Johnson Matthey’s Paul Coby on creating great business/IT chemistry
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Johnson Matthey’s Paul Coby on creating great business/IT chemistry

Mark Chillingworth — October 2019

The CIO at the maker of emission control catalysts and other sustainable technologies describes how global IT unification, modernization and reskilling is supporting the business’s wider business transformation agenda.
In the past decade, veteran corporate CIO Paul Coby’s career has encompassed a global airline (British Airways), a nation-wide department store chain (the UK’s John Lewis) and since 2018, a leader in industrial catalysts and other sustainable technologies (Johnson Matthey). At first glance, those all seem very different worlds for any IT leader to embrace but, as Coby says, many of their core challenges — and their expectations for the outcome of IT investment — are the similar.

His latest home, Johnson Matthey is “simply fascinating,” Coby says of a business created in 1817 in London as an assayer, testing the purity of precious metals, and currently boasts £4.2 billion ($5.4bn) in annual revenues. Its scientific heritage continues today, not only in the refining and recycling of platinum group metals but in the manufacturing and supply of metal salts, powders and solutions for use as catalysts in reducing vehicle emissions. It also extends to the creation of unique battery materials for electric vehicles, and a range of active pharmaceutical ingredients used in the treatment of cancer, heartbeat irregularity or pain.

That adds up to an impressive set of sustainability and human-centric credentials. The catalysts within a third of the world’s cars prevent an estimated 20 million tonnes of pollutants from entering the atmosphere each year. And Johnson Matthey’s expertise in processing rare materials enables it to recover metals such as platinum and palladium from electronic components, jewels and catalyst materials with a resulting purity of 99.999%.

Paul Coby, CIO, Johnson Matthey
“These may be remarkably different industrial areas but the thing that links them all together is a profound understanding of the behavior of chemicals and gases — and that goes back to our 19th-century founders,” Coby says with obvious enthusiasm for the rich history of the business.

With that spread of business activity, a major challenge for Coby has been to create a set of unified and modern IT services that can deliver business value and innovation.

“IT is a key enabler for innovation. So, my job is two-fold, to fix the basics of the technology such as in applications and digital skill capabilities, which have been underinvested in. And to push the boundaries so we are an enabler that supports innovation across the business,” Coby says.

His focus for the first year was to modernize the technology estate so it enhanced the experience and capabilities of employees who rely on technology. Without the basics — such as a stable, global communications or reliable customer-facing systems — IT does not earn the right put itself forward as an enabler of innovation in the business, says Coby.

Core to that was the creation of a single IT service across the Johnson Matthey group, a task not made easy by the diversity of IT platforms and applications — many legacy — spread across different business lines and geographies.
Modernize, centralize and empower

There are now three core programs designed to deliver IT. “The infrastructure and cybersecurity program ensures we have a single modern [estate] of on-premise computing, cloud services and networks,” says Coby, highlighting the importance of tackling cybersecurity and digital infrastructure as a whole.

“The second piece is ensuring we have IT controls in place across all of JM, controls that are owned by the business users and [apply to] the systems they use. So, we are taking our most important systems and ensuring that they have, for example, the right disaster recovery and access management in place and are globally consistent.”

The third strand is OneJMIT — not just a program to unite Johnson Matthey’s IT, but to apply IT governance to shadow IT developments. “We are currently visiting all our sites around the world and bringing Johnson Matthey IT out of the shadows,” says Coby.  In an organization staffed by some of the brightest minds in chemistry, science and engineering, it is not surprising that these highly motivated and technically capable individuals have created their own IT solutions to get the results they need. “People have done things locally because the IT function has not been as responsive as it should have been, so there is a danger of over-centralizing.  We are bringing all of the local systems onto our core IT run platforms — this saves money, ensures security and helps us get better global deals with our suppliers.”

“JM-Emission control”

Part of that technology overhaul involves a new global deployment of SAP’s core business applications platform. Fittingly, Johnson Matthey CFO Anna Manz is leading that four-year business transformation program, known as Unify, supported by a dedicated program team of business and technology professionals.

“The IT and Unify teams have to be joined at the hip. You can stack these change programs in all sorts of different ways. The trick is to recognize that it’s not the IT but the business transformation that really matters,” Coby says.

Inevitably transformation requires both a technology and mindset change. Coby says it will be vital that the organization adapts its culture to take advantage of new technologies and processes.

“When you plug in new tools, especially using the cloud, it can immediately change the way people work across the business,” he says, recounting how at John Lewis, he built a business process change unit to ensure smooth and effective technology adoption.

Coby’s experience leading technology at some of the world’s major companies tells him that IT success is built on explaining to all stakeholders “why IT matters and how it will help the business. An investment of millions on infrastructure and cyber security needs to be built on a reasoned analysis, expressed in clear business language, about why the investment is necessary not only to protect the business from threats, but also to improve the way the business works.”
Local intelligence
With the core operational IT modernization well under way, Coby now has an eye on how advanced technology might drive innovation at Johnson Matthey.  Like many of his peers, he is keen exploit the potential of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and robotics. “There is an enormous real-world opportunity they offer as well,” he says.

“JM-Emission control”

Coby is also looking to support major new plants for the company’s Clean Air and Battery Materials sectors in China, Poland and India with edge computing and edge data centers. “There is a realization that you cannot simply collect all today’s enormous quantities of data into a great big centralized data center or cloud. When it comes to the management of a plant, many decisions need to be taken locally; so understanding how that plant works means applying local technology to understand the opportunities.”

He welcomes how edge analytics offers the opportunity to crunch data sets where they are created. When he was at British Airways, aircraft were downloading vast amounts of sensor data on landing, and the dispersed production lines of Johnson Matthey have many of the same characteristics. “Putting all that information into a ‘data ocean’ is simply not practical or affordable; you want the information where the action is happening, so line managers can act on it.”  

With that in mind, his team will be providing local analytical capabilities in Johnson Matthey’s catalyst plants around the world, starting with a major facility in Skopje in Macedonia.
Greater purpose
But there is a wider agenda underpinning all of this activity.

“We, as a company and as a team, have put a lot of effort into thinking about the values of the JM organization — our vision is for a world that’s cleaner and healthier, today and for future generations,” Coby says. Enterprises need to have an over-riding purpose, highlights Coby, adding it is important to make sure those values are real and resonate with a global workforce (Johnson Matthey has IT teams in 20 countries round the world).

Johnson Matthey now needs to attract the best people not just in chemistry, commerce and product engineering, but also in IT,” Coby says, and core values that inspire employees and draw and retain new talent are a vital part of that.

First published October 2019
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