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CIO interview: Paul Coby, CIO, Johnson Matthey

Johnson Matthey’s CIO is working to create an agile IT department and says the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a company-wide appreciation of what IT does

When it comes to IT leadership, Paul Coby – former CIO at John Lewis Partnership and British Airways – has pretty much seen it all. With 20-plus years of business experience and a suite of non-executive positions to boost his knowledge, Coby has more awareness of the CIO role than most. In April 2018, he took on his latest challenge – CIO at Johnson Matthey. 

More than 200 years old, Johnson Matthey specialises in using advanced science to develop products that make the world a cleaner and healthier place, including the invention of the catalytic convertor for car exhausts in the 1970s. Many of the firm’s 15,000 employees are chemical engineers who use their specialist knowledge to solve real-world problems. 

Coby’s role is twofold: to establish the IT foundations that support how the existing company works, and to focus on how digital technology can be used to back the  company’s ambition around sustainable developments in pioneering areas, such as hydrogen power and battery materials for vehicles. 

“Thinking about how we can grow the company using digital technology is really exciting,” says Coby, who holds a broad remit, ranging from establishing IT infrastructure to investigating pioneering tech-led advances at the cutting edge of science. So does he enjoy the role? “Most of the time,” he laughs. “If a CIO says they enjoy it all the time, you’d be suspicious.” 

What is clear is that the past 12 months have certainly represented a significant challenge for all technology leaders. Last year, CIOs were charged with stepping up to the plate to help their businesses maintain normal operations in abnormal times. Coby is no different – and he tells a familiar tale of rapid digital transformation. 

“We moved 7,000 office employees to home working,” he says. “We deployed [Microsoft] Teams for 15,000 people. We were just about to press the green button for the roll-out at the start of March. We could see the pandemic coming, so we decided to go ahead – and we’re very pleased that we did and that technology supported the business.”

Helping the business rise to the challenge

Industry experts such as analyst Gartner suggest the rapid response to the pandemic has helped to bolster the reputation of IT departments. Coby says a similar uplift has taken place at Johnson Matthey. People across the company now have a much better appreciation of what IT does and the department’s importance to the business. 

“That’s a direct result of how everybody got stuck in when the virus hit,” he says. “People very directly understood how much IT mattered to the organisation and what it allowed at an incredibly basic level – which is, ‘I can still work’.

“If you’d previously said that we’re going to get everybody to work from home, it would have been debated in most organisations for three years. But we just did it, and the IT folks did it. I think IT has been absolutely fundamental at quite a visceral level for the organisation.” 

“Thinking about how we can grow the company using digital technology is really exciting”

Paul Coby, Johnson Matthey

The creation of an effective response to the pandemic has also involved some tough choices. In terms of the introduction of new systems and services, just over a quarter of IT investment was stopped once the impact of the virus became clear. Coby says his team slowed down some projects and totally stopped others that were deemed non-essential. 

“We were pretty decisive in that, and we had to be,” he says. However, stopping some developments in IT hasn’t meant the end of all pioneering projects. Coby says Johnson Matthey has “doubled down” in its investment in sustainable technology. For example, the company is building a plant in Poland for the production of battery materials for electric vehicles, and has also opened a new plant in Shanghai for auto catalysts.

The technology team has played a key role in supporting those developments, and is also helping the firm’s scientists push ahead with innovations in hydrogen fuel cells. “So as well as absolutely pulling back, I think we’re in a position where it’s still about executing the core strategy and, therefore, it’s about IT getting behind that strategy,” says Coby. 

Taking technology in a new direction

Coby looks back on his achievements since joining the business in April 2018 and suggests he has made progress in three key areas. First, making the adjustments to IT to create a solid base for business, something he says remains a crucial role for any CIO, despite the importance of helping the company to take advantage of emerging technologies.

“It’s about working to fix the basics,” he says. “That’s all about focusing on the experience of IT – and that’s why we were rolling out Teams. Before coronavirus, everybody relied on IT; after the outbreak, they rely on IT even more. Stable and secure platforms are really important to achieving that reliance.”

His second key achievement has involved pulling together a global IT organisation. Johnson Matthey has grown up as a set of different businesses around the world. Coby has focused on pulling that work together by creating a single global IT structure. He says that at the end of the day, it’s people that make businesses successful – and it’s people who use IT.

“People in the IT organisation needed to have the confidence about what their role was,” he says. “The company was investing in IT as a key enabler for our strategic future. So it’s building that team, building the leadership team, and then working with everybody here in terms of how we grow the talent and the skills.”

Coby’s third big achievement has been around using digital technology to support innovation. One of the things he draws attention to is the creation of an innovation lab incubator, where he has brought in stakeholders from around the business, decided on the projects that people wanted to prioritise, and the experiments that needed to be undertaken.

“Previously, we had this situation where different people and different parts of the business were looking at things like digital twins,” he says. “Lots of suppliers were looking to sell them lots of goodies. So we said: ‘Let’s pull this all together. Let’s have a really good experiment and proof of concept for different sorts of technologies and see how we can use them’.”

Embracing digital innovation

Coby says this collaborative approach to innovation has already produced some interesting results. He points to the example of the JM-LEVO Formaldehyde portal, which is a bespoke plant analytics and communication tool that helps Johnson Matthey customers to manage and adapt plant operations as conditions change. 

The online platform allows customers to view plant data and key metrics. Johnson Matthey experts provide guidance around this information to help customers optimise the production of the plant in a cost-effective and sustainable manner. This data-led guidance can help customers manage operational risks and long-term performance.

Johnson Matthey spends about £200m a year on research and development (R&D). Coby says the portal is an example of an interesting trend: the increasing influence of B2C services on B2B systems. He says digital technologies and interfaces with customers can be, and are being, applied to B2B markets.

“And it’s fascinating seeing those developments,” he says. “So we’ve got that portal live and it’s out there on the web. And we’re now rolling that approach out to other products, either in in the same area or in other parts of the business.

“As always, it’s going to be a two-way thing, but – if you think how fast the consumer markets in retail or travel and transportation have moved – there’s a lot to learn. Smart CIOs should keep scanning the horizon, not just in their own industry, but in others. Trying to think about what the potential opportunities are is really important.” 

Facing the future with confidence

That horizon-scanning message is something that’s critical inside Johnson Matthey’s IT organisation, too. Coby says his priority – more so now, perhaps, than ever before – is to make sure that the work of the IT team fits snugly with the priorities of the wider organisation, which encompasses sites and locations in more than 30 countries globally.

“The key thing is knowing our business agenda – how we get behind the innovative initiatives that Johnson Matthey is carrying out, such as supporting work on the hydrogen economy and getting the new plants for battery materials for electric vehicles,” he says.

To meet this objective, Coby aims to create an IT department during the next two years that is truly agile. He recognises that the concept of agility is nothing new to CIOs; IT leaders have been talking about the importance of agile methodologies for the best part of 15 years. But in a competitive post-Covid age, agility will be crucial to success.

“The reason it’s stuck as a key target for people is because it matters,” he says. “I think we’ve still got some way to go in terms of making IT really easy and flexible for our users. We’ve got users at one end who are doing absolutely leading-edge scientific research and we’ve got equally important users at the other end who are trying to ensure that their production lines keep going and are optimised.”

Coby says that continuing to provide the solid IT support for all of those various businesses is simply table stakes. But given Johnson Matthey’s ambitions around sustainability and getting new products to market, the IT organisation must continue to think about how digital technology can be used to add value to the company’s products. 

“So it’s about really looking into where the business goes and having those realistic conversations about what is affordable, what can be done and – crucially – what matters most,” he says. 

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