All aboard: CIO wins the battle, initiates centralized IT organization

Our SearchCIO IT Leader of the Year Award winner, CIO Eric Hawley, explains how he built a centralized IT environment -- starting with listening.

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Eric Hawley doesn't mind being hated -- in a way, he actually welcomes it.

Eric HawleyEric Hawley

And if that doesn't sound odd enough, this aspect of Hawley's character played a huge role in making him the Enterprise IT Leader of the Year in SearchCIO's 2013 IT Leadership Awards.

Hawley is CIO at the Utah State University, a public university in Logan, Utah, where Hawley said the IT departments serving various schools and entities were siloed and plagued by inefficiencies until he insisted on pursuing an efficient and effective unification, bringing together the various departmental operations and turning decentralized IT into centralized IT.

The university employs more than 800 faculty members and 1,600 full- and part-time staff members, and including its regional campuses and distance education center, the total student enrollment approaches 30,000.

I think the most important thing anyone in the CIO position can do is figure out if people hate your organization.

Eric Hawley,
CIO, Utah State University

That's a lot of end users to please, so the university's centralization journey began by asking users one simple question about IT: "How are we doing?"

"I think the most important thing anyone in the CIO position can do is figure out if people hate your organization," Hawley said with a cheerful laugh.

The answers, collected from faculty, staff and students by an outside consultant (to help ensure honesty), were not especially positive. One professor described his dealings with IT at the school as "years of pain."

Hawley said the negative responses were not entirely unexpected. Before becoming the university's CIO, Hawley had worked in one of the decentralized IT silos. He had firsthand knowledge of where the central IT organization was failing users, hindering them rather than helping them do their work.

The feedback "was wonderful to hear, honestly, because the information was real," Hawley said. "Frankly, the most exciting IT organizations to move into are the ones that have problems. There are so many opportunities to make change in broken organizations. I love walking into broken organizations."

When an IT organization has problems, Hawley said, there are most likely inefficiencies that can be addressed -- smaller but no less important wins that help a CIO gain trust without having to come up with new money.

The first step toward change is about people

With survey results in hand, Hawley's first step toward building centralized IT had a familiar ring: getting the people in his own organization to admit they had a problem. The technology folks outside the central IT organization were glad to see some recognition of the failings of their counterparts and were cautiously optimistic that change would come, Hawley said.

"We had to admit that maybe we aren't as good as we think and maybe it isn't someone else's fault. We're broken and we're responsible for it -- but in that there are opportunities," Hawley said. "You have to get in there, help people recognize the problem and obtain a certain level of humility, then start channeling that in the right direction."

For Hawley, that meant a reassessment of roles in central IT. Following a core principle of the leadership tome Good to Great, his mission was to put team members "in the right seats on the bus." To do this, he and his leadership team interviewed every single person in the IT organization. Rather than grill them about what they were doing wrong and how they could fix it, they asked, "If you could be a world-class expert in any area of IT, what would that be?"

At first, concerned for their jobs, most staff replied with the full gamut -- everything from programming to setting up networks. But Hawley made it clear the process wasn't meant to weed out underperformers, just to put them in the best job to allow them to reach their potential and ultimately help the entire organization. The key to making them comfortable, he said, was "listening, listening, listening."

Six questions that guide Eric Hawley
as a leader

1. Whom do we serve and what do they need to do?

2. What services do we provide so they can do what they need to do?

3. How do we know we are doing a great job?

4. How do we provide the service?

5. How do we organize?

6. How do we pay for it ? ("People make poor decisions when personal, siloed budgets are involved. Take the money discussion off the table until you figure out what you want to accomplish," Hawley said.)

"We started finding ways to reorganize and put people in opportunities where their interest matched those areas of depth we had made available inside the institution," Hawley said. "That got people to think and get a little more comfortable with the idea that there's a future for them, even though that future is going to require some change and some effort."

The results were good, but not perfect, and that was OK with Hawley. A believer -- from experience -- in the "law of thirds," whereby such major changes are set in motion, he was not surprised or let down that things shook out as they did. About one-third of employees were excited by the new opportunities, and one-third were nervous or skeptical and needed coaching but were willing to put in the work. The remaining one-third who weren't willing to adapt were subsequently released.

"That was OK, because I think organizations fail when you try to please everybody all of the time," Hawley said. "After the first year, we let go of about 30 employees where it just wasn't working, but I think that's essential to making a huge strategic shift in an organization. Not everybody is going to fit. You hope many do, but not all do."

Zeroing in on a technology win

With the right people in the right places, Hawley's next step was settling on a technology project that would result in a marked improvement for the university's disparate IT groups without rocking the boat too much or requiring new funding. The glaringly obvious choice: tackling the school's 151 separate email domains. That's right -- 151.

"When you start a process like this to start working together and gain trust over a shared service, don't pick a technology there's a lot of debate over -- pick something that most people agree is the market owner," Hawley said. "That way, the details happen a lot easier."

Hawley wanted a project on which all corners of IT could have input. He wasn't interested in handing down mandates; he wanted to get as many people as possible involved in building new systems. Oftentimes, in the battle of centralization vs. decentralization, centralized IT asserts too much control and tries to force-feed solutions to decentralized IT groups that they may not want and don't appreciate, Hawley said. Everyone needed to be in on the "recipe" for building a centralized email system.

"One of the best moves we ever made in conquering this battle was saying: 'We're all in IT. Just because you don't report to the CIO doesn't make you any less capable or less trustworthy. If anything, it means you're closer to your end users and have a better idea of how they work,'" Hawley said.

Those who took up the offer to help centralize email liked the results. As the systems came online, they moved their colleges or departments onto the new systems without central IT having to "beg, ask, demand or dictate," Hawley reported. When other groups saw the improvements, they asked to join in as well.

"We didn't say no. We said, 'You're part of the team now; let's give you access to the systems and let's talk about anything you're uncomfortable with or if there's anything you need,'" Hawley said. "We repeated that until every single unit on campus moved over -- and they did, voluntarily, and it stuck -- no policy, no mandate, no dictatorship required."

A journey without end

With the email win in the books, Hawley and his IT organization are continuing to look for opportunities to implement shared services. His intention is not to create full IT centralization, but to centralize where it makes sense.

To do this, he asked another simple question: Who do we serve and what do they need to do? "That's what answers the question of whether we should try to centralize, or rather, share or build something of a larger scope," Hawley said.

More about centralized IT and shared services

Shared services model focuses on the customer

State CIOs take on budget woes with shared services strategies

CIO shares lessons learned in IT governance

Asking that question is what led to centralizing the university's learning management system (LMS). The project was foremost on Hawley's mind when he recently headed to Salt Lake City to join fellow university CIOs in front of the state legislature for a discussion of ways they can work together to save money and improve services. The resulting system lives at Utah State University, but extends out across state universities in Utah. That means 200,000 higher education students in the state are now served by the same LMS.

These projects all drive home Hawley's devotion to sharing knowledge and resources, and the critical role CIOs can play in encouraging collaboration between different entities.

"Do what you love, and help your employees do what they love. Match them up with the needs of the institution and then extend that outside of the institution and keep doing it," Hawley said. "You're never done -- holy cow, the whole thing could unravel if you stop sharing! It's not something you finish and sit back and drink a lemonade. It takes a lot of reminding to not let the silos dig back in -- as soon as you're comfortable, you're in trouble!"

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, features writer.

This was first published in July 2013

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