The CIO’s decade

Over the last decade the position at the head of IT has changed dramatically. Firstly, it was rare 10 years ago for the job title CIO to grace anyone's business card in the UK – now the US import has joined IT director, IS director and head of MIS as the title for the prime role.

The aptitude for that leadership position has also been revolutionised. IT has become sown deep into the fabric of the business, to the point where few business processes could operate without it and when innovation and efficiency are often inspired or driven by IT. The upshot is that, while up until the late 1990s the vast majority of those in the top job had come up through the ranks – sporting a computer science degree and possibly an MBA – now many of heads of IT have been drafted in from other sides of organisations, especially those that are heavy IT users.

For the same reasons, IT is now much more of a boardroom issue – with discussions ranging from security and compliance to new market opportunities and offshore outsourcing. That puts the CIO at the table, if not on the management board itself.

What this also means is that the top IT job is a much more powerful and exciting role and – if the stories highlighted below are anything to judge by – one that will only get more central to the organisation in the coming decade.


Paul Coby, chief information officer, British Airways


To hear British Airways CIO Paul Coby tell it, the airline almost did not make it into the information age.

"Web-enablement, without a shadow of a doubt, revolutionised the airline industry. And we had lost the plot in the late 1990s," he says. "We were facing extinction."

That situation allowed newcomers such as EasyJet to take the initiative and use technology effectively as one of the key elements in their proposition.

BA's wake-up call is well documented. Through a mix of 'second-mover' advantage and 'deer in the head lights' fear, the company's IT organisation came back with a technology package that has consistently outdone those upstarts.

"We have been able to leapfrog the opposition by using technology," says Coby. No longer worried about surviving the basic fight, BA now looks to technology to give it a critical competitive advantage, Coby says, whether that is online check-in or the tight integration of hotel and hire car offers to a passenger's flight itinerary.

That underscores how IT's role in the organisation has altered dramatically, from being primarily a back-office function to something that runs the business and is a catalyst for business change.

"That was part of BA's problem in the late 1990s; we thought technology was just a commodity. Since then we have absolutely understood that technology is fundamental to how you run a business."

BA's IT unit, by provisioning and operating, is now, in effect, a major selling channel. It is also a major operational channel – and that is a real change, says Coby. "We used to support everybody else's processes, now my department sells a large portion of the tickets and checks in a large portion of the people."

There are three steps to transforming the business, he says. The first is to run the IT operation – to do the basics. "You've got to run 24 x 7 around the world."

Secondly, IT has to be perfectly capable of building the standard systems and applications that the business needs to integrate or implement packages smoothly.

That is when the excitement starts. "If you have done those steps, as an IT department you can – and should – be the people who understand the overall business processes. One of our key drivers is about driving business simplification."

"As the IT department you have the wonderful luxury of being able to see across the whole enterprise. No one else has that, except maybe the finance folk, and they have a different perspective." Combining the insight into how the business fits together with the fact that IT is one of the key levers for business change, and the opportunity for initiating business simplification and business process innovation becomes clear, says Coby. "So the logical place for IT is to become the expert on the business process."

Accepting that pivotal role requires a very different skillset – and mindset – from the IT of the 1990s.

"Ten years ago, a really good IT department consisted of people who were really good at different specialist technologies. Now people need to be really good at Linux and Java – and business processes," he says. "Over 10 years the IT department has come out of the closet and into the business world. We've still got to prove we add value and we are still winning our spurs."

But, at BA at least, it looks like that the role of IT, not just in automating the business processes but in defining them, is being recognised. For example, BA's IT group is working with the creators of Heathrow Terminal 5 to establish BA's business processes for the new facility before it then puts the business systems in to support those business processes. "So we are not the plumbers; rather we are the architects in a genuine sense," says Coby.

He has no anxiety about accepting those new responsibilities – perhaps a factor of his background and his role in pulling BA back form the brink of disaster.

Prior to BA, Coby was the principal private secretary to the Secretary of State for Transport. And he took up the CIO's position in the days surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "So from the depths of the airline crisis to now it has been quite a ride," he says.

Steve Tiley, head of MIS, McDonald's UK

For Steve Tiley, head of Management Information Systems at the UK division of global fast food empire McDonald's, the past 10 years have been a period of convergence – both of information technologies and of the once polarised worlds of business and IT.

When Tiley began work at McDonald's 14 years ago, the company's IT estate was divided along departmental lines. "Everything was fragmented, and everybody worked on their own," he says. "You would have the sales information in one system and demographic information in another. There was very little internal interaction."

But over the years, technology has drawn the organisation together. The Internet, especially, has revolutionised its internal operations. "We have 1,250 restaurants throughout out the UK, run by around 200 area managers who very rarely come into the office. Being able to communicate constantly with such a disparate workforce has been invaluable."

Equally significant in uniting McDonald's' sprawling organisation has been data warehousing. Achieving a 'single version of truth' has improved the accuracy of the company's intelligence immediately. "Before we introduced data warehousing six years ago, we found that we had 27 different databases dotted around the company, all holding roughly the same information. Of course, post codes and the like would be different across the databases, and we really had no way of telling what was right." "Converging that data into a central repository and assigning business owners to the data was an instant win."

