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CIO interview: Gerard Spans, Arcadis

The CIO of the Netherlands-based global design and consulting company tells Computer Weekly how he manages the three responsibilities which he sees as the future of his role

Gerard Spans, CIO of Netherlands-based global design and consulting company Arcadis, is not only responsible for delivering traditional IT services such as applications and IT infrastructure to 27,000 internal users. He also manages a large business transformation, as well as the digital offerings for the company’s clients.

“I had these three areas of responsibility in my previous jobs as a CIO, and to keep them was a prerequisite for me joining Arcadis. The reason is, I believe these three areas are the foundation of the future CIO role in any global company,” he says. 

Before joining Arcadis in January 2013, Spans was the first CIO of Dutch technology company Philips Lighting, and then CIO of British-based beverage can maker Rexam.

At Philips Lighting, the business transformation part of the role primarily amounted to helping the company change market focus, and at Rexam it was all about rapidly harmonising the production and changing the business model, says Spans.

Managing business information

“At Arcadis, we are going from a locally operated business to a global design and consulting company. I have created a blueprint for this called The Arcadis Way, and this new global way of working will be rolled out in the coming two years,” he adds. 

One of the biggest challenges Spans expected to meet during the transformation was to change the mindsets of the employees. “Many Arcadians are used to working regionally, but due to an increasing demand from our clients, our projects will be more and more global,” he says. 

“That will mean that if you are a Dutch person with expertise in water, you can be working for clients in the US or Asia, wherever we need the specific water expertise for our clients.”

The importance of digitisation

Arcadis is taking advantage of digital solutions to make it possible to collaborate from a distance, but that is not always good enough, according to Spans.

“We use it as much as possible, but when our clients request our people on location we need to relocate them permanently, or for the project assignment. You do not get a job at Arcadis because you are of a certain nationality and living in a certain country – you get a job because of your competences,” he says. 

The toughest challenge when it comes to driving the digital agenda in the company is to get people to recognise the importance of digitisation in the design and consultancy services, he says.

“The rise of digital ... creates new opportunities to design smart buildings, using sensor technologies. It could also mean using drones to explore work we perform in environmental remediation. And big data will enable us to provide better business analytics to our clients, helping them become more successful in their markets.”

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Outsourcing IT services

The third part of Spans’s responsibilities, Arcadis’s traditional IT services, is also going through a big change. 

“We are outsourcing our IT infrastructure services, because we are not the best at running platforms. If you are the best at delivering certain IT services, you should make a business of it,” he says. 

“Some CIOs believe they are better at running things in-house than the competition, but I don’t believe that. I know that we, for example, can’t compete with AT&T when it comes to running networks and datacentres, or with Accenture on certain application services.”

All of the company’s internal IT services are also moving to the cloud, says Spans. “Our cloud-first strategy has been very successfully implemented for all our collaboration solutions, in partnership with Microsoft. We are also rolling out our global Oracle solutions in the cloud. This is a hybrid solution, with public and on-premise clouds.”

Today, Arcadis has approximately 330 employees working with IT, located all over the globe. Of them, 30 are working with digital solutions for Arcadis’s clients, and about 300 with delivering internal IT services. “The number of people in traditional IT has already gone down, and it will reduce over the next couple of years,” says Spans. 

At the same time, the number of IT employees delivering digital solutions for clients is growing. “I would love to see the team grow to double its size, and I think it will, because the staff are very good at delivering value to customers.”

Examples of digital solutions for clients are a programme management solution for financial services; design collaboration platforms, using building information modelling (BIM) technologies; an e-learning platform; and business intelligence (BI) solutions. 

“I meet people from the digital solutions team every day, to make sure that they deliver what we promise,” he says. 

The most important lesson Spans has learned during his 10 years as CIO is that it is up to the CIO to create the possibilities. “You have unlimited opportunities to support the business in all areas – you can make a lot happen.”

To be able to do this, it’s vital to follow developments in the IT industry closely. 

“I meet with inspiring leaders, such as Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, and Aaron Levie, co-founder and CEO of Box, who give me insights on where the industry is heading. I’m very well connected to my partners, such as AT&T, Accenture, and Oracle, and this is how I get the opportunity to talk with knowledgeable people,” says Spans. 

“This is very important – the speed of change is so fast, and I have to be able to apply the new possibilities and absorb them into Arcadis,” he concludes. 

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