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August - 2010 - issue > CIO Profile
"Technology Will Always be Subservient to Business"
Vimali Swamy
Sunday, August 1, 2010
A computer applications postgraduate from Delhi University and an MBA from Bradley University, he is well aware of both the sides of the coin, the priorities of any organization - business enablement and technology solutions. In today’s world, both cannot survive without the other.

Singh is quick to point out that it is a common sight to see IT departments existing in silos within organizations and having very little or limited business knowledge. It is important that developers focus on the business problems they must solve rather than concentrate solely on technology.

A simple example of what integration of technology with business can achieve is the success of Apple’s iPod. When iPod was introduced several years ago, the market was already flooded with several portable music players. At the user level, there was no integration - users had to deal with disparate pieces to listen to the desired music for downloads, file conversions, and storage. Apple addressed this problem by making iPod user-friendly and launching iTunes, a solution to download selected songs and synch with an iPod. Suddenly, the users from ages 5 to 95 found it easy to use with no training whatsoever. Apple’s other products like iPod Nano, iPhone, and now iPad are an example of what integration of business and technology can achieve.

‘Innovation’ is another factor that Singh believes is critical to the role of a CIO. The evolving role of CIOs’ positions them to use a varied skill set to lead practical innovation within their companies. IT leaders and their teams drive practical innovation to support the corporate strategy. At a growing number of organizations, CIOs are helping to lead that change. “The key to achieving innovation in both the IT and business enterprise is to include CIOs in the development of the corporate strategy. Getting IT executives ‘invited to the table’ and playing a more visible role in setting the strategy is a hallmark of the CIOs’ evolving role,” says Singh.

Singh and His ‘Big 5’

Today, at Great American, Singh is striving to achieve the same. Working with technology and business teams to jointly innovate and solve the problems has been his straightforward strategy.

Singh categorizes his approach into 5 thoughts:

CIO’s are instrumental in flipping the 80/20 rule: The 80/20 rule dictates that businesses spend 80 percent of their time and resources on maintaining older systems, and only 20 percent on innovation. In today’s scenario, CIOs are in the best position to flip the rule around by seeking creative ways to leverage the human capital to focus more on innovation.

CIO’s risk tolerance, personality, and tenure are correlated to the pace of innovation at an enterprise: Singh stands by the idea that CIOs with a passion for innovation are instrumental in creating a dynamic environment. A CIO who has a tendency to be too comfortable with ‘current state’ restricts people from exploring new ideas. CIO’s role of being a change agent as well as the ability for calculated risk-taking plays an important role in the pace of innovation within the enterprise.

CIO’s physical proximity to business executives ensures that IT is part of business strategy: A CIO is accountable for connecting business and technology within an organization. The only way he or she can bridge the gap and make technology an integral part of the business is by working closely with the business executives. Physical proximity is important to keeping this at the top of mind.

Solution vs. automation is influenced by a business sponsor’s personality: Change agents drive change in the workplace and are comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty that accompany change. They understand that there is value in embracing ‘comfort with discomfort’. On the other hand, consensus builders seek to keep everyone happy and seek the lowest common denominator, this maintaining status quo. To build solutions, one needs to look beyond existing models and be willing to change the approach, rather than simply automating existing processes.

‘On-time and On-budget’ is not relevant compared to strategic/competitive advantage and adaptive capability of a business driven technology solution: Do not believe in driving business on hollow promises of ‘on-time and on-budget’ as it is almost impossible to achieve. Instead, believe in building strategic solutions that help position the businesses as a leading edge competitive differentiator in a sustainable manner.

One of the challenges that Singh often encounters is a way to seamlessly leverage and collaborate the global resources pool, so that resources do not conflict, and to work towards a common goal. This is a challenge for CIOs across other industries as well. But the biggest challenge for him is ‘What to do next?’ The industry is growing rapidly and technology advancements in the consumer sector that impact the corporate environment can be overwhelming. “While a CIO often gets enamored by the ever changing technology, the bigger problem is to figure out what to do next,” says Singh.

An active member of several CIO forums, Singh believes in learning from each other and often looks to his peers in other verticals, especially the retail and consumer sector where big things are happening. For example, he sees growth in the usage of smartphones by a large segment of population in near future. Singh believes that the ubiquitous nature and convenience of smartphones in the hands of consumers will force the personal and consumer lines of businesses to change their business model to simplify the interaction/interface with consumers. These phones will enrich the interaction (quicker reporting of claims, picture attachments, and more) and reduce the time lag between the event and the reporting. “The same principles will apply for loss adjusters and loss prevention folks for quicker reporting to companies,” he says.

It is these simple, yet thought provoking, ideas that have been a hallmark of Singh’s illustrative career. Having begun his career as a developer with CitiCorp Overseas Software in India, he has had a global work experience with stints at ANZ Banking Group in Australia, Greece, UK, Singapore, and the Middle East, Price Waterhouse’s Management Consulting Services group in Jamaica where he worked on government contracts and with a local insurance carrier, and later RLI Insurance in the U.S. where he moved up the ranks to be the VP of IT in 2000 and later as CIO in 2004. He became Senior Vice President and CIO of Great American Insurance Group in 2005. One of his most recognized works, however, has been at RLI, where he was responsible for taking RLI from a back-end focused organization to one that deployed technology to its fullest potential, striving for business transformation rather than automation. Sing‘s simple but effective IT strategy led the company to deploy leading edge front-end application systems.

His decision to foray into in-house development when he joined RLI and the importance he attached to business domain are the two turning points that have impacted his career progression.

His advice to young entrepreneurs is to face challenges and innovate ways to solve problems. This positive outlook of Singh is perhaps a result of his love for outdoor and adventurous activities. After having tackled many business challenges, the next big thing he looks forward to is climbing the peak of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
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