Best Balance: Business 101

Best Places keep staffers' business skills as sharp as their tech smarts with job rotations and mentoring.

Whether they're network administrators, IT project managers or LAN specialists, most workers want to feel like they're empowered to make a difference.

For successful IT organizations, that can-do attitude is often centered on identifying and understanding the needs of the businesses they support. To do that, this year's Best Places take a multifaceted approach to developing the business knowledge of their IT workers. For many of these companies, such training goes well beyond instructor-led courses (see the complete Best Place to Work in IT 2006 special report).

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13th Annual Report:
100 Best Places to Work in IT 2006


List of Best Places Winners

"We feel the state we've gotten to [as an IT organization] has provided us with a competitive advantage," says Gary Scholten, CIO at Des Moines-based Principal Financial Group Inc., which ranks No. 29 on this year's list. "True innovation happens at the intersection of business and IT. IT has to be at the table for that to happen, and IT has to have a certain amount of influence for that to occur."

One of the steps that Principal's IT group has taken to develop its business knowledge is requiring IT workers to participate in a new job-shadowing program with business staffers. The program, which was launched in late 2005, enables IT workers to learn how each of Principal's financial services businesses operates and how external customers interpret the company's financial products, says Scholten.

One IT staffer at Principal who has benefited from the job-shadowing program is Stacy Hansen. A senior business analyst, Hansen spent time earlier this spring with various business staffers who work with internal and external customers. Among other things, she learned how "those roles interact with each other to meet our business needs and how they impact us in IT," says Hansen, a nine-year company veteran.

Hansen also attended a full-day training session in May to learn more about how the work of Principal's IT staff affects the company's revenues and profits. For instance, this includes identifying priorities in systems changes requested by business managers that ultimately go toward helping those business units meet their strategic goals and helping the company reach its profitability targets, she says.

As with other companies on the 2006 Best Places to Work in IT list, Principal requires its 1,500 IT staffers to create a set of annual career development goals linked to the company's business strategies. Those goals are reviewed quarterly by supervisors.

Cross-pollination

At Tellabs Inc. (No. 21), business and IT managers work together to identify seminars and conferences that their respective staffs can attend to help encourage a "cross-pollination" of ideas, says CIO Jean Holley. For instance, the Naperville, Ill.-based communications company recently sent a mix of nine IT and business workers to a supply chain management conference to learn more about best practices that they could apply to Tellabs' logistics, demand management and planning activities, she says.

Holley also recently restructured Tellabs' IT organization by creating functional teams of business analysts, project managers and other IT workers who have expertise in specific areas such as human resources and supply chain management. "This way, if someone from the business is looking for help in particular area, they'll now know who to go to, and they won't have to ask which of our 224 IT employees can help out," says Holley.

IT executives at Harrah's Entertainment Inc. (No. 22) earlier this year created account teams within the IT organization to support the business requirements of internal customers, much like a sales team would handle a customer account, says Vijay Velamoor, vice president of IT services at the Las Vegas-based gaming and hospitality giant. "Many of the more progressive organizations are moving to this account management model," says Velamoor.

A Tighter Bond

Under some circumstances, formal classroom training is not only useful, it's imperative. For example, because Raytheon Co. (No. 32) is a defense contractor, the Waltham, Mass.-based company requires its 2,200-plus IT workers in the U.S. to attend an internal course about return on invested capital to help teach them about which types of expenses are permitted under government projects they're working on, says Vice President and CIO Rebecca Rhoads.

Many of Raytheon's U.S. IT workers are also rotated throughout its seven business divisions once every eight months. The program does more than teach IT workers about Raytheon's businesses, says Rhoads. It also allows them to strengthen relationships with business line managers who run the company's day-to-day operations, she says.

So, if an IT manager is struggling with a problem in Raytheon's aviation business, he can turn to managers he knows in one of the company's other businesses for their feedback and guidance, says Rhoads. "It's been a great way to knit the company together," she says.

Indeed, there's nothing like field experience to provide IT workers with business savvy. But Universal Health Services Inc. (No. 30) in King of Prussia, Pa., takes the concept a step further. UHS regularly sends clinical IT analysts out to its 25 acute-care medical facilities and 97 behavioral health centers to help understand hospital operations, says CIO Linda Reino. But to help increase its knowledge of hospital operations, the IT organization also employs a fair number of IT workers who happen to be registered nurses, she says.

"That's been a very conscious part of the design of the staff, so they are not stuck at headquarters and becoming desensitized to what's happening in the world of the hospital," says Reino.

When asked what type of business skills Reino seeks from her 350-person IT team, "attitude and initiative" leap from her lips. "I've found there isn't much you can't teach in life, and you want people who are self-motivated to find the answers" to business problems, she says.

At Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. (No. 38) in East Hanover, N.J., CIO Rob James and the IT leadership team take great pains to ensure that their 400-person IT team is plugged into all of the company's communications, including executive web-casts and presentations about business goals.

Mentoring is also key at Novartis. All IT employees are eligible to be mentored by a business manager. In fact, one IT manager is currently being mentored by the company's CEO, Alex Gorsky, says James.

In addition, Novartis offers a three-week global IT leadership program. Under the annual program, 30 people spend a week at Harvard University learning management techniques such as effective contract negotiations. Later in the year, they travel to Novartis offices in Europe for a 360-degree professional assessment of their leadership skills by senior business and IT managers, followed by comprehensive training. The groups spend another week attending technology innovation courses at MIT.

"It's essential that our people on the front line can talk the business language," says James. "To do that, we have to understand the business."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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