Richie Etwaru’s Ascent From CIO to CDO

Richie Etwaru is a man in a hurry. He took on his first CIO role in his late 20s. He would hold that same title at the divisional level at Barclay’s bank in his early 30s. In 2007, he began a successful tenure at UBS, rising first to the role of Chief Technology Officer of UBS Wealth Management Americas and later as Chief Innovation Officer of UBS Wealth Management.

He has since moved to Cegedim RM, which is a data, technology and services company delivering a portfolio of innovation to the life sciences industry, specifically pharmaceutical manufacturers. He is currently the Chief Digital Officer of that organization. As he has continued his speedy career ascent, he has also founded an online media organization (BRAINFOOD TV) and started a health data analytics organization (The Human API), all while pursuing a doctorate and writing a book.

In this interview, Etwaru discusses his career, what drives him and his thoughts on the path from CIO to CDO, among other topics.

CIO Insight: Richie, you grew up in IT departments, rising to become a CIO and CTO of multiple organizations. You then became more innovation-centric. How did this turn come about?

Richie Etwaru: I would love to say I was always innovative. That is absolutely not the case. I may have always had an innovative gene but I did not start to innovate purposefully until I studied the design of businesses. Businesses come down to capturing value between supply, demand generation and demand fulfillment. Once I understood how value is created and captured, repeatedly and sustainably I started to find ‘problems’ to solve. Innovation coupled with corollary problems is purposeful innovation because you may have an innovative gene for tinkering. I was tinkering for a while until I became ‘problem aware,’ leading to ‘purposeful innovation.’

CIO Insight: Now as the Chief Digital Officer of Cegedim RM, how have you drawn upon for your experience as an IT executive and as an innovation leader?

Etwaru: The most important part of the CDO role is the digital part. Every industry, and most companies are seeing processes, products and services digitized. As a CDO, I am called on to study, describe and extract value from the emerging digital P&L of our clients, and our own balance sheet at Cegedim RM. The simplest way to think about how I contribute is to assume that the P&L of analog products and services is going to be inevitably replaced by a P&L of digital products and services. As a CDO, the resolve of my existence is to ensure that the companies I advise and lead capture as much of the incoming value from the emerging digital P&L.

CIO Insight: What role does digital play in a pharmaceutical company? What defines digital transformation in that context?

Etwaru: Pharmaceutical companies are currently transforming by going from a vertical organizational design to a horizontal organizational design, enabling shared services, optimizing and automating for cost efficiencies, and leveraging new information supply chains pivotal to digital health. As a result, a CDO in a pharmaceutical company is focusing on the application of technology above and below the line. Above the line are pill-plus like services moving towards new information ecosystems enabling digital health leveraging wearables and IoT. Below the line a CDO is taking cost out, driving efficiencies, and installing agility and flexibility. In many ways, a good CDO in a pharmaceutical company is 50% an exceptional CIO, 25% a general manager, and 25% a CFO. CTOs make companies cool, CIOs make companies efficient, CDOs make sure companies are still relevant well into the next decade. 

CIO Insight: You have always had a number of extracurricular activities. Recent examples include your founding and running BRAINFOOD TV, and co-founding the Human API. Describe how these activities outside the boundaries of your day job make you better at it.

Etwaru: In addition, my book coming at the end of Q1 2015 (Corporate Awesome Sauce), my impending PhD, and my love of gadgets such as the Google Glass, the Oculus Rift and DJI Drones are all a part of what I call CDE, continuing digital education. Much like doctors have CMEs, continuing medical education, and lawyers have CLEs, whether you are a digital native or digital artisan we need continuing digital education. I would argue that we need continuing digital education much more than CMEs, or CLEs, as digital changes faster. The multiple paradigms shifting concurrently are nauseating to keep up with. Unless you are really lucky, no role is going to train you horizontally in all of the needed aspects of scholarly knowledge, practitioner skills, and thought leadership. You don’t become a CDO, you make yourself one, with CDE.

Peter High is the president of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of Implementing World Class IT Strategy and World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.

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