Having a well-kept, single information store has enabled McDonald's to introduce what Tiley describes as one of the most significant innovations of the past 10 years: mobility. Giving area managers PDA-type devices that can retrieve up-to-the-minute information about branches ensures senior management's attention can be applied where it is needed most. "Rather than routinely going around inspecting restaurants, area managers can concentrate on those with problems. From our perspective, this has been a phenomenal success."

With every information technology project that delivers a demonstrable business value, IT is drawn further into strategic and tactical decision making. "There has been a shift in IT from project delivery to service delivery. Nowadays, people look to us to provide answers to business problems, rather than just installing systems."

This means that Tiley's department is a very different place to how it was when he joined. McDonald's now looks to recruit IT staff with a broad knowledge of both technology and business operations. Specialist skills can be brought in through outsourcing. "You need to have a wide awareness of ever more technologies, but not necessarily in much detail." Approval of IT among other departments is at its highest level ever. This he credits to the business focus it has developed. "A decade ago, we were spending a lot of time developing systems that may or may not have met the business needs. Now everything the business does is IT-related in some shape or form, and we are very much part of the team."

Yasmin Jetha, former executive director of IT, Abbey

As the first Asian woman to become executive director at a FTSE 100 company and as the first female executive director in Abbey's 150-year history, Yasmin Jetha is uniquely placed to comment upon the unprecedented upheaval that has occurred in the last decade of IT.

Ten years ago, Jetha (who left Abbey in late 2004) was director of Lending Operations at Abbey, responsible for 49 mortgage and unsecured loan service centres. But it was her ability to straddle both business and IT roles that paved the way to the board table and the title of executive director of IT, after she spent two years as group IT and infrastructure director, looking after IT, property, security and procurement, with a budget of £600 million.

With a string of high-profile successes to her name, it is the smaller events that Jetha remembers well – for example the day Abbey rolled out voice-over-IP (VoIP) in the first branch in 2003 – the culmination of a £125 million contract with BT.

"But," says Jetha, "it's not all about wires and boxes. My main concern was aligning the business with IT to gain competitive advantage for Abbey." It was her emphasis on the approach now synonymous with best practice that indicates Jetha was ahead of her time. Years ago, she decided to embed IT employees in business departments and vice versa. "It wasn't universally liked, but I was the boss," she laughs.

And she relied on this model when Abbey signed an outsourcing contract in India, sending a small team to counteract any nervousness aroused by a dispersed IT team. Constant communication is vital, says Jetha, if an enterprise is to achieve one version of the truth.

One trend of the last decade that receives a lot of hype but which did not impress Jetha was remote working. It undoubtedly has its benefits, especially for those combining parenthood with a career, but a half-way house approach is the best option, says Jetha. Her experience taught her that most employees missed both the company and the intellectual interaction.

She does not recall any major IT disasters. But one memorable crisis was an unfortunate incident when her department accidentally repossessed the wrong house, while the family was on holiday. When faced with such situations she advises: "Just fix it, learn from it and move on."

Stephen Pownall, group director of information systems, Pilkington

Ten years ago Stephen Pownall was the head of IT at Mars Electronics International, which manufactures and distributes electronic payment systems for vending machines. Now, having been in the IT industry for some 25 years, he has risen to the position of group director of information systems at Pilkington, the world's largest glass manufacturer. He has presided over IT at Pilkington since 1997, through the tumult of Y2K, the dot com boom and the resulting budgetary caution of recent years.

While some CIOs today, conscious of the need to provide watertight business plans and easily identifiable returns on investment, might yearn to have worked through the dot com decadence, Pownall was unmoved by it. "I struggled around the dot com boom time because I didn't get it and everyone else did. CEOs were being asked by the city what they were doing for dot com and I wasn't providing the smart answers they were looking for. I struggled until it fell apart."

Pownall however, is still in his job – four years longer than the average for his peers according to estimates from analyst house Gartner. Instead of throwing capital at technology for technology's sake, Pilkington was engaged in a massive worldwide roll-out of a single SAP system. This transformation and globalisation of the company, merging over 52 systems into one, is Pownall's proudest achievement in the job.

As the Internet has become more mature, IT in general has become more mainstream. It has brought about massive efficiencies as well as the resulting lifestyle changes. "Wherever you travel worldwide you can plug your laptop in and access your files. Obviously for some people that has meant work has impinged on their leisure time, but what it has done is given people the opportunity to adapt the way they work more easily than ever before."

In the workplace, those working under the CIO's remit have freed themselves from the shackles of being technology focused and immersed themselves in the broader world of business, says Pownall. "Arguments about technological details used to go on for ages, but now people care less about the box they're using and more about what application they're using. There's less choice because of industry consolidation but thankfully that means there's less discussion about the technology and more discussion about the application of the technology."

"Now more IT directors see themselves as part of the business, but what really needs to happen is for there to be no distinction at all. We don't talk about finance and the business for example, why should we talk about IT and the business as if they are not intertwined?"

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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