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Breaking Boundaries:
When a CIO means Business


Shivani Saini
CIO, Asia, Middle East, Africa
GSK Consumer Health

Breaking Boundaries:
When a CIO means Business

Shivani Saini
CIO, Asia, Middle East, Africa
GSK Consumer Health

Ask Shivani Saini what defines the role of a CIO today and in her inimitable style, she’d say: It’s about being more.

“The CIO’s role has become much broader and deeper than when we initially started out. We are more than hardware, software. We define business models and we ARE business,” says Saini, the CIO for Asia, Middle East, and Africa at GSK Consumer Health, very passionately.

And that passion is clearly visible when she says that the most important requirement for a CIO is to be passionate about the need for IT to be perceived—and to behave—as a business. Being at the helm of the IT wing of one of the world’s leading healthcare companies, Saini says that with personal experience.

However, to be able to ‘be business’ in the true sense, CIOs need to leverage IT in a way that it adds true business value. But you’ve heard that before. Here’s something you probably haven’t: For IT to add business value, CIOs need to get their hands dirty.

Saini should know. Take for example, how in her initial days at GSK, there was a request to implement the global sales force automation platform in APAC, including India. But the initial excitement quickly tapered off when she discovered the cost of the new solution.

“It was 1,000 pounds per month per user. The team in India had already created a minimum viable product that could achieve the same results and do more at 50 pounds per user per month. Just look at the dimension here!” she says.

Clearly, there was no need to fix what isn’t broken. But how was she going to convince the global team?

Saini insisted that the global team travel to India and follow the scooters of sales reps to see how they actually use technology to close deals.

Driving through some of the narrowest streets of hot and dusty Delhi, visiting non-air conditioned pharmacies, and getting into the shoes of a sales representative opened the eyes of the global team.

I love technology, but if it’s not driving business value, you’re just in love with the solution and not the problem. As CIOs, we need to ensure that at least 80 percent of our conversation is about the value we’re going to create for the organisation and our business.

Shivani Saini’s Ten Commandments

  1. Get your hands dirty to understand business.
  2. Change the conversation to creating business value.
  3. Be in love with the problem and not the solution.
  4. Get there at the right time, and get the right sponsorship.
  5. Immerse yourself in emerging technology trends.

Predict what business needs before business needs it.
Encourage diversity of thought.
Develop your team to unleash their full potential.
Be passionate about technology and its application.
Push the traditional boundaries of the CIO role.

Diving Deep

For someone who likes getting into the thick of things, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that Saini is a certified scuba diver. That explains her penchant for diving deep into anything and everything that she sets out to do.

Be it convincing the global team to travel all the way to India or having a patent to her name.

You read that right. A patent. Not many CIOs hold that distinction. For Saini, this idea also stemmed from pushing the boundaries of technology to fuel business value.

In an earlier stint with P&G, she created a menstrual advice app called MyCycle on Web/Mobile in early 2000. The app would alert women about their upcoming period dates and also provide nutritional and lifestyle advice. At the same time, it would promote Whisper (P&G’s sanitary pad brand). It was a brilliant idea.

When she took the idea to the marketing leader, he said: “It is not very comfortable to talk about menstruation,” she recalls.

In her trademark style she turns to us and quips, “You lead the feminine care team, we need to talk about menstruation, we need to understand, and we need to serve our consumers. We should be talking menstruation in the office, right?”

Clearly, the marketing leader wasn’t going to deter her. For a scuba diver pushing harder comes naturally. She found other means to make the app happen. Within a month, the app registered almost 72,000 people, which was uncommon in the early days of the internet boom.

This was the first time in P&G when anyone had attempted to sell a product and a service together, she says. “We proved that in a short while, the brand recognition increased by almost twenty percent. I patented the idea, but it did not go outside Japan and the USA,” she says.

If you ask her what she learnt from this experience she says, “You need to get there at the right time, and then you need to get the right sponsorship.”

Steering Business

Scuba diving aside, skiing and hiking are something Saini is passionate about. And just as skiing requires maneuvering steep curves, Saini has mastered the art of getting the right sponsorship at the right time by astutely navigating RoI conversations.

