by Peter Fabris

CIO Hall of Fame: John Cross

Sep 15, 19974 mins
BudgetingIT Leadership

Cross's achievements are nothing short of visionary, and that fact has given him considerable influence among his peers.

Career Highlights

Today: Head of IT, BP Group, The British Petroleum Co. PLC, London
1988-1993: General manager of IT, BP Exploration
1985-1988: Responsible for international IT policies, British Petroleum corporate headquarters
1981-1985: Head of computer services, BP Oil
Education: Bachelor’s degree in industrial organization and management from Natal University, South Africa

In 1990, British Petroleum’s management team charged IS chief John Cross with a seemingly impossible task. They wanted him to cut IT costs by 40 percent at a time when IT budgets in the oil industry were rising 15 to 20 percent a year . Cross swallowed hard and accepted the challenge, but his staff found the notion intimidating, to say the least. “My IT management team at the time looked at me like I had completely lost my marbles,” Cross recalls.

The ambitious cost-cutting directive required innovative planning and leadership. Shaving costs from existing processes and tweaking the organizational structure wouldn’t be enough; the formidable goal required a comprehensive restructuring of BP’s global IS function and a complete rethinking of the organization’s mission. It was a daunting challenge, but Cross was just the man to take it on.

Cross excels at leading sweeping change, says John C. Henderson, professor of MIS and director of the Systems Research Center at Boston University. “He brings an intense commitment to the business model,” Henderson adds. “He is able to reach understandings with executives in the business space, to be a peer to senior management.”

Cross attacked the cost-cutting problem along several fronts. First, he says, “we ruthlessly standardized systems” around the world. IS reduced 800 core systems to about 160. Next, Cross pared programming and support staffs so that each major application had just one group supporting it, not several in multiple locations. The company also consolidated its data centers in the United States and the United Kingdom. Then, in 1992, Cross outsourced nonvalue-add IT services to three different vendors. After three years of restructuring, Cross had slashed global IS expenses by 50 percent, exceeding the original 40 percent cost-cutting goal. “Delivering on that [goal] while not damaging the business was very gratifying because it seemed impossible, and it ended up creating a track record for IT as an organization that could deliver extraordinary results,” he says. “It proved IT was not the voracious tiger that constantly demanded dollars.”

As impressive as that accomplishment was, Cross’s achievements are not limited to reining in expenses. During the cost-cutting crusade, Cross also kicked off a full-scale client/server migration. BP has since eliminated legacy systems and implemented a modernized IT architecture designed to help IS provide increased strategic business support. Meanwhile, Cross began transforming the core mission of IS from providing transactional support services to being a strategic business partner. To symbolize IS’s new role within the company, he eliminated all titles containing the words “IT manager.” Those who held such titles are now called “business information consultants” or “partner relationship managers,” reflecting a tighter alignment with business units.

Cross’s achievements are nothing short of visionary, and that fact has given him considerable influence both within BP and among his peers in professional groups such as the Society for Information Management (SIM). “He’s smart, but he also is a very reflective thinker who observes and diagnoses situations very well,” says Henderson, a SIM member who has known Cross for a decade. “That makes him a tremendously effective mentor, coach and peer to other CIOs. People always listen to what he has to say.”

Looking back at the evolution of the CIO role, Cross says the job today is a far cry from its original incarnation as manager of a traditional transaction-oriented IT organization. “In a sense, you are no longer a manager. One’s role becomes very much a leadership role of [deciding] how technology is going to add value to business performance.” Cross is one of those rare CIOs who is helping to refine the profession for the 21st century.