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CIO interview: Akash Khurana, CIO and CDO, McDermott International

Akash Khurana’s joint CIO and CDO role enables him to engineer a digital-led business transformation at engineering company McDermott International

Akash Khurana, chief information officer (CIO) and chief digital officer (CDO) at engineering specialist McDermott International, is aiming to use the power of digital transformation to change the company’s operational processes and customer experiences.

McDermott produce offshore and subsea facilities for oil companies around the globe. Khurana, who has been in his role for almost three years, is working with colleagues across the business to lead technology-based initiatives that are boosting organisational efficiency and effectiveness. 

“Once you take steps towards digitisation, change management across the organisation becomes much easier,” he says. “People feel part of the transformation. They see the benefits of the initiatives you are running and they are much keener to get involved.” 

Khurana joined McDermott in March 2015, having previously worked for oil and gas specialist Baker Hughes for two years after spending more than a decade in a series of IT leadership roles at engineering giant GE. Earlier in his career, Khurana gained experience of the retail sector in a senior architect role at Best Buy. 

“One of the advantages of working in a senior leadership role in technology is that your skills are transferable from one industry to another,” he says. “As you join a new sector, you must ramp up your skills and build your domain knowledge. But if you’re a strong technologist, you can figure things out and create new ways to deploy technology to create business value.” 

Khurana says he was excited by the potential to drive digital-led business transformation at McDermott. Change at the firm is all about creating consistent processes and standardised ways of running projects for its customers, he says. Technology underpins the transformation and is best viewed as a digital foundation, says Khurana. 

“When I heard about that focus, as a technologist I recognised the opportunity as a dream job,” he says. “I didn’t have a second thought – I grabbed the chance. And it’s been a good ride. We’ve been on an interesting journey so far. We’ve done a lot of work in terms of process improvements, business optimisation and tackling risk. 

“All that work is behind us now and we’ve built a strong foundation. We just need to figure out now how we continue to build on the platform we’ve created and to create the capabilities that help differentiate McDermott in the marketplace.” 

Dual leadership role 

Khurana is in the novel position of holding both the CIO and CDO roles at McDermott. He recognises the unusual nature of his executive position, but believes that holding both posts simultaneously offers a unique outlook across the business-focused priorities of a modern technology organisation.

“The CIO role is ever-changing and ever-evolving,” he says. “There has already been a transition from more traditional, back-office infrastructure management to a focus on enterprise platforms and creating business process optimisation. Now I believe CIOs are moving more towards driving actual business outcomes.” 

Khurana says this focus involves a shift from IT being a cost centre and instead becoming a revenue generator. He refers to key themes, such as overcoming business challenges, boosting customer experiences and impacting the bottom line. Those indicators should be used to track CIO performance in the future, he says. 

“We’ve gone past proving we can run the IT function,” says Khurana. “We must start thinking about how our activities have a direct influence on revenue generation. That’s why I have assumed the joint CIO and CDO role.”

“It is important not to mix the two roles and to not dilute the focus. There are synergies in terms of skillsets – both need to understand the digital stack and that’s where technical acumen comes in handy. Covering the CDO role too means I focus on how the business really builds its products, not only internal purpose, but also commercial value.”

“We must start thinking about how our activities have a direct influence on revenue generation. That’s why I have assumed the joint CIO and CDO role”

Akash Khurana, McDermott International

In terms of his key achievements so far, Khurana – who reports to the firm’s finance chief – points to the structure he has created to enable business transformation. That structure includes the people, the processes and the creation of an enterprise architecture that allows the IT team to help change the business for the better. 

“As I look back and see the success we’ve seen so far, I think the structure we’ve set up has been crucial,” he says, before suggesting that his second key achievement has been the creation of a balanced focus between tackling obsolescence and exploiting new platforms. His team has focused on systems that will help bring quick wins. 

