Interview with Tony Scott: Digital Transformation and the Changing Role of the CIO

2 October 2020 by Jack Denison

9 minutes (2539 Words)

Tony Scott is a seasoned CIO who has been working in information technology for over 30 years. Beginning in his native Australia, Tony’s work as a graduate software developer for Logica brought him to the UK where he subsequently co-founded his own technology consulting company in the City of London. After helping grow this over ten years as CTO to 120 employees, Tony joined bigger competitor Conchango (later acquired by EMC) where he became Head of Software Development. Tony then shifted his focus to the architecture, engineering and consulting (AEC) industry in which from 2012 he held senior digital leadership roles including Global Head of Enterprise Architecture, Group Digital Transformation Director and regional CIO in Arup, Atkins and WSP respectively.

Tony is currently the CEO and CIO of NeuralRays AI, a 70-person data science and artificial intelligence company he co-founded in 2018 with a vision to develop “solutions for a better world”. Tony has a wealth of experience within the technology sector, so I was eager to sit down with him (virtually of course!) to discuss lessons learned, digital transformation and the role of the CIO in a post-COVID world.

Lessons Learned

I asked Tony – as someone who has achieved impressive progression throughout his career – if there was anything that he would have done differently.

“Letting go of something can be really hard, but sometimes you need to know when it’s time to walk away.”

He elaborated:

“It could be anything from a client you’re really keen to work with but deep down you know is never going to engage, or an idea you’ve long been championing that you come to realise is unlikely ever to see the light of day.”

But this isn’t always an easy task!

“I think I’m particularly good at persevering with initiatives to see them through. But equally, it’s really hard sometimes to spot the ones, especially the ones you’re really passionate about, in which you just need to learn from and move on.”

“I’ve had a long spell in the corporate world, but I’m really loving building my own company again. Having great business partners, and a truly inspiring team around us, makes every day a special and exciting one.”

I wanted to find out a little more about what Tony’s experience in building his own companies has taught him.

“We started [NeuralRays AI] with so many ideas, and so many products we wanted to work on. But you do need to pivot when circumstances change, or things turn out unexpectedly, which can happen a lot in the world of a start-up or scale-up business.
“Driving the company, and especially as its CEO, it’s really crucially important to be able to pivot, and at the right time, because you have so many people depending on the decisions you and your leadership team make.”

“Fail fast and fail cheaply.”

We then moved on to discuss the best pieces of advice Tony’s been given throughout his career.

“I was once told that ‘to err is human, but to err the same way twice is just plain stupid’. The key message is not to punish failure – of yourself or the teams you lead – but always, always to learn from those failures so you don’t end up repeating them.

“Of course, succeeding is always better, which I once had to remind a product team that seemed just a little too wedded to the failing and learning concept! But we must recognise that even the best people fail sometimes. Just do it quickly and build on what you learn.

“This is why agile and lean principles are so important – whether you are a start-up or a large multi-national. I hope coming out of the pandemic, with there being a much greater appetite now for digital transformation, that this is going to be the case in most organisations.”

And equally as important:

“When I moved into my first team leadership role, a senior and quite inspirational colleague told me that leadership is not about making people do what you want them to do, it’s about inspiring them with your vision. And then they just do it anyway.

“It’s a principle I’ve kept close to my heart in all my leadership roles. When I look back on the roles I feel I’ve been most successful in, that’s very much been the case – I’ve had a team around me really inspired by a shared vision, and it’s such a rewarding thing being able to step back and just watch them getting on with implementing it in their own unique ways. And the real benefit here is that this form of leadership is massively scalable too.”

The Role of the CIO

“The CIO role is dead. Long live the CIO!”

Technology, and the world around us, are changing at an ever-increasing pace. Considering how this is impacting organisations and their business models, I asked Tony how he thinks the role of the CIO is shifting and the direction it might take in the future.

“The old model of the CIO as simply the head of IT should, I think, now be consigned to the history books. The role I’ve aspired to, whether supporting the CIO or as CIO myself, is that you need to see yourself, and genuinely be, a business leader first and foremost.

“The traditional view of the CIO has the role reporting to the CFO, which of course makes IT largely a cost centre in which you are incentivised primarily to drive down costs year-on-year. But to me, in forward-looking organisations the CIO will report directly to the CEO. This means having a seat at the so-called top table, where you are the member of the C-suite who really understands the impact of technology on the firm’s future … on where disruption might be coming and what the company needs to do to adapt its business model to that. And if that person isn’t the CIO, then who is it?”

But in your experience in the corporate world, how can this be achieved on a practical level?

“This vision will only succeed if the rest of the C-suite buy into this vision of the CIO role. Yes, there might be a Chief Digital Officer, or a Chief Innovation Officer, or even both, but I strongly believe these roles are short term and ideally need to be seen as the remit – and the expectation – of the modern CIO.

“Yes, key transactional IT work is still absolutely foundational and has to be done as well as ever. But you need the person, or people, heading this up to be reporting to the CIO. In this model, the CIO retains accountability for IT, but is free to think more strategically for the benefit of the business at large. I do hope that, coming out of the pandemic, it is this newer view of the technology leader helping drive the business forward that will be associated with the CIO role.”

Digital Transformation

“Digital is more about outcomes than it is about technology, which is merely an enabler.”

As a lot of Tony’s work has centred around digital transformation in the workplace, I asked him for his top tips for making rapid change within a business.

“My focus has always been about outcomes rather than the technology that achieves them. You need to know your client and their needs, sometimes even aiming to do so better than your client does. Where you excel with digital innovation, then, is in achieving outcomes that were previously considered too difficult or even impossible, or that no one had even imagined previously. This is where design thinking and other more creative skillsets prove themselves just as important as the more technical ones.”

