In today’s weak economy, companies tend to think of IT mainly as an engine for cost reduction and increased efficiency. But in many industries, including the pharmaceutical pharmaceutical testing business in which MDS operates, IT can and should drive top-line growth. The path to being an effective partner in growth begins with an IT team that has a strong understanding of the business, a commercial orientation and a focus on the end customer.

A commercially-orientated team needs a core of programme managers and business analysts. They can sit down with the business, understand what business users are asking for, and then translate that to our internal and external technology partners. Your reputation as the right group to deliver commercial solutions rests on their shoulders.

During my career I’ve been involved in delivery of big applications, including, in 1996, the first customer website at Fidelity Investments. Projects that fail, I have found, are most often the ones in which IT has an internal mindset. The successful ones tend to involve IT staff who appreciate the external customer. For example, as I learned early in my career, it’s one thing to have a bug that affects internal people. You can react to it quickly and have direct dialogue with the end users about the problem. That’s not the case with external customers, where there are bigger ramifications. When I know what we do will affect a customer, I look for people who have good business sense and who understand what it means to have a commitment to the customer.

Clinical solutions

When I started at MDS two and a half years ago, we had a key project that had got off to a rocky start. We were developing a system to help manage customers’ clinical trials and deliver results from these trials. It seemed that whenever we got the technology side working, the business side broke, and when we got the business side right, the technology side broke.

To set the project right, we paired a good high-level project manager from the business with one from IT to get a more focused view of the features this application needed. The IT manager brought a good understanding of the business, strong skills in managing the necessary compromises and a drive to see the project completed.

Within six months we had it ready. The expectations within the business were that this system would put us only at par in the marketplace. But since its launch, customers have said this system is the gold standard in the marketplace and is a competitive differentiator. We are winning customers and growing the top line with this system.

We have team members with strong business skills because I recruit for them and develop them.

Furthermore, I have not centralised my application teams; I want people to develop strong industry knowledge in order to support specific business units and understand their particular customers.

Talking business to the board

I never want to look like the IT guy who talks just about technology. So when I presented to the MDS board of directors at its last meeting, as I do twice a year, I spoke about some of the commercially-orientated initiatives IT has been driving or enabling. These include our system for managing customers’ clinical trial data, which is helping us generate new sales.
When it comes to working with the board, I do everything in partnership with a business peer. So I’ll have the business unit president in the room with me, and we’ll support each other. It’s important to show that IT is a business-focused and business-enabling function.
A lot of what I talk about is how we ensure projects meet business needs, how IT serves the end customer, and how our technology is perceived in the marketplace. For example, we have customer comments and studies that show the deals we’ve been winning because of the clinical trials management system. I also focus on world-class benchmarks, comparing ourselves to what the best firms are doing with IT, and the actions we’re taking to get to their level.
I’m fortunate in that we have a board member who was a senior executive at a leading technology provider and outsourcer. But board members want to understand the business impact of IT. Avoid the technology talk and explain how you are enabling the organisation or creating business opportunities.

My entire team goes on sales calls; it’s important for IT staff to hear directly what the customer wants. The salesperson isn’t going to ask what kind of systems customers would like or what technology our competitors have. But IT can engage customers in that conversation, and the salespeople hear the answers. That can build momentum for a specific initiative.

I have not imposed a quota for going on sales calls, but I’ve hired people who like to do it. They’re harder to find, of course. In fact, that’s the biggest staffing challenge I have. But I think people who like to work with the business tend to like to be in front of customers. Their idea of success is making sure they meet business needs, not only that they are putting in a great technology solution.

An affinity for our business is essential to career development in my organisation. I have a preference for buying systems rather than building them; we build our own when there aren’t viable solutions in the marketplace. Because of this, I’m not sure I can always give developers the best career path that will lead to more senior development roles. But I do know that I can offer a great career path to somebody who is a program manager or business analyst, or even a developer who wants to move into one of these roles because his skill sets can easily translate to the skills needed to become IT directors, to support the IT needs of a business unit and ultimately to take my job. In fact, that’s my number-one interview question for any IT leadership role. If the candidate doesn’t say he wants my job, then he’s the wrong person.