by Martha Heller

Changing the Culture of IT

Jan 14, 20157 mins
CIOIT JobsIT Leadership

Herman De Prins, CIO of UCB, on his u201cFuture of ITu201d Program

herman de prins UCB

When Herman De Prins became CIO of UCB, the $4.2B pharmaceutical company, in 2009, he had been reading articles that declared that IT no longer matters, that cloud and digital technologies threaten to push IT to the margins, and that IT organizations would shrink by 25 percent by 2016. “It was clear to me that IT organizations that fail to find new ways to provide value will lose their edge and become obsolete,” says De Prins. “I knew that if we stuck to traditional IT at UCB, we would be in a negative cycle of cost cutting and reducing relevance.”

So, De Prins designed a program, “The Future of IT,” to give his IT organization and its business partners real clarity about the role of IT going forward.  To initiate the program, De Prins had every IT employee participate in a two day workshop that focused on digital technologies. “If you are a member of the IT organization, whether you are in server management or digital marketing, you are part of the program,” says De Prins.  “We all need to be thinking: ‘What does this new world of technology mean for IT, for UCB and for its stakeholders?’”

Here is how De Prins described the program to participants:

This program will help participants understand how to meet new expectations for their role.

These new expectations start with accountability: IT employees need to do more than implement what is requested. They need to ensure the right choices are made and the expected business value is achieved. To do so, IT employees need to build strategic relationships with their business partners. This requires good subject matter expertise and the courage to initiate or engage in discussions about relevant business problems. It also requires employees to have the full view of the portfolio of projects and services for their area, regardless of who does the actual work. This complete perspective will allow IT employees to drive the company by being innovative, setting strategy and building and executing on a roadmap. Finally, IT employees should be ambassadors for all of IT and ensure their business partners understand the IT strategies, why they are what they are and how they help UCB in delivering value to patients.

The Five Pillars

Also central to the Future of IT program at UCB are five pillars that De Prins embeds into every meeting, employee review, and career path discussion.

  1. Quality:  The IT team at UCB has always focused on quality, but De Prins established quality as a pillar to emphasize its importance as demand and cost pressures increase. De Prins cites UCB’s collaboration technologies as a case in point. “We have 9,000 employees at UCB, and we run 400,000 scheduled video-enabled conferences over our own network every year. In this kind of environment, we cannot jeopardize quality.  So, if someone on the network team tells me, ‘I can lower the cost of our networks by making a few changes,’ my response is ‘Great!  But what impact does that change have on our quality?’ Needless to say this is even truer for core business applications.”
  1. Specialization:  There is considerable debate among CIOs about whether to develop technology professionals as generalists or specialists. De Prins comes down clearly on the side of specialization. “I want everyone to be a specialist, whether it’s in Java or analytics or mobility,” he says. “Technology is ubiquitous and more intense than ever. That means that IT people cannot know a little about a lot. They need enough depth about a technology area that they can contribute significantly to a discussion about solutions and capabilities. With specialization comes the need for having many experiences, to create ‘T-shaped’ individuals.  That’s why development is critical.”

For example, the IT organization at UCB considers SAP to be a mature technology, so when they have an open position in the SAP group, they do not look outside for someone with SAP expertise. “Instead, we pull someone from another team into SAP and teach them that skill,” he says. “Then we fill the open headcount with someone who has specialization in a new domain for us:  maybe digital or analytics. This way, we are always developing people and bringing in new areas of specialization.”

  1. Work as a Team:   If you are going to build an organization filled with specialists, you must establish a strong foundation of collaboration. “When you are a specialist, you cannot know it all,” says De Prins. “So you have to get very good at collaborating with people inside of IT, outside of IT, and third parties.“

De Prins organizes IT by the functional domains of the company including research, development, commercial operations, and technical operations. “Some IT people have depth in a function, and others have depth in specific technology area,” says De Prins. “For example, when it comes to analytics, we cannot put that capability in every function, because we have only one group of analytics specialists. This means that our analytics people need to team up with domain specialists. Teamwork has to be one of our pillars.”  

  1. Hatch the Egg:  “We all think a lot about innovation and how to generate innovative ideas,” says De Prins. “But if the innovation takes too long to develop, it’s usually not worth it.“

De Prins runs forums on analytics and mobility where members brainstorm ideas. “We ask the forums to produce a high volume of new ideas, and then we give them 50 days to explore them,” he says. “After 50 days, we review the ideas, and select those that seem viable in terms of value, cost and time to market. We then give the people behind that smaller group of ideas another 50 days to add more data to support the idea’s viability.”  ‘Hatch the Egg,’ as a pillar, emphasizes the importance of brainstorming a lot of ideas, but evaluating them quickly and getting the best to market fast.

  1. Market your value: “We deliver on 200 projects a year in IT and we need to engage in some self-promotion,” says De Prins. “But only when you talk about business value, do you get any appreciation for what you do. If I say I manage 3000 servers that don’t go down, that tells the business very little. But if I tell them that we ensure patient safety and access to medicine because our systems are fault tolerant (and by the way those systems run on 3000 servers) then I am marketing our value, not just our activity.”  

With digital technologies transforming every business in every industry, the way IT organizes and delivers must change. But changing the culture of IT is one of the hardest challenges a CIO can face. Programs that tell the IT organization and its stakeholders exactly what IT is all about are critical to that transformation.


About Herman De Prins

Herman De Prins is Senior Vice President & Chief Information Officer of UCB and joined the firm in November 2009. Previously, he served as VP, IT International with Medtronic and prior to that he was Director, International IT for Guidant and Abbott Vascular. He is well versed in international business and has breadth of IT experience within the life sciences industry. He holds a Bachelor’s in Information Systems. When he is not driving innovation for UCB from within the IT department, he enjoys cycling and skiing in his free time.


About UCB

UCB aspires to transform the lives of people living with severe diseases, with particular emphasis on central nervous system and immunology disorders. The company is passionate about innovation – particularly with regard to medicines that help people with severe diseases lead more normal lives. Each year, the firm invests more than 25% of revenue in cutting-edge scientific research to help meet unmet patient needs. UCB has more than 8500 employees in nearly 40 countries, and is headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.