CIO lessons from the Boston Celtics

Legendary NBA star Jo Jo White shares lessons on teamwork while the basketball team's CIO discusses technology in professional sports.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

Basketball is a big deal here in Beantown, so it was with great pleasure that I visited the Boston Celtics to meet with Vice President of Technology, Jay Wessel, and legendary player Jo Jo White. Of course, the Celtics is a professional sports team, which naturally influences how the organization thinks about both business and technology; perhaps needless to say, the conversation quickly turned to teamwork, discipline, and competition.

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Boston Celtics

Jo Jo White is profiled in a biography called, "Make It Count, and holds the team record for playing 488 consecutive games, an obviously extraordinary accomplishment. Jay Wessel has been with the Celtics for 23 years, so both men know the team inside and out.

The subject of teamwork is a consistent theme throughout the discussion, which you can watch on the video embedded at the bottom of this post. Jo Jo credits coach Red Auerbach for bringing together the players needed to make a winning team:

It took somebody who understood how to put the right thing together and we were fortunate to have him.... [Most important is] how you use your individual talent on a team to benefit the other guys on the team.

I asked Jay to explain how the concept of teamwork affects his approach to technology at the Celtics:

Working in a team is so important, otherwise, you are doing technology for technology's sake, building computers and putting together networks just for the sake of doing it. What I find more exciting is working with the other groups here, [such as] ticketing, finance, marketing, sales also the basketball coaching staff.

From a technology perspective, Jay focuses on bringing technology to the arena, maintaining back office business systems (such as ticketing and CRM), and supporting the coaching staff with technology. Mobile, analytics for team statistics, video, are among the technologies that help create an appealing and entertaining stadium experience to attract fans.

Although corporate sponsorships are an important source of revenue for the Celtics, team finances rely primarily on ticket sales. For this reason, most professional sports organizations, including the Celtics, invest significantly in technology to create an attractive experience for fans. One sports CIO summarizes this goal with the imperative mandate to get "butts in seats."

Also read: Professional sports innovation: Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox, and Bruins

The Celtics use analytics to link data on how fans use mobile and interact on social media, such as Facebook, with who buys tickets and for which games. Combining analytics with customer data enables the team to tailor the services and information it provides to specific groups of fans, while targeting marketing efforts more narrowly to specific audience segments. 

Although technology is the heart of the CIO role at the Celtics, the style of work is highly collaborative. Jay is a technologist by training, but the approach is human-centric:

Understanding what [departments in the Celtics organization] are doing, how they do their job, how they would like to do their job, and then figuring out how we can develop systems that actually help them do it. I like that human interaction and the teamwork of technology and the business side or the coaching side, which really for us is business, much better than building systems for the sake of systems.

From a CIO perspective, the key lesson is this: for most organizations, technology is easy compared with the challenge of deeply connecting with users. Many CIOs claim to understand their business users, yet there is frequently a disconnect between the CIO's opinion and the perception of folks on the business side.

Two key factors that drive technology at the Celtics are understanding business requirements (including back office functions, arena operations, and coaching) and a core belief in teamwork. Professional sports teams, unlike most organizations, can legitimately point to teamwork as a defining business competence. For this reason, professional sports can help us come to grips with partnering and the need to put aside ego in service of the common benefit 


The conversation with Jo Jo White and Jay Wessel is part of an ongoing series called CxO Talk. Each week, co-host Vala Afshar and I talk with senior leaders to learn from their experience and gain their advice. 

The video below includes a passionate inside view of the Celtics. Although this post focuses on technology, the video includes extensive discussion with Jo Jo White about his experience playing for the Celtics:

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