"IT doesn't exist any more. We don't have IT."
Mike Faiers is the eBusiness Director of BSH Home Appliances Limited, a large company wholly owned by Robert Bosch that boasts a number of market-leading domestic appliance brands, including Bosch, Siemens, Neff, and Gaggenau.
In a wide-ranging and fascinating conversation with CIO UK editor Edward Qualtrough Faiers told us about his vision for driving and supporting digital innovation throughout BSH. He describes an eBusiness department that has successfully merged the IT and digital functions, and is now a consultative enabler of change rather than just a service that fixes things. He talks about an exciting future for BSH as a customer-centric developer of connected products that enhance people's lives.
Faiers has learnt a lot in his career and his time with BSH, and offers valuable advice for all disruptive CIOs. He talks about the value of finding good agencies and suppliers, and building good relationships throughout your organisation and beyond. He urges technology leaders to employ good people and support them, whilst focusing on what you are good at. But the key message of all of our conversation with Mike Faiers is simple: think big.
Digital and IT as one
We began by asking Mike how he came to head up the eBusiness team at BSH. This is, after all, not a typical CIO job title.
"My background is varied," he said. "I had about three years working with an IT service provider, initially in sales and then moved on to head operations. I then moved to Audi for around six years. Initially I launched the Audi R8 into the UK, and then I moved into the digital world and managed all of Audi's digital presence online.
"I joined BSH about four years ago. My brief was to create a team of digital experts. We were the guys that looked after the websites. We introduced social media: Facebook pages and Twitter and YouTube. We built some apps. Then I was appointed eBusiness director."
So what does an eBusiness department do, we asked. The answer will be relevant to all CIOs who are helping to digitally transform their organisations into taking a customer-centric approach.
"We're definitely not a typical 'IT' department. We are what used to be 'digital' and what used to be IT, in one team.
"To start with we had two very different teams who in theory had a lot of overlap and interactions in the projects they ran and the mindset of the people. But they were two very separate entities."
We asked Faiers how he addressed this schism. "I started by reviewing all of the systems and the processes. I then restructured the department, focusing on my experience of consumer-centric delivery.
"In the digital world we're dealing with the end consumer, but from an IT perspective we're dealing with our internal customers. They're the same people. You want to interact with them and give them the same level of great service. We shifted everything around to focus on this, asking how can we better understand our customers, and how can we help them?"
This is, of course, a core strategy for many digital leaders. But it is not easy to enact such change within an established and successful organisation. Faiers gave us some insight into how he drove through this shift.
"The biggest change was a change in mindset. In a traditional IT mindset we're the doers. We get something and we implement it. A lot of the change was to say doing it is the easy bit. We want to be the consultants and the experts that are involved in the ideation right at the beginning to involve us then because we can add value, rather than waiting until the eleventh hour and asking us to do something and we say 'No' due to policies, guidelines or not following the correct process. Then you're a firefighter. You are fixing problems rather than having a strategic vision from the start.
"The business had known IT in its previous form for many years, and people were used to the way we operated. It's taken a lot of work to reshape us and create what we are today. Now we have one department responsible for all of our infrastructure and everything that goes with that, the devices, all of the systems, whether it's SAP or our own bespoke systems, e-commerce, innovation, digital and CRM. Everything's in one team.
"Our mindset is that we're consultants, we're experts, we advise and guide the business."
Selling digital to the wider business
Which is all very well within the eBusiness team. But how do line of business colleagues react to that? Is 'digital' seen as valuable a function as was IT? We all know of CIOs who have had to convince a wider business that digital is not just graduates messing about on social media.
"The important thing is relevance," says Faiers. "Making digital tangible and meaningful to the business. It's easy to sit in an air-conditioned office and look at apps. How do you make that meaningful to the wider business so they get the value of it?"
The key then is to innovate in such a way that you are putting strategic tools into the hands of business leaders, to help them solve problems and move their businesses forward. Innovation as a service.
"Innovation is a big work stream for us at the moment," says Faiers. "We run hacks. We do proof-of-concepts and try to be a really forward-thinking team. Getting the wider business to understand the possibilities of what you and they can do with digital."
And this helps the credibility play. The eBusiness department is now solving problems for functions throughout the company, and this in turns is changing a mindset in the wider business.
"The old idea is people sitting in an office and thinking: 'We've got a problem, how do we come up with a solution?' says Faiers. "It's totally different now. It's flip charts and white boards, and getting people in that have no experience of that specific issue, but have the skills and ideas to come up with a resolution. Some of the best ideas are off-the-wall.
"The transition is from IT guys that say 'no' because of processes, systems, and policies, to people you want to involve from the beginning and ask them their advice because they can help make it better."
Faiers is keen to point out that his eBusiness department couldn't have changed their wider perception without buy in from senior leaders.
"The support of our CFO and CEO really helped drive it," he says. "Buy-in from the very highest level."
But he must take some credit here, by taking early innovations and ideas to senior leaders, in order to help them to see what can be done rather than what must be done.
"Proof of concept is more than enough to demonstrate what's possible and the thought process behind something. Just because we say it's an innovation, it doesn't mean we have to go and build a lab. It can be as simple as wire frames and some mock ups to say 'If we wanted to, this is the route we could go down'."
So in order to change the external perception of the eBusiness team, how did Faiers change the mindset within the IT function? Same as ever: repetition of the right message.
"A lot of that change in mindset is due to determination. Repeatedly saying to people: 'IT doesn't exist anymore. We don't have IT'. Of course we have a service desk function and we repair computers and the traditional IT skill set is still there. It's a key part of what we do. But there's a lot more to us than that.
