Insights From an Industry Leader – CIO Icons: Paul Coby

15 December 2022 by Tom Nunn

4 minutes (914 Words)

The annual CIO Icons event, held over two days in a closed-doors environment, invites some of the UK’s leading CIOs to discuss their current challenges and gain valuable insights from speakers and participants. And whilst the content is exclusively for attendees, we asked event presenter Paul Coby to let us in on some of his key takeaways from this year’s conference.  

Since 2001, Paul has been CIO at Johnson Matthey, the John Lewis Partnership, and British Airways. In all three companies, Paul had the distinction of being the first CIO appointed. His passion is enabling established companies to grow and thrive in a world transformed by digital technology. Since giving this keynote speech at the 2022 CIO Icons event, Paul has become Group CIO at Persimmon Homes.  


Over the past year, we have emerged blinking from the traumas of the pandemic into the perfect storm of escalating interest rates, the impact of Brexit, war in Europe, China in lockdown, energy prices out of control, and a looming recession on both sides of the Atlantic. 

All these factors interact with and multiply each other. As a result, our organisations have new and urgent priorities: cost savings are high on everyone’s agenda, as is managing disrupted supply chains. Debates about digital tech never used to echo around the government or FTSE boardroom tables, but digital technology matters more than ever before, with elements including: 

  • cyber threats 
  • data opportunities 
  • AI 
  • robotics 
  • the metaverse 
  • quantum computing

CIOs collectively ‘hold the keys to the kingdom’, in that our technical expertise is vital to almost every part of the enterprises we serve. Digital tech enables solutions to many of the current problems we face as a nation – sharing data to defeat disease, enabling mass vaccinations, managing energy costs for families and businesses – and underpins any national growth strategy. We are on every department’s critical path; our challenge is to help leaders understand that IT and digital tech are now front and centre in economic and business strategy.  

In 2020, seven out of the ten most valuable companies in the world were tech giants: Microsoft, Alibaba, Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Tencent; now they’ve lost around 40% of their value. In 2021, VC deals in ‘small tech’ topped $600 billion; now the value of the tech equity funds has fallen 40% to 50%. Doesn’t this feel like another bust – as we saw in 2000 and 2008?   

We should remember what happened after the boom and bust in 2000. Yes, the tech start-ups with crazy valuations went bust, but what happened to the real technology that had been built? The global networks enabled eCommerce on the internet. The web designers and business analysts who had built the start-ups had the skills to revolutionise the way we buy air and train travel, book hotels, and consume music. The ‘Agile Manifesto’ turned how we build new systems on its head, breaking down the barriers between business and IT. The delivery of the Web Revolution was executed by the CIOs of established as well as some new companies – not so much by the start-ups and investors. It was the ability of the CIOs of the bricks and mortar companies to deploy the new technologies in the real world that made the difference.   

We’re at a similar moment now in 2022, where the initiative in deploying new technology in the real world passes to us, the CIOs: from the tech providers to the tech doers. What strikes me most about being a CIO in 2022 – and in 2012 and in 2002 – is what has not changed. Technologies and suppliers have changed: we (mostly) build and support Products, not Systems; they (mostly) run in the Cloud, not our own datacentres; we work (mostly) in Agile ways, not Waterfall. But what has not changed are the fundamentals of IT.   

The reasons projects fail is not because they are using new technologies, it’s the familiar litany of human – combined with IT – failings:  

  • business sponsors not defining the problem they are solving with IT, 
  • consultants selling tech as the answer to what are really business process challenges, 
  • business and IT not working well together,  
  • misplaced optimism about unrealistic project timetables and costs – often as the result of arm-twisting to get projects approved, 
  • users not being properly trained to use the system, 
  • solutions not being aligned to what customers need. 

As CIOs, we are the orchestrators of effective change in business. In making change happen, human beings always matter more than the technology; we must therefore recognise that IT is a team sport, and CIOs are the team coach. However much you are determined to build a shiny new digital product for your customers, it’s almost certainly going to depend on a long-installed warehousing system or an interface with a legacy ERP. This means your key challenge is getting the parts of the IT function to work together to solve problems and then getting IT to work effectively with our business colleagues. As a result, I believe splitting up Digital and IT does not work in a single connected business.  

Business and IT alignment is vital. When business and technology work together, that’s when you get real-world solutions that can move mountains. There will neither be the funds, nor the justification, nor the capacity for change to do everything. Working with colleagues to agree what really matters is the vital task for today and tomorrow’s CIOs. 

For more information get in touch with Tom Nunn

For more information:


Tom Nunn

Head of Practice