The Next Big Question

Episode 16
Hosted by: Drew Lazzara and Liz Ramey

Miao Song

Global CIO Petcare


Miao Song is Global Chief Information Officer of Petcare for Mars. Previously, Miao was CIO ASPAC at Johnson & Johnson and worked in global IT strategy at Shell. Miao has a clear vision for the evolving role of CIO in large, multinational organizations.

What Should Organizations Expect from the CIO Role?

MAY 24, 2021

On the podcast this week, Global CIO of Petcare at Mars Miao Song joins us to discuss the evolution of the CIO role. She shares her definition of the role, her thoughts on the ideal state of the role for the business, and the three areas CIOs should focus on today. Listen to her thoughts on how CIOs can drive digital transformation and serve as chief innovation officer on The Next Big Question.


Drew Lazzara (00:13):

Welcome to The Next Big Question, a weekly podcast with senior business leaders, sharing their vision for tomorrow, brought to you by Evanta, a Gartner company.

Liz Ramey (00:23):

Each episode features a conversation with C-suite executives about the future of their roles, organizations, and industries.

Drew Lazzara (00:32):

My name is Drew Lazzara.

Liz Ramey (00:33):

And I'm Liz Ramey. We're your co-hosts. So, Drew, what's The Next Big Question?

Drew Lazzara (00:40):

In this episode, our big question is, ‘What should organizations expect from the CIO role?’ Our guest this week is Miao Song, Global Chief Information Officer of Petcare for Mars. Miao has a clear vision for the evolving role of CIO in large, multinational organizations. For her, these executives should have centralized oversight of all digital initiatives, be transformers and innovators, create new revenue opportunities, and become more consumer facing. But no change at that kind of scale happens in a vacuum. The interplay among technology leaders, executives across the C-Suite, business units and CEOs will also play a role in what becomes of the CIO. In our conversation, Miao lays out her vision for technology leadership, looks at the forces driving those changes, and thinks about CIO influence across the business.

Before we sit down with Miao, we’d like to take a moment to thank you for listening. To make sure you don’t miss out on the next Next Big Question, please subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. Rate and review the show so we can continue to grow and improve. Thanks, and enjoy.

Drew Lazzara (01:55):

Miao Song, welcome to The Next Big Question. Thank you so much for being on the show. 

Miao Song (01:58):

Thank you for having me here today. 

Liz Ramey (02:01):

Miao, I want to kind of before we really begin, I want to kind of strip aside your title and kind of ask you about your journey into becoming an IT leader before you actually were an IT leader. 

Miao Song (02:19):

Absolutely. Happy to share. So where did I get started? I think I can get started to talk about when I went to college. I actually went to college about 30 years ago. Now, you probably know my age, but at that time, computer science wasn't that popular as it is today. So I was among a few women who actually want to study computer science and information management. I still remember that I really love the subject. And also I was amazed by the art of possible computer science, but also the technology can bring at that time to the business. 

And I started my formal first job with Nestlé, China, many years ago. So it was actually the first local information technology hire in Nestle China many, many years ago. I remember at that time it was not even called IT. It was called, I think, management information system. So my first job was actually putting together some sales dashboard based on a mainframe system. Nowadays it is almost fingertip. But you think about many years ago, it took quite a lot of effort to run the system, make sure the system is up and running, and putting data together to generate the right insights and submit it and present it to senior leaders. I remember the first time when me and my team were able to put together the whole sales dashboard on a daily basis for more than 15 sales offices and 10 joint ventures across China into our leadership team. It was transformational, and they were extremely happy. But the efforts behind it was phenomenal. So, I started with Nestle and I, involving a lot of work around implementation of their enterprise resourcing and resource planning system, ERP system, across different manufacturing and different business processes at different locations. I spent five years with Nestlé and then moving to Royal Shell. 

I actually spent more than 14 years with the oil and gas industry all the way from heading the Information Technology Department in China into the Netherland. I actually spent three years in one of the largest manufacturing locations in the world, which is the largest refinery in the world for three years. That gave me a huge opportunity to learn a business and supply chain and manufacturing that eventually took on a regional role of IT operation and also the strategic growth strategy role, global role in Shell. And then after that, did the CIO role for Johnson and Johnson, landed at Mars doing a global CIO role. So for me, it's a journey of learning, constant learning, because technology and specifically information technology or digital technology nowadays are evolving so fast, it's very important to keep open minded, having a humble mind, to learn, constantly to learn the new technology, to understand what are the art of the possible to drive the business growth, leveraging technology. So this is very, very exciting for me all the time. I never felt bored of the new technology in the last twenty years. 

