CIO as enabler: Building an ecosystem of innovation partners | CIO

CIO as enabler: Building an ecosystem of innovation partners | CIO

“Tech right now is an exciting place to be,” she says. “Finding out that small businesses have these incredible ideas that you can bring into your business and spark new services is fantastic. You can work with a network of these businesses to achieve an incredible result.”

Embracing the leading edge

That’s certainly the case at PepsiCo, where the drinks giant works with a range of startup companies to achieve big results in important areas, such as sustainability. The company has scaled more than 30 startups in more than 200 countries so far.

Take the company’s partnership with technology firm WINT, which uses AI to prevent water leaks in PepsiCo factories. Estimates suggest the system can cut annual water consumption by as much as 25%. In Turkey, PepsiCo, Pulse Industrial, and BrenPower are working together to monitor and detect failures in steam traps in the company’s plants through an AI system.

PepsiCo is also working with UBQ Materials to turn unsorted household waste into a bio-based thermoplastic that’s used in product display stands. At a time of what seems like almost constant change, Nigel Richardson, SVP and CIO Europe at PepsiCo, says big companies like his have a lot to learn from a wide ecosystem of partners.

“The past few years have proven that history is no longer a good predictor of the future,” he says. “Right now, our industry and operating environment are changing fast. Technologies that were once the realm of science fiction are becoming reality, reshaping everything about the way we live and work.”.

PepsiCo’s response over the past couple of years, says Richardson, has been to address those realities head on, with their brands and scale as a force for good and growth. “We’re constantly pushing ourselves to look outside at other leading-edge companies, vendors, industries, and even the world to get inspired and see what we can learn and apply,” he says.

It’s a similar story at Audi, where the automotive giant has established a Production Lab to find innovations that can help boost efficiency and quality across the company’s plants. The Lab, created in 2012, tests whether technologies that aren’t yet used in production processes have the potential for mass adoption.

“Our role is to try and figure out what technologies are out there,” says Henning Löser, head of Audi Production Lab. “We’re transforming from internal combustion engines to battery electric vehicles. This shift is challenging because we have new technologies coming up to produce these battery electric vehicles, but it’s also a great opportunity because we’re changing our production lines.”

Löser says the aim is to use a VMware hyperconverged cloud platform to test technologies, such as virtual reality headsets and large-scale production systems, under lab conditions. “We are the nerds,” he says. “We get to play around with new technologies, and by doing that, we figure out what’s useful.”

Back at the University of Bristol, Woolley says his institution also dedicates significant resources to innovation. Working with startups isn’t just a matter of bringing in external expertise. The university also helps to nurture talent through Engine Shed, a specialist initiative in the heart of Bristol that began as a collaboration between itself and Bristol City Council in 2013. It houses a members’ lounge, five meeting rooms, four event spaces, three coworking spaces, and 18 offices, and each year, more than 30,000 people use it to connect, collaborate, and innovate. Woolley says the aim of the initiative is to bring people together.  

“It’s where we support our spinouts,” he says, adding that the initative aspires to be an “incubator of incubators.”

“We’re constantly looking for innovation and thinking about how we can help others create products and take them to market. I’m genuinely proud that we make a difference,” he says.

Woolley encourages other CIOs to think about how they can foster an innovation network, too: “Unless you understand where the markets are going, how can you be sure about whether you’re implementing the right technologies to enable the change the business requires?”

As a member of the university’s executive board, Woolley works with his C-level peers to think about how technologies might help the institution meet its goals and deliver better experiences for academics and students. His says this tightly defined focus on business leadership is what defines the successful CIO enabler.

“The IT leadership piece is the day job that I lead and support,” he says. “But as a senior executive, I must understand how technology fits into the wider organizational strategy. And I think CIOs who don’t become business enablers are going to be dinosaurs very quickly.”