How IT Helped Shape UL's New Business Strategy

Underwriters Laboratories' CIO Christian Anschuetz discusses UL's recent transformation from a non-profit to a for-profit organization and how IT shaped and supported that change. He weighs in on the consumerization of IT, offers advice for CIOs, explains why 'big data' without 'big discretion' will lead to 'big failure,' and more.

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Q. So how does the language of IT need to change in order for CIOs and their teams to be more successful in driving that kind of customer delight and driving business results? How does the way you interact with customers or the business need to change from a communications perspective?

A: There are subtle language changes that need to be made. Language is so important and my team knows this well. I hate certain aspects of the old ways of thinking that manifest themselves with language. For example, I can't stand it, and I will always correct our team when someone says it: "IT and the business". That language represents the thinking that the business is separate from IT and IT is separate from the business. That is simply not the case. As long as we think that way, we will act differently. It is very important to change this mindset. And one of the ways that we're doing that is we're becoming more and more, shall we say -- overt? More and more explicit as to how we talk about technology, about how we talk about our customers and how we talk about the intersection of the two. It's not IT and the business. IT is the business and the business is increasingly IT.

Q. Along these lines of communication, you've even talked about a goal of being able to show what percentage of revenue IT is directly responsible for driving in the organization. Do you think that's feasible today, and should that be a goal for all CIOs?

A: For some firms certainly it is feasible. For us it's aspirational. But most firms should be able to think that way. More and more firms are going to find the products and services they deliver are directly via IT systems. If you can get your mind wrapped around that, then it's not that hard to imagine that one of the IT organization's goals should be trying to drive more value. It's not just about driving revenue, it's about driving value to the customer. Where IT is thinking about customer value, then you should be thinking about how to measure the success of that organization in delivering that value. Just as IT should be thinking about how it invests itself in such a way as to take out unnecessary cost from the business -- and I mean the whole of the business: from technology, the lines of business, and all the different functions. So it has a huge enterprise efficiency play. It's got a huge external customer play and an increasingly obvious customer value component, and organizations should explicitly state what IT intends to do in [all these] areas.

Q. In preparing for this discussion, you and I talked about this idea of helping to expand digital literacy in the organization. Why is that important and what does it mean?

A: As an organization aspires to become increasingly information based, increasingly capable of providing value in the market via information products, and using that information internally to drive various services, you have to have a different set of skills as a workforce to do that. Again, if you give a ton of information to a person -- and I'm talking about a typical person -- and they're not well skilled in how to use information, you will find them overloaded by it. You will find them burdened by the same information that you hope will improve their productivity. To function well in a company where a lot of information is available that's very relevant to you being able to do your job, you have to actually become -- this is counter-intuitive, I think -- more comfortable with ambiguity. Digital literacy to us is developing the capabilities and the technology savvy and know-how to use technology to help you overcome the challenges of dealing with a lot of information. Ultimately, where this volume of information and these skills intersect is where we find employees able to amplify their productivity in ways that were unheard of before. Better yet, done properly, these skills applied to the proper technology capabilities allow many changes and individual "amplifications" to take place without IT involvement.

Q. How do you drive that change within UL?

A: Today we are working at becoming better advocates and catalysts for increasing digital literacy across the whole organization. I think that what we're doing from a departmental perspective is something that the whole enterprise could consider doing, which is using someone's digital literacy to help determine how far one can advance within the organization. We spend a lot of time as an organization screening people -- how we hire people, how we decide to promote people. All of these things need to be increasingly influenced by an individual's ability to use technology efficiently and effectively.

Q. At the end of 2012, when the company is one year into this transition, what do you expect to be different? What do you expect to have accomplished?

A: We've got just one year from now to make many different accomplishments. I would expect us to make really great strides in improving our internal effectiveness. I see this both from a fulfillment perspective, as well as from a back office perspective. We are investing in ourselves to provide ever-increasing value to our customers and I would expect to see us continue to make very tangible gains. I'd expect to see some of those metrics in place that we were talking about earlier. We can't just talk about it; we have to do it. I would expect to see real, demonstrable progress in showing how technology is allowing the organization to operate much more efficiently. But what is really more important, and much more intriguing, is that we will be ever clearer on how technology is a value generator for our customers and how exactly we are poised to provide industry leading services our customers find they cannot live without.

Q. We talked about advice for CIOs, but what about someone who's moving up the ranks in IT, someone who's on a career path to eventually become a CIO? Their landscape is changing pretty dramatically with cloud, mobility, consumerization, all kinds of major trends reshaping the IT organization. What's your advice and guidance to that person as they try to shape their career?

A: If the intent is to move up within IT and ultimately be the CIO, there are a number of things you have to be thinking about. Certainly, first and foremost, it's not about technology. It never was, and it's patently obvious now, that it isn't about IT. It's about impact. It's about outcomes. And those outcomes are particularly relevant if they generate commercial value by generating value to your customers. To do that, it's less important that you are a great technologist, in terms of the bits and bytes, but rather that you understand the import and impact of technology to your customers and the business that delivers to them. To make such advances for a firm, relationships are critical. Change, that technology both drives and responds to, requires strong relationships to be successful. Technologists who spend a lot of time making sure they're technically proficient, they have to work on becoming relationship proficient. Becoming "people proficient" sounds easy, and far too many think they have this skill than actually do, but it is difficult. It takes serious introspection and time to develop. But if one commits to focusing on impacts and outcomes while simultaneously developing the appropriate soft skills, you will find yourself in a position to generate hard results.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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