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Nordic CIO interview: Tommi Tuovila, Neste

Former Olympian talks to Computer Weekly about the challenges facing CIOs in a rapidly changing world

In the eight years since Tommi Tuovila became CIO at Finnish oil giant Neste, his job, the company and the world have changed dramatically.  

Neste is attempting to reinvent itself as a renewable fuels and sustainability company and Tuovila has overseen a digital transformation to support this mission. 

In the midst of all this came the Covid-19 pandemic and 2020 lockdowns.  

“It’s been a period of incredible change,” says Tuovila, a 20-year IT veteran and one-time Olympic competitor in archery.

“Looking at the challenges in the journey over the past eight years, the biggest issue is the sheer speed of change and the need to continuously balance the portfolio as we modernise our technical environment,” he says. 

Neste, which means “liquid” in Finnish, is one of the Nordic nation’s top five companies, with a turnover of €15.84bn in 2019, mainly from oil production and refining. It has operations in 14 countries.  

Neste runs a chain of more than 800 petrol stations across Finland and the Baltics. One-third of its revenues – and most of its profits – come from renewable sources, and the company is presently looking for ways to cut the carbon emissions of its activities, developing low-emission fuels such as “green” diesel and sustainable aviation fuel. 

To manage the IT needs of this diverse international structure, Tuovila oversees an internal team of 150 specialists, with much of the work done through outsourcing, which he says “is customary and the standard Nordic, Finnish style”.  

“The biggest challenge over the past eight years has been the sheer speed of change and the need to continuously balance the portfolio as we modernise our technical environment” 

Tommi Tuovila, Neste

Tuovila says his “short, crisp” job description is to “make sure Neste uses the right information technology in the right way to capture optimal benefit from digital information management”.  

IT backbone for digitisation

In pursuit of this goal, he has spent the past five years overseeing the creation of an integrated IT backbone to act as a platform for digitisation across the organisation. “We saw in 2013/14 that we needed to build a platform to accelerate digitisation. We did it from an architectural point of view, but it took a long time,” he says.  

The integrated backbone is based on the SAP enterprise resource planning (SAP) system. “It’s a major operational system – the kind of information system backbone which you can then build and accelerate digitisation on top.” 

The system allows IT to successfully deliver orders and monitor supply chains, materials and financial flows through the organisation even through periods of substantial change.

“We were successful at implementing systems in traditional ways and when Covid came we started thinking, should we stop the project? Can we carry out this kind of implementation in such a situation? And we decided, ‘yes we can’, and thought, ‘we will have to find a way, so let’s continue’,” he says. 

Its versatility has enabled remote project management, which has been invaluable during the coronavirus lockdowns.The integrated IT backbone has allowed remote rollouts of implementations across the company’s estate, which comprises operations, production, terminals and refineries. “I don’t know how many have even tried it before,” says Tuovila, who is proud of his unit’s performance through the pandemic. 

However, much of Neste’s work has continued in situ during lockdowns without remote working, as it operates critical infrastructure. Purely administrative roles have been done remotely, but Tuovila sees limits on a permanent shift to working from home. “There are things like brainstorming where every interaction is needed,” he says, and he believes this applies equally to IT.

Operate, plan, develop

“Moving forward with digitisation means the role of the IT unit will change,” he adds. “IT as a function will be more like HR, defining how things are to be done, but then individual business units make that work. Cross-functional teams will deliver these results rather than the IT division.  

“We see that kind of thing already happening – cross-functional teams are much better than ordering something from somebody from a third party,” says Tuovila.  

He sees IT strategy as “three plus one”, with the mantra of “operate, plan and develop” underlying all activities. The plus one is people. 

For Tuovila, the main challenge of IT is not technological, but creating a group ethic and team approach to understand the goals of IT and work out how to achieve them. 

“When we started, renewal was a big thing,” he says. “We have very good experts in the company, so I was very lucky to be able to build from the existing team. We have been able to renew the team by recruiting new talent and tailoring the team to what we need. Outsourcing opens up options to bring in the one-time skills from outside, but when you see those skills are needed in the long term, they can be moved in-house.” 

“The CIO position is very interesting because it is where you grow with the company. I see it as unlimited – everything is based on what you do and what you are enabling the company to do. It is a great position to be in” 
Tommi Tuovila, Neste

Before joining Neste in 2013, Tuovila had worked in IT roles at forestry company United Paper Mills (UPM), a power company and telecoms business Radiolinja, now Elisa. This has given him transferable skills that can be applied in different situations. 

“The CIO position is very interesting because it is where you grow with the company,” he says. “I see it as unlimited – everything is based on what you do and what you are enabling the company to do. It is a great position to be in – not just to deliver the same thing month after month, but learn new things and expand also personally.” 

Effort means results

Tuovila was a member of Finland’s 1996 Olympic archery team, which competed in Atlanta and came a respectable eighth. He no longer shoots arrows, but is a keen tournament paintballer – his team won the Finnish championships  – and he has taken part in Iron Man trials.  

“Sports as a hobby is important to me. It’s something that philosophically I use in my daily work,” he says. “It has taught me that there is a clear correlation between the effort you put in and the results you get out – and it’s not always about the amount. It’s the right sort of effort and the results you get.” 

Tuovila will need to keep his aim true as he faces the moving target of Neste’s rapidly transforming IT needs. 

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