by Jennifer O'Brien

Veteran CIO Peter Nevin shares lessons learned on digital

Aug 31, 2017
Big DataCareersDigital Transformation

When pursuing a digital strategy, combine what you see in technology with the business outcomes – link that back to the organisation and vigorously communicate the message. That’s one of the lessons learned by 25-year CIO veteran, Peter Nevin, who talked about digital leadership roles and their hidden complexity at the CIO Summit in Sydney.

“Having a vision means being able to combine what you see in technology, what you see in business outcomes, and link that back to the organisation as a whole and to be able to communicate that,” he told delegates, stressing the importance of simplicity.

“Let’s face it – the stuff we do is technically complex and it is great to be able to talk about cloud based systems. . . But in your role as a digital leader, and the successful digital leaders, communicate simply by saying, ‘we plan to do ‘x’ and ‘x’ looks like this, and I understand I can map all of that complexity that sits underneath it,” he said.

“Even within the complexity, if you’re talking about day-to-day operations, being able to simplify those things, understand where you are going and what the simple outcomes are, is important.”

Nevin, who’s formerly the CIO of biotechnology company, Genea, is currently the CIO of AUG. He drew on his personal experiences as a digital exec across many organisations, and highlighted some positive experiences as well as “one spectacular failure.”

“Digital transformation changes a market, provides a different product, and actually changes the way things could work,” he said, explaining the rollout of the Genea IVF product is a prime example of a digital transformation success story and game changer for the industry.

“We managed to be able to link an incubator, which had a video camera on it, all the way through in real-time to an application that ran on a patient’s phone so that they could actually monitor their embryo growing, in almost real-time.

“Why did that work? Because the CEO totally tied in with and focused on the new product within the organisation. There was also very substantial change management right across the organisation.,”he said.

“The complexity of actually showing someone their embryo growing – and the downside of that, possibly dying – required a very large amount of change management. We had counselors available, we had people in the actual laboratory available, so they could talk to people. It wasn’t just a case of turning on an application. And that innovation was embedded right throughout the organisation.”

Nevin, who has experience bridging IT, business strategy, change management, operations and leadership, has also led aggressive stretch growth mandates across blue-chip corporates and multinationals including Deloitte, SKM, Sedgman and Serco.

Early days

Certainly, his early years helped shape his digital transformation outlook – and continued to reveal how executive buy-in is so important to a company’s success in the digital transformation journey.

Nevin, who started with the Forestry Commission, said he was a “humble programmer” who worked on punch cards – a role that ended up teaching him many things about the role of digital.

At the time, the company was using a manual process to measure the value of an actual forest. It switched to measuring the forest with digital calipers.

“We developed a process whereby we would take the information from the digital calipers and move them via PCs… It made quite a substantial change to the whole process and quickly moved things along.”

“The things that I learned, however, were around what was happening with digital leadership at the time. In hindsight, I can now see that the person that was running the IT group was very closely aligned with the CFO and they were key in trying to understand how much the actual forests were worth. They were doing pre-calculations on how much they would grow, and doing all of the statistics associated with that.”

Essentially, he said, the head of IT was leading the digital transformation effort, although it wasn’t labelled that at the time.

“One of the skills they had was to take a very naive person like myself, who said, ‘hey this could work on a PC,’ and actually bolt that into a whole program and move that forward. So I started to learn about innovation and how people pick up innovation.”

Moving forward, he worked with the National Rail Corporation.

“We started to move the digital transformation further up the value chain – and in this particular case, we actually moved all the way up to the consumers of the service. We put in place a service where people could book via the internet. This was pre-1999 – so pretty exciting stuff using the internet in those days. We could actually book your transport for containers online,” he said.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but we were actually transforming the freight business within Australia as a result of that process,” he said, explaining the systems put in place could monitor the freight, as well as determine when and where trucks were loading and unloading at terminals.

He said the key to success – and the ability to be an early trailblazer of digital transformation – was the fact that upper management at National Rail Corporation were forward-thinking and had vision in creating a different product for the Australian marketplace.

“Those projects were a success because the CEO was involved in the actual transformation itself. The concepts of the technology weld right up from very complex technical interfaces, measuring the weights of containers, introducing very much leading-edge technology in those days in terms of PCs that were connected to the internet – and it ran forward from that.”

On the failure front, his time at an engineering group also taught him some important lessons about a digital transformation failure, he said.

“We developed some fairly sophisticated system to provide distributed document management that was globally provided and that was rolled out in the organisation.”

He highlighted key lessons why the system failed after a four-year stint, and was eventually turned off globally.

“There are two reasons why it ultimately failed: One was the slight complexity because the technology in those made it difficult to drive. But the real reason it failed was because the senior management of the organisation did not embrace the actual change or the innovation that was occurring.”

Digital leadership

He said the digital role involves having responsibility for three key areas: market facing systems and products; production and support systems; and digital technology.

“Within those three areas, there are two things you can do – you can manage so you can make it work well and you can incubate it and make it work well within its existing environment. Or you can transform it, you can change it or improve it dramatically. You can swap it around and put in new systems.”

The trick to success is how the CIO can manage and transform the business, with an eye on management (governance), oversight and integration. “As you jump up through those three layers, it is interesting to see where the business benefit is in each layer,” he said.

“Digital transformation and digital leadership can produce products, can change the way your organisation interfaces and works with the rest of the world.”

So where does digital leadership live? Nevin said it lives in the pursuit of understanding technology, delivering business acumen and creating innovation.

“Being able to represent the technology, talk about it, bring innovation to the table and translate what technology means in business speak. Business acumen is important. Deeply knowing what drives a business, what makes profitability in an organisation – and importantly innovation, the creative side of things, is key.”

Additionally, it is pivotal the CIO takes the c-suite executives on the digital journey. Establish a vision and paint a picture.

“I still absolutely make the mistake of not understanding what my fellow executives understand in terms of the stories that I try to tell.”