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October 7, 2020

Johnson Matthey CIO Paul Coby: Tech execs need to show relevance, lead from the front

Digital revolutions can turn sectors upside down: CIOs need to be in front of the shift.

By Edward Qualtrough

Johnson Matthey CIO Paul Coby says that the case for CIOs to prove their relevance and collaborate with executive colleagues has become more important than ever in an environment in which “digital change can turn sectors upside down”.

The FTSE 100 sustainable technologies company is part of Tech Monitor‘s inaugural Technology Leaders Index. It has been recognised for its response to restrictions brought about by Covid-19 that helped it maintain a supply of crucial drug and medical supplies used around the world, its use of artificial intelligence and video analytics to improve safety in its plants and manufacturing sites, and for the technology department’s contribution to Johnson Matthey‘s sustainability commitments.

Coby was speaking to Tech Monitor‘s special projects editor Edward Qualtrough at New Statesman Media Group‘s CIO Town Hall Live forum in September 2020 when he described the technology refresh and digital transformation journey the company — which manufactures auto and industrial catalysts — had been on since he joined as CIO in April 2018.

Previously CIO at John Lewis Partnership, he said the global Coronavirus pandemic had accelerated technology and digital change at most organisations, and created a demand for technology leaders to deliver digital services and innovations.

“Boards and executive colleagues in organisations are now much more savvy with digital technology, thank goodness,” Coby said. “We’re dealing with colleagues who know that IT matters and that digital revolutions can turn businesses and turn sectors upside down.

“We’ve had three years of digital acceleration in three weeks back in March and April 2020.

“There is an eternal verity that the CIO role is about getting real customers, saving real money, and delivering real solutions that solve real problems. The job is about being relevant, and locking in to what your organisation really needs to do, understanding what the business agenda is — and then understanding how technology and digital innovation can make that real difference.

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“The difference now is that you are not the only person in the organisation who may understand this arcane art — you’re absolutely doing this as part of a community that really wants to use digital technology effectively.”

Johnson Matthey CIO on leadership through crises

Coby had not long been in post as British Airways CIO in September 2001 when coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon rocked the global aviation industry.

A CIO of almost 20 years, Coby said that having been through several global crises enabled experienced heads to “see around corners a bit”.

“Industries and companies — and indeed crises — come in different shapes and sizes,” Coby said. “What we did in Johnson Matthey IT and more generally was to act fast, take decisions and save costs.

“That’s very much what I’ve done, when 9/11 came and when we had the financial services crises.”

Coby added that CIOs and all business leaders needed to “communicate, communicate, communicate”, acknowledging the crucial human side of steering groups through extraordinary situations.

“Everybody’s worried, everybody’s under pressure — people are looking for leadership,” he 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.”

Covid-19 response

The CIO said that the perception of technology and IT at the 200-year-old company had never been higher, and that “if this had happened 12 months ago we wouldn’t have been able to respond in anything like the effective way we did, and fundamentally ensure that the business around the world kept going”.

Having launched an IT infrastructure investment programme when he joined the company, this business resilience was brought about by “getting the basics right — the core thing as CIO you need to do; then you can really think about the wider digital agenda”.

The CIO set up an innovation group when he joined the company, and said that there were pilots with AI, digital twins, machine learning and robotics, and he explained how the company was using video analytics to improve safety on its sites, as well as developing its data analytics capabilities to share with customers real-time monitoring tools for Johnson Matthey’s industrial catalysts.


Coby said that his technology team needed to contribute to the sustainability goals of the company, in particular to its reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

“Johnson Matthey is all about sustainability, and we have to stand up to that as the IT function,” Coby said, noting that more than 85% of Johnson Matthey’s products had a “measurable, positive impact on the planet — directly linked to UN Sustainable Development Goals” and that its mission was to use its science to make the world a cleaner and healthier place.

He described the annual CO2 reduction target as “the energy consumption of 374 million smartphones — a non-trivial amount of CO2”. Explaining that 45% of that target would be reached by the technology infrastructure and data centre consolidation, 30% from reduced travel enabled by technology collaboration tools, while also replacing legacy desktop estates.

“Taking out the legacy tech consuming relatively large amounts of energy is something everybody now understands in the IT industry,” Coby said.

“Our legacy desktop estate is a big energy consumer. Sustainability is something we track, and something that as part of a sustainable organisation we are expected to be able to stand up for.”

No such thing as an IT project

Coby recalled a phrase he coined during his time as British Airways CIO, noting it was as relevant then as it is almost 20 years later.

“It was the statement that: ‘There are no IT projects; there are only business projects’,” Coby said.

“A long while ago that resonated, and I think it still resonates because it goes back to this bit about being relevant.

“We’re not the computer science research department of Johnson Matthey or a university. We are the IT function of a company — a great company that’s all about sustainable technologies — but at the end of the day, in order to do that, we have to make money. We have to be profitable. We have to make good products.

“Everything we do in IT should be about being relevant and about business outcomes.”

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