Drew Lazzara (05:42):

Well, now you got to see sort of IT kind of grow up over those 30 years of your career. So it's interesting that today we're going to be talking about more kinds of transformations in the role of the CIO. So you have a really great perspective to talk about that evolution. And our big question is focusing around this idea of transformation, but it's looking at the role of the CIO specifically. And the question is, you know, how should the business change their expectations of ITt and the role of the CIO? But before we talk about that kind of perception in the business, I was hoping we could start with what your definition for the new role of the CIO looks like. You know, if you could control everything about your role as a CIO, what would that look like in its ideal state? And why would that be the most beneficial version of the CIO for the business? 

Miao Song (06:29):

Yeah, I would say CIO has a few components nowadays, which are very important. The first one is really running IT, which again is a given. So today, people don't even ask you. You have to run the IT services, the IT solutions to support a business. The second component, which I think is quite important, is around driving digital and technology innovation and transformation within the organization, which I think probably consists of 50 percent of the job because nowadays every single business process is embedded and supported by digital technology. That's a huge component of CIO. The third one, I think, is the chief, I'll call it the chief innovation officer. So constantly CIO has a role to drive innovation either in the business processes or the even the business model leveraging technology and digital and data to create value for the organization. I think these are the three things CIO must drive. 

I would say, if you asked me 10 years ago, a lot of organization people really thought CIO was primarily point one, run IT, being as a function. Many people would say, hey, IT function, but it's not just a function. It is actually a key enabler, key partner, but also part of the core business nowadays. So it's very, very different as a result because of this whole evolvement in the last 10 years, the CIO role has been seen as a very exciting role. But at the same time, super challenging because of a few reasons. One is - every organization has a limited budget. There isn't any organization who has an unlimited budget in technology and in other areas. So, CIO has to run the IT solutions very efficiently. Constantly there is a cost challenge, and you have to deliver that as part of the job. The second part is back to my transformation part. I think CIO has to lean forward in the leadership team, constantly bring new ideas, being provocative to the business leaders, and really being able to drive some of the transformational initiatives using technology, which is the core. 

Sometimes it's not easy, because if the organization traditionally sees the CIO as a function, and then they come out with ideas as using this supporting function world of basic needs, that, hey, you support my business, why are you actually telling me how to run my business? So that has to be a constant conversation of technology, how technology and digital will run the business, help the business run, or even evolve or innovate the business. I think the third one is - the CIO actually knows quite a lot of processes in the organization. In my past experience, I was fortunate enough to work in different industries all the way from consumer industry to oil and gas, healthcare and now back to consumer, the healthcare industry. I think the CIO is in a unique position among different leaders who actually understand all the processes in the large organization -- all the way from order to cash to financials, finance, supply chain, you name it. So, I mean, there isn't anybody who actually understands end-to-end processes better holistically than CIO in the organization. I would say CIO often also acts as a chief process officer, if that's a title. So, these are multiple, multiple functions, multiple heads of CIO make the role super exciting, yet rewarding nowadays. 

Liz Ramey (10:24):

You know, I love the breakdown of the three areas in which the current CIO has to focus. And I see that the two that you said at the end, aside from running IT services and solutions and such, but really driving digital technology and transformation and then being that kind of chief innovation officer, I see those two pieces as being a lot more externally focused, toward the external customer. Than kind of 10 years ago, the head of IT really focusing on the internal customer. And so, how does that help you as a CIO, really show value to the organization when you can impact that external customer? 

Miao Song (11:09):

That's a great question. So, what I have been telling my team in the past has been very consistent. So, first to be very clear on who is the customer and consumer. And when we talk about a customer and customer, it is the end customer and customer. It is the people who actually consume and buy our products. It is not internal users. So, they have to be very, very clear because the perspective of the end customers and consumers are very different than internal users. So, I could give you a lot of examples with all the direct-to-consumer growth and also the commerce growth in the past few years. 

The consumer behaviors are changing so fast. I mean, everybody has seen that during Covid. There's a lot of change in terms of how people shop, how people consume, how people actually changed their lifestyles. As a result, the whole demand changed so fast from the customers. There isn't any organization who actually completely understands. The uncertainty nowadays is crazy, right. So any organization who can really have a comprehensive understanding of consumer changing behavior and needs will win because that drives a different strategy of how they define our product and services quickly in response to the fastest changing world. 

