Ian Cohen is chief information officer (CIO) at insurance and re-insurance group Jardine Lloyd Thompson. Prior to that, he held the top IT job at Associated Newspapers and the Financial Times. On the sidelines of CIO Connect’s Business as Unusual event earlier this week, Cohen talked to Computer Weekly about some current topics around IT leadership.
How important is staying in touch with the latest advances in technology for a CIO?
It is vitally important. If ever there was a time when you needed to be a proper hybrid CIO, the time is now. You absolutely have to be able to seamlessly move between IT and business, because your customers are already doing it. Mass [IT] consumerisation is here and it is a reality, people are increasingly bringing their own devices in and asking why they can’t use them in the workplace.
As technologists, we have to stop apologising for the fact that we understand technology, but we also have to be equally adept in the line of business we are operating in. The CFO never apologises for being an expert in finance, the marketing director never apologises for being an expert in marketing, so why would the CIO need to apologise for being a technologist and be something else? It is OK to be a both a technologist and a business leader. In fact, it is absolutely what you have to be.
Increasingly, CIOs and technology leaders have to understand how to harness that disruption for the positive impact that it can bring to their organisations. For example, the CEO and the marketing director could come to you and say they want iPads. If all you can do is put email on the device and give them a Citrix connection, that is not disruptive technology, it is just another channel.
However, if you understand enough about what’s possible from the technology and how it could interfere in your business processes, you can make that introduce positive disruptions, shorten workflows, provide data that supports decision-making based on the location of the individual and many other things. IT has the power to transform and does it through the disruptive nature of the technology, so you have to know what that disruption can do.
How can you spot disruptive technologies?
You need a good personal radar. If your chief executive asks you what you think of the iPad, you need to at least know what it can do. So you need to be a little bit immersive in technology and try these things, so you have a practical experience – but not to the point technology becomes the end of itself.
You also need a good network and contacts, as well as incredibly bright people around you. It is part of the CIO role as a leader to harness the talent around them. It is not a one-way thing: I don’t create the space for people to do great things and then not expect anything back in return; what I expect back in return is an insight into the things that may become practically useful.
Given that users are becoming increasingly tech-savvy, will we reach a point where business people will be IT leaders and vice-versa?
I don’t think it is as black and white; there are lots of shades of gray around this. Those shades can be determined by the industry sector you are in as some are more advanced than others; the degree of regulation in the environments their businesses are in as that would drive some of the behaviours around data. It won’t be a one-size-fits all kind of thing. What will happen is that the boundaries will blur to varying degrees and we’ll start having some new and exciting conversations about the are of the possible.
Would you say that the business-IT divide many technology leaders have talked about is a self-inflicted problem?
Yes, it is. Shame on us! I have a huge problem with anybody who still talks about business and IT alignment. If you spending you time talking about this and using the word “alignment”, you are reinforcing separation. Those days are gone – if you are still having that debate, go to somebody else.
If you have to talk about alignment, you should be thinking about alignment with your customers – understanding how they want to interact with technology and how you can the information they require. What you should be worried about is understanding and enabling the strategic intent of the organisation, because when you get to the board table that is what you talk about.
What advice would you give to IT leaders looking to get that much-coveted place on the board?
Just get over it. No-one has a G-d given right to be at the board table and we have to earn our place. There is nothing wrong with being a service provider. The only thing that is wrong about it is delivering bad service and we’re all only as good as our last outage. If you can’t handle that, go do another job.
When you are delivering great service, the prize you get as a CIO is immense. No one in the organisation can see the world through your eyes or engage with the CEO the way you can: the marketing guy can change the brand, the CFO can make the numbers add up, but CIOs can transform. So get over the whole service bit, because that is what you have to do, that is your job. Once you do that brilliantly, everything else is available to you.