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As business becomes increasingly digital and technology becomes the product, the IT function needs to be a driver of innovation. This new direction requires a big change in IT culture.
By Annabelle Bexiga, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer, TIAA-CREF
The IT function is being transformed. Whereas we used to focus primarily on enabling internal employees to do their jobs, increasingly we are involved in satisfying external customers’ appetite for technology.
In fact, in many industries, including financial services, where information is at the heart of customers’ purchases, IT essentially invents the machinery used to manufacture the product.
That means working with the business to understand the company’s strategies and challenges and then making innovative connections between the needs of the business and what’s possible technologically.
However, becoming a driver of innovation requires a change in culture. And that’s never easy.
Think of it as turning around a large ship. Move too slowly and you’ll end up drifting aimlessly. Move too quickly and the vessel will list precipitously or even capsize. Once the ship is headed in the right direction, though, tremendous progress can be made.
Turning the Ship
When I joined TIAA-CREF, four years ago, the IT group played the important but traditional role of providing business users with what they asked for. Given technology’s increasing importance to the business, however, we needed to leverage our technology expertise more actively to meet the needs of the business. Our people needed to understand business’s problems and work with business partners to identify the best solutions. It was time for IT to take on a much bigger role in driving technology enabled business innovation.
But this would require “turning the ship” — and a pretty big one at that, with nearly 2,000 IT employees onboard.
Changing the culture to refocus people’s minds and behaviors on innovation would take both time and careful execution. The first component of the initiative was to roll out culture change training to all IT managers. The training delved into topics such as how IT’s new mission drove our overall objectives, how to embrace change as a manager, and how to create a change-adaptive culture on one’s team. Once all IT managers were trained, they then trained the rest of the IT population. By asking the managers to embody and demonstrate that they embraced culture change from the top down, employees were more receptive to the messages.
Full Steam Ahead
Following the culture change training, we began the task of weaving innovation into the core fabric of the IT organization. Innovation goals were added to the annual goal setting process. We introduced our annual IT “Outcomes that Matter” award to recognize up to three teams or individuals whose work drove innovation. And we continue to engage our employees and drive collaboration by hosting a biannual IT expo, where IT professionals showcase their efforts and identify opportunities to leverage one another’s knowledge, and by launching a collaborative space that promotes collaboration, innovation, and workplace quality for IT employees.
Another innovative mechanism we are using to embrace culture change is techSPARK — an internal forum for idea generation and information sharing. It is a simple concept that promotes collaboration through social media and crowdsourcing, and is intended to drive technology innovation and business outcomes. IT employees can simply log on to our internal social media platform and use a hashtag to share their ideas, and their peers can provide feedback. IT then hosts monthly forums to discuss the most popular ideas. This gives IT employees a way to bubble up their great ideas to senior leadership as well as to their peers.
A Reassignment of Duties
When improving the organizational culture, it is important to have a structure that enables optimal performance. Prior to the consumerization of technology, IT was a back-office operation that supported front-office employees. In the past five years, however, there has been a significant shift in the role of technology departments, driven by technical advances such as mobile computing and social networking. With the general population relying on technology for their day-to-day needs, barriers have been broken down.
To adapt to these changes, I reorganized my leadership team into a hybrid service model. There are several core functions, such as information security and infrastructure, but the application delivery groups are organized into business-aligned teams. The CTO for each team is also a part of the business senior leadership team, enabling enhanced partnerships. This integrated approach has proven to be a great way to ensure that IT and our businesses are in sync and that all parties are thinking holistically about business solutions. With a hybrid structure and the introduction of new agile development methods, IT is able to deliver more effective and efficient solutions.
All Hands on Deck
A focus of our culture change initiative has been inculcating the mind-set that innovation isn’t just the purview of the leadership team. It is everyone’s job. Everyone — from infrastructure professionals to information security analysts — is encouraged to innovate.
One example of successful innovation happened when our IT team created our performance dashboard, TIAA Today. When I joined TIAA-CREF, our website suffered from significant performance issues. So we established a small team that traced the path of those issues from end to end and, over time, removed bottlenecks, streamlined processes, and significantly improved performance.
As the team members remedied the performance issues, they realized that they also needed a way to monitor the website performance improvements in real time. The application they developed for this had usages beyond the website. It could measure other end-to-end processes and so provide performance information on different aspects of our business. It is now the dashboard by which we measure our performance as a business in real time.
The team could have just fixed the website and moved on to their next project, but instead they did something much bigger. To this day, the dashboard sits on my desktop as a way to gauge performance and as a reminder that innovation is all of our jobs.
Is That a Cloud on the Horizon?
Another key focus of our culture change initiative is to become a leaner, simpler IT organization. To that end, we are working on a next-generation infrastructure vision — creating a software-defined data center. By focusing on standardization, automation, and broader leverage of public and private cloud services, we are accelerating time to market and improving our capabilities while reducing overall cost.
As we continue on the journey to become a strategic business partner and to develop a high-performing culture, we must always embrace innovation and be change adaptive. Now that technology is so integral to every business, as technologists, we have the opportunity to drive our companies’ success.
Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 5 (September 2014)