Premier 100 IT Leaders: Primed for business

Here's how the 100 men and women in our 2015 class of honorees are writing the blueprints for their organizations' success.

Mike Jennings knows a thing or two about fast-paced businesses and demanding customers. As the former senior director of IT at LinkedIn and now the head of IT at Airbnb, Jennings is used to a neo-startup environment where the speed of business is breakneck and the customer -- who is both tech-savvy and exacting -- is king.

Like his fellow honorees in the 2015 class of Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders, Jennings is acutely aware that IT must take the lead on creating solutions and can't afford to break its laser focus on business needs, even for a day.

"To support a savvy, fast-moving and technical employee base, we needed to provide both innovative and effective solutions at a regular cadence," says Jennings of his time at LinkedIn. "It was incumbent upon us to predict and forecast what could enhance the business processes rather than waiting for someone to ask us for a solution."

Jennings discovered that the way to deliver stellar results quickly and repeatedly is to structure a strong, collaborative IT-to-business connection before a single requirement gets written.

At Airbnb, Jennings is in the process of deploying business engagement teams, made up of one or more business analysts and solutions architects, to ensure IT's contributions are squarely focused on the company's goal of improving the customer experience. Likewise, at Royal Caribbean Cruises, CIO Bill Martin is integrating global business solutions teams of IT specialists into every one of the company's business functions.

Along the same lines, the Las Vegas city government has embedded IT business partners within municipal departments, while tech workers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are empowered to create ad hoc, free-form working groups with their business counterparts to solve problems and think up innovative plans without needing executive approval.

And at Booz Allen Hamilton, Kevin Winter, vice president and CIO, is using a three-tiered approach -- an executive-heavy IT Operations Group at the top, a Strategic Innovation Group at the business-unit level and a "Jedi" group of younger workers, ages 20 to 30, spread throughout the organization -- to make sure IT is in alignment with Booz Allen's corporate mission.

Tech leaders committed to helping the business find new ways to work need to identify the right IT people and then create ongoing opportunities for them to collaborate creatively with their business unit counterparts, says George Westerman, a research scientist at the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy.

Those opportunities don't necessarily have to happen in the same physical space -- though being in the same room at the same time is often enormously beneficial, Westerman says -- but CIOs do need to create what he calls "mindspace" for employees to be able to formulate and flesh out new ideas. "If you are running a shop where everybody is working 60 hours a week, nobody will have the time to think about innovating," Westerman warns.

In the course of researching the 2014 book Leading Digital: Turning Technology into Business Transformation, Westerman and his co-authors surveyed more than 400 major companies worldwide; only 20% of those, he estimates, had established the kind of innovation teams currently being deployed by Computerworld's top IT leaders.

Here's how several Premier 100 IT Leaders are structuring their departments to proactively identify business needs and quickly deliver innovative products with stellar results.

IT in every business function

As befits a company that makes its money selling vacations, customer experience is the yardstick by which every innovation rolled out by Royal Caribbean Cruises CIO Bill Martin and his staff of 540 IT employees is measured.

That covers everything from delivering high-speed satellite Wi-Fi that allows guests to use social media and stream movies while they're hundreds of miles out in the open ocean to using tablet technology to simplify required processes like signing waivers and mustering at lifeboats so cruise passengers can get back faster to the fun.

In an industry where more is always better -- the company's newest ship, Quantum of the Seas, is almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall, has 2,100 guest rooms, and offers onboard amusements like ice skating, surfing and simulated sky diving -- Martin's job is to figure out which big ideas to pursue in what order.

"There is no lack of innovative ideas when it comes to our business," says Martin. "Whether they come from our new building design team, our marketing team, our hotel operations team or our IT team, the challenge that we have is [identifying] which ideas will have the biggest impact to our bottom line and then executing on them."

Martin keeps ahead of that process with global business solutions (GBS) teams that are integrated into every business function. "They live and breathe with their organizations, completely understanding everything they do," he says of the 100 or so business analysts, change managers and project managers who are assigned to GBS teams and report to Santiago Abraham, vice president of global solutions. "Then we marry that expertise with engineers who understand what technology we need to make their ideas a reality."

Some of those realities now being showcased on the Quantum of the Seas and its sister ship, Anthem of the Seas, include a robotic bartender that can make a drink per minute from an array of 30 liquors and "virtual balconies" that enhance windowless, interior-facing staterooms with high-definition virtual images, complete with sound, of the ocean outside.

And then there's the affordable, high-speed Internet, which Martin says is "easily the most innovative IT project we delivered in 2014." The service not only enhances customer experience, but also aligns with Royal Caribbean's business priority to drive an entirely new level of marketing via IT innovation. With access to shore-like levels of connectivity, guests can use their own phones to access their favorite social media apps -- Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, whatever. And that, says Martin, amounts to "tens of thousands of happy guests sharing their experiences in real time around the world."

Engagement teams focus on customer experience

When Mike Jennings jumped from senior director of IT at LinkedIn to head of IT at Airbnb last summer, he knew some things would be different. At LinkedIn, the business social network, he oversaw a staff of 110-plus people; at Airbnb, the online accommodations marketplace, his staff is much smaller, though he expects to double head count in 2015.