“I’m a great believer in what I call ‘bottom-up ideation combined with top-down prioritisation’.”

Elaborating on his bottom-up, top-down ideology, Tony continued:

“Often the best evidence for change comes from the bottom-up of an organisation, from those doing the day-to-day work that generates the revenue and makes the business function. These are the people in touch with the changes that will deliver the most beneficial outcomes, and it’s crucial that they are consulted and feel part of any business change process. This evidence from the bottom should then be played back to the senior stakeholders, who in traditional and still commonplace models are the ones normally consulted about their requirements for change. In my model, these senior leaders instead use the bottom-up evidence, coupled with their better view of the overall business dynamics, to prioritise where change efforts and resources should be focused. This model works, as everyone from top to bottom feels they’ve played a part in the change process.”

“I suspect ten years of digital transformation happened in 2020 in just a couple of months.”

Tony has long been an advocate of the “digital workplace”, which he defines simply as being about “any device, anytime, anywhere working”. He adds that work should be “what you do, not where you’re at, as in ‘I work for a company, not at a company’”.

How has COVID-19 catalysed thinking about the digital workplace?

“It was really tough before Coronavirus to get organisational leaders to think differently, especially when most were wedded to very traditional views of office-based working. Recognising people as individuals who are productive in different ways at different times has been a key driver for me. So, part of this has been about transforming the physical view of working into a digital one, sometimes also called a virtual or modern workplace, that offers people more flexibility in how they achieve the required outcomes of their work. This is not just about home working, but really equipping people with the tools and means to work pretty much from anywhere at any time. And key to this has been a recognition that offering people a better work-life balance actually makes them happier, and happier people tend to do better work.

“But yes, it does sort of blow me away, having led multi-year digital workplace change programmes, to see so many companies adopting virtual working as the norm almost overnight. Much of the credit here must go to CIOs and their IT teams, as well as key technology players such as Microsoft, Google and Zoom.

“However, the other equally big area for me that underpins the digital workplace, and that I fear is getting far less attention, is around knowledge management. Organisations should strive to become single global learning organisations, with their collective historical knowledge on tap for the benefit of all of their staff. This requires dedicated work around information architecture, enterprise search and more.”

Tony then went on to provide a key pointer for businesses undertaking digital transformations.

“I’m a technologist at heart and, as much as I hate to admit it, the technology aspect isn’t the most important part of digital transformation. Far more significant, and much harder to influence, are the human behavioural and cultural aspects of change. The real differentiator for me in the digital age is what you do with emerging and innovative technology. Standing out from the crowd here, as a person or a company, brings human traits to the fore such as creativity, empathy and leadership.

“To survive and grow out of the pandemic, organisations need to be emerging from it as better versions of what they were before. The most important thing for me here is cultural change, supported from the top down. I suspect, though, that for many this will be the hardest thing to achieve.”

A Post-COVID World?

“In some ways, my greatest fear for companies and the pandemic is that once we are through it many might just end up going back to their old ways of working. I hope I’m wrong.”

Although Tony does hold concerns about the longevity of new measures taken in recent months, he firmly believes that “the case for digital transformation, digital technology and the digital workplace has now been made.

“Across the world, it has been shown that major change can be done quickly. It’s fascinating for me seeing how technology and the CIO role are going to be appreciated and viewed. Companies should be more open to technology-led innovation in the future – they’ve seen it happen and know that it works.

Tony then posed an interesting theory:

“Imagine if this new way of working had already been the norm – people productive from their homes through virtual meetings and online collaboration – and then someone came up with this radical new idea: let’s go and commute an hour or more each way and sit crammed in an expensive office, all day, every day! Would many people jump at that? I suspect not, which makes it all the more surprising when I hear of some companies planning on doing just that.

“But there are undoubtedly benefits of being physically together with colleagues, sitting around a table with a whiteboard and the creative juices flowing. I just think we need to find a sweet spot in the middle where we have the freedom to come together when it suits, and also for general team building and camaraderie, and outside that to let people work from where they are individually most productive and happy. Just as I’ve been advocating for most of the last ten years!”

At present it is difficult to assess what will happen when the pandemic dies down. If there’s one thing that can stay in the past though, according to Tony, it’s excessive budget planning.

“Every 12 months you’d have a new budget. But you’d start the planning process for it six months before the start of the financial year, so effectively you’re having to look into a crystal ball up to 18 months ahead. The organisations that will succeed in tomorrow’s world will be those who can break free from this rigid and traditional financing model by adopting more responsive, lean and agile innovation-type budgeting models.”

“It’s all about data, isn’t it?”

In his final thoughts, Tony explained the reasoning behind creating NeuralRays AI.

“Creating ‘solutions for a better world’ was, and remains, our mantra. We wanted to move on from some of the more negative stories we were hearing about AI back in 2018 by shining a light onto the whole world of innovation and digital technology. It’s those positive uses of AI, and all done on an ethical basis, that we seek. What is really pleasing is that our clients are looking for just such applications of technology themselves. It’s an exciting and genuinely rewarding area in which to be doing business.

“We’ve bet our company on a long-term aspiration to exploit data in innovative ways for creating positive human and business outcomes. Considering the pandemic, with its ‘R’ number and all the other daily government statistics, the case for data and evidence-based decision making has now undoubtedly been made. It really is all about the data, then, isn’t it?”

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Jack Denison

Director - Global Head of Executive Search and Interim Management