CW500 Interview – IT Leadership

Yes I know …. after months of inactivity, the blog is awash with interviews …. sorry for the absence but at least there’s some content now 🙂
Some original posts will follow soon (I promise), in the meantime here’s an interview from 5th October when Computer Weekly caught up with me at the CIO Connect 2010 conference. As always, your comments and thoughts are most welcome

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.

What CEOs expect from a top-performing CIO

….and what does outstanding CIO performance even look like?

A few weeks back I did an interview with Mark Samuels for as part of a piece on “What type of skills does the CEO want from his or her CIO?” For those of you who missed it here it is with some bits that missed the final edits :

The starting point, says Jardine Lloyd Thompson CIO Ian Cohen, is to understand your personal attributes (or strengths)  and those of your team rather than focussing on potential weaknesses and trying to fix those. “You cant ignore weaknesses but an outstanding leader will focus on their strengths – and those within their teams – and look to exploit them. For example , they will seek out their natural communicators – the ones who have a talent (or strength) for building great relationships – and orientate them to towards their customers so that thay can do even more with that talent. Effective dialog, in business speak (not techno babble), is your currency and you need people who have this as their strength.

“We spend way too much time trying to turn people into something they are not and fix their weaknesses,” he says. “It’s complete nonsense to think that fixing something bad will create something great. If you take ‘bad’ and just invert it – you get ‘not bad’, which is light years away from ‘great’. Find the activities that strengthen you personally, and the people you lead, and look to do those activities more often.”

When it comes to personal capabilities, Cohen is well aware of his own strengths. He says he “happens to be good at technology” because of the chronology of his career and an employment path that has included senior IT positions at media giants Associated Newspapers, Financial Times and Lloyds TSB.

Technological nuts and bolts
However, Cohen is also open enough to recognise that an aptitude for IT is not necessarily his most important individual asset. “For me, focussing on the nuts and bolts of technology doesn’t make the working day whiz by. Sure I know how stuff works and increasingly the hybrid CIO is going to have to stay abreast of how things work (our customers are becoming far more tech savvy), but it’s not exciting emotionally,” he says.

“My real strength – the activity that strengthens me – is creating an environment where bright people can do great stuff. I’m a story teller; painting pictures about what might be possible through the exploitation of existing and new technologies. That’s when time races by and I’m at my most animated and enthused.”

That sense of creation is something Cohen believes is a core feature of an outstanding CIO. Top technology chiefs, he suggests, will recognise how different members of the team contribute to the organisational whole: “You need to orient people, and the business, around individual strengths. You need to know how to combine people to create more effective teams and to develop next-generation leaders.”

If Cohen is right, helping to make the most of your – and your team’s assets – is crucial for the successful CIO. But what does the boss think? What type of skills does the CEO want from his or her CIO, and how can an IT chief develop the leadership skills that constitute an outstanding executive?

Customer awareness and project skills
For Vin Murria, CEO of Advanced Computer Software Group, strong customer awareness and an ability to deliver projects are of paramount importance.

She is an experienced business leader, having previously been CEO of CSG and chief operating officer at Kewill. Drawing on her experiences, she suggests the CIO’s job is really no different to the CEO’s.

“We’re both here to help deliver benefits to our customers. It’s just that, in most cases, the CIO is great with technology and the CEO is more attuned to the business,” says Murria. Sceptics might suggest that the second point is the difference.

Too many CIOs lack ofbusiness acumen. But it does not have to be this way, suggests Murria – and a new cadre of business-savvy IT executives are coming through.

“It’s not so much the technology bent, it’s the commercial recognition that helps them prove why it is worth investing in new IT,” she says.

Development of the next generation
Like Cohen, then, Murria recognises that technical aptitude is just one tool in an outstanding CIO’s kitbag. And like Cohen, she also says a top executive will prioritise the development of the next generation: “IT has really created the foundations for its own success but you have to be constantly thinking about what you’re going to do next,” she says.

A focus on the career ladder comes naturally to recruitment specialist Tim Cook, who runs the CIO practice for Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA), a search firm with more than 300 consultants based in 40 offices around the world.

Cook receives regular briefings from CEOs about the type of CIO they are looking for. And such searches, he says, are often framed by the question: “What does outstanding look like?”

When it comes to answering the question, Cook says CEOs often frame their description in communication terms: “We want someone that’s one of us; someone who can talk about the business and be part of the business,” he says, referring to the specific language of business leaders.

