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John Lewis Partnership’s Paul Coby: CIOs need to be techies, business people and visionaries

The CIO of tomorrow needs to be technically adept, business astute and a visionary, able to foresee technical trends, according to John Lewis Partnership CIO Paul Coby.

That list of demanding skills reflects the way in which IT has become embedded and central to every organisation, but trying to anticipate what the customer will want, and what the world will even as soon as 2020 – just three years hence – isn’t easy, added Coby, who describes himself as more of a generalist.

“I’m passionate about technology, so I make sure that I do at least a monthly ‘deep dive’ on new areas of technology with some of John Lewis’s key technologists. You should be really passionate and interested [in technology] because it’s about understanding how it all works.

If, however, an IT leader is a coder by background “it’s really important that they understand how the business works” adds Coby, but communication skills are vital. “The worst thing you can do is make it complicated.

“Your colleagues on the board can understand a balance sheet and a profit-and-loss so they ought to be able to understand how technology works and if you are not explaining it clearly you’re not [really] trying. So it’s really important that the board understands it,” said Coby.

In terms of the ‘visionary’ aspect, added Coby, “I think the CIO role has to be multi-faceted, which is that you try to scan the horizon and understand the big trends, unpack those for your colleagues and try to spot the things that are real and the thing that are not real”, says Coby.

In other words, distinguishing the technologies that could have an impact on the business in the future, and when, and then helping others in the business appreciate how that technology could affect it. “Part of our role is to help people to understand,” he adds.

However, John Lewis Partnership doesn’t have – or need – a chief digital officer (CDO), believes Coby. “Everybody ought to be a CDO in some way these days. For us, it’s a false distinction because the whole point is how you work closely with your colleagues in the business.

“It’s imperative that you are ‘joined up’. Our IT teams are co-located with the online folks, so I think it’s not something you need,” says Coby.

Coby’s view on CDO’s are shared by a number of other IT leaders, including News UK’s chief technology officer Christina Scott, while a number of other CIOs told Computing earlier this year that they believed the days of the CDO were already numbered

Paul Coby was speaking to Computing in an exclusive video interview, coming soon to www.computing.co.uk.  

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