CIOs who have stints on the business side often return to IT refreshed and with new ideas for how to run IT efficiently and meet business needs. That was certainly the case for Rick Roy, CIO at CUNA Mutual Group, who returned to IT this year committed to IT value after two years on the operations side.
Roy, hired as chief technology officer in 2003, was tapped to serve as senior vice president of customer operations from 2006 through 2008 during a major business process re-engineering initiative. The aim was to significantly prune product lines at the $3 billion provider of insurance to cooperatives and credit unions, and -- most important -- boost profitability.
At a 75-year-old company with 95% market share, the re-engineering required wills of iron and stomachs to match, CEO Jeff Post said at the Fusion 2009 CEO-CIO Symposium earlier this year. But without this massive change, he said the Madison, Wis.-based company might well have been a casualty of the 2008 financial meltdown.
We recently caught up with Roy, who was named CIO last October, to ask him about his transition back to technology and his focus on IT value. Here is our first installment of an edited version of our conversation:
What did you learn during your time working in operations -- can you use any of it back in the IT department?
Roy: Certainly in operations you get very close to the external customer. So, one of the things that you learn and re-learn is how important it is, as you are making a change, to understand how that change impacts the customer.
Coming back to IT, I'm trying to bring that same focus on who is the real end user and what is their experience. I think there is a tendency where IT can talk itself into something.
I think the other thing in operations is the sense of urgency. In your customer service centers, the phone rings and you either answer it within your service standards or not; you either resolve the question within your service standards or not, or pass it on to another level of service.
IT operations has that flavor to it, but when you get over into the application development world, it typically doesn't. They typically are working on projects that can span months, if not quarters, even years. Trying to drive that sense of urgency is probably the other big reminder for me as I have come back into the CIO seat.
Can you give me an example of how you used that renewed focus on the customer to change something in IT after you got back?
Roy: Sure, I'll give you a very current example. We're upgrading our portal technologies across the company. As part of that, we had a couple of projects that fell under that umbrella, some externally facing, like upgrading our external websites that our customers use, a project under way right now. Another part of that overall portal initiative was a project to upgrade our intranet.
Strategically, we'd like to be on one platform over the long haul but recently we decided to put the intranet on hold for a while. A big reason was that the customers of our intranet are all the CUNA Mutual employees, and what we have works just fine. As we are going through changes as a company and making prioritization decisions and watching our expenses carefully, our conclusion was, it was a change we could drive through all our 4,000 employees, but it is not a change we need to do right now. So we looked at it and said, 'It's the right idea, it's the wrong time.'
We're going to wind this down gracefully so we can pick it back up. And we'll probably pick it back up in 2010. We think it is a positive thing from the standpoint that it doesn't become a distraction when people are very busy and focused on some thorny business issues.
To your second point, about bringing a sense of urgency to your application development team: How are you doing that?
Roy: There are two answers. One is not an elegant answer, but it is pretty effective. I am really challenging our projects to deliver -- and deliver value -- in six-month increments. We call it the six-month rule. They tease me about it, because they say, 'Is it a rule or a guideline?' My answer is, 'It's a rule!'
I am really challenging our [development] projects to deliver -- and deliver value -- in six-month increments.
Rick Roy, CIO, CUNA Mutual Group
There might be phase 2 or release 2. I'm an old software guy, so there's always another release. But if I have to wait for five releases to get any value, we have a problem. [The six-month rule] is very effective at getting people to rethink their scope, and it also prevents the intergalactic, multiyear projects, which typically don't have a high success rate. If I do nothing but prevent those projects from really getting traction, I'll take that as a win.
What we have not done, is that we haven't attacked the core development process hard -- yet. But we will. What I don't want to do is just optimize processes and just work faster on the wrong things. We're trying to make sure that the pipeline or portfolio of projects really matches up with what are the business priorities today, which might be different from the business priorities of last October, when our 2009 budget was created.
Do you have a Project and Portfolio Management Office that helps you do that?
Roy: We do. We use the PMO, plus, frankly, a lot of active dialogue with business leaders. What we find in the PMO is that it is valuable, but many times a business leader is out ahead of that. They're already adjusting and going perhaps in a different direction. We stay very close to those individuals, not only myself, but our senior IT leaders. Staying close is like having headlights. It helps us see down the road. Business is a little murkier these days, so you need good high beams to make sure you can see down that road a bit so you don't miss a big curve.
Next: Budget cuts in the Great Recession of 2009.
Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.