Chris Kruger recently retired as group chief technology officer of Momentum Metropolitan Holdings, a position he held for 25 years. That’s certainly a long time for a leader in any field, and several lifetimes in tech. Kruger shares some of his insights on what today’s tech leaders need to know.
Today, the terms CIO and CTO are commonplace, but the role of technology leadership is far from uniform: it varies by industry, strategy, company culture and operating model.
Over the years, my role was shaped by taking many perspectives into account. With input from the CEO, business and IT colleagues, technology became a platform for innovation. When there was an innovation lag, the results blurred accountability and stifled delivery.
The need for role clarity is something I’ve underestimated. I’ve seen vague or miscast remits cut short the careers of some good CIOs. Those anxious to impress can lean into their key business relationships, only to find that their own organisation needs time to catch up. Some pursue innovation at all costs but lose face when they can’t keep the lights on.
Innovation – and CIO reputations – are both built on sound technology foundations.
I came to view the arrival of a new CEO as my own “first 90 days”, taking pains to understand their intent and to explain our plans, challenges and ways of working. The pace of technological innovation today is rapid and exponential. Every business in every industry will continue to feel the impact. Buy-in and support for the role of the CTO or CIO is crucial for success. The process will also need to be repeated if there are leadership changes in the business.
Some of these pitfalls arise because it’s a big job with blurred edges, but it also comes down to self-knowledge – the ability to know your strengths and, frankly, acknowledge your limits. Technology, and being a CTO or CIO, is primarily about people. Businesses cannot buy innovation by buying technology – it should serve as an enabler to allow people to innovate and do their jobs better. Tech must make it better or easier for people and crucially, tech leaders need to prioritise building the IT talent pipeline in South Africa.
Liberating business without losing control
There are good reasons why firms centralise (or don’t). Momentum Metropolitan has deliberately chosen a federated business operating model, a decision made when Momentum was a financial services upstart, and one that the company has never regretted. In practice, that means putting technology capability at the point of maximum impact, while sharing when there’s a clear case grounded in shared gain, cost or compliance. Done well, a federated operating model can give a business great clarity of responsibility for business delivery, revenue generation and cost accountability.
Through boom and bust
Our operating approach is one reason for my longevity. Because technology implementation teams sit in business units (with a CIO close to business leadership), most IT spend is viewed through a business lens. That means there’s less risk of a disconnect between means and ends. We keep central teams “light” and both their value and costs are clear. They exist by agreement, and in a downturn there’s less fat to cut. We co-opt good people from business units to support central strategic themes. Strategy becomes “the sum of us” vs “something done to us”.
That said, some responsibilities sit squarely on the shoulders of a CTO.
In a federated system, there are still limits on autonomy. Some platform, product and system choices have far-reaching consequences – across businesses and over time.
To get them right, you need to know which technologies or partners are likely to stand the test of time, how they expand or constrain strategic choices, and what they mean for our operating approach.
We have good IT and platform executive committees to help make those decisions, and sound principles to help such as, “Know when to evolve, build or buy.” But in the end, the buck always had to stop with me. And if a decision fell short, so did the blame. This was never simple, and it’s harder now. The big cloud vendors have great strengths, but look set to repeat mistakes made by IBM, Oracle and others. Some new architectures will long outlive the firms that gave rise to them.
Insurers embarked on digitisation 20 years ago, but progress was slow. Today the channel is a hotbed of digital innovation, and the potential for market disruption is very real.
It was my role as CTO to grasp what digital innovation will do to our businesses and the markets in which they compete. That clearly implies a deep understanding of the big tech themes: the cloud; data and analytics; AI and machine learning; and blockchain and IoT technologies. But it really gets interesting when those forces converge to upend markets or transform productivity.
I found that it wasn’t enough to read the big consultancies and research houses. There were some diamonds in the rough, but it took time and effort to find them. Too much of the work lacked industry focus, and was written for big, centralised firms (implicitly, in the US or Europe).
We gained more value from boutique research firms that tracked innovation in the best of our peers (in- and outside insurance) worldwide but bought that insight directly to bear on our markets in South Africa. In the end, it is context that counts. As you’ll see from any innovation pipeline or venture fund, most big banks and insurers have a stake in the same or similar technologies. But knowing how and when they will land their punch in your firm is another matter. It was my role to ensure that business CEOs grasped what digital innovation could do for them.
Software engineering – our DNA
Digital innovation today cuts across the whole insurance value chain, from product design and delivery through to pricing and underwriting, sales, service, and claims management.
We’re creating digital foundations that let us tap new business ecosystems and meet our clients, wherever they may be. To do so requires new capabilities. Critically, it requires that we excel at software engineering. Like other financial services firms, Momentum Metropolitan has been adopting the software engineering culture and operating practices of the best software companies, not as a monolithic enterprise function, but in focused product or “fusion” teams that can iterate fast.
This is not software engineering for the sake of it, but software that solves problems our clients and intermediaries have. And while great engineers are vital, you need people who really get the customer and can drive market uptake. These are rare skills, but the teams are already paying dividends based on results, and by exposing a rich pool of new leadership talent.
Oversight vs obstruction
IT oversight is essential but can easily become a stick with which to beat business.
We established shared operating principles by which we live and made available the help (from experienced leaders to niche experts) our businesses needed and agreed to follow. We put in place IT, architecture and platform excos that enfranchised business units in IT oversight and helped form a shared view of good practice.
In a federation, you locate each capability for maximum impact. You do not centralise for the sake of it or duplicate things without good reason, but you must accept that federation may lead to some duplication.
Technology is going to continue to advance, and successful CTOs are going to need to be adaptive and flexible to advance with it, to synergise with strategy and create business value.
For myself, some opportunities beckon, but I’ve chosen to work with an advisory firm I came to trust and respect. And through them, to help other banks and insurers make digital innovation count.