Canon’s CIO on how the role went from order taker to partner

In her eight years at Canon Europe, chief information officer Caroline Serfass has transformed the role of the IT function. She tells of challenges during the pandemic, what CIOs should be strategising and why a trusted relationship with other senior executives is so important
Caroline Serfass, CIO of Canon Europe

Never before has a year seen businesses globally face such an increased reliance on their IT to keep operations going remotely. But for Caroline Serfass, senior vice president and chief information officer (CIO) at Canon Europe, the experience has brought professional satisfaction, alongside the many challenges.

“Initially the challenge was to make sure we could function. I’m proud that in a couple of weeks, we were able to have the whole company function, all our employees, in quite a productive way. People were very grateful for that,” she says. “Then gradually we moved into changing the way we interacted with partners and with customers.

“With all the downsides in the past 12 months, there has been an exciting part for IT departments, in the digitalisation of everything, how we work with each other internally and how we drive all of that. We’ve just leapfrogged several years.” 

Serfass joined Canon Europe as CIO in 2013 and is based at its Stockley Park HQ in West London. Having studied engineering in her home country of France, she worked as a software engineer in Brazil, at a medical devices company, and spent many years at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, eventually becoming CIO Europe for six years.

Now at the heart of Canon Europe’s digital transformation, she recalls the early days: “I got immersed fairly quickly in quite a major ERP [enterprise resource planning] consolidation initiative, which is actually still going on. It’s a long journey, we’re consolidating many different platforms and simplifying the company.

“At the same time, there was also quite a big transformation into digital, some of the more customer-facing side of things, and that also started to establish our ecommerce presence.”

A quick look at her LinkedIn profile sees Serfass praised for “clear vision” and a “bravery to tackle change”, something she and so many of her CIO peers are in the thick of now. 

“As a CIO, you have to be in tune with your company and follow the priorities. The journey is never done. You have to continue to be sharp and suddenly, when you’re a big company like us, standardisation is important because it allows you to be faster to evolve and adapt,” she says.

Focus on the customer

Serfass acknowledges the CIO role is changing industry-wide into one that is more customer facing. “The history of IT has been very internally focused,” she says. “We still have to do that because the whole company relies on technology to run its operations and there’s more and more pressure on compliance, data privacy and security. But at the same time, the whole customer agenda is more and more digital. We are picking that up as well. 

“In the back-end, you have your big ERP, this massive complexity you need to manage to make sure the whole end to end works well together, that you are compliant and secure. On the front-end, it’s much more about the customer, designing an architecture that is very data driven, and can quickly adapt to changes and introduce new capabilities.

“The role of the CIO and IT is crucial in the transformation of companies, especially when it comes to customers. It’s always a partnership between the IT function and the business units or marketing or other functions.

“We don’t decide what the customer strategy is. But I am part of deciding where we make investments, how we make them, how we drive capabilities. The role is only becoming broader now.

“In the past, we had to build everything ourselves; we don’t need to do that anymore. Like the move to the cloud; we don’t need to build the infrastructure, it’s all there. 

“You need to go to Microsoft, you need to go to Oracle, you need to go to SAP. Then you need to make sure it actually works together and it’s cost effective. It becomes more of an orchestration role. If I project myself into the future, that is where I think the function is going.”

Working with the CFO and CEO

Serfass’s view is the CIO must “make it all work together in a secure, compliant and cost-effective way”, working with other areas of the C-suite. 

She says: “It has to be a partnership, right? The chief financial officer, in an ideal world, wants the same as the CIO or the chief executive, for the company to be successful. Of course, the CFO will be putting a lot of pressure on cost-savings. That’s normal, because technology is quite expensive and, as an IT function and as a CIO, we have a duty to deliver the services or the tools always at the best cost possible. 

“But a good CFO will know how far they can go to challenge because in the end it’s all about the value that is given to the company by the tools and the technologies we have, from the capabilities we’re able to provide.”

Trust with the chief executive is fundamental, too. “You have to understand what the CEO’s priorities are so the IT function is absolutely in tune with that,” she says. 

“For the CEO, it’s mainly about positioning the function in a strategic way, supporting its importance and then also supporting prioritisation and governance.”

One way this works at Canon is via an IT investment committee, chaired by the chief executive and with Serfass as CIO there too, along with the CFO. Whichever business unit or function wants to spend money must present and justify the business case.

She says: “I don’t run a profit and loss, the business units do. Everything I spend gets allocated in a transparent way. We explain what they pay for, the services they pay for, in a language they understand. 

