Q&A: Poli Avramidis, BMA CIO

Mark Samuels speaks to the chief of the British Medical Association about what life is like on the frontline of tech.

Poli Avramidis, CIO at the BMA, has decades of experience at the frontline of business IT implementation, including more than 10 years in the top technology position at the medical membership organisation. His breadth of knowledge leads him to conclude that CIOs looking to thrive in a new business environment will need to look beyond the bits and bytes of system implementation.

“IT leaders need to drop their obsession with technology,” says Avramidis. “The word technology isn’t in the CIO’s job title for a reason.” Rather than concentrating on tools and applications, he says real differentiation for a successful CIO comes in the form of a focus on the information part of IT.

I see a lot of CIOs who are still technology experts and are not real people managers. They still focus too much on the subtleties of IT implementation.

Avramidis has worked hard to make sure the rest of his executive colleagues at the BMA understand the critical role of the CIO. He sits on the BMA board and reports directly to the chief executive. He says his role is rewarding because he is able to influence how his organisation moves forwards on a daily basis.

“You need to be a strategist,” says Avramidis. “If you’re not on the board as the CIO, you won’t fully understand the culture and dynamics of the organisation. You need this higher status in order to provide a proper level of service to the business. You need to fully comprehend the motivations of your executive peers.”

Avramidis is comfortable that his status at the BMA provides a higher-level view. He feels engaged with the business, its executives and its wider objectives. But what of his IT leadership peers, are they in a similarly elevated position? Avramidis is unsure and believes many CIOs still focus too much on the bits and bytes of technology, rather than the associated concerns of people and priorities.

“I see a lot of CIOs who are still technology experts and are not real people managers. They still focus too much on the subtleties of IT implementation. Such CIOs don’t think enough about how they, and their department, can influence the business. They don’t think about how the CIO can help differentiate information from technology,” he says.

“Technology is always just a means to an end and you need to make sure you use systems, apps and services to enable better business processes. We, as CIOs, have to be more critical and consider how our role will change in the digital era. IT leaders have to embrace transformation because the nature of the CIO role continues to change. This will be tough for some because too many IT leaders still think like a CTO.”

So, what do such changes mean for the role of the technology chief? Much of the literature around the continued evolution of the CIO position continues to concentrate on the potential demise of the role. Avramidis, however, is unconvinced and believes the position of any executive is directly related to their business contribution.

“Debates about the death of the CIO role are no different to people potentially talking about the end of the human resources director or marketing chief positions. The reality of modern business is that no senior executive role is safe. Any board member has to adapt to the fast-fluctuating business environment,” he says.

“The job title is irrelevant; businesses don’t need someone just because they have the right words in their job title. Businesses need individuals with the abilities to make the right decisions on behalf of the organisation. If you can do that as an executive, you’ll be essential to the board. In short, the CIO role will change but any executive needs to make the case for their role at the top table.”

Avramidis has been able to absorb such change while spending more than a decade in the top technology position at the membership organisation. He says other CIOs looking to extend their time in a particular position must be externally focussed. “Be comfortable with the business, so get an MBA and be open-minded to change and the potential for building teams,” he says.

“Look to become an open partner for the business. The soft elements of management make a difference. You must be able to communicate and to make influential decisions. I need to give the business an ability to make the most of its information and to make important decisions.”

Avramidis says the modern CIO must give the business a platform to make the most of its information, and to then make the decisions that will make a difference to the future of the organisation. He is eager to provide the sort of analytics that will allow his organisation to make more informed decisions.

To that end, the IT team is currently analysing the likely shape of the BMA’s platform for the next few years and recognises business intelligence and customer relationship management applications will be crucial. Avramidis also recognises the fast pace of change enabled by digital IT. Any future strategy will have to consider the influence of the cloud and consumer technology.

He does not discourage employees from bringing their own devices to work. “We are going through a transformation and we want to enable our systems so anyone can work from any location. We want our workers to be able to take advantage of mobile devices,” says Avramidis.

He estimates 150 people at the BMA work from home. Another 100-or-so use technology to enable a casual form of working that allows them to spend some working time at home. Many more of the organisation’s employees, however, could work from home.

Such a transformation will necessitate a significant cultural change within the modern business. Executives overseeing a cultural transformation will be faced with a tough challenge – and Avramidis believes management style will need to evolve, too.

“Mobility is the future – in the next five to ten years, most people will have the ability to work from any location,” he says. “As that happens, the line between corporate and private life will become increasingly difficult to define.”

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