Interview with Robert Plana – “Being a CTO in an engineering firm”
Having started out as a researcher, Robert Plana gradually moved towards more managerial roles in the public and private research sectors. After spending several years at Alstom and then General Electric, he joined Assystem as the Group’s Chief Technical Officer (CTO) and launched its “IMAGINE” innovation programme.
What does “being a CTO” actually mean?
The post of Chief Technical Officer is one of the new jobs that have emerged following the widespread implementation of IT and new technologies. It’s the CTO’s role to analyse and put in place new technological opportunities so that his or her company can operate effectively and develop its business in line with its overall corporate strategy.
As CTO at Assystem, my mission is to align the Group’s innovation initiatives with its business development in order to anticipate our clients’ future needs. When I first arrived, I was tasked with structuring Assystem’s innovation strategy, working in conjunction with the Group’s executives and operations teams.
A strong innovation strategy has a ricochet effect by making the Group more attractive for both existing and potential new employees. A dynamic and innovative company is much more appealing to engineers (and non-engineers) than a lethargic establishment that’s stuck in its ways. And for our people, working on ambitious projects means developing new skills and embarking on interesting career paths.
“So my role is to make sure that our innovation strategy contributes to the following two objectives: make the Group appealing to its people and accelerate business development.”
What have you put in place to encourage innovation?
My teams work in complex domains where high-quality engineering really comes to the fore. This means they have to propose cutting-edge methods for systems engineering. We are therefore investing particularly in new data-driven approaches to engineering that more effectively factor in the complexity of projects while ensuring digital continuity between each project phase.
In parallel, we have set up an Innovation Lab to help us translate our innovation programme into ambitious projects to help the Group’s various entities, from support functions through to operations. The Lab brings together teams working in different fields and therefore fosters cross-team collaboration.
Together with my teams we have also launched an innovation contest covering all of the Group’s subsidiaries, which has proved extremely popular, with a high participation rate across all fields of work. This contest enables us to share the innovations that already exist within the Group as well as to identify outstanding skills and encourage collaboration between Assystem’s different entities. To cite just one example of the contest’s success, two young Saudi Arabian women have come up with an excellent project to develop a virtual reality platform, which aptly sums up the ambitious innovation policy put in place by the engineering firm I’m proud to work for.
And lastly, I firmly believe that engineering firms today can no longer operate self-sufficiently and need to be anchored to an overall innovation ecosystem. That’s why my teams forge partnerships and carry out projects with start-ups in France and across the globe with the aim of being ever-more innovative.
What are today’s main trends in terms of engineering innovations?
One of the main engineering trends that I’ve seen in recent years is the emergence of digital solutions. These enable us to increase our teams’ efficiency, organise projects more effectively, anticipate complexity more precisely, deliver projects on time and provide higher quality services to our clients.
In the transport domain for instance, data science allows us to improve infrastructure audits and optimise capex and project management (e.g. the risk of delays for a large-scale project). This will be particularly useful for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games and the Grand Paris Express transport project.
My teams have also launched a Blockchain project, aimed at improving the traceability of information exchange and events within an organizational structure. This could be extremely useful for analysing the traceability of electronic batches in the life sciences, nuclear and transport industries.
In another domain, Industry 4.0 methodologies can be used to improve the performance of each phase of nuclear projects – design, build, testing and operation. This will lead to the introduction of new concepts such as digital twins and the use of virtual and augmented reality technologies.
Finally, what I love about my role as Assystem’s CTO is developing our innovation drive while at the same time creating value for the Group. Too often in companies, innovation and R&D are completely detached from the business aspects. I also really enjoy helping operations staff build up their individual skills through cross fertilisation – by bringing their ideas face to face with my cross-business vision. Because innovation also makes our people more creative. These are all challenges that I enjoy rising to on a daily basis.