APCby Schneider Electric is one of the most acquisitive companies in IT, power management, light engineering and any of the industry sectors and 100 nations that this multibillion-pound utility management giant now straddles.
The job of CIO in any company is never easy and as IT merges with every other function of the business, you are constantly in territorial skirmishes with other directors, with their war cries of “IT’s a utility!” and “We’re all IT experts now!”. But surviving in a company that’s taken over by a bigger rival and then continues to ingest other businesses, each of which has its own chief information officer, is even more challenging.
In those situations, there’s the possibility that the office politics might not just extend to other departmental heads, but also to people with the exact same skill set, experiences and ambitions as yourself. More disconcertingly yet, they may be pushier, better at their job or – the worst-case scenario – better at giving the impression that they’re great at their job than you. It’s well documented that industries in flux are a great source of stress.
In 2004, Frederic Chanfrau was CIO of French power management company MGE UPS Systems when it was acquired by its bigger rival, American Power Conversion (APC). Being taken over by a bigger fish is disconcerting enough and frequently the ‘duplicates’ from the acquired company drift away to new challenges. Not Chanfrau. He managed to not only survive in these conditions but thrived. In early 2007 he’d not long got used to his new title – global chief information officer – when another change was foisted on him as APC was acquired by an even bigger rival, the French automation control equipment giant Schneider Electric. In half a decade he’d switched from a French company culture to an American firm and back to a French way of working.
Now, however, as senior vice-president IT, Chanfrau is no longer strictly a CIO, even if the application of skills and knowledge is the same. At the beginning of 2009, APC Schneider found it had bought so many companies it had seven different CIOs. It rationalised them into different functional silos, and appointed Chanfrau as sole chief innovation officer.
Chanfrau is now in charge of the governance and quality team of the newly created information process and organisation department. He defines the IT strategy and related processes for the whole Schneider Electric group and is also in charge of managing all the green IT initiatives.
Does he miss being a CIO? Or is he still a CIO, albeit one with an invented job title?
“I’m not sure there’s ever a typical CIO,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly technical anyway. I was one of those CIOs that understands what applications do, or what they’re supposed to do, and asks all the difficult questions.”
Chanfrau had been headhunted by MGE as the man to transform its IT organisation because of his ability to scrutinise and measure up service delivery. He’d learnt these skills in a decade with audit firms such as Arthur Andersen and Ernst & Young where he led teams dedicated to extracting that most elusive of qualities, the service benefits of ERP systems. He’s definitely more of a due-diligence man than a software enthusiast.
“I spent my formative years auditing and consulting, and now I see my role as designing and defining strategy,” he says. “I’m not a techie.”
Indeed, the days of the technology evangelist could be over in corporations like Schneider. There’s a new mood of standardisation in the company and anyone with any religious fervour about brands is likely to be disappointed as the prevailing philosophy is to unify the IT platforms all the different business divisions use. And those decisions are most likely to hinge on the deals that vendors offer to this global enterprise, rather than any technical bias about brands of mail server or enterprise software.
“I’m a technology agnostic,” Chanfrau says. “I’m managing 450 people across the world now and it doesn’t matter to me whether they are using Notes or Office, as long as they’re all using the same system.”
The same principle relates to all aspects of technology today. In the current economic climate, rationalisation and convergence are likely to top the CIO’s agenda, and even what might be considered eye-catching projects are unlikely to merit serious attention.
“All the work we’re doing is on converging standards and taking stock of the licences we’re paying for, and hopefully creating some economies from better management of them,” he says. “We’ll be renegotiating with our suppliers and looking for better discounts based on the scale of business we offer.”
The only new project in the offing is the construction of a massive new American datacentre in St Louis, but building a datacentre for this particular company is less a question of the software and hardware platforms that run the IT, and more about the energy management. These days a CIO is likely to spend a lot more time worrying about the price of electricity and the effect of carbon emissions, says Chanfrau.
“The role of the CIO was always about three things: the relationship with the business, a vision of where technology is headed and managing people,” he says.
No utility player
So what is the role of IT then? Is information technology really just a utility you can switch on and off like a power supply? Have computers really been relegated to commodity status, mere back-office support machines for automating admin?
Not at all, says Chanfrau. The role of IT may be changing, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. His job title might not be chief information officer any more, but Chanfrau refuses to have any truck with any fashionable nonsense about IT being a commodity.
“IT is still a massive differentiator,” he thunders. “If you get it right it can still deliver you crucial competitive advantage.” As evidence, he cites two systems that he would have overseen in his capacity as CIO: the marketing application that MGE UPS created to track customer response to ad campaigns, and a bespoke system for tracking maintenance at customer sites which gives field engineers a complete audit of a customer’s history at any one time. “This gives us a lead on the competition,” he says.
Chanfrau also doesn’t think that CIOs should find their status reduced by the recession. Yes, some IT projects may be put on ice and budgets may be cut, but there are some advantages too.
“The recession has been a good wake-up call for many companies. It can be good for the CIO in many respects because in the current climate people are more willing to accept changes. We’re significantly lowering the number of [IT] projects, but we’ve got a lot more leverage to push the ones that do ahead,” he says.