Strong business communicators
CEOs do not talk about technology but they do talk about specific IT issues. Cook says UK bosses talk about how technological innovation can be used to address modern business concerns. Here, they might talk about collaboration or the way technology can be used to communicate with customers across multiple channels.

“CEOs are looking for people with strong communication skills. They’re looking for negotiation and the ability to push back. It’s difficult to learn later on in life. Get on top early and you’ll have more chance to move your career on,” he says.

“Business executives won’t care about the specifics of technology. CIOs need to frame the business case in terms of profit and loss. And talking in terms of business outcomes will clearly be helpful. CIOs need to talk the language of business and some are now making that transition.”

Stop your sobbin’ …..

…. so said the Pretenders in their cover of the Kinks classic (yes, I’ve noticed that recently I’ve been using song titles for my posts but why not ….) and those words inspired me into one of my few but sadly repetitive rants.

Why are so many IT leaders and C level technology execs such apologists. “Well, I’ve spent 30 years in IT but I did spend a week in product sales so I guess I really see my future as the MD of one of our regional businesses” …… Oh do you !! ….. Why ?? ….. What wrong with being in IT ?? Whats wrong with being a CIO ??

Here’s my take – the CIO’s job is the best one in the company. OK it has to be the right company and probably needs the right CEO but you made that choice when you joined. However, with very little else you might actually have the best role going. Think about it. The Sales Director can work damn hard and maybe improve sales volume. The Marketing Director can bust his hump and possibly improve brand recognition, the CFO can keep the numbers in line BUT only the CIO can look horizontally across the whole organisation and lay out the art of the possible. Only the CIO can sit with the CEO and chart a transformational journey from where we are to where we could be. Who wouldn’t want to do that !!??

Yes I know it comes with all the other stuff. Of course you’re the only exec who has to justify himself on an almost daily basis. It goes without saying that you’re only as good as your last major project or service outage and of course some wag will always ask you why he can’t have an iPhone but that came with the job. If you don’t like it – go do something else.

…. and please, please, please  !!! …. all this talk of Business/IT alignment….. STOP IT NOW !! If you are still talking about this then its time to get another job. That ship has sailed. There is only your Business. IT is Business and Business is IT. The two are inextricably linked and one cannot exist without the other. So, don’t have a separate IT strategy. The only strategy you have is the one that defines your business and ever other function/OpCo/ Division in the company is there to make it happen. Don’t even use the word “alignment”. By its very use it re-enforces the notion of separation.

I still attend CIO events where the discussions are so ‘poor me’. “Why am I seen as just a service provider – I want to be strategic – I want to be on the board”. Now let’s be clear – there’s nothing wrong with being a service provider – unless you’re providing a cr@p service. Some of our best brands are service providers and are successful because they consistently deliver world class service. The difference is that our job starts from that position. However, if you crack that then the “world’s your lobster”

So that’s it – rant over. To paraphrase Jimmie ‘Brother’ Rabitte in The Commitments Stand up tall and shout it loud …. I’m in IT and I’m proud

When two tribes go to war …..

According to Bart Perkins in “IT has to take a stand on consumer technology.” He concludes: “It’s better to agree on a corporate policy, publicise it and start budgeting for the projected impact.” I can’t disagree with the latter point, but I also believe consumers will continue to drive this debate: as the new darlings of the tech vendors, they currently hold all the cards.

It wasn’t always this way. The article rightly points out that 10 years ago, most people used more advanced technology at work than at home, whereas now the opposite is true. Today, many employees have better kit at home, and the article notes many also expect their favourite devices to be supported at work. This is indeed the case, but the implications are far more wide-ranging than whether you can bring your favourite gadget to the office. They point to the need for fundamental changes in attitude and approach.

Consumer IT is driving new behaviours and setting new expectations about how we work, as well as the tools we use. There have been too many words/pages written about the role of Facebook, Twitter et al in the workplace, but it’s an undeniable fact that a new generation is arriving with new expectations of a ‘socially enabled’ way of working. To ban or block this behaviour is akin to limiting someone’s vocabulary – you will inevitably get a stilted outcome.

An equally undeniable fact is that the schism between this new consumer (or social) IT and corporate IT is just getting bigger. The focus of corporate IT is narrowing. It increasingly (but rightly) worries about data protection, information security, governance etc, as its world becomes ever more regulated. Social IT, by contrast, moves at a blistering pace, seemingly oblivious to these issues precisely because it is social IT. By definition it’s about sharing, collaborating and networking and thus it’s no surprise most of the publicised innovation is being driven in this area.

