to collaborate closely with business and civil society in order to provide organizations with guidance on effective adoption.

DigITal Magazine, Issue #3

This article was initially published in the CIO Strategy Council’s member-only magazine. To access the magazine and other member-only materials and information, please contact us to become a member.