Technology is and digital is a bridge between the consumers and organizations. So what if you create a digital channel to connect with consumers effectively and efficiently, being able to understand what they need and really shift your product and services quickly to fulfill their unmet need? How you leverage data, big data most of the time is external data to generate valuable insight and quickly translate those insights and data into business decisions and to help you to actually drive growth of your business. So these are the key things technology, and the CIO plays a key role. 

I think that is really different than the traditional IT function. The traditional IT function take approach, for example, the user tells the IT function, ‘Hey, I have five requirements. Can you implement these five requirements in your systems?’ And then the IT team will take it and take them a few months of development. They go back to the end users. But as soon as you go back to the users nowadays, right, things changed. What they discussed a few months ago is not valid anymore. The people move on, everything, the market moves on. So they got to do something quick, agile. Therefore, I think direct connection with the end customer and consumer through digital and technology actually makes the whole thing different. And that also drives the conversation internally quite differently. I would say this is a key role of the organization. So as a result, the way of working, even the way that IT functions or IT teams organize themselves have to be very, very different than probably than 10 years ago. 10 years ago, the IT function was organized probably by project or by function, you name it. You got a typical project manager. You got people to manage the portfolio, you got IT infrastructure, application, everything. You have multiple verticals. But nowadays, with the rapid change of the customer and the whole digital landscape, and it's all cross-border, it's all cross-functional team driving agile development, dev ops to make sure that you'd better release the new features, new solutions almost on a daily basis. So that's the speed. That's a change. Every single organization has to evolve nowadays to move faster. 

Drew Lazzara (15:09):

With all of these factors driving the pace of change, I want to talk a little bit about how you influence the business to allow you to kind of run the ship a little bit, because, as you said, the CIO has this and view in a way that no other executive really does across the business. So you're ideally suited to help drive these transformations at the speed and scale necessary. But how do you influence other senior leaders to see it that way? I know that sometimes there can be silos in large organizations, there can be pockets of control and that can be difficult to pull into sort of a centralized function in the way that you're kind of describing the CIO role. So, what sorts of things do you do to influence the things that you could influence from your CIO seat when you're dealing with other executives across the business? 

Miao Song (15:54):

Yeah, so the first one is really showing the art of the possible of technology. So not every not every single person understands the possibility of technology. So I think the first role the CIO and their teams have to play is really educating the organization on the art of possible. So we're technology, which is super important because in this space, if we don't educate our key stakeholders, there's no common understanding on the ground. I think we have done a lot of work in the past two years to really showcase -- what are the capabilities the IT organization can bring to the business quickly and perhaps a different way of working. That's super important. Use live examples in different areas. 

The second one, I think, is we really have to shift the way of conversation from IT delivers the requirements of the business, that type of conversation, into what are the added value of solutions we have to build for the business type of conversation. So change the conversation from being very reactive into more value based, I would say value-based conversation, showing the capabilities, that's the second one. 

The third one, I think, is also provoke the idea. I mean, every CIO and IT function team, I think has to be a business leader. Everybody has to be a business leader. When you act on one side, functional leader traditionally, but on the other side, you have to put your business leader hat there to really think about -- if you run the business, what are the things you are doing differently? And then provoke and having sometimes even the challenging discussion. If you don't agree, you have to put it there, and bring the innovating thinking into the conversation. I often think the organizational technology organization has to be one or two steps ahead of the business organization, so they have to see the future. For example, when AI and machine learning are developing so fast, it's our job to actually bring that conversation, say these are possible of using this technology to drive value in the business, rather than the other way around. I think this is where things, key things CIO has to be managed and managed properly. The other one is how to have a, I would say, masterful conversation. Often when you showcase the value, it's much more easier for people to understand than when you just talk about, ‘Hey, this is my plan. This is my strategy.’ I think the key thing which I learned is how to bring a strategy alive so that people understand what you are talking about rather than having a few bullets on paper but not make it happen. So making it happen is super important nowadays. 

Liz Ramey (18:51):

So, Drew was kind of asking you to talk about how are you working to kind of calibrate their understanding of what value you can bring. And you, of course, talking about being ahead of the game. I wonder, how often are you having to recalibrate those senior leaders? I think of a CEO who is just naturally kind of an entrepreneur, and they feel as if they need to be three, four or five steps ahead of their business and their competition. So they'll come back. And I think 10 years ago, them going, oh, with this big data thing, what it was everybody talking about? And so they often come with these kind of grandiose ideas. How do you recalibrate their expectations for what the business needs to be doing right now versus five, ten years down the road? 