“We’ve had to look at end-to-end processes and look at the different functions around the business to help us adopt technology,” says Khurana. “We laid out a strategy of how we wanted to deploy enterprise resource planning [ERP], for example. We went through a blueprint exercise, where we thought about ERP and how other technologies would be rolled out to help the company grow.”

His third key achievement, which goes beyond dealing with risk and building a foundation, has centred on keeping one eye on the future. “We introduced digitisation as a strategy in the company in early 2016,” says Khurana. “We are pleased with our pragmatic approach and the solution we are building fits well with how we have built technical foundations and tackled obsolescence.” 

Putting digitisation into action

The key lesson, says Khurana, is that his balanced, three-pronged approach to transformation – covering obsolescence, platforms and innovation – is a means to create long-term digital success.  The benefits are already being felt across the business, he says. 

“I look at technology as a key enabler for how we run our functions in the company and our operations,” says Khurana. “Technology is the glue that brings everything together. If you implement systems and services in the right way, where it’s not just a top-down approach and more collaborative, then technology can provide a significant advantage.” 

Khurana also points to technological developments in other areas. McDermott is using the cloud to drive agility, and is also working with technology specialist Alfresco to deliver open and connected systems. Khurana says the company is at the first implementation stage, which is focused on digitising existing paper-based records. 

McDermott’s history of project execution means the firm holds a considerable amount of documentation. The Alfresco digitisation project will help provide context around historical data and inform decision-making processes in key areas, such as engineering and construction. “It’s a new engagement,” says Khurana.

“We are currently working to complete phase one, but it’s all about building an ecosystem of trusted partners as we digitise. What we’ll aim to create is a record of best practices that we have used successfully in the past. We want these records to be accessible in a user-friendly manner.” 

Building a digital twin 

The key message, says Khurana, is that digital is much more than just the latest buzzword at McDermott. Wherever possible, he and his c-suite colleagues are keen to use the latest advanced technologies, whether that is application programming interfaces, artificial intelligence or machine learning, to drive lasting business change. 

“We have to think differently – we are approaching transformation with a born-digital mindset, even though we are a 94-year-old business,” says Khurana. “We want to tap into the ecosystem of third-party providers to increase the scale and pace of the digital products we are creating.”  

One of the most interesting areas of development concerns the launch of a digital twin of the physical oil platforms McDermott builds for its customers. The concept of a digital twin has attracted greater attention in the past 12 months, with Gartner suggesting half of large industrial firms will use digital twins by 2021, giving them a 10% boost in effectiveness. 

Gartner says a twin is a digital representation of a physical object, which also incorporates data from the object and the ability to monitor its use. The continued adoption of sensors as part of the internet of things (IoT) will help fuel the growth of digital twins. Businesses like McDermott can use the information to react to changing conditions quickly, particularly when it comes to customer services.

“Our customers should be able to use this digital twin to see everything that goes into the operations of that platform, from the specifications of the assets to the procedures to maintain those assets,” says Khurana. “They can also use this digital twin to monitor the health of the oil platform. 

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“One key area, for example, is predictive maintenance. We want to help our customers to get better, real-time knowledge that is stored in one form of the truth, otherwise known as the digital twin. We are in that product lifecycle now and the development of this service is an ongoing journey.” 

Even as the digital twin is being created, Khurana anticipates that the initiative will create a potential 15% boost to McDermott’s operational margins. The project is part of a long-term plan to help the company transform its business operations on an iterative basis. 

“Digitisation is just starting,” he says. “Even though we have been on the journey for a couple of years, there is still a long road ahead. We realise that and we are approaching our progression carefully.” 

Khurana says digitally enabled business transformation has already helped the firm to create stronger bonds with its customers. It is now sharing more knowledge with its clients than ever before – and he expects further pioneering developments over the next two years. 

“Success for us will be judged in terms of the digital products we build and the adoption and validation of those products, both internally and externally,” he says. “We will also continue to evolve. Digital transformation must be a continuous improvement lifecycle. You can’t just create a product and move on. The good news is that the approach we have put in place will allow us to adopt this iterative mindset.”

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