Understanding the changing role of the modern CIO
Peers joined Linklaters in May 2015 after almost four years as CIO of consultant firm Deloitte across the UK and Switzerland. Having previously spent a decade in senior IT roles at Carphone Warehouse, Peers explains to Hot Topics how he is using his leadership experience to drive IT-enabled change at one of the UK’s biggest legal firms.
Peers believes the CIO’s role is far from being over – in fact, he believes the opposite to be true. Peers says many of the other c-suite titles, especially chief digital officer, were created by businesses to help push digital transformation initiatives.
He is not convinced the CDO is a long-term c-suite position, nor does he believe it is necessarily a stepping stone to greater things. For Peers, the CIO remains the key to IT and CIO leadership success.
“The CIO is a conduit between the technology that people use every day in their working lives and the executive leaders in an organization, and the things that they want to achieve strategically” he says.
“As a CIO, I’m operating as a plumber on one hand, who’s just keeping things running, through to an innovator, who’s trying to help the organization understand how it can extract value from its technology investments.”
Peers likens his role and method of CIO leadership to the leadership equivalent of a needle and thread. “More recently, I’ve become someone who’s a real advocate for business change,” he says. “I’m the conscience in the room around making sure we apply the right amount of investment to business change and the change in processes that are required.”
Placing security at the heart of good business practices
With experience of both retail and consultancy, Peers is now applying his knowledge to the legal sector. He says many of the challenges a CIO faces are the same, regardless of industry, particularly around information management.
Peers believes data security, for example, is always a key component of strong IT and CIO leadership. Yet there is work for IT experts to do. “I think security is one of those things that, as an industry, we’ve missed a trick on,” says Peers.
“If we’d put the same amount of effort into the security challenges as the hardware that’s been developed in the past decade, we’d have come a lot further. I don’t think there’s any shortage of products. But to our end users, these products add red tape and complexity.”
Help, however, is at hand – and it comes in the form of legal requirements. Peers recognizes the General Data Protection Regulation, which is due to enter application from May 2018, is helping to raise the profile of security, particularly at the boardroom level.
“The threat of the fine is real and it’s, therefore, a call to arms,” says Peers. “GDPR will help CIOs to get some investment around data storage, particularly in areas like meta-data and tagging, which I think organizations must improve, and to consider issues around data retention and how long information is kept.”
Telling great stories about technology
Security is not the only issue that CIOs need to promote internally. Peers recognizes communication is a key challenge for modern IT leaders and is a crucial aspect to modern CIO leadership. His advice to other technology chiefs is to get talking.
“I think one of my main responsibilities, is to be a storyteller,” he says. “That story is about being transparent and telling the truth. These stories need to simplify the benefits of technology and place them into everyday business language.”
The regularity of communication is crucial, too. Peers says other people across the business must be continually aware of the good work of the IT department. In an age of decentralized technology purchasing, it could be easy for line-of-business employees to forget the important role of a strong IT function.
Peers, however, ensures the technology team remains front and center. Such is his commitment to communication that he has taken senior executives to the firm’s operation centers. These managers are amazed at the work it takes to run a modern IT function and how it could be included in thoughts around CIO leadership.
“I don’t really struggle to communicate with senior stakeholders,” he says. “Telling stories to the broader business is a challenge. If I talk to our end users about technology, it can become one big blur. Users want stories that are context-relevant and delivered at exactly the right moment. Sending an email isn’t enough. You’ve got to get people face to face.”
Finding talented people to help the business change
Looking forwards, Peers has stories to tell about continued advances in technology, particularly around hyped areas, such as artificial intelligence. He has started talking to firms about the potential application of AI in his business.
Peers recognizes the potential of AI but also advises CIOs to be wary of the skill gap challenge that lies ahead. “Some of the legal work, where you can set simple rules, will very quickly become a commodity,” he says.
“Our organization must respond to that move through a skills shift. I wonder if we’ll end up in the future with multi-disciplinary teams. There may be some people who look like IT people today who end up working in our team with our clients.”
Peers suggests AI presents new requirements for information lifecycle management, particularly in regards to some of the areas he touched on above, such as security and data retention. As ever, great people can help his firm produce great results.
“I need people who can quickly and easily understand a business requirement and turn that into something that’s actionable,” he says. “I need people who can see an opportunity, make an improvement and then drive that change through.”