Why the CIO Is a Business Executive First, then a Technologist

For Healthways CEO Ben Leedle Jr., the CIO’s job isn’t just to run IT. It’s turning the company’s strategy into reality.

In reports to ­financial analysts, you cite Embrace, the CIO 100-winning analytics project on which Healthways is basing new products and services. Why?

The right design, implementation and management of technology can create competitive differentiation. Certainly that’s true when that technology gets combined with unique intellectual property. Technology allows you to gain efficiencies as well as to get more out of your IP.

Investors want to know you are laying in different types of technology so you can continue to create the value you have historically produced or get better value at a lower cost. Our business intelligence is helping people improve their health. People who are healthier cost less, whether that’s in their community, company or country.

Many CIOs would love to be involved in such a strategic project. Do you see the healthcare industry influencing how IT is done in other industries?

Most people have the view that IT in healthcare is lagging behind other industries. Certain best practices are late to be adopted. But I think because of the unique requirements around the sensitivity of handling personal health information, we’ll advance security and risk management. Healthcare will help set benchmark practices for other industries.

How do you and CIO Scott Blanchette work together? What do you want to know from him?

I spend a lot of time setting the vision and strategy for our business. Scott and others on the leadership team spend a lot of time translating that vision to reality.

Scott and I work closely to make certain there are no gaps in that translation. When I talk with other CEOs, that is the single greatest source of frustration and problems they’ve had. Here, there’s a commitment to deep discussion, to spending time and energy to make certain that we can’t possibly misunderstand what our strategy is and what is possible. Frustration, in the end, is the responsibility of the CEO.

Many times, CEOs treat and relate to leaders as subject-matter experts first and business executives second. Scott’s viewpoint is weighted the same as people who lead design, innovation and finance, and the people who have client accounts. Scott is expected to sit up and participate as an executive who goes beyond his subject-matter expertise.

How do you and he make that happen?

We have weekly meetings. Monthly and quarterly meetings as well. We use a dashboard to look for variances from [a project or business] plan. There’s always variance from plan, some are micro, then small, medium, large and giant.

You want to stay out of large and giant. A dashboard lets you look at objective feedback about progress in functionality, financial dimensions, time line and talent.You have to have a systematic way of reviewing performance that’s not someone else’s interpretation. We’re measuring in a reliable way the brutal facts around a project. And all these projects are jointly owned. Projects that Scott’s leading I think of as part of my responsibility. They are my projects, too. The performance of those is a reflection of whether we are on the same page.

As CEO, how ­accountable are you for IT’s work?

Other CEOs, when we talk, often tell stories of deep disconnect. “I thought I was going to get XYZ at the end of this project but I got something very different. Therefore, we had to do it over and the whole thing cost more and took longer than I ever would have signed up for as CEO.”

If that’s the case, it’s the responsibility of the CEO. There hasn’t been effective communication. This is good old-fashioned communication and being willing to spend the time required to get it right.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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