As CIO, this former CFO's mission is to empower business partners

Herve Coureil spent most of his 23 years at Schneider Electric outside of IT, but now he leads a global IT operation that he helped build.

Hervé Coureil, CIO, Schneider Electric [2015]
Credit: Schneider Electric

Herve Coureil spent more than two decades building a career before landing the top technology spot at Schneider Electric, which specializes in energy management and automation. Nothing unusual there -- except for the fact that Coureil spent most of his 23 years at Schneider outside of IT, in business and financial roles. In fact, he served as chief financial officer in Schneider's Critical Power and Cooling Services unit before becoming CIO in 2009.

Even in an era when CIOs are expected to be well-versed in business, Coureil's resume is uncommon. Now, as CIO, Coureil is responsible for information technology, processes and organization globally for the Rueil-Malmaison, France-based company. He oversees a 2,400-person IT team supporting a company with a worldwide workforce of 170,000. Here Coureil talks about stepping into IT and transforming Schneider's technology strategy.

What is your biggest accomplishment as CIO? I was to some extent the first global CIO. We didn't have a centralized global IT function before, so it was really to create this organization from scratch. Every country organization and partner had its own little IT team. We had to put all the collection of teams together, move from a multiplicity of tiny teams and turn it into a global service provider. It meant a lot of things -- changing management and leadership and how to get everybody used to not having their own team but to work with their own general service provider. This has been the first big thing I've been doing.

For two or three years now, we've been changing gears, working on platform strategy, turning ourselves from an internal provider to broker. The second phase now is to really structure ourselves as a competitive differentiator, and how do we structure the IT team so it's geared toward the empowerment of the business partners. This is the big strategy that we're pursuing right now.

What was the biggest challenge with that first phase? The main challenge was getting the business partners to step into the unknown.

How did you manage it? It was really transparency. I worked on transparency of our baseline, our performance. I was also trying to show the economic benefits we could derive [from the new strategy].

What were the challenges in moving to a global IT function? When the company is made of tons of little teams that were disconnected, the challenge was for us to create a model and understand what platforms we could scale and what were the areas we needed to keep specialized. So there was a lot of work in defining the platform strategy, figuring out what we could scale or specialize, what were differentiators.

What's driving the second phase as you move toward the empowerment of the business partners? Quickly we realized that as every business becomes digital, the IT department can't be an internal control-it-all kind of department. We needed to take a very different view. So we started defining the open framework, which is how will we act as a technology broker.

We don't want to necessarily build everything that uses technology. We want to empower our businesses so they can develop the technology that's right for them. It took a very different thinking in IT, and it took profound changes in the architecture.

What do you mean when you speak about empowering the business? We can describe our empowerment strategy in three layers. The first layer is the deliverer layer. The idea is to provide consistent capabilities. To be predictable, reliable; to provide end-to-end services transparently; to manage multiple programs at the same time. And to turn projects into a new service.

On top of that, we have the connect layer, which is all about the experience of the users. We really try to think about everything that we produce not with technology at the center but with the user at the center.

The third layer is the empower layer. This is where we put together this framework where our businesses can leverage the platform, the framework where we give them the ability to develop new capabilities within the framework we control, where we facilitate reuse, where we leverage the platform. We have microservices we offer to our businesses so they can assemble what they need.

Your path to CIO is a bit unusual, coming from finance and the CFO post. Does that set you apart from other CIOs? When it comes to financial management, as a CIO you need to make sure you're sticking with terms that are in the business frame, that the business can understand. That's an advantage [of having been a CFO].

Of course, the drawback is that you don't start with in-depth technology experience, so you have to acquire it. You have to have strong people you can rely on who are going to bring you the in-depth experience you're lacking, and you have to develop a network of people in the industry you can trust and exchange ideas with. I've been using people internally, and I've assembled what I think is a great team and also an ecosystem in the industry of fellow CIOs with whom I'm always happy to brainstorm.

You were a finalist for the MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award in 2015. What do you think earned you that honor? It's this idea of trying to rethink the role of IT, trying to build IT as an empowerment function, taking it away from power struggles and trying to reset IT so you become the source of empowerment for businesses who are on a digital journey.

I think every business is becoming digital, and that's having a profound impact on IT. We've tried to recognize that. We're trying new ways of interacting, and we're building a framework that our businesses can use to develop their own technology services, helping them scale and be secure.

The idea was for IT to become a competitive differentiator. So we've worked a lot on this positioning of IT as an empowering differentiator. That being said, we're learning every day.

Can you give an example? They're using an infrastructure layer we built for them, subscription services that were built for them. Ten or 15 years ago, they would have built everything from scratch.

We're not trying to build the services for them, we're just trying to enable them to provide the services faster, and we do that by developing as many bricks as we can and then working with them to decide what bricks make the most sense. It's offering the components that they can assemble rather than building everything from scratch.

You oversee the "Schneider Is On" program. What is that, and what's your role in it? "Schneider Is On" is a transformation road map; it's how we're developing high-level strategy. It's a framework where everyone understands the strategy road map and where they sit.

My role is to empower, to understand what we need for that transformation to happen. I spent a lot of time understanding what technology is needed to make that road map real. You want to detect the big technology transformations and embark on them before being asked.

What technology transformations lie ahead? The Internet of Things would be the big one. Mobile. Big data. The convergence of those three.

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