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Leadership / Sustainability

Tech leaders must participate in the sustainability agenda, says Johnson Matthey CIO

Former British Airways and John Lewis Partnership CIO Paul Coby pushes sustainability agenda while digesting 'Technology Leaders Agenda 2021' research report.

Technology leaders must be part of the sustainability agenda as it becomes a top priority for CEOs and business leaders – and the defining issue of a generation – says Paul Coby, CIO at FTSE sustainable technologies company Johnson Matthey.

Coby was discussing the results of Tech Monitor‘s Technology Leaders Agenda study, of which he was a member of the advisory panel. The global study found that sustainability/ESG is the third-highest strategic priority among respondent organisations, and that 71% of IT department have their own sustainability objectives.

CIOs and their peers need to be conscious of the impact their organisations and the broader technology sector are having on the planet, Coby says. Johnson Matthey, which manufactures a third of the world’s automotive and industrial catalysts, is pursuing a vision of ‘a world that is cleaner and healthier, today and for future generations’. “It’s essential that as an IT function we participate in that.”

His team is about to complete an IT infrastructure renewal programme which would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by almost 4,500 tonnes a year. “It’s essential as we go forward we track our carbon footprint as an IT organisation,” he said.

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This focus on infrastructure efficiency is the most common approach to sustainability among technology functions, the Technology Leaders Agenda survey revealed. But there is more tech leaders can do, including working closer with industry partners and suppliers, Coby says, as well as developing ways of influencing colleagues and customers to become greener.

"As CIOs we are all going to need to provide the tools that will enable our companies to measure their overall carbon footprint and are achieving their goals," he said. "Not just thinking about how you measure the impact of IT, but how you measure and track the impact of the whole company is going to be a big issue for everybody and one CIOs will need to facilitate and work with our IT suppliers on. That's going to be a big part of the internal agenda for technology leaders.

"As we develop tools there is a real opportunity – perhaps a necessity – for CIOs to play a role in sustainability. Not just in supporting the whole of their own business, but also in how do you ensure and add tools to your products and services to demonstrate that they are both sustainable as well. Because that is something that customers are going to want to know about."

Johnson Matthey CIO on building AI and data capabilities

The Technology Leaders Agenda 2021 showed that deploying artificial intelligence and automation tools were becoming a big part of IT programmes for CIOs and CTOs. "AI tools are real and can add real value, and are reaching that maturity," says Coby, who was previously CIO at British Airways and John Lewis Partnership.

"The key as always is to deploy them where they will solve real problems in the real world," he said, describing a data lake and "pretty standard toolsets" which enabled the company to diagnose and solve problems in systems at one of its key plants in Northern Macedonia, where Johnson Matthey manufactures autocatalysts for the European market. "That sort of intelligence gives you enormous power."

Another key finding of the study is that future of technology leadership and the tech functions within organisations will be shaped by data. Data is where CIOs and CTOs are focusing a significant chunk of their IT budgets, data integrations and initiatives were cited as the main focus of tech programmes for the next year, and data roles are also some of the most in-demand skills.

Johnson Matthey has set up a data office situated in IT, and data councils in its key business units – clean air and efficient natural resources – to bring together a data centre of excellence with those who best understand the challenges the company is trying to solve.

"Data is where the action is, but it's really hard to do data well," he says. "You need experts who understand data structures, understand how the toolsets work, and understand how applying sophisticated artificial intelligence tools can work. But they also need to understand how the business functions.

"We're quite early days in this, but I really think it's the way forward. Enabling the IT experts to understand what the business wants, and equipping the business to really understand the amazing new digital and data services and tools can really do for them."

Why IT and business alignment is still a priority

Some members of the Technology Leaders Agenda 2021 research steering panel were disappointed that "improving IT and business alignment" was cited as a top strategic tech priority by CIOs and CTOs, in third place behind "improving operational efficiency and effectiveness" and ahead of "digitisation". One suggestion was that perhaps some technology executives are not being ambitious enough in their strategies if they were still thinking in these terms.

Coby has a different slant on the findings, however, saying the reality for the modern tech leader was they had to be able to do both the fundamentals and help drive or facilitate the innovation agenda.

IT departments can never be too aligned with the business.

"IT departments can never be too aligned with the business," he says. "There are no IT projects; there are only business projects. We exist as an IT function for an organisation, Johnson Matthey.

"One thing I've learned is that if the check-in at Heathrow isn't working because the systems are down, or the tills in John Lewis Oxford Street aren't working, or indeed a production line in clean air catalysts in Shanghai isn't working, then there is no point in me talking to my colleagues about artificial intelligence or robots or any of those fancy digital things if we're not delivering the fundamentals," he says. "If that's what alignment is then I'm all for it."

"But, as well as that, you've got to work with the business in terms of digital thinking. It's not just platforms, it's not just machine learning, artificial intelligence, or RPA. It's not any of those things; it's a different way of working, it's a different way of thinking about how to move the business forward which is about breaking down the barriers which have existed for a long time between IT and the business.

"The very fact that every CIO tends to talk about IT and the business tells you volumes."

A digital spearhead for the future

While that language has been around for a long time, what is more recent is the extent to which CEO and business priorities are shaped by technology. For Coby, this confirms a significant shift in the role and responsibilities of CIOs and fellow technology executives in determining the future success or failure of a company.

"The business agenda and the IT agenda are, as they should be, ever more fundamentally interlinked," he says. "It's true for Johnson Matthey and pretty much true for every CIO I talk to. That comes loud and clear from the report.

"As well as being fundamental to how every business works and operates effectively, digital technology is now the spearhead for the future," he adds. "Now being a CIO is fascinating and indeed challenging, because not only are we fundamental to how the business runs, we're fundamental to how the business grows and develops."

Homepage image by madamF / Shutterstock.

Edward Qualtrough

Special projects editor

Edward Qualtrough is special projects editor for Tech Monitor.