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A CIO lays out the five principles that sparked a business transformation

Business transformation is a hot topic in IT and business circles these days. But how do you actually make it happen? A CIO at a nationwide voluntary health organization tells his story here.

A CIO of a major nonprofit presented his transformation strategy last week at the CIO Event by Global Business Events in Chicago. The closed event offered dozens of real world, candid sessions on the challenges CIOs face as they roll out major projects and the benefits their organizations are gaining as a result. Since the event is meant for CIOs to openly share their hiccups and best practices, I'm not naming names in this article. Here is one CIO's story:

When the CIO of a major nonprofit stepped into his position in 2012, IT was a fragmented mess. The nonprofit, with annual revenue of nearly $1 billion, had 13 divisions including the headquarters. Each was incorporated as its own legal entity and all of them came with their own CEOs, CFOs and CIOs. Back then, each division also had a separate technology stack and IT department. There were over 600 applications being used, siloes upon siloes of data and 2,000 servers spread across three primary data centers and several hundred secondary locations, this CIO told the audience at the Chicago event. IT was considered "a four letter word," and it was not uncommon for the divisions to opt out of the technology recommendations from headquarters in favor of their own systems, including their own online branding strategies.

"It was a nightmare. It was an accidental architecture at best. It was like the Galapagos Islands -- everything survived and just morphed into something else," he said. "We were an IT organization looking at data in 13 different ways."

Today, this CIO's major nonprofit is one entity with 13 regional divisions all governed by the main headquarters and one board of directors.

Instead of "spending six months talking about how awful the problem was and then doing a one-year engagement to explain how bad things are," he and his team spent three months conducting hundreds of interviews and reviewing thousands of documents with the disparate entities to come up with a unified IT strategy. The strategy looked great on a PowerPoint, he said, but the question was, how did he make it real?

Here are his five principles of business transformation, followed by the primary tactical changes he made to successfully turn that PowerPoint into a bona fide IT and business strategy.

Five principles of IT and business transformation

Based on feedback, he created an IT business transformation strategy based on five principles: simplify, standardize, efficiency, effectiveness and security. These principles would apply to all the IT operations across the nonprofit, and were used to guide a business transformation that would start with IT and – if successful – spark a change in the whole organization.

"I was told that I was the canary in the coal mine. If IT wasn't successful in transforming, none of the other divisions would vote for transformation in dissolving as legal entities; they would back away and keep everything as is," he said. "But if I was successful, the belief was that finance, supply chain, etc. would follow because everything we do is based on technology." The pressure was on.

To simplify and standardize, he integrated wherever he could, consolidating telecoms, and data centers and applications. He increased efficiency and effectiveness by moving to Office 365 and increasing BYOD from 200 people to 4,000 people.

"We don't buy devices anymore," he said.

And as for security, his nonprofit is now PCI compliant rather than self-reporting, as it was before this CIO stepped up.

At the same time, he created a project and executive steering committee to manage the transformation process and ensure that the proper approvals and checks and balances were in place for decisions.

Quick Win methodology

He put in a methodology called Quick Wins, based partly on the book The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins, which explains why any team needs quick project wins to gain confidence and regain trust. He found that the Quick Wins methodology reduced risk by increasing transparency and improving controls. It drove greater productivity and more effective use of resources, resulting in faster turnarounds.

More importantly, it changed the IT culture. He said that before adopting the Quick Wins approach, IT had an "ERP mentality," with staff wanting to be told what to do, then disappearing to hold endless sessions. By the time they returned, everything --the business problem, the market -- had changed.

The Quick Wins approach helped convince IT folks that their ideas were valid, he said. "I had an IT department that was beaten down [but that] wanted to add value. I empowered everyone to spin up a small project and solve a problem," he said. The exercise helped build confidence as the team worked on larger business and IT transformation.

Communication and transparency

It's important to celebrate the wins and the good things, the CIO said. But when something stinks, say it stinks and follow up with a plan on how you're going to fix it.

His second month on the job there was a "catastrophic" outage at his nonprofit. But instead of "taking the easy way out," by blaming his team and taking the role of the hero for himself, he maintained team unity.

He formalized IT transparency and communication among his staff with new processes, and informed the other C-levels about IT's work through newsletters, emails, and presenting to the board on a regular basis. Within two-weeks of being on the job, he was told that he met with divisions more often than they had seen his predecessor over a five-year period.

He is a member of the audit committee. Through his participation, the audit committee members learned that IT was a key part of the business and that IT also understood the business. He said that part of the acceptance of IT by the business came from sharing IT goals and metrics, so that anyone could check on his team's performance.


The final piece was ITCODE, an acronym that stands for integrity, teamwork, communication, ownership, dynamic and excellence.

ITCODE did not come from him, the CIO said. These are the IT standards his team created for themselves. He said he felt it was important that these standards be owned by the people doing the work, not him, so he challenged them to think about what IT stands for and promised that he and everyone else would be held accountable to whatever they came up with.

He is evaluated every year based on these standards, and every month an employee is nominated for the IT Spirit Excellence Award. People want recognition, he said.

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