Listening to the Ants

By Jim Donehey, CIO |  Business

CAPITAL ONE STARTED OUT

as a small spin-off from a local bank. When I
joined the company, in November 1994, the IT group had 150 people.

As we grew, management became an increasing issue -- traditional techniques were
becoming untenable. When companies are small, a command-and-control management style is
efficient. But the IT organization was growing at a phenomenal rate.

By the end of 1996, I kept struggling with how to assimilate people from different
backgrounds and combine culture with the fundamental objectives of IT. I knew that the
old days of giving orders were over. Even in Richmond, Va., the IT group was located in
five different buildings; the organization as a whole was in five U.S. cities.

I attended a conference sponsored by Ernst and Young's Center for Business
Innovation. At the conference, Chris Meyer put this question to me: How do you teach an
anthill to fetch? If you put a piece of food down, all the ants form two organized rows
to get it and carry it back; but how do they know to do that? Later Eric Bonabeau, from
the Santa Fe Institute, and I discussed how social insects operate under fundamental
rules that every member of the colony can understand. The ants are only following two
rules: If you find food, take it back with you and leave a pheromone trail. If you see
another ant with food, follow the pheromone trail back to the food; then follow rule
number one.

As I thought about this concept and the idea that Capital One was still growing, I
pondered the question of how to integrate that into the IT organization to make sure
everyone was working in the company's best interests. During the Apollo project, NASA
had a doctrine they presented to all employees. If you asked a janitor what his job
was, he would say, "I'm helping to put a man on the moon."

I wondered how we could do something similar. So I came up with four rules that, if
each associate followed, would ensure that they were moving the company forward.

*Always align IT activities with the business. Keep the company's big picture
goals in mind.

*Use good economic judgment. Spend the money like it's your own.

*Be flexible. Don't build yourself into one thought pattern.

*Have empathy. If someone asks you to do something you don't agree with, put
yourself in his or her shoes.

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