Corporate IT is dull and boring – right?? Who’d want to work for a corporate IT department? The networks are slow, the equipment is old, I can’t use my iPhone, it’s so restrictive, so yesterday… If we’re not careful that’s exactly where we’re headed – especially when it’s more attractive to make your money from ‘apps’ and ‘app stores’ rather than actually building applications.

The implications are clear. This debate is about talent not toys. If we don’t act soon we’ll be left with just two types of technology – the interesting (and growing) socially enabled, individually empowered version – where people want to work – and the stilted, highly regulated, narrowly focused version. Oh, and by the way, that’s the one that currently underpins our economy!

This post originally appeared in the  360 degree IT Blog on 14th April 2010

In the land of the blind ….

…. the one eyed man is king

So goes the famous saying and its particularly appropriate when it comes to IT outsourcing.

According to a report from Warwick Business School for IT Services firm Cognizant, the majority of CIO’s AND CFO’ s interviewed claimed that they lacked the tools and methods to effectively measure business value and the return on investment (RoI) from outsourcing activities despite spending between $5m and $100m (ÂŁ3m and ÂŁ61m) each year on such initiatives.

The old adages of “never outsource simply for cost”, “never outsource a problem” and “never outsource something you cant manage and measure yourself” have never been more true and ignoring these fundementals has lead to a well trodden path of outsourcing disasters. With that in mind, the finding from this report must raise surely some eyebrows. Our industry has been at this for almost a decade now  so shouldn’t we be alarmed that this report concludes that management and measurement disciplines remains so vague ?.

One thing is certain, the outsourcers know how to make money and how to measure ROI on their side so a customer has to line up comparable (or better)  skills and expertise on their side if they are going to see the business benefits and make the relationship work.

As usual, JMHO so all comments welcome

Skilling up your team

Some folks have asked if I can (re) publish the article I did for CIO Connect magazine towards the end of 2008 on skills development

Happy to oblige

When it comes to skills development, Associated Newspapers’ CIO Ian Cohen believes what counts is not the particular framework you adopt, but the ability to articulate clearly where you’re going. “For every person who says one particular development framework is the best, someone else tells you to use another. For me, the specifics of the tools are irrelevant as long as you have the right attitude to skills development and a coherent vision of where you’re going,” he says

Read More >> NB. MS word document

Feeling very humble

I’m feeling very humble this morning (and even a little embarrassed) having heard that I’ve been voted one of the Top 50 CIO’s in the UK. Having looked at the list of my peers I am truly in exhaulted company so a big thanks to and everyone who voted me into this listing.

I’ll do my best to justify the position so keep an eye out here on the “On about being a CIO” tag for some little snippets and my views on stuff

Thanks again

Some thoughts on IT relationships (from 2005)

……shamelessly lifted from my work with David Taylor, Author of the Naked Leader series and someone who I am privileged to consider an inspiration, a colleague and friend. His blog on IT leadership is here

The future is your choice – so seize the moment …

  • Approach – Be “business first and business always
  • Language – Remember that you are the business – make sure everyone speaks “Business English”.
  • Service Levels – trusted customer relationships are more important than “service levels”
  • Technology – Focus on what it does – people don’t care what it is
  • You – Take control of your personal brand – People ask “What’s she/he like?”

Some things to consider

Please try to stop using the term “the business” which in itself creates separation – you are the business. “Users” is a term reserved for drug addicts – avoid it – we have customers !

Don’t, that’s don’t use IT terms and acronyms that your customers don’t understand. Explain concepts in the language of business, based on the key drivers/metrics that concern our customers (ie revenue, profit, cost, etc)

Please focus on what technology can do to drive revenue, create new capabilities, automate processes, attract new customers and delight existing ones – talk about what it does, not what it is (unless you’re a technology company, no-one cares what it is …. especially your customers).

Development must be flexible – project life cycles have to get shorter. Accept that people have the right to change their minds and turn on a sixpence. The time line for projects is weeks and months, not months and years.

Run your projects as if they were a profit centre – every project (even infrastructure development) must be a business project and you must take on the role of ensuring benefits are realised.

Remove the negatives around IT. Whenever I want something from the IT Department, why is the answer “No” – make it “Yes” and we’ll start from there

…….and most of all.

You are all your own “shop window”. Be visible, honest, open and transparent. Remove the smoke and mirrors, take personal ownership and deliver and exceptional IT experience. Take personal pride in everything you do.