Throughout this varied and successful career, one thing has always guided Donald Lasher: the necessity of building partnerships between an organization's business side and IT.
By Thomas Wailgum
CIO, Department of the Interior, Washington
President of the information services division, United Services Automobile Association (USAA)
Special assistant to the chairman of the board of directors, ITT Corp.
Commander of computer systems command, U.S. Army
Bachelor’s degree in engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; master’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University
With more than 40 years in the IT profession, Donald Lasher has seen technology and management theories come and go. He has advanced with honors through the U.S. Army, led large IS departments in corporations and military divisions, and worked for government agencies on IT policy. But throughout this varied and successful career, one thing has always guided him: the necessity of building partnerships between an organization’s business side and IT.
As cliche as that idea has become, Lasher has always been a firm believer that business and IT must be aligned in what he calls a “true business partnership.” During his 10 years at insurance and diversified financial services company United Services Automobile Association (USAA), for example, he was known for his strategic information technology planning and the relationships he forged with non-IS executives. “CIOs must engender that whole attitude that users are business partners and come to them with IT solutions,” Lasher says. “This is what we really tried to do at USAA.”
As president of USAA’s information services division, Lasher did much more than try. He spearheaded the development of an automated, multifunctional workstation environment with online real-time support serving more than 16,000 users worldwide. He also pioneered the development of a highly successful image processing system called “Image Plus,” which captures and stores all of USAA’s incoming property and casualty policy service mail. Still in use at USAA today, Image Plus is also marketed by IBM Corp., which worked with Lasher and USAA on its development and implementation.
Lasher says a cooperative effort between business and IT made projects such as the massive Image Plus implementation work. At USAA, much of the credit for that cooperative spirit goes to Robert F. McDermott, who was chairman, president and CEO during Lasher’s 10 years with the organization. If not for the support and guidance of McDermott, Lasher says, the information services division would not have achieved many of its objectives. “The more enlightened the business side is to the strategic importance of IT, the better the situation will be,” says Lasher.
McDermott says similar things about Lasher’s importance at USAA. “We institutionalized strategic planning, relying on our systems for our business needs, and used IT first instead of later in the planning process,” says McDermott, now chairman emeritus for USAA. “Don was always proactive and out in front, always a business partner and an equal.”
Author, visionary and consultant Peter G.W. Keen got to know Lasher on a professional and personal level while on the faculty at MIT during the 1980s, when he studied USAA’s development. “What Don did [for USAA] was no big deal to him because he was so modest,” says Keen. “He had an acute business sense, which was very unusual among CIOs. Maybe he wasn’t the most well-known CIO because of that modesty, but his relationships with everyone, including McDermott, were what made it all work.”
After his retirement from USAA, Lasher had a hand in writing the Clinger-Cohen Act, also known as the Information Technology Management Reform Act, which was the most significant IT reform legislation of the decade. Among other things, the act–passed in 1996–mandated the establishment of a CIO position at each federal executive agency, including the Department of the Interior.
Today, as he sits in the head IT post in the DOI’s office of information resources management, Lasher reflects on his many years in the IT arena. “The largest change in the profession has been bringing the IS function out of the ‘back room’ and into the mainstream of corporate America and governmental agencies,” he says. “Part of this change is that CEOs and COOs are more tuned to IS, not simply seeing IT as a cost center but seeing it as an asset and long-term investment.”