How tech vendors can boost IT's business acumen

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Guy Brassard, CIO of Southwire, takes a unique new approach to vendor management.

If you are like most CIOs, you have an IT organization that is good at many things, but when it comes to understanding how its own work in IT drives business value, the team has room for improvement.

That was the situation that Guy Brassard faced when he joined Southwire, a $4.8 billion electrical-wire, cable and cord manufacturer. The company's management team set a strategy for growth and operational excellence, which put increased pressure on IT. Several acquisitions and transformational activities later, Brassard saw that his IT team had many of the skills necessary to support the company's growth strategy, but not the business acumen and knowledge required to step into newly created global business-facing positions.

To fill these business-facing roles, which included business analysts, functional leads, and business relationship executives, Brassard had a three-pronged strategy:

  1. Recruit from local universities.
  2. Leverage vendor partnerships.
  3. Bring in talent from non-IT functions across the company.

Southwire had long-standing recruiting relationships with local universities, so he was set on that piece. For the second and third items, however, Brassard had some work to do.

IT vendor overhaul

Brassard and his team had been working with a slew of vendors and decided to do a complete overhaul. They reviewed their current contracts, cancelled all of them, and launched a 60-day open door discussion with an array of new vendors. From that work, they selected two primary vendors, one for infrastructure services and the other for application development and support. Those two vendors together have approximately 70 percent of Southwire's outsourcing business.

guy brassard cio southwire Georgia CIO Leadership Association

Southwire CIO Guy Brassard

Southwire didn't only change vendors, they changed their relationships with those vendors. "There is a difference between 'consultant' and partner,'" says Brassard.  "We used to tell our vendors, 'Here is what we need from you. Do what we say, and give it back to us.' Now, our vendor partners are at the table. We expect them to challenge us and be a part of our business."

Bringing in team members from outside IT

With the second prong of his "business acumen development" strategy underway, Brassard was ready for the third piece: bringing people from non-IT parts of the business into IT. But here he faced a challenge. "When we brought people into IT from sales, finance and logistics, they had great business knowledge, but no experience in the kind of problem solving, request definition and change management that we typically do in IT," he says. "We were glad to have them, but we needed them be more effective in their new jobs quickly."

This is where Brassard’s strategy came together. "We included coaching and training into our vendor contracts," he says. "Instead of taking the people we've brought into IT and sending them to a classroom for IT training, we now have them work side by side with our vendor partners. The vendors coach our people in IT processes, and our new hires teach the vendors about our business. It's a win-win."

Brassard's three-pronged strategy worked out so well that he came away with three tips.

1. Choose vendors carefully

Brassard expects a lot from his vendors. They need to offer a total cost for the solution selection, the implementation, and for the run, once implemented. Selected partners are expected to run a wide array of Southwire's IT services, and they need to have the cultural adaptability to become a part of the IT team and even coach the staff. "A lot of the vendors we considered could provide some of these services, but few could provide the complete offering," Brassard says. "We had to be very selective and set clear expectations about the multiple roles they would play."

2. Empower your vendor-partners

"Southwire has several IT people who have been here 20 or 30 years and are used to thinking of vendors as consultants who need to follow orders," Brassard says. "In our new culture, we sometimes allow partners to represent IT in business meetings, and I will often go with a vendor's approach, especially around global design and international requirements where we have limited knowledge.”

Brassard says that this cultural change was the hardest part of executing his strategy. "Some people still complain about how we let our partners make decisions. I have to stress that our partners have been with us for two years, and they know enough about our business to be at the table and add to our knowledge base."

3. Market to millennials

When employees from non-IT functions spend two years in IT learning from Southwire's vendor partners, they wind up with enviable skill sets. "IT is now perceived by the business as a springboard function," says Brassard. "Once people have rotated through IT, they become part of a select group in the company who understand both the business and the behind the scenes of IT. When they leave IT to rejoin their original department, they are much stronger leaders and simply more efficient at defining and justifying requests."

Brassard says that millennials inside IT are as drawn to that kind of opportunity as their colleagues outside of IT. "Some of my IT staff who sat on the sidelines are now asking to spend more time in business meetings," he says.

IT people with business acumen are in short supply in the market today. CIOs who come up with inventive solutions to "grow their own," as Brassard did at Southwire, will be much better positioned to create a culture that drives business value from IT.

About Guy Brassard

Brassard joined Southwire as senior vice president of IT and global CIO in July 2013. Previously, he'd been vice president of IT with General Cable, and vice president of IT and CIO with Rio Tinto Cable and Composites division. Brassard received a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) from Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. He is a member of the Georgia CIO Leadership Association (GCLA) and is active in the local community through his efforts with Southwire's Project Gift and its Blackshirt volunteers.

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