IT heroes: Use customer service to build business relationships

A new generation of IT managers redefines its role, crossing boundaries and silos in the quest to say "yes." Learn from their stories of practical IT transformation.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor
IT heroes Use customer service to build business relationships

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The importance of building bridges between IT and business stakeholders is obvious, but getting there is hard.

In his book, Driving Digital, veteran CIO Isaac Sacolick describes the need to build these relationships from the bottom up:

The solutions and transformational practices that I helped implement across these organizations had more similarities than differences. They were all developed "bottom up," that is, they were all implemented with tactical practices first, transformational practices second, and cultural changes ongoing. I started the practices in IT first, extended to business teams second, and then drove business change and strategic transformation later.

The not-so-subtle message is that decreeing relationship change simply does not work. Of course, senior leaders must set broad objectives, but goals alone do not create results. Making pronouncements is easy, but actually driving deep cooperation across departments is more difficult.

The need to change is part of a broader shift inside IT, striving to say "yes" in response to user requests rather than the traditional "default to no" mentality.

During a recent conference, I spoke with several IT managers -- these are not CIOs - who are using customer service as the model for defining relationships between business stakeholders and IT. FinancialForce invited me to their Community Live 2017 event in Las Vegas to record these conversations as part of the CXOTalk series of conversations with innovators.

The first conversation I want to highlight explored innovation and project management with IT leaders from Medidata Solutions, a life sciences technology provider that offers a cloud-based solution for managing clinical trials and drug research.

I held the second discussion with Microstrategy, a well-known business intelligence software company.

Medidata Solutions: Project management and innovation

The conversation with Medidata brought together Michael Shullich, Senior Director, and Naimisha Kollu, Senior Information Systems Project Manager, both of whom work in the Business Innovation Office.

Watch our entire conversation in the following video and read edited comments below. You can see the whole transcript as well.

Tell us about Medidata Solutions

Michael Shulich: Medidata was founded in 1999. We went public in 2009. We were born in the cloud. We're a software company. Our specialty is in the vertical of software and life sciences. So, our customers are pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, basically what our customers are doing are running clinical trials to create breakthrough drugs to help patients. We create the architecture that they run their trials on, and we accelerate that.

Why is the innovation organization part of IT?

Michael Shulich: I sit in the technology stack, and the technology stack makes up a lot of our company. As a cultural attribute, we're looking to transform our industry. We invest 25% of our revenue back into R&D. We're long-term-focused, so what we're doing for the clients in terms of transforming the industry, I try to do internally. So, behind professional services, our legal people, our HR people, making sure they have the best tools, systems, processes; so they can execute their mission.

We create new products, we change the way clinical trials are done. That's baked into our technology. We're not looking to just enable. We're looking to transform. We're very passionate about what we do. We are helping create new drugs, new treatments... Our mission is to power smarter treatments and healthier people. You can't do that by doing what you used to do. And you can't do it being incremental. So, we have kind of the external focus what we do with our clients. That's my job, for internal focus, is to help Metadata run better.

Naimisha Kollu: We empower our users. The change doesn't come from outside. It has to come from within the organization. So that's what we do. We bridge the gap between the organizational departments. We bring technology and the processes together to make that transformation.

How does this view influence project management?

Naimisha Kollu: As Mike is coming from a technology stack, I'm coming from a PMO stack. We both are hand-in-hand organizations that go in parallel. And again, we are from the same business innovation office, just two different streams of lines.

As a member of the project management office, my responsibility is not just project management. We are not typical project managers which you see in any organization. We don't just facilitate the meetings. We don't just manage the projects. What we do and what we bring to the table is our experience with these applications. What we bring to the table is our experience with our business processes that go within the organization.

If a professional services department wants to implement a tool, we know which tool to bring into the architecture because we have experience with our other applications within our infrastructure; and we will be able to guide them in the right way, which is going to be a better fit culturally and also from our architecture standpoint. So, as a project manager, we bring and bridge the gap between the departments, between the teams, between the technologies, and the processes.