"A big part of the mindset change was about building a critical mass. We rebranded. We don't talk about IT anymore, everything is 'eBusiness'. We do a lot of rebranding ourselves so people know who we are. In the old world, people used to email the engineers or the guys on the infrastructure team directly, whereas now everything goes through a central service desk. It frees up their time to be more visible. To be consultants within the business."
But even once you have convinced IT professionals that they are consultants rather than a support service, how does Faiers encourage creativity and innovation? You can't train people in innovation, although you can support them to be so.
"I don't think innovation is something you need to be trained in, I think it's something you need to be passionate about," says Faiers. "The bit that needs training is how to translate tech into something that's business-orientated. If you like tech and you're interested in, for example the new iPhone, and what could be possible with the HTC Vive, then you're halfway there. All you then need to do is merge that passion and enthusiasm to translate that into something that's business beneficial. It's not rocket science.
"I would never stop creativity. I'd rather somebody came to me with 10 horrendous ideas and then one absolute gem, rather than them waiting for me to give them all the ideas. You should also do some things just because you can and to inspire other people about what's possible. I don't think that's a bad thing."
A lot of this speaks to management style - a critical part of any leader's armoury. We asked Faiers to comment on his style of management.
"I'm very keen to develop and experiment. I like a fast-paced environment, so we can develop and launch something and then improve once it's live. But I'm also a great believer in empowering the team. I employ experts and let them get on with the job, give them the tools they need, and listen to them.
"And I believe in raising the profile of what we do in the wider business so people understand the value of involving us at the beginning."
Impacting the business every day
The eBusiness team employs around 20 people. And they employ a roster of key agencies including a mobile and innovation tech agency. The future is full of big opportunities, projects, and models. But how is the team's change impacting the business day-to- day?
"There's two examples I would use," says Faiers. "The first of which is replacing a critical internal system. I won't go into details now, but it represents a significant milestone in terms of our approach and our interaction with the wider business.
"In the old days we would've understood the business requirement and then gone away and developed the tool. We'd have rolled it out and handed it over to the wider business. That's totally different now - we've got multiple stakeholders at every level across the relevant business functions. We've also got our colleagues in Central IT and Global Supply Chain, all working together on one project. It's a really positive step forwards.
"What this means is that we're engaging everybody, everyone's aware of what we're doing, there's total buy-in, total alignment. We're all united in what we want to achieve. And we're challenging each other to make sure we're still on the road to delivering what we've set out to achieve.
"The days are gone of a brief coming into IT and IT making a solution and giving it back to the business. It's much more consultative right from the beginning, all the way through."
And then there is innovation.
"As part of launching eBusiness we created an innovation team who run hacks, build proof of concepts and champion 'tech' in the business. We are at a point where we're inspiring and engaging the wider organisation. People are now talking about the possibilities of what can be done.
"We get people coming up to show us new things. We've developed a show room app that uses iBeacons. We're developing an employee companion app.
"We're going to build an innovation lab so we've got somewhere to showcase new tech, and not even stuff that's necessarily directly relevant to our business, but to inspire people about what else is possible. Actually a lot of the stuff that's possible in some way can be translated in value back to the business. That, I think, is what's really exciting.
"What this work stream is, and what this team offers is, a framework to tease ideas out of the wider workforce, and actually do something with them. We're seeing a lot more ideas, a lot more proof of concepts.
"People thrive off the feeling of being part of something bigger." (See also: Evolution of the CIO - From IT gatekeeper to strategic business leader.)
Of course you can't innovate without having the tech tools to build new things. So we asked Faiers for some specifics on what tech is driving change at BSH.
"AR [augmented reality] is a great example. There are a whole range of appliances available that you will never be able to see in one retail space without using AR. And you can see what an oven looks like in your kitchen at home rather than in the store.
"iBeacons are a really interesting approach, too, augmenting a retail environment and bringing that content to life."
He also feels that being able to demonstrate the full capabilities of BSH's products requires some level of virtual or augmented reality, and personalisation.
"There's so much technology in domestic appliances and bringing them to life in a meaningful way is sometimes difficult. Your buying cycle for a domestic appliance can be 10 or 15 years. Everything has moved on significantly since you last bought an oven, so suddenly being put into that environment and needing to research and understand why you would buy a particular product is quite challenging. Technology can be used to better explain and bring to life new features."
That's the tech that is driving digital change today in the way products are purchased. But Faiers also sees the connected home as a driver for change within BSH's products themselves.
"We have a range of connected appliances that use HomeConnect. Although we are a very consumer-centric organisation, generally we only really hear from people when they need spare parts, they need more information, or if something goes wrong. The connected home means that we can now get closer to the consumer, to build a relationship with them and really understand what they need and how we can best help them.
"Domestic appliances seem to have a much higher demand for being connected than most other areas. There really does seem to be an appetite for it. We've got a fridge with cameras so you can see if you need a specific product when you're in the supermarket. You can also manage the temperature remotely – who knew a fridge had a holiday mode?
"Now we've got connected cars, connected lighting, connected thermostats, connected everything. We've had the technology and capability for some time, but now consumers are ready to engage with it.
"Millennials see their information as the gateway to get to the thing that they want to get to, so they're open to sharing data. Other generations, when they see the possibilities, will start to follow and adopt, as well. It's a really exciting time."
That's the near future for BSH, but what does Faiers see in the wider future, for his organisation and others like it?
"The old days of 'we sell this, and these are our competitors' has fundamentally changed. We must focus on what people are doing and how we play a role in their lives.
"What I really love about BSH and the products we have, whether it's Bosch washing machines or Neff Slide&Hide ovens, is it's all about products that make consumers' lives better. What becomes really interesting is how people want to interact with us and what they want to learn from us, and how we can supplement and augment and create additional content for them, making their interactions with their products more meaningful and better. That will be something that continues to evolve." (See also: 2016 CIO 100 executives discuss new technologies being implemented.)