by Brian P. Watson, Dan Roberts

Changing the IT conversation at Pfizer

Sep 29, 2015
CIOIT Leadership

CIO Jeff Keisling has led a new era of IT-business collaboration at the pharmaceutical giant, leading to breakthroughs on multiple levels.

This is the best time to do the best work you’ve ever done.

That’s what Jeff Keisling, then CIO of Wyeth, told his IT organization in early 2009, when it was announced that Pfizer would be acquiring their company for $68 billion.

That was a big deal then — not only in the sense of being a huge transaction, but also because it was executed in one of the most troubled economies in a lifetime.

Meanwhile, the IT pros at Wyeth were thinking about other things. They were proud of their heritage and accomplishments, and they thought they could contribute greatly to Pfizer. But would they even get the chance?

It seemed unlikely: Employees at the acquired company almost never win. But Keisling urged them to do their best work ever, and specifically — as one of his favorite expressions goes —“to look for trouble.” In other words, find some of the hot spots in the company and solve those problems.

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That was a tall order in a time of uncertainty, and one that came from a leader who didn’t know his own future. “When I heard about the deal,” Keisling told us recently, “I thought I’d be high on the list of synergies.”

However, when he got his shot to interview for the CIO position for the merged company, he thought about what he urged his team to do. He reflected on his own career, most importantly on his experiences working with entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial leaders unafraid of tackling big risks and big change opportunities. In addition, he focused on the current perception of IT at Pfizer, as he had come to know it.

Building expectations

That perception was that the IT organization (or Business Technology [BT], as he calls it) had no seats at the table. There was little expectation that IT would help drive innovation or results, or that any individual would have a personal impact on the various functions across the company. Internally, it had no one unifying culture — it had 25, Keisling said.

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Interviewing with Frank D’Amelio, Pfizer’s executive vice president of business operations and CFO, who had recently been given responsibility for IT, Keisling said if Pfizer was looking for an order-taker as CIO, then he wasn’t the right person for the job. If D’Amelio and the other Pfizer leaders wanted someone who would be a partner to the business, leading a team that was ready to take risks and drive innovation, then they had their new CIO.

As he started in the CIO role with the $50 billion pharmaceutical giant, Keisling set out to demonstrate his vision of better collaboration with business partners. He met with each functional leader and worked with them to co-select the IT colleague who would partner with their division. That gave those IT leaders a leg-up in joining a team that never really thought IT would help bring value. (Pfizer continues that practice today.)

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In the meantime, hundreds of his Wyeth IT staffers did what he asked of them, and they made the transition to becoming Pfizer employees.

Driving the business

Since then, Keisling’s BT organization has been laser-focused on driving that innovation and value that seemed elusive before. They’ve consolidated the company’s data center footprint from 19 to two in 18 months. They’ve updated most of Pfizer’s 35 enterprise applications, and run most of them in the cloud. They created a Digital Center of Excellence, which delivers on 1,300 digital marketing campaigns each year, and a Center of Excellence of analytics, which garnered awards as an industry leader in using multiple pools of clinical data to develop more effective drugs. Customer satisfaction ratings for IT have risen from around 55 percent in 2007 to 94 percent last year.

Keisling estimates that by driving efficiency and partnering on innovative solutions, his IT shop has reduced costs — for the division and the company — by about $1.5 billion, which helped benefit earnings per share by about 15 cents over time.

But like so many of the leaders we profiled in Confessions of a Successful CIO, Keisling credits his organization — including those who heeded his call at Wyeth to do their best work ever — for building a culture of success in IT at Pfizer. That’s evidenced, he says, by the ongoing collaboration between IT and business partners that didn’t exist before.

“We have conversations with our business leaders. It’s a two-way conversation now, where it used to be a one-way conversation,” Keisling said. “Five years ago, it was me pushing. Now, it’s me trying hard to keep up with my business partners pulling.”