LinkedIn, though still growing and innovating (it was Computerworld's No. 1 Midsize Place to Work in IT for 2014), is no longer a new company. Airbnb, says Jennings, is definitely still in startup mode.

But the companies have one important thing in common: With technology pervading every aspect of the business, IT's primary mission is to support the employees who support the online customers.

"As a consumer-based Web technology firm, Airbnb's IT is set up the same way as at LinkedIn," Jennings explains. "My oversight is most of the technologies that employees use to do their jobs -- laptops, mobile, help desk, networks, voice and video, security, and office build-outs."

Then, he says, there are "the consulting type of positions that support the business units" -- in other words, IT folks who help drive business strategy. As he did at LinkedIn, Jennings reorganized IT at Airbnb to incorporate business engagement teams whose sole focus is to "understand a particular business unit's needs by walking in their shoes."

These teams comprise an IT business partner (similar to an IT business analyst, Jennings explains) and one or more solutions architects. "Both roles act as a trusted adviser for the business to bounce ideas off of, to perform proofs of concepts, and to develop and pilot homegrown solutions," Jennings says.

At LinkedIn, business engagement teams not only helped business units innovate and develop solutions together; they also helped head off rogue technology deployments. "Some of the departments internally had started to build out their own shadow IT departments," he recalls. "But once we had this [business engagement] liaison in place, they realized it was often easier, faster and ultimately more productive to work with the IT team."

Many of the strategic successes Jennings and his team had at LinkedIn related to alleviating the growing pains of a rapidly expanding organization, and he expects that approach will bear fruit at Airbnb as it continues to grow.

Videoconferencing is a prime example of a technology that's essential to modern Web-based businesses but often delivered piecemeal, with varying degrees of quality. At LinkedIn, Jennings streamlined and consolidated videoconferencing, deploying services to more than 500 conference rooms and moving to a cloud-based multi­point control solution. "That allowed everyone to interact with each other regardless if they were in a boardroom, a remote conference room, at a hotel or riding the bus home -- from Singapore to Dublin to San Francisco," says Jennings.

While Airbnb's needs are somewhat different, Jennings anticipates that a more robust videoconferencing system will be one of the "bright, shiny balls" he debuts in 2015 for his new company.

A three-tier approach ensures alignment

At Booz Allen Hamilton, an international management and technology consultancy, the employees are the business -- and they also happen to be experts in many IT topics. That's both a benefit and a challenge for vice president and CIO Kevin Winter, who faces the prospect of being second-guessed by 25,000 tech-savvy colleagues as he rolls out a new social intranet and digital workplace.

As part of its Vision 2020 initiative, a plan to evolve to better serve its clients and deliver improved returns to its investors, Booz Allen has made employee engagement a priority. The new digital workplace is designed to provide the firm's widely dispersed employees with a single, mobile-accessible platform that they can use to work, collaborate, connect and communicate.

Booz Allen's intranet won't work if it doesn't precisely reflect employees' workflows, which means Winter and his team have had to get very close to their customers during the development of the project. "IT is very personal now -- your phone, your laptop, your mobile apps, the social media by which you collaborate," says Winter. "If the CIO is not listening to how people are working, he's going to deliver the wrong technologies."

To make sure that doesn't happen, Winter maintains a trio of IT-business partnerships, at various levels of the organization and with varying degrees of formality.

Throughout the organization, Winter has identified "Jedi" employees whom he enlisted to road-test the new platform, provide feedback and help launch it when the time comes. Typically in their late 20s and early 30s, the Jedis help Winter ensure that the new platform is delivering the kind of highly personalized, highly mobile environment that fits the way employees work now.

The core of Winter's IT alignment strategy centers around a unit called the Strategic Innovation Group (SIG), which taps the knowledge of Booz Allen's subject-matter experts, who are typically client-facing, and turns it inward to focus on where the company is headed technologically. "Nearly every technology program we implement as an IT department is done in collaboration with the SIG," Winter says.

The group partners in-house experts on the cloud, big data and cybersecurity, among other technologies, with Winter's IT staff to ensure new services and capabilities match employees' needs and expectations and keep the company at the forefront of technological innovation.

At the top of the organization, the IT Operations Group (ITOG), made up of C-suite leaders and business-line executives, provides oversight and governance for Booz Allen's IT strategy and road maps. "The ITOG ensures buy-in and alignment for IT priorities across our firm," explains Winter. Where some CIOs might balk at outside oversight of their department, he welcomes the feedback.

"When we debate IT spending and IT initiatives, that federates my risk. It helps me make sure I'm hitting my mark," Winter says. "I don't have the dollars to do everything I want. The ITOG gives me a gut check that the priorities I've set for IT align with the company's business strategy."