“When I recognize the need for a $5 million funding, I rationalize what I will make out of that money.”

I do a full financial analysis–not cost analysis— but a cost-benefit analysis. This $5 million is going to get us $25 million in 20 months, and here’s what I sign up for.

That’s the kind of conversation she believes CIOs should have with their business stakeholders. Because it’s on the strength of those conversations that Saini has created immense business value. And pushed the traditional boundaries of the CIO role.

Take her SK-II CRM program for instance. Back in 2003, when she was with P&G, Saini launched SK-II’s—a premium skin care solution—CRM program. In a little over ten years, this basic CRM was going to take the shape of a high-tech system that would give P&G insights into consumer preferences and help build a one to one relationship with them.

What she came up with was a 360-degree view of the consumer. “We record the data of a customer when she comes to the counter. Now, when she comes to the website, we know exactly what she’s purchased. We are doing campaign management, we are doing the direct-to-consumer e-commerce and we are doing data [predictive] analytics for my strategy teams to say, this is what you learn about our consumers,” she explains.

But she wasn’t done yet. She was going to add another feather to her cap, one that wouldn’t manifest in this glamourous SK-II world, but somewhere in a factory floor in Belgium.

Running an IT Factory

It shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore that Saini enjoys running as much as she loves scuba diving and skiing.

But her appetite for adventure–and the desire to be more and do more–will take her on a significantly different running route.

When she told her manager she wanted to do something different, they sent her to Belgium as a Plant IT leader—literally running a factory. But a woman running the IT department in a factory? That’s the stereotypical man’s job. “I never thought I was a ‘woman in tech’ or anything. People bring in their own uniqueness. I really, truly value diversity. True diversity is about diversity of thought,” she says.

It’s that diversity of thought that turned-around P&G’s Pringles factory. She brought in the concept of advanced production scheduling and planning.

P&G has over 100 factories globally and rolling it out in all of them would take considerable time and cost. Saini came up with a factory model—the solution will be rolled out like a factory, they’ll put an assembly line of implementation, which was a new concept. “We rolled it out in 5X speed, and at one-third the cost. We did it in three months. We templatized and standardized,” she recalls.

That wouldn’t have been possible if she hadn’t won the trust of the business by constantly demonstrating business value through technology. At the same time, she also kept an eye on technology trends redefining her industry.

As the CIO, I don’t want to control the business. If I’m partnering with them, I should be able to predict their needs.

Today, as part of GSK, Saini has found incredible new ways to keep a tab on what’s shaping the healthcare industry. “The biggest trends today are the consumerization of healthcare and preventive healthcare. The doctor-patient relationship is changing, the power to the patients is changing. How you get yourself treated today is very different from the way your grandmother was treated, right?” she says.

Saini was able to witness this change first-hand at a global health tech challenge–organised by Accenture–that invites startups to showcase their ideas. As one of the judges, she came face to face with some of the major innovations in the healthcare industry.

Another technology that Saini believes will define the future of healthcare is robotics. “There’s a lot more demand than supply today. There aren’t enough doctors to perform, say, precision surgery. If robots can solve that problem, why not? To me, this is again where technology plays an exponential role,” she says.

Piggybacking on technology–for Saini today–running an IT organization is like hiking and scuba diving. “People often tell me that you like to climb high up the mountains and dive deep into the ocean. And that’s exactly what I do at GSK–creating business value while being deeply rooted in technology.”

Shivani Saini
CIO, Asia, Middle East, Africa
GSK Consumer Health

Shivani Saini, CIO, Asia, Middle East, Africa at GSK Consumer Health has been passionate about making IT a competitive business advantage for over 20 years.
She holds a patent for a web-based technology app and has implemented sweeping changes in Procter & Gamble and GSK Consumer Health. Team ThinkCIO had an opportunity to meet with her and discuss how to make IT tick for business, what it takes to be more than a CIO, and how to make ideas that are ahead of the times click.


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