2017 Premier 100 Leaders: IT in the driver’s seat

These 100 tech leaders have raised the stakes, delivering steady, game-changing innovation and rapid-fire digital transformation.

Computerworld 2017 Premier 100 Technology Leaders
Computerworld / Thinkstock

Forget continuous improvement. Toss out conventional IT and business agendas. Tear up old marching orders.

Lead the way instead. Create and deliver new business models and revenue streams. Recruit the resources required to execute these goals expertly and efficiently. And above everything else, do it all lightning fast, ahead of the competition.

Welcome to the world of . They've outgrown previous roles as digital and operations experts, and technology collaborators. Now they're in the driver's seat. More often than ever before, IT leaders are orchestrating a wide variety of complex integration projects, cutting-edge technology rollouts and new business strategies — all while building highly skilled teams that can pivot with shifting business needs. (Read about the honorees' projects and priorities, below.)

The upshot is an impressive cross-industry array of digital transformation initiatives that are enabling new business models, revolutionizing enterprise operations and customer experiences, and bringing in new revenue.

Today's tech leaders also are consumed by scouting and recruiting new talent, shifting the hearts and minds of a sometimes reluctant workforce, and educating board members about what is possible with technologies on the horizon. Part talent agent and psychologist, part visionary and educator, they are modern-day business maestros who simultaneously must keep the enterprise tech basics up and running flawlessly, anytime and anywhere.

"One of the reasons they asked me to be CIO was to bring new thinking, new processes and new ways of getting work done," says Phil Potloff, a 2017 Premier 100 honoree who spent several years in operational roles at Edmunds before moving to the CIO job six years ago.

Computerworld - Premier 100 - Phil Potloff quote [2017] Computerworld / Edmunds

Last spring, Potloff's role changed once more. As Edmunds' first-ever chief digital officer, he is leading the team that last year created and launched Edmunds Advertising Solutions, a system that leverages big data and analytics to help auto dealers better target their marketing. It's also the fastest growing new product Edmunds has released in 10 years.

"My job now is to take technology and continue to create new business models for the company," Potloff says of his role as CDO. Today, technology leaders like him are "much more at the core of the strategy of the business. We're much more involved in that," he says.

Driving new business models

That rings true for Kim Felix in her role as vice president of IT at UPS.

"We're at a transformational point with technology, where the role is about bringing technology strategy and business strategy together," Felix says. "It's about totally inventing new models."

For Felix, this means collaborating intensively across the business to understand first-hand what operations teams and customers want and then figuring out how technology can make that vision a reality on a global scale and at a flawless performance level.

Today that technology is all about the internet of things; Felix says IoT and deep analytics capabilities are the two most strategic business drivers at UPS.

"A large part of our responsibility is effective asset utilization," she explains. This requires ongoing evolution and innovation in the tools and technologies that UPS uses to dynamically manage its global transportation network.

Instrumentation of key assets enables UPS to collect status and location data in real time, which in turn enables it to offer new tools, such as Follow My Driver, to customers. Analytics takes the process steps further, enabling predictive alerts and real-time changes in the face of rising and continually changing customer demand.

Achieving these high levels of operational efficiency and proactive customer service means continually innovating, which leaders say can happen only when a bullet-proof IT infrastructure and seamless, customer-focused workflows are in place.

To be truly innovative, "you have to keep your [IT] organization always thinking about your customer. You have to make sure you understand your customers' workflow and how they use your technology. That's first and foremost," says Col. Richard Wilson, chief of the Defense Health Agency's Solution Delivery Division.

The Military Health System is in the midst of a gargantuan and exceedingly complex transformation project to modernize the electronic health record system across all branches of the military. The system supports more than 9.4 million beneficiaries for whom patient safety is paramount, especially during the transition from the legacy system to the modern system.

Computerworld - Premier 100 - Col. Richard Wilson quote [2017] Computerworld / Defense Health Agency

"You have to stick to fundamentals," Wilson emphasizes. "That's agile development, very rigorous testing and a governance structure that keeps your stakeholders involved."

Standardizing workflow is imperative to the success of any clinical technology, which is why professionals from other functions across the military are being recruited to work shoulder to shoulder with technologists in IT. Among them are acquisitions professionals and medical and administrative experts. About half of the members of Wilson's leadership team are clinicians or administrative experts with hospital experience.

"This allows us to accelerate change management and integration activities that impact workflow," Wilson says. "The goal is to reduce the gap between technology and functional lines. This multiplies the number of change agents you have out there working for you across the organization."

Full-spectrum analytics

At Mitre, a not-for-profit company that operates multiple federally funded research and development centers, continuous innovation involves repeatedly leveraging extensive expertise with four key underlying technologies — artificial intelligence, natural language processing, analytics and cyber security — to solve highly diverse and complicated challenges across multiple industries.

It works like this: Mitre is a trusted third party that collects, combines and analyzes public and private data from various companies across an industry, then makes its findings available to all players.

In aviation, for example, "we improve flight safety by looking at flight patterns, high-risk behaviors and approach patterns that result in delays," explains Michal Cenkl, director of innovation and technology. "We can do this in the aggregate then make information available to all of the airlines. This is information they wouldn't share with one another," he notes. The same format is applied in healthcare to help identify patterns of fraud that no one insurer could see with its own data.

