Practical CIO: Agility, speed, and business alignment

Two experienced chief information officers explain how to balance the competing goals of innovation, speed, cost reduction while maintaining operational stability and security. Watch the video or download the podcast.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

The big CIO themes today include agility, speed, customer experience, and business alignment. In truth, these concepts are not new although the rise of technology as a strategic business enabler means the CIO mandate is now innovation and growth rather than stability.

In contrast to the past, where the goal of IT was system stability, today operational excellence is table stakes. Organizational leaders expect the CIO to maintain security and stability while reducing costs and increasing business innovation.

Of course, balancing these competing priorities is easier said than done. Business needs are a moving target, IT does not have enough resources, there is never enough time, and a host of other obstacles are always present. Overcoming these obstacles defines the CIO role; that's what CIOs must do.

Because these topics are crucial, I invited two CIO practitioners to explore these issues on episode 304 of the CXOTalk series of conversations with innovators.

Isaac Sacolick is a former CIO and CTO who wrote a book that offers advice to CIOs on facing the points I just described. The book is calledDriving Digital: The Leader's Guide to Business Transformation Through Technology.

Christopher Houser is CIO of Signature HealthCARE, a leading provider of long-term care, short-term care, managing skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, rehab, home health, and cognitive care. The company operates in ten states and has 115 locations.

Watch the entire discussion in the video embedded above and download the podcast. A few edited comments are below, and you can also read the entire transcript.

What are the foundations of modern CIO strategy?

Isaac Sacolick: Today, we're talking about not just keeping the lights on and keeping things stable. We're also not just talking about process improvement and cost reduction. We're talking about growth. We're talking about aiming at new markets and improving customer experiences so that our businesses can be competitive over the next five years.

The CIO's strategy needs to look at both short-term and long-term opportunities around that and craft a strategy, a program, and an execution plan around that.

How do you balance innovation vs. operational stability?

Christopher Houser: It's a careful balance. When I first started seven, eight months ago, we were focused primarily on IT, keeping the lights on, so end user requests: I need a new computer; I need a new phone; the system is down; it's broke.

Moving away from that, keeping the email system up and running, keeping the network up, that's standard operating procedure, so that's our job, regardless.

We're reshaping our team to be more business-focused when it comes to relationship management. We have built a project management office. We've put centers of excellence within our groups focused on the network, end-user compute, project management, security, with data center and general network support.

We have IT staff who go out to our locations, sitting in the corner of a hallway, and watching the interactions from our residents, from our staff members, and from family members with the technology we use. That way we get a lift in the use and simplicity of the technology that we're deploying.

Isaac Sacolick: When you're trying to solicit lots of ideas from the organization, particularly in transformations where it is a bottom-up exercise to hear ideas from people that are interacting with customers, you need a place to capture those. You need a place to vet those. You need to find exactly who is going to be impacted by things. I like the investment in a PMO to be able to manage those.

The other part of this is letting IT go and experience what the end-users are doing. So much of what IT has experienced in the past has been filtered through other people and systems and texts, sensors, [and] service desk tickets. To go and live the life of an end user is so important for them to think through not just what's being asked of them, but how it's going to impact them and why it's important. That creates smart implementations when they're ready for it.

What about speed?

Isaac Sacolick: We need to turn new ideas into implementations in three, six months. Some of the fastest organizations are taking applications that they're doing today and doing daily changes to it, testing these things, and doing A/B studies like marketers do. I think CIOs need to have that in their toolkit and be able to think through how to execute faster.

Christopher Houser: IT leadership is becoming proficient in all aspects of the business, whether it's marketing, whether it's HR, whether it's legal, whether it's advertising, whether it's the medical side. You have to become knowledgeable on how to apply that technology to get those wins and put game changers, from an IT standpoint, into the business so that you get future growth, you get further merger and acquisitions, scalability and flexibility but, at the same time, keeping it easy and simple.

Typically, it's through research. It's peers, other CIOs across the industry, in other industries as well and, in my background, I've been in several different verticals within IT and in leadership, so transportation, retail, insurance, and so bringing that background, some of that background, that experience within healthcare. IT is IT, but how you solve those problems, I think you can bring experience and expertise. You can apply those and get wins in other verticals as well.

Isaac Sacolick: So much of that learning has a direct correlation to things in other industries. You have to invest the time to learn what other people are doing.

How do you think about the alignment between IT and the business?

Christopher Houser: Frequently in the past, IT would go off and build solutions, build systems half-baked or what was perceived as half-baked, come back to the business and say, "This is what we thought we heard," and deliver on what wasn't supposed to be or what was not intended to be the outcome. Delivering half-baked solutions and then having to go back and rework the complete solution. Time, money, and resources add up, so having the business a part of that journey or through those conversations, through the selection process, through the requirement process, through the build process, and those iterations are definitely needed and required.

Isaac Sacolick: Christopher, let's put that to a practical example. You've been in the organization for a few months. You've done some new rollouts. You're looking at new platforms. How do you make it into a business-aligned project and not just an IT project?

Christopher Houser: I think a great example of that is one we're going through right now, and that's our EMR. We're going through and doing an EMR refresh. In the past life when we built the current EMR, it was built in-house. We had flexibility -- kind of an open source solution. We took business requirements of the business to build this EMR.

Now that it's five, six years later, maintaining, updating, creating, the flexibility there was that we could build whatever we wanted. However, we weren't keeping pace with the industry. We had a lot of shortcomings--good, bad, or indifferent--because we were focused on things that were impacting to us, not necessarily the industry.

As we look for this new solution, instead of IT coming to the table saying, "Hey, this is the solution," we have a task force or committee from different business units. Everything from monthly meetings to reoccurring weekly meetings, and then having the vendors come in through an RFP process. We've had two or three vendors come in to give us that review, and the business was in all those meetings from those departments and groups.

Isaac Sacolick: Yeah, so a couple of things there worth reflecting on. Number one, this idea of taking something that was built in a proprietary way three, five, seven years ago. A lot of businesses find that no longer makes sense, that there are platforms that are extendible, that are more feature rich and more industry standard, that are plugged into ecosystems and things like that are really what they're looking for. Partnering with the business on a selection process, bringing vendors in, and doing this collaboratively and together is so important, particularly when looking at key platforms that are running the business.

Christopher Houser: The business has to see value in IT. In the past, IT was thought of as an operational organization, meaning make sure the servers are up in the data center. Make sure the applications are up and running. We don't have downtime. We're meeting five nines.

If that's all I came back to the business in today's environment, I would be surpassed. I've got to come back and bring my team, the collective team, and bring solutions for the future. What are we going to do to solve real business problems? I think that, with that, the business wants you to execute and deliver when you come at those solutions, so you've got to come with trust, and you've got to come with being able to get things done in those moments of time.

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