IT business partners aim to better serve citizens

With approximately 608,000 citizens and 3,500 municipal employees to serve in Las Vegas, Joseph Marcella is well aware that he has a wide range of people to keep happy. "Our customer' is actually the 20 separate businesses that comprise city government, and the multiple generations of employees and citizens that make up our population," says Marcella, who is CIO and director of IT for the Las Vegas city government.

To better serve the technology needs of that diverse population, Marcella recently reorganized his IT department. "From a tech perspective, it's difficult to understand the needs of individual boards or policymakers without being hands-on in their business," he says.

To get there, Marcella first established "communities of interest," grouping together city departments and offices that share common tech needs. For example, building and safety, operations and maintenance, planning and public works all comprise the Development & Operations community of interest. Other communities include Public Safety, Community Services and Internal Services.

Two business relationship managers within the IT department, who report directly to Marcella, coordinate services for these communities of interest, aided by two or three business partners who are embedded within the various city agencies. "They actually live within the organizations," says Marcella of the business partners. "I still own' them, but we needed to have somebody on the floor to function as a community partner. They report back to the relationship managers on a weekly basis, so I can be sure we're aligning IT with what the business needs." With that flow of hands-on information, Marcella says, "priorities and funding are seldom an issue."

That structure has served Marcella well as he has moved to significantly expand the city's portfolio of digital services. With the motto "Serving you online rather than in line" as a guiding light, IT has partnered with multiple municipal departments to create a full-service, high-quality online experience for the citizens and businesses that interact with the city government.

Just one example: Applications for business licensing, permits and planning are all now online, which is of particular importance because the city is once again in the midst of a building boom, Marcella points out.

Citizens can do everything online, from checking the status of court cases and looking up warrants to locating inmates. And a new mobile app lets them report on or check the status of transportation and public safety issues, such as graffiti, potholes or out-of-service streetlights. Crews receive real-time alerts out in the field, and a GPS component ensures accuracy down to the street level.

On the administrative side, the advent of online payments has increased the total amount of fines and fees collected, a boon to city coffers, while at the same time streamlining city employees' jobs.

"Overall, from the city's standpoint, it's much easier to process and query data, to develop more advanced business intelligence systems and to improve internal procedures," Marcella says of the online push.

With the entire region finally beginning to climb out from a particularly deep trough during the recession, Marcella is conscious of the part he and his department play in keeping and attracting business development within the city limits. "Our goal is to be the municipal government of choice," Marcella says.

Solving problems, brainstorming innovation

The Harvard Graduate School of Education's mission is as sweeping as it is simple: to change the world through education.

As CIO, Indra Bishop was mindful of the part that technology plays in fulfilling that mission: "Higher education is going through transformational change to ensure access to education for all, and technology has been the catalyst of that change," she says. Advances in online and digital learning increase affordability and accessibility, she explains, and they enable learners to progress at their own pace, wherever they are and whenever they can. Bishop left the school in December 2014 to launch her own firm, EdTech Consulting Group, where she is CEO, and to serve as CTO of the nonprofit World Computer Exchange, which aims to better the lives of women and girls through education and technology.

At Harvard, Bishop's responsibility, as she envisioned it, wasn't to provide commodity IT services or spend her time addressing network outages (Harvard University has a central IT division for that) but to offer up proactive, value-added services that help faculty and staff to advance that digital learning strategy.

Step one toward reaching that goal was to re-architect an existing group within IT to be less operational and more strategic. Over nine months, IT worked closely with faculty to draft a new mission for the former Education Technology Services group, identifying skills that needed to be developed or acquired and making several new hires. "The result is an agile, forward-thinking group with a new title -- Learning Technologies Group -- and a new focus on promoting and sustaining innovation within digital learning," reports Bishop.

The new group's first task was to build an agile course-development framework to allow educators and other stakeholders to quickly create learning experiences for a variety of users and on a variety of platforms. The framework has been used to develop two MOOCs (massive open online courses) with enrollments of more than 35,000 and 65,000, respectively, as well as several more traditional online experiences, Bishop says.

Less formally, Bishop and her team had success identifying and solving specific business needs via cross-functional technology working groups (TWG). Informally known as "twigs," these ad hoc groups, typically of seven or eight people, must include at least one IT staffer and one business counterpart, often a subject-matter expert rather than an executive.

The most important rule for TWGs is that IT can't lead the charge -- the need has to come from the business side, which is one easy way to ensure that IT is working on projects that will truly benefit the business. "User buy-in and understanding are already there," Bishop says, "and the documented recommendations produced by the TWG usually provide a clear road map for IT to follow, so we can quickly be able to provide the solution."

Sometimes a TWG is all that's needed to develop a solution -- for example, making the case for a software upgrade or enabling cloud-based storage. Other times, a TWG's work becomes the basis for a more formal project, as when the school began the 18-month process of choosing and rolling out a new customer relationship management system.

It's not lost on Bishop that the success of both the TWGs and the Learning Technologies Group hinges on getting the right people in the room together, early and often -- an approach she plans to embrace as she grows her new company.

"My philosophy has been to actively promote collaboration and to partner very closely with business users," Bishop says. "That way, we hear about the new ideas very early, at the inception stage."

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