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A league of her own

A league of her own

Joanne Bos of healthAlliance finds a balance in the daunting task of consolidating two organisations with distinct infrastructures, cultures and demands.

The chairman of a recent IT conference ended his introduction of the first speaker for the day with the words, “I don’t envy your task.” The speaker was Joanne Bos, manager of the healthAlliance IS function. It has been said many a true word is spoken in jest, and the chairman’s introduction effectively places the demands of Bos’ current role in the spotlight. The organisation, formed in July 2000, is a shared services company owned by the district health boards of Waitemata and Counties Manukau in Auckland. It aims to deliver back office functions to both boards and is responsible for transitioning their IT departments into a shared services structure. This means providing support to what Bos describes as “two separate and diverse infrastructures with different cultures, strategies and demands on information services”.

Both environments have more than 200 servers, 4000 desktops and 300 applications. Bos, who reports to the chief operating officer, has an annual operating budget of $14 million. She has 85 staff stationed in Middlemore Hospital and the North Shore Hospital.

In her talk during the recent BrightStar conference on IT professionals in the health sector, Bos acknowledged the challenges that came with the job. Her work, she pointed out, is not only about linking information systems, but “consolidating people, as well”.

“This is much more about people than it is about technology,” she later tells MIS. “I have to be a people manager. I also have to have a good understanding of the business, because we’re here to support the business.”

There are some advantages to a shared approach to IT management, she says – it is not only hard work. With shared systems, clinicians and medical staff have real-time access to a patient’s history, even if he or she is moved to another hospital. There are also costs benefits and improved efficiencies with a standardised, rationalised IT infrastructure. “The driving principle is to free up money to improve patient care.”

To facilitate the consolidation, Bos explains, new systems were rolled out based on the expertise of the respective district health board. So, implementation of the business systems at Waitemata District Health Board are now in progress at Counties Manukau District Health board, and the clinical systems implemented at Counties Manukau District Health Board are now being rolled out to Waitemata DHB. Leveraging the expertise in the different organisations, she says, means the team does not have to implement a different system.

The shift to shared systems presents a new set of challenges. Any change requires approval from both organisations. Resiliency should also be built in because, if the system goes down, two organisations are affected, she stresses.

What matters most

One consistent theme Bos ensured during the consolidation was the involvement of the users; mainly the clinicians. In any change to the system, she underscores, users should be involved from the start. “What you are implementing must add value, otherwise they’re not going to do it. If you don’t get this right, there will be no value, because they won’t use it.” It may sound simple, says Bos, but “actually, there is a lot of work in getting this right”.

She also stresses the importance of showing empathy and understanding of users’ concerns. While the project rollout may be a major concern for the IT team, “You must realise that [for the users] this is a small thing in their world, it is a side issue.”

Bos says it is vital to keep business leaders informed at various stages and about various aspects of the project. “Spend time in their world, show your face,” she says. “Don’t keep asking them to come to you. Go to them, be part of their life.” To stress her point, she quotes the saying: “He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.” [“It’s the people, the people, the people.”]

Prior to her current post, Bos held a series of managerial jobs in various industries and vendor organisations. She started as an analyst programmer at Fisher & Paykel, moving on to project leader, distribution systems of the same company in just a year. In less than two years, she was systems manager in the distribution division.

She moved on to Air New Zealand as applications support manager, then to Unisys New Zealand as program manager. At Unisys, she was responsible for managing the delivery of IT outsourcing services to Placemakers – a $3 million per annum contract. Her next move was IT operations manager for the Waitemata District Health Board. In less than a year, she was asked to become IT manager. When healthAlliance was formed, she was appointed information services manager – beating 70 other candidates, of which she was the only internal applicant. “That was my moment of glory,” she says. “The staff applauded, which was really nice, really great. That was quite an endorsement.”

Tips from the coalface

Bos revealed her unconventional foray into IT at a recent gathering of the group Women in Technology. She left school with a sixth form certificate and a university entrance qualification, but detoured from the academic path by raising a family. “I was a very young mother living in south Auckland, had two children by the time I was 21 and with no tertiary education.”

When her youngest child went to school, she worked part-time; a routine she kept for three years. “I was so bored. I decided I wanted a career and I was going to do something that would take me out of the life we were in.” Scanning the employment ads in newspapers, she found computer jobs paid well and enrolled at a technical course in Manukau Polytechnic.

She completed her advanced certificate in business computing with distinction. This, she recalls with a laugh, from someone who had a scant understanding of IT prior to the course. “I thought a 3.5 and a hard disk were the same. That was how much I knew.” But once employed in the IT sector, Bos says her career rise was swift. She was given her first leadership role 18 months after her initial industry appointment.

Her pointers for managing people and technology are pragmatic. “You can’t be an expert in all areas, so make sure you have expertise you can rely on.” For Bos, this means having strong technical leaders. “I rely on them 100 per cent to keep me informed in all areas of the technology.”

Secondly, she says, trust your team. “Delegate to them and believe that they’re going to do what you told them to do because you chose them wisely.”

Her third piece of advice is to keep in touch with your staff. “I’m a great fan of management by wandering about,” she says. “Keep in touch with your people and make sure you speak to them about all sorts of things. It doesn’t have to be about work.”

Bos, for instance, holds office in two locations at both ends of Auckland. “I spend an awful lot of time travelling up and down the motorway.” In one day, she might have meetings in the city and Manukau in the morning, and then have to drive to the North Shore in the afternoon. But she does the near daily commute across the harbour bridge because this allows her to meet the staff face to face.

First things first

Bos advocates stress management for IT executives, and this includes delineating work from family life. “I’d rather work a little bit late, until 7pm, than take work home, because I need to cut off when I go home.” Physical exercise is important for her and she ensures she finds time to go to the gym or swim. “It doesn’t have to be strenuous.”

She is halfway through her graduate diploma in business administration information systems at the University of Auckland. However, she is taking a break from this because of the “very challenging” work at healthAlliance.

“There is a feeling among those of us who don’t have a university qualification that one must have a university qualification or one can’t move ahead,” she explains. “But I think it is the results that you get and the work that you do [that matter].”

She says that if ever she resumes her post-graduate studies, it would be one leading to an MBA. “I have to get that balance right in my life, and trying to do that as well as this role is asking too much. It comes down to thinking I would do it if I get value in doing it, or I need it in order to pursue a particular career direction or a position. Right now, I don’t need it.”

She finds her current role has its nuances. “The work doesn’t stop. There are incredible benefits but also big challenges.” The transition, she says, is ongoing. “Just because you move people to a new organisation doesn’t mean the change is complete.”

She declares the scope of the task was something she did not fully appreciate at first. But she approaches the problem “one bit at a time, like eating an elephant”.

“A large change, such as the one we’ve been through, can seem daunting if you try to tackle it all at once. The trick is to break it into manageable steps and deal with these one at a time – all the time keeping the big picture vision firmly in your mind. But you need to know where you’re going.”

Asked about her career plans, she says at the moment she is committed to completing her task at healthAllliance: “Getting the team working effectively and implementing some projects in infrastructure alignment, innovation and key applications”.

There is no doubt she will work hard to achieve this. “If I have a goal in life, it would be hard to dissuade me – which can be frustrating at times.”

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