In today's weak economy, companies tend to think of IT mainly as an engine for cost reduction and increased efficiency. But in many industries, including the pharmaceutical testing business in which MDS operates, IT can and should drive top-line growth. The path to being an effective partner in growth begins with an IT team that has a strong understanding of the business, a commercial orientation and a focus on the end customer.
A commercially-oriented team needs a core of program managers and business analysts. They can sit down with the business, understand what business users are asking for, and then translate that to our internal and external technology partners. Your reputation as the right group to deliver commercial solutions rests on their shoulders.
I've been involved in delivery of big applications, including, in 1996, the first customer website at Fidelity Investments. Projects that fail, I have found, are most often the ones in which IT has an internal mind-set. The successful ones tend to have IT staff involved who appreciate the external customer. For example, as I learned early in my career, it's one thing to have a bug that affects internal people. You can quickly react to it and have direct dialogue with the end users about the problem. That's not the case with external customers, which has bigger ramifications. When I know what we do will affect a customer, I look for people who have good business sense and who understand what it means to have a commitment to the customer.
The Competitive Advantage
When I started at MDS two and a half years ago, we had a key project that had gotten off to a rocky start. We were developing a system to help manage customers' clinical trials and deliver results from these trials. It seemed that whenever we got the technology side working, the business side broke, and when we got the business side right, the technology side broke.
To set the project right, we paired a good high-level project manager from the business with one from IT to get a more focused view of the features this application needed. The IT manager brought a good understanding of the business, strong skills in managing the necessary compromises and a drive to see the project completed.
Within six months we had it ready. The expectations within the business were that this system would put us only at par in the marketplace. But customers have said this system is the gold standard in the marketplace and a competitive differentiator. We are winning customers-and growing the top line-with this system.
A Customer-Focused Team
We have team members with strong business skills because I recruit for and develop them. Furthermore, I have not centralized my application teams; I want people to develop strong industry knowledge in order to support specific business units and understand their particular customers.
My entire team goes on sales calls; it's important for IT staff to hear directly what the customer wants. The salesperson isn't going to ask what kind of systems customers would like or what technology our competitors have. But IT can engage customers in that conversation, and the salespeople hear the answers. That can build momentum for a specific initiative.
I have not imposed a quota for going on sales calls, but I've hired people who like to do it. They're harder to find, of course. In fact, that's the biggest staffing challenge I have. But I think people who like to work with the business tend to like to be in front of customers. Their idea of success is making sure they meet business needs, not only that they are putting in a great technology solution.
Meanwhile, an affinity for our business is essential to career development in my organization. I have a preference for buying systems rather than building them; we build our own when there aren't viable solutions in the marketplace. Because of this, I'm not sure I can always give developers the best career path that will lead to more senior development roles.
But I know I can offer a great career path to somebody who is a program manager or business analyst-or even a developer who wants to move into one of these roles because his skill sets can easily translate to the skills needed to become IT directors, to support the IT needs of a business unit and ultimately to take my job. In fact, that's my number-one interview question for any IT leadership role. If the candidate doesn't say he wants my job, then he's the wrong person.
Tom Gernon is CIO of MDS and is a member of the CIO Executive Council. He was COO of D2Hawkeye Inc., a healthcare software company, and has held CIO positions at both PerkinElmer Inc. and J.P. Morgan Invest.
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.