Robin Laidlaw: CIO lessons from the CW500 Club

As he steps down as president of the exclusive CW 500 Club for senior IT directors, former British Gas CIO Robin Laidlaw shares his insights on the challenges and opportunities facing the IT industry

"A two-year engagement that's lasted six," says Robin Laidlaw of his term as president of Computer Weekly's 500 Club for CIOs and IT directors.

The heart of the club lies in its membership, the frankness of discussions under the Chatham House Rule and the super speakers, says Laidlaw, who steps down as president this month.

""It has been fun because of those who attend the meetings each month. Senior people in the IT profession speak openly about their hopes and fears with lively debates with industry peers on topics of the day," he says.

Few interventions have been necessary, but in 2002 it was clear the CW500 Club needed to get some sponsors involved and someone to take charge of the meetings.

"The organisers were trying to do it all, which was not a good recipe for control. An independent president of the club seemed the logical solution," Laidlaw says.

Having stepped into the breach on one occasion when the organisers were stuck on a train near Peckham, Laidlaw was the obvious choice.

As a former British Gas CIO and board member, he had the contacts, insights, gravitas and industry experience necessary for the role.

Success he ascribes to the open format of the meetings and strict avoidance of marketing pitches from sponsors.

"No whiteboards, no slide presentations - just informal talks by leaders in the sector that rarely fail to draw questions and spark debate," says Laidlaw.

Highlights have included discussions led by IT chiefs Nick Gaines of BAA and Paul Coby of British Airways and headhunter Cathy Holley, a partner at executive search specialist Boyden.

Changes

Laidlaw has seen quite a few changes during his tenure, particularly in technology innovation, but not as much in the way technology is sold into or managed by business organisations.

"Technology has just got so much better. It is more responsive and reliable. Unfortunately, management has not demonstrated the same, and neither have suppliers," he says.

This observation is based on not only the past six years as president of the 500 Club, but almost a quarter of a century working in IT.

The internet is one of the most significant technological advances, says Laidlaw. It has transformed the way we do business, enabling new ways of sharing information and selling goods.

New opportunities enabled by technology are not always communicated well to the business, mainly because many organisations still view IT chiefs merely as data processing managers.

This outdated view makes it difficult for heads of IT to play a more meaningful role in the business by demonstrating how IT can improve processes across silos in an organisation.

Many CIOs are still prowling outside the boardroom door, says Laidlaw. But even if they are allowed in, it is meaningless without the overt support of the CEO to drive lateral change.

Project success

Many CIOs and business heads are also failing to realise that massive, fully-integrated, single roll-out projects rarely, if ever, succeed, says Laidlaw.

This has been proven by CIOs speaking at the 500 Club who had the position and power to drive through massive projects and still hit problems when the projects went live.

Laidlaw says the answer lies in "managing the manageable" by taking a bite-sized approach in a common architecture that enables the sequential integration of successive parts of an overall application.

Another key organisational problem is the tendency of the business to ask for changes mid-way through an IT project.

CIOs need to be able to either get the business to stick to the original specifications or to share the risk of any changes. Most CIOs tend to absorb the risk, but this must change, says Laidlaw.

Sharing the risk is also an area that suppliers have failed to address as new technologies have changed the delivery model. They have not done much to develop risk and reward sharing approaches to the supply model, says Laidlaw.

This is a missed opportunity to engage with IT and end-users in a collaborative way to meet real business needs, instead of the old quota-driven one-size-fits-all box-shifting approach.

What will not change, is Laidlaw's support for the CW500 Club. He plans to return to being an enthusiastic back-bencher in future discussions and debates.

Computer Weekly 500 Club brochure >>

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