Computerworld - Premier 100 - Michal Cenkl quote [2017] Computerworld / Mitre

"We used to think of analytics as providing the infrastructure for others to run analytics on," he says. "Now, providing infrastructure is just table stakes. The next thing is making it easier for any project in any of the domains we operate in to go from having a hypothesis to actually testing the hypothesis and getting meaningful results. Our objective is half the time and half the cost to spin up an analytics environment to get to the impact faster."

"To a large extent, IT is driving the vision," Cenkl notes. "We have a CIO strategy team with senior-level officers represented from all of our operating centers. They get together monthly to discuss things like how to bring predictive analytics to bear on each particular business." The challenge, he says, is leveraging the in-place innovation network to create even greater value.

"I have the benefit of having multiple roles," Cenkl adds. "One is innovating in the IT space, the other is reporting to the CTO of R&D and bridging the gap for identifying those opportunities."

At Servpro Industries, a fire- and water-damage restoration franchisor in Gallatin, Tenn., the most recent strategic innovation to come out of IT is Work Center, which has driven the transformation of a manual, paper-driven business process to a web- and mobile-enabled technology platform.

"The restoration industry is not historically known for being technologically innovative," says CIO Jeff Fields. "Performing work on a water loss would usually involve a clipboard full of disclaimers to be read, documents to be signed, as well as a Polaroid or digital camera to document the damage for the insurance carrier. All relevant information would be hand-written, sometimes duplicated several times, then handed to an office worker and re-entered into a locally hosted desktop business application to store basic job data."

Now, in contrast, Work Center provides a way for the company to quickly collect data from its more than 1,700 franchises, and it has enabled them to expand beyond the residential market and create a new revenue stream in the commercial market.

"Commercial losses can be vastly different from residential losses, so training and technology must be specific to the type of job," Fields explains. Work Center contains software that allows franchises to price commercial jobs through third-party systems. It also enables information to flow across property owners, building managers and project managers, ensuring the correct work is being performed at the right time, reducing downtime and overall costs.

To win the hearts and minds of those who would use the system, Fields enlisted certain key franchises to help create it. He also sent IT staffers into the field to experience firsthand how franchises work and what they need.

"The key franchises beta-tested for us and then helped us go out and market the system to the rest of the franchises. They also did training and helped IT with presentations," Fields says. "It's now the model we use for everything."

Driving change even faster

CIOs have typically juggled many roles — technologist, strategist, educator and hand-holder.

Going forward, the role is likely to broaden and deepen even further, and CIOs will need to be even more communicative and collaborative across the enterprise, not to mention faster at capitalizing on emerging technology from outside.

"IT used to benefit from Moore's Law. We'd get faster computers, and it became cheaper to provide more capacity. But the flip side is the rate of change and innovation is now so fast that it's getting difficult to absorb and take advantage of," says Cenkl. That's why "the challenge for future CIOs is how to leverage the innovation network," he notes.

Just as Uber, for example, was able to disintermediate an entire industry with a tech platform comprised of apps and services provided from outside, CIOs need to become expert at "stitching together different microservices to deliver effective platforms. It's the way to faster innovation," Cenkl says.

Since the pace of innovation is likely to accelerate even more, future CIOs will "have to be comfortable living in a world of ambiguity," says Wilson of the Defense Health Agency. "You have to learn to live there [because] the role of IT is change agent."

The bottom line is that ongoing tech advances will challenge even the most talented CIOs, says Robert Napoli, CIO at Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and Hawaiian Islands.

"If you look at CIOs as the transformation people in the organization, there is still a lot of work to be done," he says. Technologies like 4D printing and artificial intelligence are on the horizon, he adds, and "it remains to be seen whether CIOs are able to take hold of these technologies and drive the business forward."

Moving into strategic roles

As business models change, the way employees use technology also changes, says Robin Veit, director of client engineering and operations at Starz, the cable and satellite television network known for popular programs such as Outlander. This has been one of the key business drivers behind the network's push to cloud technology.

Robin W. Veit, Director, Client Engineering and Operations, Starz [2017] Starz

Robin W. Veit, Starz

When Veit joined the company 14 years ago, Starz received tapes of the movies it broadcast on a single television channel.

Today, "we're no longer about linear channels. You can now access [Starz content] from different partners and on multiple devices and platforms," she says. "With our app, people can also directly download content, which has really transformed the business."

The role of IT also has transformed. For one thing, the move to cloud technology has freed IT staffers of the need to handle operational concerns, so they can take on more strategic duties. These include working with colleagues in other business units to ascertain how technology can help them and exploring new methods for getting closer to Starz customers.

"We're very focused on our fans and use social media and other digital technologies to make the fan experience a full one," Veit says. By monitoring blogs and other fan sites and social media, Starz is able to offer viewers customized recommendations.

"We're utilizing data more and more," she says.

Echoing the words of so many of her fellow IT leaders, she adds, "Today, we are a technology company."

Premier 100 Projects & Priorities

Computerworld - Premier 100 Priorities 2017 Computerworld

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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