Centrica CIO David Cooper, who was previously the CIO at subsidiary British Gas and will be leaving the organisation afer more than five years at the UK multinational utilities organisation, spoke to CIO UK about creating better customer engagement, current CIO challenges and what the future holds for the oil & gas exploration, energy supply and utilities company.

How have you been you trying to create a better customer engagement?
David Cooper: The drive to communicate with the external customers has been controlled by our business use but we have deployed certain technologies such as all the traditional ones people use like web chat, and so on. Internally we are pushing out Office 365, having already deployed Yammer and a number of technologies. A lot of this is still about relationships and if you think about building a great team and a personal relationship with the customer.

How are you creating a better business environment for your team?
David Cooper: The team originally needed to change and develop and I would hold a yearly IT conference where you would set out a strategy for everybody. Staff would come off-site and set out the vision and where we were going forward to ensure that people were understood and aligned better. We also tried to foster innovation through lunchtime brainstorming sessions in one case we handed out a few hundred raspberry PIs and said you have to build something we don’t care what it is, and out of that sprung a number of ideas. It changed people's perceptions and a way of interacting and thinking for the organisation in being far more innovative that it was before. It tended in the past when I joined to do what I was asked to do than looking at the whole problem space and coming up with other solutions and creating opportunities as well.

What technologies are you currently using to make your CIO workload lighter?
David Cooper: It's not necessarily tools I am using but mostly communicating with the people and making sure they understand. I am still a big believer in meeting people and talking to them. Transforming their lives and the company it makes a huge difference. You can message them and send emails but nothing has the same impact as meeting and sharing ideas and views in getting to understand the business. It's all about behaviours, fractions with the digital message being supplemented but we common tools can do that. What really makes the difference is people having the same shared vision of when you set the culture correctly and helping to lighten the work-load of a CIO because then you don’t have to interfere anymore. People will then do things that you want them to do and the direction you drive the business. A culture for what is necessary.

What challenges and opportunities do you face in your CIO role?
David Cooper: Most people think the challenges for a CIO lie around the technology; however, for an experienced CIO there are always many solutions and the appropriate one depends on your starting point, your vision and the economics of the product or service and company. For a CIO, creating an innovate culture is always a challenge. Many businesses can see the IS teams as just there to deliver what has been requested but that fails to capitalise on the company's largest asset and opportunity, which is the creativity of its people. Having created that IS innovative culture and generated ideas the next step is engaging the business teams to share the vision and the opportunity and this is often a challenge.

What have been your biggest achievements?
David Cooper: I've been in the role five and a half years and the biggest achievement has been changing the culture of the IT team. It's not technology, it's about making it more innovative and making them believe in their style because when I joined I think they were in a state of mind where they would build what they were asked to build and it wasn't always the right solution. They were quite a few issues and by changing the culture the ways we do things and opening their eyes more to new solutions and open source software about different kinds of ways in doing things. There was a dramatic cut in costs in £200 million in cash spend so it's huge but we deliver more than we thought because we understand the business problem better but the biggest thing is people are more confident and proud working at Centrica. With what we do with radical, revolutionary technology is the people and the team have such a confidence now compared to years ago where I have a proud and capable team.

What does the future hold for Centrica?
David Cooper: Centrica is quite a diverse business in oil and gas exploration; with what has happened to oil and gas prices who knows, but nobody can predict the downturn of energy. Now we are into generating power and trading, power stations, down streaming in B2B, B2C energy sales, services type businesses where we come and fix everything in connecting homes. I think there is diverse range of things and as a business there are ups and downs- somethings are doing well and not so well. I think the government is desperate to force more competition in certain areas like downstream businesses and we will have to adapt business models to cope with that.

The aspects which are difficult for other people to change are service type businesses because that requires the capability to mobilise them. In a concept type strategy we are trying to leverage our strengths while trying to react in a marketplace to still remain competitive. You can see from our share prices we have challenges and that is a tough thing to do in trying to react in the right way. We have a strategy that Centrica is following and trying to grow the areas where we have opportunity and strength.