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CTOs and CIOs, don’t do digital, be responsive

“I am now part of a small but growing group of execs that lead a portfolio life,” Ian Cohen tells the latest Horizon Business Innovation Live podcast. Cohen was speaking at this title’s Innovation Leadership Summit, the largest gathering of CIOs and business technology leaders in 2016 in the UK.  

Cohen “spent 16 years as a C-something, my last corporate gig was as Global CIO of Jardine Lloyd Thompson (JLT)” he says of a career that also included CIO roles at the publishers of the Daily Mail, Financial Times and leadership roles at Lloyds.


Since leaving JLT in 2014 Cohen has been working with startups and right through to large scale FTSE advisory work on what digital and the digital journey looks like for them. Amongst the organisations he has been involved in is Neos, the Internet of Things (IoT) insurance startup that featured in last week’s Horizon podcast.  In this presentation Cohen discusses how different the environments and ways of working are between large corporations are and the smaller organisations and why it is the small organisations that are causing so much disruption for large enterprises.

“The digital thing is so vague. If I asked 10 of you for a definition of digital I would get 12 answers,”

“What is interesting to me, is that in the last 16-years of my life things were sequential, I went to a company and built a team, we did a great programme and then I went to the next company and did the same thing and did it again, it was iterate, rinse and repeat,” Cohen says.

“What I do now is totally different and it is insanely networked and concurrent. Most of the companies I work with know each other and we often all work on bids together.

“And I have really had to adapt my style, I have had to be open to and able to flex to the needs of my clients. And interestingly that concept of being adaptable and responsive, those are the traits of the type of enterprise required or aspire to be in the 21st Century,” Cohen says.

“Everything is a bit different now and we need to change our approach,” he tells leading CIOs from major organisations.

“The biggest change is the shift from predictable to unpredictable and we live in really strange times,” he says using a picture of President Trump to demonstrate just how unpredictable 2016 was and 2017 looks set to be.

“You built for consistency and reliability and they were the backbone of success,” Cohen says of the environment business lived within during his 16 years in the C-suite. “For most of the 20th Century business has been about becoming efficient and then how can I do the same with less and can I grow…if I’m in manufacturing I build more plants; I go from national to regional to global. “It is the most inside out world we have ever lived in.

Its like English people on holiday, to be heard we shout, if they don’t like it we shout louder,” he jokes, but it is a situation, both in business and leisure travel we have all uncomfortably witnessed.

“The digital thing is so vague. If I asked 10 of you for a definition of digital I would get 12 answers,” Cohen challenges.

“I call it the Do Be Do affect,” Cohen says as he’s flanked by a massive screen of King Louie singing I Wan’na Be Like You in the classic Disney animated movie of 1967. “There are loads of firms doing stuff, they have lists and programme plans as long as your arm, they are hiring CDO and they are running to Accenture,” he says of how digital has permeated business culture and vernacular with no clear image of what it is, only that every organisation is talking digital, so there is a tendency to copy.

Questioning the value of working with consultancy businesses like Accenture Cohen says: “Why would you want someone else’s digital strategy?”

“Surely it is going to be our journey. They are doing this in the vain hope to do something. But strategy 101 is in order to change you have to be really clear about what you want to be. So I am sorry, I do not not know where the D word comes in.”

The central pillar of Cohen’s podcast and event presentation is that the approach needs to change because the challenger businesses that are disrupting markets are doing so not because they are digital, it is because of their approach.

“New business models are different, what happens in one geography instantly happens in another. It not about how big you are; it is how you adapt. It is not about you any more, it is about your competitors and who you partner with.  It’s not about building the same thing with ruthless efficiency, it is about how you iterate with new features not in months or years, but in 24 hours.”

Returning the world of the major enterprise Cohen describes (borrows) a great analogy of the world they now inhabit.

“You don’t know who your competitors are, they used to be large now they are small and agile.

Everything that used to be predictable is now unpredictable.

“The business models of the past were like searching for something in a well lit room. Everything was visible, so you just trace a path to it. The new world is different, it is a dark room and you can’t see the object you are aiming at.

“Now instead of big programmes and factories, you take smaller steps and you partner and collaborate. Small steps of incremental change that is the biggest change that has happened. Now we can receive absolute instant feedback from our customers and partners,” the former media CIO says of today’s business culture.

“So becoming a listening business with great radar to be situationally aware has become very important and being able to respond and react accordingly.

“Doing digital doesn’t have the resonance of becoming responsive. Let’s forget being digital, let’s be responsive, be agile. Why not stop using the D word, start focusing on the type of company and enterprise you want to be. I suspect that is one that is responsive, adaptable, with great design across every part of your business with a 360 degree view across all of your customers.

“If not go to Gartner and do BiModal.”

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