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CIO brings innovation to business process outsourcing

As part of's CIO Innovator Profile series, Maximus Canada CIO Joel Levinson discusses innovation and business process outsourcing.

Joel Levinson is CIO at Maximus Canada Inc., a business process outsourcing provider of government and public sector services. He spoke with Editorial Director Scot Petersen at the recent Gartner CIO Leadership Forum in Scottsdale, Ariz., about CIO innovation and leadership.

What does a business process outsourcing vendor do for the public sector?
We take over government operations and run them. For example, we're a big service provider for state Medicaid enrollment, primarily in the health and human services sector. So, we help our government clients run their operations as effectively and efficiently as possible, [and] provide the highest level of service possible.

Are these sometimes U.S. clients?
Primarily, although we have operations in Canada. And that's really the company that I'm the CIO for. But also in Australia and the United Kingdom as well. So, a number of international locations too.

Do the new electronic health care record regulations for security and privacy present some special challenges for you?
Absolutely. Privacy is obviously a major part, particularly in the health and human services sector. We were one of the first business process outsourcing programs in British Columbia, specifically. But B.C.'s laws and policy from a government perspective around protection of private information is extremely strict. And they have a great deal of concern about their citizens' data; and I think that's true of really all of our clients all around the world.

So, we have to assure our clients that we have protected the citizen data in terms of security, access, access control, auditing, the whole gamut. And we frequently have to prove to our clients that we're doing that. They frequently come in and audit us, and have third parties come in and review the data. And they frequently put fairly strict contractual compliance around how we're going to manage privacy. So, it's absolutely a core of the company. I think it's one of the things that differentiates Maximus.

What is the CIO's role in innovation in the company?
I think the CIO, as being one level removed from the operation, has a little bit of a dispassionate view of what's happening within the company. And it gives a CIO a bit of a unique perspective in terms of observing what's happening. And also, CIOs tend to see across multiple divisions, so they can begin to understand the handoffs -- or lack of handoffs -- division to division. And I think that allows a CIO to offer business partners unique ideas, in terms of integrating business units and in terms of a third-party independent observer's view of what's happening in the operation; and I think that allows in many cases for innovative, clever solutions.

And I guess the other side of that is sort of the "art of the possible." So, business operations managers have a job to do, in terms of delivering business results. And the CIO's job is to be out there, understanding what can be done, what's available with technology, what are others doing; and so, making that sort of "art of the possible" available to business unit managers and exposing them to what they're seeing in other areas, I think is another area where CIOs can provide innovative ideas to business partners.

How do you cultivate the spirit of innovation?
I don't think it's really up to the CIO. There's been lots of talk about the chief innovation officer; and I think CIOs certainly play an important role in innovation. But corporate culture, wrapped around being innovative and all of the things that go with that -- being able to take risks, being able to fail without being fired -- all those sorts of things go way beyond what a CIO is able to deliver. CIOs can certainly deliver [an] innovative IT organization. They can certainly deliver a governance process that supports innovative ideas and funds innovative ideas. But creating an innovative culture goes beyond what CIOs can do on their own.

Have you been able to figure out a way to calculate the risks and the benefits of innovation? Or let's say, a return on investment of innovation?
I don't think I quite look at it that way. It's an interesting question. So, if you have a fund for research and development, so to speak, and you calculate the money you get back on R&D, and I guess innovation isn't always treated as R&D, where you can say, "I'm doing this innovative program, and it's a high-risk program; and so if it fails, I understand the consequences before I launch it, and I should be able to come up with the ROI for it."

The CIO's job is to be out there, understanding what can be done, what's available with technology, what are others doing; and so, making that sort of "art of the possible" available to business unit managers and exposing them to what they're seeing in other areas.

Joel Levinson, CIO, Maximus Canada Inc.

I see it more as, when we figure out what we're trying to do and in many cases we're taking an innovative approach, what makes it innovative is that it's something different than what's already been done. There isn't a proof point out there for it. And what that really means is you're willingly accepting risk to do something that isn't proven. And so, the ROI goes with the business capability that you're delivering.

The innovative process is figuring out a way to do that that provides you either additional business value or a faster time to market. And then it really becomes about managing that risk. You've introduced additional financial risk, or "time risk" into the project, in hopes that you're going to get bigger benefit at the other end. And so it really comes down to how you manage that: A proof [of] concept, for example, to establish that the things you think are going to work actually turn out to work; collaborative agreements with industry partners, or sub-suppliers, to get their enrollment and get their skin in the game. Things like that help you kind of "de-risk" some of the innovative activities. And I think it's more about that, and less about sort of, "How do I capture an ROI for this particular piece of innovation?"

What technology trends are changing the way you look at IT?
Well, cloud computing is the latest buzzword, of course. I hate to say it, I don't see a lot of technology being delivered [with cloud], and it's very early in the hype cycle for it. I know certainly for my clients -- and to get back to the privacy and security question you asked -- cloud computing is very problematic for government. And so, I think it's going to be a long while before any of that gets sorted out.

But I will say that Software as a Service, as a particular point item, is something that you can get traction on. Infrastructure as a Service, too. So, I think there are pieces of the cloud; but I heard the words, the private cloud, and I don't even really understand what that means. Private data center -- is that my private cloud? The applications I provide to my business partners -- are [they] in my private cloud? I don't get that. But I certainly get the public cloud. And I think for outside of the particular industry that I'm in, I think there's a lot more opportunity for private business.

I think the other trend is obviously social media, and what social media means. For us, social media is a breakthrough because we deal with citizens. And we are delivering a service to citizens; and social media provides us with new ways of communicating with our end user clients, which are really the citizens, and providing information and getting them the service that they're eligible for. So, I think that for us is a big area of opportunity.

What business drivers are shaping the way you invest in technologies, or the technologies that you invest in?
For us, there are a few big drivers. For us, the first is, we often take over a government operation; and we take over, kind of, what's there. And we have to either transform it or modernize it in order to make big improvements in it. And so, one of these largest areas we're investing in is business process modernization. We have, I think, a very strong practice in business process re-engineering. We tend to start with understanding the underlying process independent of the technology, and optimizing that; and really understanding its performance before we do any technology modernization relative to that business process. So, that's probably the biggest trend that I see.

The second piece is leveraging open source for our clients, who are under a great deal of cost pressure, particularly now with the economy the way it is. We made a huge investment in getting a really solid, open source technology stack that we can build off of, and that we can build products off of, and that we can deliver services very quickly with, at the absolute best price point. So, those are probably the two biggest items on our mind now.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Scot Petersen, Editorial Director.

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