CBR catches up with the chief technology officer at business intelligence (BI) specialist Information Builders about innovation and evolving from a CFO to a CTO
I understand it is your view that it is critical for the CTO to have innovation in product development as his main focus. Can you start by expanding on this, please?
Absolutely. I am convinced there are far too many talented technology innovators who are put into structured, managerial focused roles within an organisation, which is a bad move in my view as this stifles the very sort of new thinking that could lead to the ‘next big thing’.
I wonder what credibility, if I you’ll forgive me using that word, you can have for making such a statement?
Not at all, it’s a perfectly legitimate question. Innovation has actually been a theme of my career since the start. I did my doctoral dissertation on decision theory, one of the foundational aspects of all computerscience, going all the way back to Von Neumann, but I specialised in the issue of the dispersal of innovation throughout organisations, how that happens and what its challenges are.
Interesting. So how did you apply that in practical terms in your own work in technology?
I have worked in a number of start ups, prior to me coming to Information Builders, where I was specifically recruited to head up a product management group here with a focus on looking to see how new technologies could help expand the business line.
I read here that you’ve also been a CFO? That’s not a very common career transition for a CTO.
I was a CFO for seven years, all told. I started installing a new information management system in a retailing start up I was involved in and it was a natural evolution.
I wonder what this combination of an interest in innovation and finances has led you to at IBI, then?
My task here is very much hands-on product management. I’d characterise it as all about helping to establish and foster innovation and change management. Myself and my team are looking at how we can identify the right new technologies and services that could integrate best with the established, Web-based BI we’ve been offering so successfully and develop that to successful conclusion of market acceptance, all the way to maintenance.
Give us an example?
We have been working on differentiating us as a BI vendor, to maximise the return on investment customers make with us by things like adding Web-based agents for content creation.
What do you see as the current role and contribution of business intelligence in the round?
I think we’ve all recognised that we need to move beyond simple reporting and delivery of that sort of information and make it more about the analysis of that information, making it into a real tool for decision making.
You don’t think it has been, so far?
[Pauses]: I see some issues around the way we tend in business to want to consume that information. I think there’s a lot of objective analysis that suggests a lot of CFOs make decisions, perhaps subconsciously, on the average values they find in their Excel cells.
I think we now know decisions based on averages lead to average results and performance, though. I see numerically controlled machines feeding precise data back to operators at the factory level, giving them very precise information about flaws and tolerance they can make instant, well-informed decisions on, and I think we need more of that in the wider business.
Perhaps we could conclude for today in a brief comment on how you would create such a situation, what you’d need me to do as CIO, perhaps?
One, work to tailor the format of the information to the needs of the users, not the other way round – most managers can’t handle documents longer than three pages if you want quick responses. Two, the quality of the information delivered is absolutely critical; it has to be the best you can get, though I also acknowledge we’ve been talking about this for 20 years and not got it right yet! And third, perhaps most important, you’ve got to establish a culture based on fact-based, numbers-driven decision making as far as possible.
Say I do all that…?
Sorry, you’re still not done. The future is analytics and decisions that enable you to master the future, not understand the past. All I’ll say at this point is that that’s the way stockbrokers work, and I think they may have a lot to each all of us in business. That could be the key to delivering innovation, in fact.