Miao Song (19:46):

Yeah, so there is always some of -- it's always a balance around how you move strategically through your longer term vision and your short term goals. So for me, I think it's important to clarify with the senior leaders and key stakeholders, what is your longer term vision? Where do you want to bring the organization? Even longer term vision nowadays, I wouldn't even bother to think about three years later, you are going to implement a technology. I think this thing is evolving so fast. I would say even  the longer term vision we're talking about from two to three years at most because it's changing so fast. But at the same time, it's important to also show the organization, what are the short term visions, what are the problems we're trying to solve? What are the business problems and opportunity that we’re solving? That's a short term goal. For example, some of the organization may have supply chain issues during Covid because they're not able to forecast the demand of the customer, being able to the product to the customers on time. We have many organizations actually nowadays having this trouble at the moment. 

Some organizations are struggling on automation when every workforce is at home. Not being able to get into the office and automation through technology is a key priority. And this is just some examples. I think it's important to clarify with the stakeholders and calibration or align on the priorities. So, what are the key priorities for this company to achieve your short term through technology? Focusing on two or three things short term. You can do a hundred, have a hundred things, but you can do two things the best. And then you focus on those two or three things and quickly deliver those things and then move to the next problem to solve. I think this kind of reiteration of being fast and being focused, using the capability building is the key. 

The second one, I think, is really around a different way of working. One of the examples I like to bring up here is around how to drive innovation. I mean, just imagine the organization is running quite okay with all the IT services, take example, in this crisis, Covid pandemic crisis. I think by now most organizations probably have figured out through technology how to work and operate, run their operation remotely with technology already. If there is any organization who hasn't, I'm pretty sure you have some trouble. But that is basic IT, basic technology. Now, the focus is really around, hey, what are the innovations? What are the things we need to do differently through technology and digital? 

In our organization, we launched in the last 12 months, we launched a digital hackathon initiative. So what we do with different -- and completely virtually, by the way. We used to do that face to face, but with all the constraints, we had to switch to virtually. So what we do is we pick up a few key regions and markets and we run two days digital hackathon. And before that, we were very clear on what are the business opportunities and problems we want to solve, whether it is reaching the customer or consumer, whether it is the channel constraint or the supply chain constraint or what digital health care. So what is it? And we figure out, we come out with a few tangible business problems. And then we invited some of our partners or technology vendors to come to our digital hackathon session, and showing quickly building prototype of the solution and showing their thoughts in the hackathon session. And we choose a solution, and then do the minimal variable product of the digital solutions before we scale it up. 

So this way of doing that brings a few benefits. The first one is -- every single problem is aligned with the business priorities. The second one is that we could develop these types of solutions, prototype solutions, along with our business. It is not just the IT people are doing this, but is really bringing this cross-functional team together, quickly develop all the solutions. It's like a mini Netflix model. You think about how Netflix quickly switching to their long term new content. They're constantly trying to create those type of things. This is like a mini Netflix model. That's how we worked. And it turned out to be very, very effective. In the last 12 months,  I think we dropped at least three or four hackathon sessions across the globe. And every region loves it. We are planning more this year with different regions all the way from Latin America to Europe and to Asia. So that's how we bring some innovation and a different way of working with the constraint of Covid at this time. 

I think this way really helped to do two things. One is to break the silo of working. Second one is driving speed and bringing innovation. Some people were saying actually they never thought about some of the problems could be solved in a completely different way. Some people were commenting after they went through the whole hackathon, they were saying, ‘Hey, actually the problem was there for years. We've never been able to tackle it. But this time, actually it was eye-opening because we are tackling the same problem, but it was a very, very different methodology.’ So I really love that concept. I think CIO actually plays, I think, a leading role in this type of innovation, and being able to drive speed, being able to drive innovation in the organization. As part of -- back to my point of what are the key roles of CIO. 

Drew Lazzara (25:40):

I want to ask you -- we've got a couple of other questions, Miao. One of the questions I wanted to ask you is about how you instill some of these capabilities that you're talking about as being necessary to the CIO role in your direct reports and in the future leaders? So, what are the skills that support this kind of CIO role, and how do you emphasize those in the people that you develop? 

Miao Song (26:00):

See, the first one, I think. I mean, first, we're all human. And I mean, as we get used to something, the natural tendency that you just do the same thing every day, it's easy. I think the first one is really the learning agility. So basically encourage and inspire people to learn. Regardless of what you learn, but you have to learn the new digital skill sets, learning the new technology, learning the new business. That's very, very important for the new technology leaders. And I think the second one is really to inspire people to think, not think of themselves as a functional leader, but think of themselves as a business leader. I mean, I often reflect something like, for example, if I'm running the business, that's another way of doing this. The third one, I think, is really provoke and challenge some of the people, I mean, so be setting up this stretching target for people to be able to achieve a higher standard and higher objective. I think those are the three things that I would really encourage because we’re in a very unique space of technology transformation. 