“And we work with them to actually try and get rid of some of the things they are paying for, which we would say are not that useful.”

Being a partner

It is this kind of collaboration that has led Serfass to change mindsets around how the CIO and IT function perform, moving her 400 Europe, Middle East and Africa IT employees from what she describes as “order taker to more of a partner”.

It is a model other CIOs may do well to follow soon. She says: “The conversation should be what people need to do and what their priorities are. Then the role of IT is to decide what’s the best technology to do that, in line with, maybe, what we already have. Sometimes reusing technology, or not using technology at all, might be the right answer.”

Managing external partners is also becoming more crucial for all CIOs and Serfass advises: “You have to set the expectations with your suppliers, you have to establish a partnership. You don’t want too many of them, you want a few, and then really make sure they are your extended ecosystem and they understand your objectives. 

“You have to keep them sharp and make sure they give you the best people. IT is a people business, it’s a skills business, so it’s a constant effort to make it all work.”

And sometimes you have to take tough decisions and say “no”, not least to prevent people from doing their own thing with technology or powering on with a pet project, says Serfass.

“That makes you someone who’s not always liked, but saying no is part of it. What you say no to defines your strategy, as well as what you say yes to,” she adds.

Serfass feels the future CIO must realise their job “is not done when you’ve delivered technology”. “It needs to be fit for purpose, people need to use it, you always need to make it better. And it needs to help the bottom line and the end-customer,” she says. 

“As a CIO, it’s that blend of liking technology, understanding it and then really realising it’s not only about that; it’s really about the business agenda and how you work with people, how you define your strategy and help them be successful.”

The future CIO

Looking ahead, Serfass sees CIOs having to adapt fast. She says: “The world has changed with the pandemic and you have a lot more criminality online. It is a real threat for big enterprises and compliance and data privacy.

“But at the same time, because so much now relies on technology, and the digital side, also the customer facing side, there’s a challenge of governance.”

It is why she believes the next five years will see CIOs become more transformative, good at stakeholder management, prioritising and partnering, building trust and being able to communicate so people understand. 

Serfass strongly believes it is not about “technology for the sake of technology”. She explains: “You still want people who understand technology, but it’s a style that’s more business focused and being part of driving the business agenda, the end-to-end transformation.

“It’s really all about adapting and transforming. That’s what most companies nowadays expect, versus a style that is more back-office focused, pure technology, or being a pure service provider.” 

And with analytics and artificial intelligence key to powering digital transformation, both on the business-to-consumer and business-to-business sides, Serfass adds: “People now have it as part of their strategy to be more data driven. We have established an analytics competence centre that really will help enable all of that, with some of the modern technologies like data lakes. 

“It is how we work together between the IT function, the tools and the technologies, and the people who understand data, and then jointly create something that’s valuable for the company.”

Acknowledging such great technological change will bring job losses, Serfass says: “I don’t think suddenly there will be no work left, that is a fantasy. But it will be different types of roles, different skills that will be required. This is not a big bang.” 

Citing the evolution between standard infrastructure and cloud, she adds: “There are some jobs you just don’t need any more, but you do that gradually. You have to have these things on the radar and you have to educate yourself about it. And then you have to try it in one area and see, and you learn and you adjust and you scale.”

Being a female CIO

Caroline Serfass became the first woman on Canon Europe’s senior leadership team when she joined the company, but the number of female chief information officers (CIOs) and other senior executives industry-wide remains very low. 

“It will gradually evolve with society and with companies taking a stronger stand for diversity,” she says. “It’s a company responsibility to make sure processes are such that those possibilities are there. 

“But it’s also broader, starting with girls and which topics they choose and why they choose them. You have very few women who study technology or engineering.” 

As a woman in such a male-dominated industry, Serfass realised early on to “just be yourself and it’s OK to be different style wise”. She has never felt people treat her less seriously as a female CIO. 

“I think that position comes with a certain respect,” she adds. “I think you need to maybe accept and adjust to the fact you’re just surrounded by a less diverse set of people. I interact mostly with men. That creates dynamics in itself, which you need to adjust yourself to.”

Respect and the breaking down of geeky stereotypes has also started to finally come due to the pandemic’s impact, because so many people have needed their IT function’s help. But Serfass isn’t sure this will last.

She says: “Time will tell, some stereotypes will always take with some people. You have to jump some generations before some of that goes away and everyone becomes a bit more digitally savvy, then it becomes normal.”