Michael Shulich: She is a subject matter expert. She can go toe-to-toe. To get a transformation, you have to know what the current state is, and you have to have a vision what the future state is. And she is excellent at being able to kind of map out the way it is today to the future. And, by doing that too, I think you get the respect of your internal customers. Because let's be honest, change is frightening, right? Especially if you got all these things going on, and change kind of has to be managed in a process.

How do handle implementation and adoption?

Naimisha Kollu: Our responsibility doesn't end just with implementation. We don't dust our hands after implementation and just vanish. Our responsibility also includes adoption. We won't be successful without our users adopting the technology; adopting the process. So, we incorporate that adoption as well into our responsibility and we don't leave them. They trust us because they know we won't leave them until they are comfortable.

Adoption requires an incremental approach and we cater to different types of audiences. Ours is a global organization which has spread across different regions, geographies. We have an internal team called "Merit Academy," which is targeted towards training our external customers on our products, but they also actually help us to train our internal users on the products that we use internally.

We use different methods to support adoption. We do live webinars; we do lunch and learns; we do quick short videos; we do roadshows for adoption. We have question and answer sessions.

Microstrategy: Building a services-focused IT organization

I also spoke with Farnaz Bengali, Vice President of Enterprise Applications at MicroStrategy. Watch our entire conversation in the following video and read her edited comments below. You can see the whole transcript as well.

Watch our entire conversation in the following video and see her edited comments below. You can also read the whole transcript of my conversation with her.

Tell us about MicroStrategy and your role?

Farnaz Bengali: MicroStrategy is an enterprise software company, and we are the best BI tool out there. We're the original BI tool.

I work under the CIO's office, and I manage all of our software applications. I am a part of IT, but funny enough, I have no IT background. I came up from an accounting and consulting background, and they really wanted somebody for this job that could help them modernize their applications, which is my role. I help optimize the business processes for everybody, every other department in the company.

For example, Marketing says, "Hey, we can't get leads out to our internal reps fast enough. Can you implement X tool." I'll think through and help them say, "Okay, before I implement the new, shiny tool that you've heard about or watched a YouTube video on, walk me through what is your leads process? What tools do we use today? Which people are involved? What is the process?" And, then I will help them tailor a solution.

It may be a new tool. It may be optimizing something we have currently. Or, it may just be a business process change. Do we really need a new software application? Or, is it something we can just tweak in something current, or a business process?

How do you think about the service aspect of IT?

Farnaz Bengali: I'm trying to make IT a services organization. We should treat [IT customers] as if they were external paying customers.

Without that customer service hat on, most of us wouldn't be employed.

What are the challenges and opportunities in rethinking IT from a service perspective?

Farnaz Bengali: Making sure the business understands the value and the proposition we bring to the table. I've ensured that I have the right IT people in the organization. I have also hired a marketing person, somebody who's got a finance hat on, somebody who's got an accounting hat on, a sales hat; we're bringing that expertise to the table from a decision-making perspective.

It's been very successful and we're not just back-end people implementing systems anymore.

If you were to hold a product conference, like the one we're at right now, you would bring sales and marketing into the table. You'd try to think about what customers you want there, who you're marketing to, all those things. I'm also trying to bring IT to that table; the internal IT department. You may be looking at three different venues. We can help you understand which of your venues will accommodate the people that you need from a wireless and infrastructure perspective. We can also think through what kind of support you'll need at the conference so we can bring that expertise to the table. IT will help focus the decision because now, you've got more facts.

What is your final advice?

Farnaz Bengali: Hire the right skill sets. Ensure that you're able to scale properly; don't do too much, too fast. And, focus on the process.

CXOTalk brings you the world's most innovative business leaders, authors, and analysts for in-depth discussion unavailable anywhere else. Thank you to FinancialForce for supporting CXOTalk.

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