At the centre of change

At the centre of change

Robin Johansen reflects on his time as CIO at Beca Group.

There is a natural tension in being CIO because you are at the centre of change, says Robin Johansen, CIO at Beca Group.

“If you are a CIO to be popular, then you are probably in the wrong job,” he says.

“People have incredibly emotional relationships with their computers. When you are a CIO, you get to speak with them when they are at their most emotional.

Robin Johansen will be doing independent consultancy work from his new base in Nelson.
Robin Johansen will be doing independent consultancy work from his new base in Nelson.

“You are changing the way people work; some people like the change and some people don’t. You are always at the point of tension, you are either going not fast enough or are spending too much money. You can never satisfy everyone.”

If you are a CIO to be popular, then you are probably in the wrong job

Robin Johansen

He says as CIO, you decide to work on what is best for the business “as far as you can judge and as far as your colleagues will let you do things”.

Johansen, who is leaving Beca Group at the end of this week after 13 years as CIO, talks with CIO New Zealand about his time at the company.

He joined the company in August 2000, coming from the Ministry of Defence, where he was deputy secretary.

Dr Thomas Hyde, group director, delivery strategy, a long-term Beca employee who has worked with him during almost his entire term as CIO, will be the interim CIO.

Johansen and his family will move to Nelson, where he will be working on a range of ICT projects as an independent consultant and company director. He will also continue to be involved in mentoring programmes for youth and ICT professionals.

“I speak of it as my reinvention,” he says. “The days of working a 60-hour week are gone.”

“It is a conscious move to do something different and perhaps exercise more of my other talents, not just the IT stuff.”

These include his interests in photography, woodwork and music. “Music is a big part of who I am, [that is] largely hidden from the CIO community,” says Johansen, a frequent speaker in CIO forums and who was a finalist for the 2013 CIO of the Year.

Robin Johansen is a frequent speaker in CIO forums and was a finalist for the 2013 CIO of the Year.
Robin Johansen is a frequent speaker in CIO forums and was a finalist for the 2013 CIO of the Year.

His house in Nelson has a workshop and a recording studio for him and his two sons who are also musicians. Johansen used to be a member of a band and plays guitar, bass, saxophone and keyboard.

He is chairman of the advisory group for the Industry Capability Network (ICN) a part of NZ Trade and Enterprise. “ICN has a role in growing the capability of smaller NZ companies and helping them participate in large projects both for the government and the private sector,” says Johansen.

Related: Team spirit

Robin Johansen started divisions that are now working on major contracts for the engineering firm. We check out one such project with the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

Related: Essential partnerships

Line of business executives are now making more technology decisions – with or without IT’s imprimatur. CIOs and analysts share pointers on how to develop and nurture a working relationship with these business leaders.

Hyde notes the advantage of having a long-term CIO. “You get someone who has unparalleled continuity who can actually follow through on lots of things."

You cannot afford to be slow, to take three years to make decisions...You have got to be on your game.

Robin Johansen

Hyde recalls when Johansen joined Beca: The company had 28 different PC models running on six operating systems, six to seven P drives none of which talked to each or other or were configured in the same way, and several Access databases.

“Robin started coming out with some radical ideas like, ‘wouldn’t it be good if we standardise on our hardware and start locking down things a bit so we can control the chaos?’”

“I learned a lot from him the value of risk analysis and strategic planning and how to use swear words at appropriate moments and how to spill petrol.”

Hyde says Johansen was known for “petrol spilling”, spreading ideas around to a lot of “unsuspecting people”, and then standing back to see it work.

“When Robin comes to you with a gleam in his eye and says, ‘I have an idea,’ the appropriate response is to go block your ears because you are going to be the poor [person] who will turn it into reality.”


“The average tenure of a CIO in the modern world is two-and-a-half years,” says Johansen, responding to the recollection by Hyde and his other colleagues at Beca of the range of projects he has led over a decade. “I must be a really slow learner.”

As for ‘spilling petrol’, he says, “A lot of people need to learn about petrol spreading… I have my matches ready.”

He says before he leaves the company, he would like to correct a piece of history at Beca. He says it was widely believed the company began at the early part of the last century. (It was established in 1918 with three employees and is now one of the largest employee- owned engineering and related consultancy services companies in the Asia Pacific. It is also number 44 in CIO100, the largest ICT using organisations in New Zealand.)

He says that is not true, as the first employee of Beca was the Italian philosopher Niccolo Macchiavelli, who died in 1527.

Since there was no document management system at that time, Macchiavelli’s writings only reached them five centuries later. He says one of these was a quote, a copy of which was left in the office of executive chairman Richard Aitken.

It was a fantastic quote, says Johansen. “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

Related: Machiavellian lessons for CIOs

His parting words for the group is to be prepared for more changes. “You are in a great place, you have a great platform, but there are stupendous changes going on in the world.”

He says this is the “third platform”, IDC’s term for the intersection of cloud, big data, social and mobile, that is moving fast and impacting organisations.

“You cannot afford to be slow, to take three years to make decisions,” he says. “You have got to be on your game.”

Follow Divina Paredes on Twitter: @divinap

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