Managing Technology at 360 Degrees

Jeff Palm, CIO, Allianz Life
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Jeff Palm, CIO, Allianz Life

In today's world of technology, issues come at a rapid pace and exist in all shapes and sizes. We deal with topics ranging from the highly strategic to the painstakingly tactical— separating new product and platform hype from reality, managing prudent financial investments, and addressing delivery needs made more difficult by a myriad of ties to legacy platforms.

I think of this as having to “manage at 360 degrees”–and although that's a comment meant to be centered around geometry, I confess at times it also feels as if an analogy to an oven temperature is equally fitting. With that in mind, I would like to offer a few suggestions for how to navigate and lead in an ever-changing, complex technology environment.

Consider Driving Toward a Principles-Based Organization

Given the daily, if not hourly, issues we all face, it's imperative that leaders in Technology organizations view issues similarly and apply common principles toward solving them. In our organization, we have guiding principles to help us along those lines. When confronted with a problem, if a proposed solution displays general alignment with these principles, then more often than not, the decision is likely a sound one. Conversely, if the solution doesn’t seem to align with these principles then, odds are, a rethink may be in order. I’ll highlight a couple principles here.

 ‚ÄčProviding full transparency to business partners and executives helps build healthy respect and promotes an environment that increases trust over time 

Transparency

Being transparent sounds easy, and frankly it is—or at least it can be—if you are fully committed to it. Providing full transparency to business partners and executives helps build healthy respect and promotes an environment that increases trust over time—whether managing budgets, reporting status, or exploring new technologies. It is important here to continue to openly "push" the notion of transparency, remind people it's there, and challenge openly when someone believes that it's not.

The Value Equation–Cost, Service, and Quality

First off, consider cost. Given two choices, each with a different cost, the lower cost option is always the right one...Right? While the CFO at times may beg to differ, that's really only part of the equation.

Next, add service. Again, given two options, the one with the better service level is always preferable, especially if costs are somewhat comparable or proportional…Right? With all due respect to demanding end users, that too, is only part of the equation.

Finally, don’t forget quality. We may be able to achieve a good "gross" level of service and do so at an acceptable cost, but if it's delivered at poor quality, then neither service nor cost really matters.

Of course, depending on the situation, any one of the three may be more important than the other. The task, then, is not just to minimize cost or maximize service. Rather, my challenge to our organization is to look at all three simultaneously and optimize the overall value in this equation—recognizing trade-offs between each dimension.

These are just two of our principles but they are highly visible, and every IT employee has a laminated copy.

Be Proactive and Visible with Ideas

Once each quarter, our Technology group takes three topics of our choosing to our top business executives. Each of these “vignettes” are 20 minutes in length and designed to be thought provoking, cover a specific topic in depth, or perhaps pitch a new idea. Having this discussion allows us to:

• Bring ideas proactively to the business vs. simply being “order-takers”
• Gain increased visibility for interesting ideas and opportunities
• Provide IT leaders a chance to more formally present key concepts in an executive forum

This level of proactive discussion provides an opportunity for IT to showcase some new and different thinking–which is something we all struggle with at times.

Focus on the Dashboard, Be Mindful of the Windshield, and Don't Forget the Rear View Mirror

All technology organizations have dashboards, metrics, and other KPI's that help assess the current state of projects, budgets, audit issues, etc. It is tempting to focus only on those since they are so critical in running successful day to day operations.

However, because the rate of technology change is so dramatic, it becomes increasingly important to look up from the dashboard and out the front windshield to have a good view on what's coming up next. There are not only potholes to be avoided in the form of changing technology, updated standards, and industry initiatives, but also opportunities to see and take a fast pathby accelerating into the passing lane.

Finally, an occasional glance at the rear view mirror can provides a good view into any mistakes that might have been made along the way. In a learning based organization, this type of honest self-assessment and learning from past experience or missed opportunities can provide valuable insights for continued improvement.

Consider drafting a pie chart, aspirational in nature, showing how much time in a given week you would like to target spending on the dashboard, the windshield, and the rear view mirror. Then, over the course of a few weeks, estimate the time you’ve actually spent and compare it to your target. You might find you are surprised at the results–I know I was!

I am certainly not a futurist, but it’s a fairly safe bet that the future role of Technology leadership will only become increasingly important and the rate of change promises to maintain its current aggressive pace. Whether the idea is principles-based leadership, a proactive approach, or keeping your eyes on the road, hopefully I’ve given you a suggestion or two that allows you to lead more effectively at 360 degrees—or at least lower the oven temperature a bit.

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