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The Recipe for Running a Successful IT Organization

By Julia Davis, SVP and CIO, Aflac

Julia Davis, SVP and CIO, Aflac

Some people view cooking as a science and others see it as an art –for me, it’s both. You can have a stunning chocolate cake (my favorite), but if you accidentally switch the sugar and the salt – the aesthetics won’t matter much. Likewise, your cake could taste exquisite, but if its layers are lopsided, you might have a tough time finding someone willing to try it. Whichever side of the culinary continuum you fall on, a high-quality recipe is a must. As IT head chefs, CIOs face growing pressures to reduce costs, keep up with rapidly changing technology, manage the needs for a multichannel consumer experience and deal with growing security risk demands. To face these challenges, CIOs require the right recipe with four integral ingredients to run a successful IT organization.

"CIOs must view their organizations like leaven that fosters transformation, drives change and helps the company rise above its competitors"

Season Your Workforce with the Best Skill Sets

Having the right organizational structure in place is a key to meet short-term and long-term business goals. This involves taking a look at the current skill sets and knowledge among your IT staff and creating a structure that supports the corporate strategy. Rapidly changing technology requires a constant demand of the latest technology skill set and necessitates assessing and adjusting your workforce accordingly.

According to a 2016 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 75 percent of CEOs say that a skilled, educated and adaptable workforce should be a priority for business. This situation couldn’t be more real, as we face a mass exodus of retirees in the next 10 years. As a result of the shortage of skilled IT employees across all business sectors, Aflac is steadfastly closing talent gaps in our IT organization. For example, through our IT Apprenticeship Program, we hire talented college graduates into an IT training program that helps to fill areas with a skill set gap. Balancing the right mix of experts to lead their own fields and the best blend of personalities helps create a team that collaborates and communicates. Just like a good chef knows the right mix of flavors, successful CIOs understand it takes a properly seasoned team to carry an organization.

Bind Things Together with an Agile Approach

CIOs must also look for ways to create structures that keep teams collaborative to widen knowledge and perspectives. When I first came to Aflac in 2013, the IT organization was modeled after a traditional waterfall structure. Because this was not conducive to providing deliverables at a fast enough speed to meet the needs of the business, it became necessary to change to a consultative, agile structure. An additional benefit is revealed in a survey conducted by Hewlett-Packard showing that the top primary motivator for organizations moving to an agile methodology is enhanced collaboration between teams that don’t typically work together. Adopting an Agile approach is essential to foster the unity and partnership of teams within IT and the business.

To accomplish this goal, in 2014, I led the IT division through a complete agile reorganization from the top down. With this new alignment, we have gained the ability to focus on establishing the priority of projects and completing one effort at a time according to the priority. The attention and efforts directed with such precision allows for dedicated teamwork, cross-functional training and a strengthening of our internal culture. This structure provides increased accountability, efficiency and organization that help Aflac IT to be poised and ready for the next opportunity, producing results at record speed. Like eggs to a cake, Agile is a binding agent giving structure and volume to your workforce and the business.

Stimulate Growth with Strategy and a Technology Roadmap

Strategic vision and the proper communication of that vision are fundamental to an effective IT organization. CIOs at the Wall Street Journal CIO Network event in 2015 came up with their top-five priorities, and these were narrowed down to two general themes: security risks and strategy. When it came to the latter, CIOs agreed that they wanted their IT organizations to be the change agent at their companies and that they themselves need a business-centric vision.

Traditionally, CIOs focus on managing the basic technical service needs of the organization, ranging from providing Internet connectivity to installing desktop software. However, the role of a CIO is now viewed as an essential strategic business partner helping the company accomplish their goals. Their insight on technological solutions influences and impacts numerous business decisions, driving the need for CIOs to be able to interpret and communicate the technological needs in a business context while acting as a liaison between the business partner and those implementing the technology.

A technology roadmap is vital to identify that the necessary tools are in place to meet organizational and business goals as well as align with the overall corporate strategic vision. This path helps find existing gaps, recognizes the technology investments needed and, at the executive level, can be used as a visual tool to support requests for technology changes or investments. CIOs must view their organizations like leaven that fosters transformation, drives change and helps the company rise above its competitors.

Add in Accountability– and a Little Heat

The role of the CIO has changed drastically over the past 10 years due to our ever-changing technological landscape. How can a CIO know if their strategy and roadmap are effective in this type of environment? Measurable goals and industry benchmarks help you assess if you’re on the right track or if any adjustments are needed. When we received a direct challenge from our CEO to create a process that would set us apart in an increasingly competitive environment – needless to say, our skills, teamwork and strategy were put to the test. By leveraging an agile approach, establishing realistic goals and metrics, and holding ourselves accountable to them, Aflac introduced One Day PaySM, a trailblazing initiative allowing Aflac to receive process, approve and disburse payment for eligible claims in one business day.

At Aflac, I continually face many of the current challenges other CIOs are experiencing in the industry today. Whether you’re balancing legacy systems with evolving operating systems or capitalizing on the growth of data, perspective is everything – approaching challenges as opportunities instead of obstacles is vital. After all, turning up the heat is the difference between a blob of batter and a beautiful batch of brownies.

Bon appétit!

While a good recipe provides a starting point for your dish, there is no prix fixe menu for leading your organization–a little creative culinary art is needed to make your dish fabulous. CIOs likewise must be skilled in choosing a collaborative team with the skills, strategy and steadfastness needed to take on and measure up to the challenges found in your organization. By mixing in these four ingredients and adjusting them to the needs of your business, you’re on your way to cooking up a successful IT organization.