Alexander Nelles, Chief Information Officer, Kantonsspital Winterthur

Alex Nelles is a Senior Executive who speaks Business and IT and marries both worlds with over two decades of experience in various sectors such as Telco, Retail, Travel and Health Care. Passionate about creating value through Business and Digital Transformation, he brings forth innovative solutions that are strategic and create competitive advantage. In roles such as CIO at Kantonsspital Winterthur and previously as CTO at Kuoni Global Travel Services, he has successfully led large-scale digital transformation programs and has a robust experience working with teams across the globe.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Digital First Magazine, Alex shared his professional trajectory, his favorite part about working at Kantonsspital Winterthur, the potential barriers to digital transformation in the healthcare industry, the secret sauce behind his success, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Alexander, can you tell us about your professional background and areas of interest?

I believe technology should make our life easier and I love to help people and organizations achieve this vision.

In the past I successfully combined my passion to bring businesses to new highs with my know how about digital technology. This has led me to manage Digital Transformation projects in several industries, including telecommunications, retail, travel, and now healthcare.

What is your favorite part about working at Kantonsspital Winterthur?

This is simple: it is all about the people. I’m part of a fantastic and diverse team, and I learn from them every day.  The staff at our hospital are both caring and grateful. Receiving their thankfulness is the greatest reward for me, especially when we go the extra mile to implement a Digital Transformation strategy or project.

On top of that, the System “Hospital” is very complex. While we have a great amount of specialties in modern medicine, we have a different level of digitalization across the organization. The kind of technology being used in surgery or diagnostics is impressive, the machines are mind-blowing, but then you turn around and look at the administrative processes and you see how far they are behind. To bring all this together can be quite challenging which makes the job very interesting.

In your opinion, what are the potential barriers to digital transformation, especially in the healthcare industry and how can those be overcome?

Hospitals aim to operate at full capacity, which requires doctors, nurses, and other staff involved in patient care to dedicate nearly all their time to this process. However, a successful digital transformation cannot be achieved solely by an IT team or similar groups. It requires a collaborative effort from everyone.

Moreover, people tend to hire people from the same industry because they think experience of the industry is high value- and it is. However, when it comes to transformation diversity is a key. People from other industries bring fresh ideas and best practices from outside insiders would not think of. Healthcare professionals often lack experience in managing large-scale transformation projects. This leads to a gap in essential skills, ranging from basic ones like project and process management to more complex areas such as understanding the importance of data. Implementing functions like data science is crucial to transition complex and large hospitals into data-driven organizations.

I believe that overcoming these challenges requires bringing in people from different industries and initiating transformation at every level. Key areas to focus on initially include leadership, fostering a culture of innovation, process-oriented and human centered design thinking, focusing on patient experience (along with patient care), and upgrading technology. The most important however is to maintain the right mindset throughout a structured change management. People need to understand “what’s in for me” if we want them on board.

How much have you seen the CIO role change, and to what extent do you expect it to continue to evolve?

In the past, Information Technology was just seen as a cost factor. People tried to cut those costs as much as they could. The CIO was an IT guy running data centers and applications while being asked to make it cheaper.

Meanwhile, Digital Technology became a central component of a company’s value creation and serves as a strategic tool for differentiation and securing competitive advantages. That is a fact nowadays, but many people in top management still miss its strategic value to drive innovation or market leadership.

I believe that the role of the modern CIO is to grasp the business model and processes and improve this by evolving the complex IT systems landscape. Over time I see the role of the CIO evolving furthermore in this direction as he’s probably the only one in the C-Level suite who is able to merry the business world with the complexity of technology and its amazing speed of development.

What do you think are the new technologies and cultures/methodologies which will define the future workplace, and what do you think is the role of the CIO in helping design and deliver these?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning have been around for decades, so they’re not exactly new technologies. However, the emergence of Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT and Google Bard is changing the game completely. Unlike earlier AI models that required extensive coding and data preparation, these new models understand human language in a way never seen before.

These developments allow companies to automate processes almost with a blink of an eye. Now, individuals can access this powerful technology without needing to invest in big projects or seek external help. The pace of this progress is astonishing, and I believe it won’t be long before everyone has access to personalized digital assistants capable of handling any task they’re given. People will learn to manage multiple assistants simultaneously, potentially boosting productivity to levels we cannot even imagine.

However, this rapid advancement also brings significant risks. All outputs need to be carefully reviewed, and the security of personal data and IT systems that store such data is crucial. Chief Information Officers (CIOs) will play a key role in integrating these innovations into business models while simultaneously managing the associated risks. At the moment it’s already incredibly challenging just to keep up with the rapid development of tools in the world of generative AI.

In your academic or work career, were there any mentors who have helped you grow along the way? What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky to meet incredible people. I have found mentors and made friends in nearly every part of the world, experiencing diverse cultures. This has allowed me to learn a great deal, taking bits of advice and knowledge from various places and combining them to shape who I am today.

Which technology are you investing in now to prepare for the future?

As many others we are trying to find the optimal way to make use of generative AI models and to shape the workplace of the future. We need to find out how we can implement those into our business processes and integrate into the heavy IT Systems we have in place.

What are your passions outside of work?

I love exploring the world, experiencing new places, cultures, and the stunning natural beauty our planet offers. Living in Switzerland allows me to appreciate the magnificent mountains, but I also have a strong passion for white sandy beaches or e.g. the fascinating wildlife in Africa.

You were recognized as one of the top 10 healthcare CIOs in Europe, 2023. Our readers would love to know the secret sauce behind your success.

I believe it is crucial to understand that it’s not about to be an individual superman, but it’s being part of a great team that really creates impact. Of course, it is important to never stop learning and reflect on personal development, but nothing beats the joy to see when you are able to empower others and to combine all super powers into a great team.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

I would be happy to keep adding value through optimizing and digitally transforming business organizations and companies while helping others to become rock stars in this field.

What is the one piece of advice that you can share with other professionals in your industry?

Never judge a fish by its abilities to climb a tree. If you want to run digital transformation, diversity is king and human centricity is queen.

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