Business, not IT, should build use cases for Big Data, argues Johnson Matthey CIO Paul Coby

Mark Samuels Profile picture for user Mark Samuels March 25, 2021
Johnson Matthey CIO Paul Coby argues business and technology teams can create magic when they work together to meet clearly identified objectives.


Companies that want to make the most of the significant amounts of information they collect must ensure that the business creates use cases for big data projects rather than the technology department.

That’s the opinion of Paul Coby, CIO at Johnson Matthey, who is  applying his many decades of IT leadership experience to the challenges faced by the global science and chemicals company. Coby joined the firm in April 2018 and is helping the business to consider how data can be used to support sustainable developments in pioneering areas.

One of Coby’s strategies has been to set up a data office. This office supports the work of the company’s individual business units as they attempt to exploit information. While all organizations may have similar aims for data, but realising that objective is far from straightforward. The key to success is recognising that the business understands how insight can improve operations and technologists should act as enablers:

That’s an easy mission to say, but I think this is a classic role: how do you enable the business, how do you get behind it? It's not our data. IT can only do half the job; the business has to do the other half of the job – it's about how you get those bits together. And when you can get them to come together, you get some real magic.

Coby says many of his firm’s innovations are analytics-based. He gives an example of Johnson Matthey’s auto catalyst plant in Skopje, North Macedonia. The tech team has implemented an AWS cloud above all the systems at the plant that generate data about production-line performance. Business units are then able to exploit this analytical information: 

Because there are so many tools in AWS, you can slice it and dice it; you can understand what’s happening. If you can then equip the people who understand how that process is working, or can understand how the science is working, then something exciting happens. So we're pushing that forward.

At Johnson Matthey, the people who've really embraced high-level analytics are scientists. The firm spends about £200 million a year on Research and Development (R&D), which Coby refers to as “the future of the business”. The scientists involved in R&D are now going beyond their specialist areas to share results with peers around the business in a process spearheaded by Corporate R&D Director Elizabeth Rowsell. Coby explains: 

She’s become a big sponsor for data. She got together a lot of key opinion formers and leaders in the business, pulled them all together and said, ‘Look, data really matters to us, what do we want to get from it?’ And then we're working with her to support different parts of the business to move forward on this agenda. It's quite early days but it's interesting that we're finding there's a big pull coming in on data. If you can explain that you've got some tools that can help, then people really want them.

Coby acknowledges that there’s a lot of hype around the potential impact of data, but argues that evidence from Johnson Matthey shows there is substance to be gleaned behind the hysteria. For instance, the North Macedonia example enabled his team to create processes around big data use cases that hadn't been possible before. 


The tech team has now created a funnel to catch other insight-led ideas, which is known as the Competency Centre for Advanced Analytics. This funnel ensures Johnson Matthey is working towards a joined-up approach to big data exploitation – and that the purchase of point solutions from disparate vendors is avoided, he says: 

All the usual suspects were selling bits of Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning or Robotic Process Automation into different parts of the business. We collectively said, ‘Let's not have four or five different proofs of concept; let's try and do one in each key area and we'll finance that centrally’. We make everybody in the business fill in a single sheet that says, ‘what it's for, what will it cost, who's sponsoring it, and where will it go?’. We’ve just got a classic funnel and we catch all the ideas – and, therefore, when things get released into the wild they've got owners and real meaning.

Coby remains a big advocate for experimentation. He pioneered the use of innovation labs in his previous role as CIO at John Lewis Partnership, helping the retailer to create technological solutions to intractable business challenges. Innovation is also core to the success of Johnson Matthey. Coby says he’s particularly pleased with the firm’s JM-LEVOFormaldehyde portal, which is an analytics and communication tool that helps customers proactively manage and adapt plant operations:

We take the data in terms of how your plant is operating. We use our experts to advise you on how you can optimise the most effective, most sustainable, most energy-efficient and cost-effective way to run that plant. And you use that data to optimise the way you use it. And that's effectively been done by building a data portal and putting communications behind it, and adding real expertise and real service to an industrial product.

Customers that take advantage of the JM-LEVO portal are running reactors that rely on a catalyst. The various parameters – such as the temperature of the catalyst and its performance – need to be optimized. The data that Johnson Matthey holds can be used to sponsor significant savings in energy consumption and cost. Coby says these kinds of gains are achievable because the company understands how its catalysts work – and it can share that performance data with its clients:

Other things that we do with that is that we can predict how long their life is – I think they last on average about a year. We can then also optimise how we construct our catalysts. So it's fascinating because we’re actually leveraging digital technology in a different way. It's a classic thing where you take the different pieces of technology, none of which you would claim as being bleeding edge or leading edge, but if you put them together in an interesting way, you can actually produce something that is really innovative because of the combination of those things.

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