Every mid-size company recognises eventually that it has outgrown the ad-hoc, local processes that allowed it to function from the startup stage. Whether a company stays within a single country or expands globally, there comes a point when the pieces have all gone their own way and a central hand and guiding strategy becomes necessary.

At Galderma, that realisation came eight years ago, when the dermatology specialist brought me in, knowing that the firm had a problem with IT management. Galderma is a relatively young company, formed in 1981 as a joint venture between Nestlé and L’Oréal. It’s on a fast growth path, operating in more than 30 different countries from a Paris-based centre, and when I arrived, the only consistent technology system in place was email.

My intended role at Galderma was to develop the central strategy and bring some coherence to the mess. The knowledge of how to do that – my strategic orientation, if you will – wasn’t something that I came to through chance.

I started in the IT field with Bristol-Myers in the UK, where I was lucky enough to work with a few business leaders who valued IT and information asset management, and who could see their long-term strategic value. My conversations with them helped more than anything to instil in me a general understanding of business strategy and the key levers for IT.

When you become a CIO, one of the best things you can do to advance your capabilities and your position is to actively seek out business partners like these, and in particular those with decision-making capabilities, and build a strong working relationship.

The point of real change in how I viewed my role and that of technology, however, came when I became involved in a visionary project to develop customer relationship systems for not only Bristol-Myers’ pharmaceuticals group but the whole of the company. Working closely with the leader of the project, our global director of sales force effectiveness, I had the opportunity to sit down and think about how IT could make a strategic difference to the company, from sales all the way through to the decision-making process in management. That experience changed my focus and role from being operational or tactical – where you’re thinking only about the next project and the delivery of services against agreed measures – to a strategist role where I was looking at the value of data in the customer relationship and the value of the information asset to the enterprise.

More than a makeover The environment I entered at Galderma was one that definitely needed help. In some ways, I’m still not sure that the people who interviewed me knew what their technology problems were, or what the business and IT strategy should be. They only knew that although they were functioning as a business, they could be doing so more effectively. They turned to me to create the glue for the company that would allow us to communicate and work as an efficient, fully profitable enterprise.

As soon as I arrived, I saw a clear opportunity to put in place a central strategy and instil an understanding of why such a strategy was important. With 28 ERP packages, we had a system from every vendor you can think of. Virtually every location had a different one, and that made it nearly impossible to centrally manage and use data in an effective manner.

We couldn’t afford to invest in a massive infrastructure replacement without approval from the business leaders who owned the country-specific systems. Getting that approval became the initial thrust of the IT strategy. I could tell the Galderma employees that a single system was important to the business, but I had to get people throughout the company to understand why, to see the value of a single system and to want to fund such a project.

The message I focused on was that data is an asset that when not managed properly becomes a millstone rather than something of value. I had to make it clear to those in the business units that unmanaged data rapidly spirals into something that everyone has to spend all their time translating and administrating, which means that there isn’t time for anyone to focus on delivering shareholder value. That was something they could take in.

My job has been to make sure that everybody on the business side understands the value of the project and why we’re investing in it. People have to know how this project affects their corner of the company, because that makes it personal. But they also have to see how it affects the bottom line, so that they fully grasp how the IT strategy plays into the health of the business. In this case the message has been that putting in place a single ERP is not just about having something as amorphous as “better technology”; it’s about the central leaders having transparency across units and being agile and flexible in using our resources across the enterprise.

Once you’ve started along the path of a strategic vision, you can’t become complacent. Development and execution of strategy is about not taking your foot off the gas. You have to keep pushing, even when you find yourself thinking that a tactical opportunity seems preferable to a long-term initiative.

At the end of the day, if you believe in your strategy, you’ve got to stick to it and even take the flack that goes with it. This will mean getting into disagreements over business priorities and compromising with business leaders.

Instilling a strategic central viewpoint at Galderma is a work in process, but while it’s taken eight years, understanding is taking hold. The money for a single ERP implementation finally became available in the last year and that project kicked off in January of this year. The fact that this project is going forward is, for me, the final tick in the box to say that our strategy is right, and that people now understand the value of data, the value of consistent information, and how the IT strategy -enables that vision.