Five Things You Need
to Know to Be a Truly
Digital CIO


Nikki Tan
Chief Digital and Information Officer,
Mercedes-Benz Financial Services

Five Things You Need to
Know to Be a Truly Digital CIO

Nikki Tan
Chief Digital and Information Officer,
Mercedes-Benz Financial Services

“Give me a piece of software and I’ll spend some time with it. And then I can use it, without challenge, without training.”

How often do you meet a CIO today who talks like that? Rarely, at best?

If that’s your answer, you probably haven’t met Nikki Tan, Chief Digital and Information Officer, of Mercedes-Benz Financial Services. “I can buy a motherboard, and all that, and build my own computer,” she says with a smile.

A self-confessed tech-enthusiast, Tan exudes immense love for technology that you’d associate with a Silicon Valley millennial or a Hollywood-version of a prodigal geek.

But that wasn’t enough. “I wanted to do something different, instead of coding behind the desk. I wanted to meet more people and understand the industry,” Tan says.

Over the years, Tan realized that she’d have to channelize her love for technology to understand the business and the industry.

If you have to push, you have to really understand the business and understand its strengths and weaknesses. That’s why I came in to do digital transformation.

As technology is ever evolving, it is very important to keep yourself up-to-date on the current tech landscape. “Never stop learning,” she says.

In a chat with ThinkCIO, Tan reveals five things that will have an impact on how today’s CIOs approach digital transformation and create business impact.

#1 Be aware of the FOMO effect
Being hands-on means CIOs need to be proactive and adopt new technologies, but not for the sake of new technologies. There’s a need to walk that fine line between need-to-have and cool-to-have. But the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) effect is taking over.

About two decades ago, Tan had built an Intranet for internal collaboration, at a time when Intranets or the concept of a common platform for file sharing and collaboration were alien. And then Microsoft released SharePoint. Tan asked her boss if they should move to it. “He said: ‘Why should I invest when we already have something’?” she recalls.

That was how CIOs approached new technology. But today, technology is advancing so rapidly that it’s almost creating a frenzy. Be it a new iPhone or the AI-enabled personal assistant Alexa, Tan says. “Is our memory that bad that we need Alexa? You’re getting Alexa because you don’t want to lose out, you want to look cool,” she says.

Clearly, FOMO is pushing today’s organizations to get on the new tech bandwagon—whether they really need to or not. That might not necessarily be a smart idea.

“It’s good to know what is out there, but don’t go over the wall and be afraid. At the same time, we also have to think that the world is changing, whether you like it or not. Embrace it or be left behind. What we can do right now is that we shouldn’t over-FOMO,” she says.

#2 Tie Up with Startups to Adopt New Technologies

FOMO or no FOMO, there’s no denying that emerging technologies like AI, robotics and augmented reality are redefining businesses.

Tan believes working with startups–leveraging their knowledge, and investing in their abilities–is a great way for organizations to make the most of opportunities that new technologies bring.

They have the appetite to innovate.

Tan gives an example of a South African startup that came up with a facial and location verification software. For auto dealership companies that sell cars online, it’s important to validate the buyer’s identity and verify address. Before authenticating a transaction, the solution—titled This Is Me—helps auto companies match the buyer’s address from the IP and verify the exact location through Google Street View.

It’s only after buyers are tracked and checked that a transaction gets authenticated. This is significant because fraud cases in the auto industry range between 30-40 on a daily basis, according to Tan.

With startups, it’s innovations such as these that turn into opportunities, Tan says. For organizations, collaborating with startups is a win-win. You get their expertise and they get your investment.

#3 Embrace the Role of a Business Strategist

It’s no longer enough for CIOs to be hands-on just with technology, they need to dig deeper into what it takes to be a business strategist. To be able to do that, CIOs need to really understand business and collaborate with business stakeholders, she says.

That’s exactly what she did in her organization when automating manual processes. “I really went from department to department to really understand structure and the business processes, and then linked them up together,” Tan says.

She did a quick analysis and came up with ideas and shared it with different business units to get their buy-in. “You can’t transform business processes without asking people. So we work with them and transform it,” she says.

Being strategic also calls for being cost-conscious and nimble. “Depending on the solution, say if it’s not customer-facing, we don’t mind using small guys. And for the customer-facing ones, we go with the big guys,” she says. That’s a smart way to spend wisely.

#4 Remember, Security Threats Lurk Behind Shiny New Technology
It’s no secret that new technologies bring new threats and as CIOs in the digital age, being mindful of these threats and taking proactive measures to curb them is an imperative, Tan says.

She narrates an incident when she saw a demo of a bot. If you tell the bot you want to book a flight ticket, the bot will ask: ‘Would you like me to order a meal on the flight?’ “If you say you would like to have a burger, the bot says, no, I saw from your credit card transaction, you had a burger for lunch and your health stats say you have high cholesterol, so I’ll book you a salad,” she says, astonished.

The bot, Tan says, is looking through all our data. “It’s looking at your transactions, your lifestyle, your health stats and deciding what’s best for you. Isn’t that scary?”

She definitely thinks so. Look at how hackers are using cryptocurrency as ransom. “Hackers have become the new threat,” she says.

#5 Invest in Creative Talent
CIOs also need to constantly invest in finding creative people—and innovate with technology—to come up with new ideas that leave competition behind.

Tan says the Apple vs Microsoft story is a great example. Apple actually managed to shake the future of phones and everyone else followed, she says. “When Microsoft tried to come up with a smartphone, the keyboard was a “wow” thing.

But, it didn’t work. The reason they failed is because, I think, they didn’t have enough iterations. They still think computers,” she says.

Innovation gets inspiration from not just technology but from people who find new ways to leverage technology. If CIOs need to innovate and transform businesses, they need to invest in talent.

You need talent to sustain growth. Without them, do you think you will have your AI bots? People are the actual asset, it’s not the technology or the business.

It’s hard not to agree with that. At a time when digital transformation and its business impact are at a crossroad, CIOs will have to do all that it takes to set the right direction.

“I think it’s the best time to be in IT, be it for women or men. If you are at the right place at the right time, then you can bring about change,” Tan says.

No one could have said it better.

Chief Digital and Information Officer,
Mercedes Benz Financial Services

Nikki Tan, Chief Digital and Information Officer, Mercedes-Benz Financial Services is a self-confessed tech geek who has dabbled in IT, business, and marketing in a career spanning over two decades. In a leadership position at Mercedes-Benz Financial Services, Tan participates in defining company strategy and ensures that the company’s digital and IT goals are in line with business needs.