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December 22, 2020updated 12 Apr 2021 10:17am

How CIOs and CTOs responded to Covid-19 disruption

Highlights from our video conversations with technology executives in a year that put them in the spotlight.

By Edward Qualtrough

Before Covid-19, it was a common complaint among technology leaders that IT was not seen as strategic to their organisations. But the Covid-19 pandemic thrust technology, and therefore CIOs and CTOs, into the spotlight, making the centrality of IT to business operations unavoidably clear and giving digital transformation initiatives an urgency they might previously have lacked.

In a series of virtual events this year, Tech Monitor spoke to CIOs, CTOs and other technology leaders as they grappled with the unique challenges of the pandemic. They discussed business continuity, technology resilience, crisis management, a new leadership style and the future of work.

A common theme in the conversations, excerpted below, was that despite the hardship, Covid-19 gave technology leaders the chance to prove their worth and provided recognition, at last, of the strategic imperative for digital transformation.

Pull the future forwards

At New Statesman Media Group’s first Virtual CIO Symposium, in April 2020, Sainsbury’s CIO Phil Jordan described how the “CIO should be the person in the business who has change leadership responsibility” with tech and data the differentiator between businesses, and explained how at the FTSE 100 retailer the pandemic was being used an opportunity to “pull the future forwards”.

“It’s a very small positive in a very negative situation, but it’s a massive opportunity to redefine businesses as tech-driven,” Jordan said.

“I hope we don’t go back to normal. If you’re a technology leader, that should be music to your ears. It’s an amazing time to be a technologist and an incredible time to be a CIO, and I would encourage everyone to take the opportunity that’s coming.”

At the second Virtual CIO Symposium in the autumn, CTO at manufacturing giant Philip Morris International, Michael Voegele, echoed Jordan’s comments about technology executives driving overall business transformation at an organisation.

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“My first conversation was with the CEO, which was confirmation for me that during this disruptive change for the business, technology is a decisive element for this transformation,” he said.

Proving the value of technology

Paul Coby, CIO at FTSE 100 sustainable technologies company Johnson Matthey, spoke at New Statesman Media Group’s CIO Town Hall Live in September 2020 and explained how the perception of the technology function had never been as high at the organisation.

The former British Airways CIO praised his team for moving thousands of staff to remote working, while enabling the company’s manufacturing plants to keep running to continue the supply of important medical devices and drug components to health services around the world.

CIO at Norwegian energy company Equinor, Åshild Hanne Larsen, echoed Coby’s view about the perception of the technology function, adding that this was not actually a change that happened overnight.

The technology function was ready, and while it was already firmly established as an enabler of business value – Covid-19 helped fuel the CIO and her function in helping the company “take a giant leap forward when it comes to digital skills and the utilisation of digital tools”.

“It’s something we are quite proud about, and something that’s been widely recognised across our organisation,” she said.

Technology resilience

London’s chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell, said at the same event that Covid-19 had “definitely made us more resilient”.

In particular, the pandemic highlighted the immediate demand to join up the capital’s data in a much more cohesive and real-time way. “It really exposed the need for greater data collaboration, and skills and expertise in the public sector,” Blackwell said.

Never waste a crisis

Few organisations came under as much pressure this year as the UK’s National Health Service. But as Joanna Smith, group CIO at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, explained, healthcare technologists are no strangers to crises.

Smith noted how a shift to remote consultations and uptake of telehealth services could bring about a “preventative” approach to healthcare. The challenge for NHS technology leaders is to move beyond crisis mode and translate digital innovation into lasting improvements, she added.

Ministry of Defence CIO Charles Forte said that the department had unashamedly used the crisis to accelerate its digital technology agenda.

“We used the Covid opportunity to really drive a bulldozer through lots of internal authorisation processes and make decisions at light speed; that should be part of our aspiration,” Forte said. “We made progress in making scale change, that otherwise would have taken quite a long time.”

Digital innovation

This year’s acceleration of digitisation is likely to have profound and far-reaching consequences. Speaking at New Statesman Media Group’s CIO Town Hall Live forum in July 2020, UK Parliament’s chief information and digital officer Tracey Jessup explained how the service enabled the country’s democracy to function despite lockdown.

“It really demonstrated the power of what digital can do,” Jessup said, adding that the experience has significantly increased appetite for digital services at the heart of UK government.

Accelerating the future of work

Speaking to the New Statesman’s Oscar Williams in April 2020, Karl Hoods, chief digital and information at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said that the ministry was well set up to respond to the events of March 2020.

Hoods had already initiated a series of workplace of the future initiatives at BEIS. From a technical standpoint, the department was essentially operating as it was a remote workforce, only that the overwhelming majority of staff worked from a single location in Whitehall.

“The hesitance we had was around the cultural aspect,” Hoods said. Skipping the months of pilots and training courses often associated rolling out new technology tools, Hoods said that if it wasn’t for the disruption caused by the pandemic the department would likely have approached the initiatives in a slower and more cautious way.

New style of leadership

Many technology executives noted that 2020 called for a new style of leadership.

Rosie Slater-Carr was CIO at the British Red Cross when she spoke at the Virtual CIO Symposium in March 2020. Slater-Carr said Covid-19 cemented the CIO’s role as the custodian of digital transformation but noted that it was more important than ever for them to communicate the objectives of digital transformation as effectively as possible.

“You have to talk to your teams even more than you have before and be really crisp about priorities,” she said. “You have to be really crisp about how you communicate those – you have to do it, do it some more – and then keep doing it until people are probably bored of it.”

Another bonus, Slater-Carr said, was seeing how the organisation had “really grasped Agile” in a way that she did not expect the organisation to go back from.

Johnson Matthey’s Coby echoed Slater-Carr’s call for open and clear communication.

“Everybody’s worried, everybody’s under pressure – people are looking for leadership,” Coby said. “That doesn’t mean leadership that pretends it knows all the answers. It’s important to be honest and really clear about the situation we are facing; it’s much worse not to talk about what’s going on.

“People want leadership and leaders that are going to be honest with them about the challenges that are faced by the business.”

Plus ça change?

Despite the huge upheaval and uncertainty caused by Covid-19 in 2020, the essence of technology leadership has not changed, said Philip Morris CTO Voegele. It will still encompass running a tight ship, leading with a clear vision, and keeping an eye on emerging technologies that can give your organisation an advantage.

“You have to make the best of what’s currently available to you, and you have to keep that foresight of what’s going on, and which technology developments are coming and will affect your business,” he said. “If you can package this up and communicate this in an open and honest way, engaging your people on that journey – providing them with competence and confidence – that’s when you are successful.”

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