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CIO interview: Belinda Finch, CIO, IFS

Belinda Finch, CIO at enterprise technology company IFS, talks about the changing face of the c-suite and the opportunities for CIOs who want to progress from leading an IT team to running the whole company

Technology changes fast and tech jobs are changing just as rapidly, according to Belinda Finch, CIO at enterprise technology company IFS.

Finch joined IFS late last year from mobile company Three, where she led Three’s digital transformation and helped to drive system developments to support customer experience as CIO. She has also held senior leadership roles at Centrica and Vodafone, as well as at Accenture and KPMG.

As the CIO at IFS, Finch is part of the executive leadership team and is responsible for overseeing IFS’s digital transformation and the adoption of technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) to drive productivity and efficiency.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Finch explains how the role of the IT organisation and the CIO are both evolving rapidy.

“My view now on the CIO is that you can’t be the CIO of the past if you want to enable your business to move forward. Technology is everywhere, it doesn’t matter what business you are in, so the CIO has to sit in the centre of the organisation, not as this supplier back-office function,” she says. “That’s what I got brought in to do at IFS, which is to enable the business with our internal IT to grow and scale.”

That means the time of the more traditional CIO, who is only involved with internal IT delivery, is limited. It is a role that might not even exist a decade from now, Finch admits.

“In 10 years’ time, I don’t think a traditional CIO needs to exist at all, and the CIO [will be] much focused on business strategy and business enablement than it is on your traditional CIO-type activity,” she says.

Back to where it all began

The initial source for Finch’s interest in technology came in the beige form of the BBC model B home computer, put in the corner of the living room by her dad.

While her brothers had little enthusiasm for the new computer apart from playing games, Finch seized the chance to build her own address book and learned to code from the computer magazines of the day.

“I got into being able to create things on a computer – you didn’t have to go out and buy an address book, you could actually build one yourself – and it was really cool because it could play music and have different graphics going up the screen. Very basic looking now, but it was the principle,” she says.

The enthusiasm for tech continued and Finch gained a Masters degree in IT and went to work as a COBOL programmer, which, at that time, largely involved programming – and not asking too many questions about it.

“You had to do what you were told, because as a computer programmer you were told what to programme and you couldn’t ask questions,” she says.

After this, she moved into consulting and business integration, a role in which her desire to ask questions – and understand both the technical side of an issue and also the business needs – became essential skills.

“That’s the reason I went into to consulting, to get that deeper understanding. I don’t like having to do something if I don’t understand the reason for having to do it,” Finch says.

“That’s what a CIO is all about now, but it wasn’t then at all. It’s now about understanding how you can help those business problems and make sure your business is being enabled by IT.”

After working in consulting, Finch moved into CIO roles, delivering transformation projects and working to use IT to enable businesses to do more.

Over that time, the state of technology and the expectations of end users have changed significantly, which inevitably means big changes for the CIO and the IT organisation are coming.

Technology is already changing the shape of the IT department, either because firms need smaller technical teams thanks to the cloud, or because organisations are now willing to outsource to more technical outsourced provider.

For Finch, that means it’s time to focus on where the internal team can really add business value. “My team is definitely becoming less coders and testers and much more about stakeholder management business partnership,” she says.

Part of that will be about handing over more responsibility for IT to the business. “Everybody is technology savvy these days, and if you don’t allow everybody in the organisation to solve their own problems, either you are not going to be able to solve the problem… or you’re just going to get a lot of shadow IT everywhere,” she warns.

“We are moving into this age now where the IT department should be getting smaller and the skills should be going outside of IT to the rest of the organisation.”

That means the days of sending a list of requirements over to IT and having them just write the code for you are likely to be a thing of the past. While that loss of control might be scary for some in IT, she says, the key is to for the IT operation to put in place the right technical security guard rails and the right support and training to ensure that nothing can go wrong.

“Then it shouldn’t be scary, it should be a lot easier. Because you aren’t having to make the changes, the rest of the organisation are making the changes themselves – you’re just providing that structure for them to make the changes in. It is scary, we aren’t there yet, but we are definitely getting there,” she says.

The changing face of the c-suite

If the role of IT is changing, then the role of the IT chief will have to change as well, something Finch readily acknowledges.

Finch points to an explosion in the number of new senior-level job titles such as chief digital information officer and chief product officer, which show how the skills demanded from digital executives are changing.

If that is a challenge to the CIO, it’s also an opportunity. While there are many more tech-savvy execs around, it also means that knowing about tech could make it easier for CIOs to make it to the top of organisations, something that has been a challenge in the past.

Finch notes that while a decade or so ago, it would often be the CFO or a financially focused COOs that would be promoted into the CEO role, we are now starting to see CIOs getting promoted into the CEO role.

That reflects how having an understanding of technology is becoming as important as understanding the financials for these top executive roles.

“What I find more fascinating about my job now is that I’m getting involved in everything about the business, whereas when I first started [CIOs] only did the IT bit and the technology bit, and didn’t know what was going on with the rest of the organisation. But, actually, you are at the heart, you get to know absolutely everything, so being able to be at the forefront is massively exciting.”

What is likely to change is the sort of people who will flourish in the CIO role, she says. If you want to become a CIO, it’s no longer possible just to work your way up through the IT organisation – instead, you’ll need to have done your shifts in other roles around the business.

“10 or 20 years ago, that’s what you would do – you would progress within IT and you wouldn’t do anything else. You have to be well-rounded and move around and understand all the different areas of the business. Because how are you going to help them, how are you going to enable finance or marketing or a call centre team if you haven’t experienced running it?” she says.

Engineering a cultural shift

Finch said that one of her top priorities for this year is to encourage culture change. IFS has been growing rapidly and she wants to make sure that the IT operation is operating with the mindset of being a partner and an enabler of the business as a whole.

“We are not a blocker, we don’t have to pretend that it’s only us who know how to do things. Working in a much more collaborative way, that’s one of my top priorities,” she says.

Instead, for example, of raising a ticket and going to IT, staff would know who they would need to talk to because they have IT as a business partner.

“The world is changing; you need to be much more collaborative. You’ve got to work together. You are just wasting time and money by doing things in your silo and then filing out a form and sending it off to IT. It’s just so old fashioned. You need to sit together in a room and mock up and code things together and do it in a very agile way,” she adds.

Part of the key to that is working with her team to make sure that everyone is giving out the same message, even doing internal customer satisfaction surveys to understand whether IT is being perceived as a trusted adviser.

“It’s about being that team you want to go to and want to work with, because we enable the business to achieve their objectives. That sentiment is how I’ll know if things have changed,” she says.

That’s a world away from Finch’s own experience as a COBOL programmer who was told not to ask questions. Of course, this change isn’t happening everywhere.

“There’s still a lot of organisations that have this traditional IT which is seen as a cost centre and back office that wouldn’t be an exciting place to work at. But more and more companies are now creating CIO roles that are proper business CIO roles that are at the forefront of innovation and entrepreneurship. And that’s certainly where we are at IFS,” she continues.

As Finch has progressed though her career, the industry has changed around her. “I fell into being a CIO by accident, because of the nature of how organisations were changing what they thought about IT and how they were getting so frustrated with this very siloed view of IT,” she says.

“I’ve been really lucky because I’ve been able to do what I like and what I’m good at, and the world has changed with me and that’s been incredibly helpful. Had IT stayed the same as it was when I first started, there’s no way I’d would be here now – I’d be doing something completely different.”

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