COO Manages Strategic Initiatives, Costs and Tech

As the COO for UK General Insurance and Shared Services, Barry Perkins handles all the big decisions on run costs, strategic initiatives and technology.

Managing technology and strategy

CIO Insight: You don't have a classic engineering or computer science background. Was the fact that you taught yourself IT advantageous in allowing you to see the bigger picture?

Perkins: Gaining technical knowledge and skills is fundamental if you’re in IT. You have to be able to understand the mechanics of delivery and speak with confidence about costs. You also need to understand infrastructure and service-level management. IT is a profession and, like any profession, you need the skills and knowledge of that discipline.

That said, too often we focus only on the technical skills as criteria for promotion, whereas at a management level, leadership competencies are the differentiators. The ability to master structured thinking and communication is a leadership requirement, and having a master's degree in economics has certainly been helpful.

CIO Insight: You also spent time as a consultant. How did that experience provide you with a different set of perspectives as an IT executive?

Perkins: I had quite an unusual IT consulting career, spending almost a decade on large-scale delivery programs with a single client (surprise, surprise, the U.S. Personal Lines business of Zurich). But I also got the opportunity to see all of the key U.S. players in insurance up close. To this day that means I focus as much externally—on benchmarking, competitor best practices and industry trends—as I do internally.  

Large companies often focus obsessively on their own internal practices and beliefs in an almost religious manner. The way to assure good customer outcomes is not to stare at your belly button, but to lift your eyes and look externally. I’m always interested in what my Zurich colleagues who work in different markets have done: It’s a ready-made innovation lab!

CIO Insight: Do you think the path from CIO to COO is going to become more travelled, and, if so, why?

Perkins: I can say with confidence that it’s already happening at Zurich, as we’re in the process of merging the operations and IT roles into chief operations and technology officer positions. However, as little as a year ago, when I was appointed, there was quite some discussion around whether an IT guy could be successful in a COO role. That discussion no longer occurs.

Why is that? I think that with the advent of the cloud and the move to data-center-less environments, the emphasis of the IT role is changing. There is a realization that the technology for major programs only gets you to the starting line.

It is the operational disciplines, such as lean and change management, that determine your finishing place in the race for good customer outcomes. Areas such as big data and digital cut across the traditional separation.

So, I think the combination of the roles will become more prevalent. But even if the roles remain separate in some companies, CIOs' skillsets will always make them a strong contender to travel the path to the role of COO.

CIO Insight: As a former CIO, how do you now interact with IT?

Perkins: Formally, IT is part of the Operations remit, and the CIO is one of my direct reports. However, I’m very conscious that the previous COO gave me the freedom as CIO to operate with a high degree of independence. That has enabled me to be a viable successor, and I’ve structured the relationship with the new CIO on the same basis.

We remain committed to a road map that takes us to 2020, so the general principles, cost, service-level architecture and application targets are there. It’s a requirement that the CIO brings new ideas to the table and does things their own way so that I can focus on my responsibilities and ensure that I have a viable successor.

This article was originally published on 12-17-2014
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