‘There will be a time when the CIO is no longer needed’ says Three’s digital chief
Three UK’s Belinda Finch shares her principles for a successful digital transformation – and explains why the no-code movement could make the CIO’s role as we know it redundant
When she joined Three UK to lead its IT transformation programme, Belinda Finch was acutely aware of the scale of the challenge awaiting her. Work on the project had started before her appointment as CIO in September 2021, but members of the 130-strong IT function she was taking on were still scattered across the business and working in silos.
“The digital team would be in one location and data reporting would be somewhere else,” Finch recalls. “The programme was split and we had IT delivery and IT operations working independently, so my main focus when I started was to create a proper end-to-end team.”
She swiftly brought the company’s IT professionals together as the newly renamed CIO team. “Previously, we’d had very different systems and processes. We were even using different suppliers across departments that were literally doing the same thing,” says Finch, who was previously CIO at Centrica. “We need to be working the same way, because we’re all doing IT. It doesn’t matter whether it’s digital or data.
But the IT department wasn’t the only fragmented and isolated function. Three’s digital transformation programme was being run by another team that was operating in seclusion on a separate floor of Three’s head office. Finch, who had already led the digital transformation of rival telco Vodafone, knew that the entire company would have to get involved to ensure that the programme would deliver maximum value.
Part of the initial challenge involved hiring her own leadership team, while remote working policies were still in place. The process of virtually hiring people to work on the digital transformation programme made it “harder to pick up on the vibe” of individuals during the video interview process.
However, having now met each of her new recruits in person and seeing how well they fit into the company culture, Finch sees remote hiring as less of a barrier. “It made the recruitment process faster and meant that I was able to bring together my team quicker than I otherwise would have,” she adds.
When companies decide to implement new IT systems, the business case can often be an afterthought – a “classic mistake”, she says. “To transform the organisation, and for people to want to use the new systems and understand what we were trying to deliver, we needed to change the focus of this project and make it a business-led initiative. The IT team can often get preoccupied with the technical aspects, whereas a business-focused transformation is more concerned about the results that will be achieved.”
Having sought contributions from all functions of the firm, she noticed an immediate change. Senior executives in teams ranging from finance and HR to sales and marketing participated in the transformation programme, making it the broader collaborative effort that she had been seeking.
“My whole strategy is to devolve as much control to the rest of the business as I possibly can. When everyone concerned in the project is a decision-maker, it’s much easier for me than trying to force change on an organisation,” Finch says. “For instance, involving a representative from the finance team, who can explain their requirements and push back if a feature isn’t needed, is much better than IT saying ‘computer says no’.”
The business-led approach requires the CIO to understand how the changes they’re proposing will improve processes across the company and enhance the customer experience. To this end, Three has gathered consumer feedback through focus groups and surveys to inform the project’s managers.
“This means you’ll end up with something much more well-rounded, rather than installing a new ‘best of breed’ system just because Gartner has decided to include it in its Magic Quadrant reports,” Finch says.
The project has recently passed the halfway mark. She reports that it’s “shaping up well” now that the goals of the whole organisation are properly aligned. While Three’s main focus is on completing the transformation and settling into its new HQ in Reading, part of the company’s longer-term strategy is to make the digital team a more commercially led department.
Finch is a proponent of low-code and no-code application development. This enables people with little or no programming knowledge to create and modify enterprise applications through more intuitive platforms. Although it’s not part of the current phase of the transformation, it is something that she’s aiming to implement at Three in due course.
Seeing no reason to keep tasks such as web development and application updates under IT’s jurisdiction, she says: “There are some things that you want to keep within your team’s control, of course, but there is a lot of stuff that doesn’t have to be handled by IT every time. Everyone is tech-savvy these days, so they can solve their own problems. The technology is not like it used to be 20 years ago, where you needed to be a deep Cobol programmer if you wanted to do anything. Most of us can learn how to use it these days, so it’s very old-fashioned to keep everything under IT’s control.”
Finch recognises that this change could have dramatic consequences for IT departments and could even put her out of a job. She foresees “a time, 10 or 15 years from now, where the CIO is no longer needed. Companies will employ multiskilled teams with enough IT knowledge to solve most of their own problems and launch their own products. IT departments will be much smaller and will focus on maintaining the systems.”
So where would this scenario leave the CIO? The job could go in one of two directions, according to Finch. Those with a commercial mindset will go on to lead the multidisciplinary teams she describes. To succeed in such a role, they will need to possess both commercial acumen and technical ability. Those lacking in the former will remain focused on technical aspects such as ensuring the stability of a firm’s digital infrastructure.
“There are some elements of the role that will always require a data science degree to really understand it, especially with the emergence of technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. These are never going to be handed over,” Finch says. “But tasks such as launching a product on the website can be handled by tech-savvy people in the commercial team. That shouldn’t require IT’s involvement.”
Although her vision for IT departments remains a distant prospect, tech teams will need to become increasingly comfortable with relinquishing control and managing the associated risks. “A whole rulebook will need to be written to allow that to happen,” she says.
Perhaps Finch will be the one to write it.