Drew Lazzara (27:14):

We always ask our guests on the show to pose a big question for one of their peers. And our last guest was Guy Mason, who is the CIO for Bourne Leisure. And Guy was talking with us also about this concept of demonstrating value. And he was talking about the way that the perception of value is changing. And he included things like, what good does the organization do for the environment? How do you connect with your employees and make sure that they're taken care of? So some of those things that are a little bit ancillary to how we think of business value he was focusing on. And his big question is - what is going to be the new definition of value? What is the scope of what value means, look like for you in the future? 

Miao Song (27:57):

Now, it is indeed the value definition. The definition of value has been changed. In the past, the value is measurable. So typically, when people talk about value, they talk about top line, bottom line, right. So when you invest in IT, for example, people ask, ‘Hey, what's your contribution to my top line, and what's your contribution to the bottom line?’ But today, the value is much broader. I could definitely think about and talk about a few things. One is the value to the society. So how even using technology to improve sustainability in the organization, how you use technology to improve staff engagement, getting people connected, how do you use technology to solve some of the problems, not necessarily in your organization, but some of the human problems we are facing too, right. So sustainability, how technology can change the sustainability. And all of these are intangible value, which you can't measure. You can measure in dollar amount, but I think the true value is not just dollar amount, but how you actually impact the world and improve the world, make it a better world for the society. I think that's a value a tech leader needs to talk about. 

And the traditional way, the CEOs are shy to talk about this. But with all of this change, I think we shouldn't be shy to talk about how we actually our team and ourselves contribute to this nontangible value. Just think about -- I could give you an example. If you launch your data center in a cloud environment where it is completely green IT, right. You reduce CO2 emission, and that's the indirect contribution. It is a value you created and delivered to the society. This is just one example. In the typical example, nowadays we talk about sustainability. We talk about reduction of plastic packaging and waste. But technology actually can play a key role in this area. Just to give an example, using artificial intelligence technology to be able to predict some of waste in the manufacturing processes, but making the right decision to reduce the plastic waste, for example. This is just an example, right. But the value we deliver, which we can't measure in any dollar amount. But this value is the sustainable value we deliver to our human society in the longer term. I do think technology leaders are, should really talk about value, maybe even putting some of these goals, some of these things into their objectives. That's my understanding of value. 

Liz Ramey (31:01):

Yeah, I actually, after talking with Guy, I think he would agree with so much of that sentiment. He also talked to us a lot about that kind of blending of tangible versus intangible. And that's really the road we're going down. So, you know, we had asked Guy to think of a question, and so we'd love to also turn it around to you so we can ask our next guest something that you are really passionate about. So kind of stripping down this, even the title of a CIO or anything, but really just you as a business leader, what do you think is the next big question?

Miao Song (31:38):

I think the next big question, probably the next big question, I will skip the technology part. Probably the most typical next question is -- what do you think is the biggest, biggest technology, right? But I would skip that one. I think my question will be -- what do you think is the biggest role or the next role the CIO could be? How far is CIO away from being CEO? I just want to sort of question there because I still think nowadays the typical career ladder for a CIO is still -- you do a small CIO, you become a bigger global CIO, and then you become bigger, then you retire. I would provoke the idea of how a CIO can grow into a CEO and a successful entrepreneur? That will be the question I throw to my peers. 

Drew Lazzara (32:34):

I think that's a really pertinent question because the next episode that we're going to be having is actually with the CIO who's arguing that maybe IT doesn't have a role in the organization of the future. And so I'm sure he'll have some interesting perspectives on how close the CIO is to the CEO role. But as you said earlier, it is the function that has the broadest view of the business. So I think it makes sense to head in that direction. But Miao, thank you so much for being on the show. This was a lot of fun, and I really appreciate you sharing your vision for the role of the CIO now and in the future. So thank you again for being here. 

Miao Song (33:05):

Thank you for having me. 

Liz Ramey (33:07):

Thank you. Thank you, again, for listening to The Next Big Question. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. Rate and review the show, so that we can continue to grow and improve. You can also visit to explore more content and learn about how your peers are tackling questions and challenges every day. Connect, learn, and grow with Evanta, a Gartner Company.