Forget business-IT alignment; go for immersion

How one company's IT turnaround reaped bottom line benefits

by Stephanie Overby, CIO Executive Council - Witness Peter Weis, vice president and CIO of Matson Navigation (ALEX). He has 25 years of IT and business experience, specializing in transportation, logistics and supply chain management. He earned an undergraduate degree in business from Berkeley and an MBA from Wharton. He started out in applications development and got his first management gig at 26. After his biggest assignment -- six years as CIO of APL Logistics where executives "demanded transformation on impossible deadlines" -- he figured he'd seen and done it in all in corporate IT and switched to product development at a software-as-a-service start-up. So when the president of Matson approached him to transform the company's IT from a back-office service provider into a business partner, Weis balked. "I wasn't convinced they were serious about driving change," he says.

Wrong. The turnaround required new application and infrastructure strategy, creating IT governance processes, overhauling skill sets and repairing business relations. The overhaul is well underway, and Weis involves his top performers so they can pick up the turnaround experience that will be vital in their future leadership roles.

[ Don't Just Build Business-IT Alignment, Map It ]

He charged Srini Cherukuri, Matson's senior director of IT operations, for example, with addressing persistent performance problems with some mission-critical software. The custom application was a quasi-ERP system for one business unit that replaced an ancient system that employees used for years. "Tap, tap, tap, a few fields at a time, they could fill the green screen with their eyes closed," Cherukuri explains. The new browser-based software was more complex. The old system ran like clockwork across the network. Response times for the graphics-rich replacement were slower.

Instead of just addressing the technical issues, Cherukuri -- who started out as a developer -- approached the situation as an opportunity to rethink Matson's software development processes. The goal was to put the business and the users first. He gathered a team of system architects and developers to figure out what was plaguing not just performance but user adoption rates and incorporated the lessons learned and solutions into Matson's software development lifecycle management methodology. "The biggest thing we learned was that you have to go back and look at the whole process and address right from the beginning where the users are coming from," Cherukuri says. "That is now baked into every new project." He also introduced new tools to address performance issues long before the QA period.

[ IT management: Building IT credibility ]

Developing these new software processes took about four months, says Cherukuri; institutionalizing the changes is still going on. And response times and adoption rates of the redesigned system that started it all have surged.

Weis treats his team's turnaround and transformation projects like any other, subjecting them to formal IT governance, including strategic planning, budgeting and regular reviews that Weis calls "CIO deep dives." With turnarounds, the business always wants quick results and these IT methodologies ensure IT takes enough time to fundamentally fix a problem. "You didn't create it in a day," Weis says. "And you can't fix it in a day. I put the building blocks in place and allow my team to execute."

Of course, there's not always the luxury of time when a project is flailing, as Bob Bowen, director of data management for Cincinnati-based hardware distributer The Hillman Group, well knows. While working as an implementation manager at a major software company, he got a call at noon in New York asking him to take on a multimillion dollar project for a big financial services customer that was on the brink of disaster -- way behind schedule with the budget exhausted. He flew to St. Louis that night and had just a few hours to assess the issues and deliver what he calls a "get-well" plan, first to the consultants working on the project and then to the client -- neither a happy audience. "I had to consider the strengths, weaknesses and personalities of the project team as well as the political landscape of the customer," Bowen says.

Ultimately both camps climbed aboard, and Bowen delivered two days ahead of plan. He gained a number of skills that will come in handy should he take on a CIO or business leadership role in the future -- sizing up business processes quickly, diffusing political bombs and managing people in crises. "[My biggest mistake] was pressing too hard on project team members that [were] already burned out in order to get the project back on track," he says. "Sometimes it's okay to back off on people so that they too can get a fresh view." CIOs can provide the most support to their protégés in similar situations, says Bowen, by sharing their own experiences, leading by example and being visible to the project team.

For Weis, it's equally important that his direct reports who take on process, project and people change have sufficient visibility. "I insist that they spend time in a systematic way with all business executives, and not just in a how's-your-laptop-working, are-you-having-any-issues-with-that-iPhone kind of way," he says. He doesn't want alignment. He wants immersion. "I want them to build political credibility internally," Weis says. "The more trusted they are, the more nimble we are."

One counterintuitive way Weis supports his IT turnaround and transformation leaders is by challenging them. Every CIO advocates for his direct reports, and Weis does, too -- behind closed doors. If the business sponsor of an IT project isn't providing necessary resources, Weis says, "I have lots of frank discussions about those issues -- privately." Publicly, he advocates for the business sponsor of an IT effort. "I spend time asking them, 'How's Srini doing?' What do I need to know?' When I go into a project meeting, I ask questions that the executive sponsor will want the answers to even if they may not know quite how to ask it," Weis says. "Unless Srini can stand on his own, there are going to be issues."

Cherukuri appreciates this strategy. "I would do the exact same thing" as CIO, he says. "The key point most IT people miss in managing change is that they have to put themselves in the customer's shoes." It's working at Matson, where the IT turnaround has reaped more bottom line benefits in a year than it had in the previous four years combined. "We've changed what this team has been able to do," Weis says.

The Council's Pathways Program was created by CIOs to build business and IT leadership skills in senior IT leaders through group mentoring with CIOs, 360-degree competencies assessment, targeted seminars and community forums. To learn more, visit council.cio.com/pathways.html.

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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