by Thomas Wailgum

Absolute Alignment: How One CIO Remains in Lock-Step with the Business

Nov 16, 2010
Business IT AlignmentCIOEnterprise Applications

Sensis CIO Tom Uva says alignment isn't rocket science, and he's created a framework to ensure that IT staffers focus on strategic business priorities. "There is nowhere to hide," Uva says. "You deliver or you don't."

Every Thursday afternoon at 1:30 p.m., Tom Uva’s senior IT team gathers in his office. They do not assemble to shoot the breeze or grumble about the potent weather in Syracuse, N.Y., where their company, Sensis, an aerospace and defense manufacturer selling to a host of three-letter acronym U.S. government agencies, is headquartered.

Uva’s team congregates weekly to discuss the status of each and every business project that has an IT component. The assemblage consists of the leaders of the CIO’s five groups that comprise Sensis Corporate Technology Solutions (CTS): Business Solutions, which covers apps and data management; a network ops team; Client Services, responsible for all IT activities for the Sensis user community; Information Protection, or security; and “Run as a Business,” which is responsible for such jobs as the IT group’s own financials, vendor management and training programs.

The number of each team’s “priorities” can range anywhere from five to 10 per month. (Priorities can be one project or, more often, a component of a larger IT project.) As always, the assemblage’s first main concern, Uva says, is to see what they can do to get the priorities’ statuses that are red or yellow to green—in other words, from not done to done.

The meeting, in and of itself, is probably just like any other “status update” meeting held in the confines of any other CIO’s office.

Sensis CIO Tom Uva

But what is different about this meeting—what makes it more effective, precise and strategic than most—is this: All in attendance know that Sensis’s executive team and each business unit that CTS is partnering with has signed off on every priority and is equally committed to its success; they know that every Sensis employee will see their success or failure for the month; and finally, they know that part of their pay is tied to the success of the entire CTS portfolio.

They know all this because Uva set it up this way: Each year, business and IT leaders establish an IT operating plan that’s based on Sensis’s overall, long-term strategies. That then cascades down into annual, quarterly and monthly IT priorities, which are tracked objectively and meticulously, and are made 100 percent visible to Sensis’s lines of business.

“This is not rocket science,” Uva says. He’s right. It’s simply an approach to mending classic business-IT disconnects. It’s about transparency and truthfulness. Responsibility and rigor. Pacing and prioritization.

After those weekly meetings conclude, Uva knows that all of his staffers know exactly what to do next. “It makes sure that everyone is looking to that North Star,” Uva says. “So it’s not just an exercise you go through once a year and forget about it. It’s very, very actively managed.”

NEXT: How an influential CIO helped Uva craft his project and priorities tool

Under E.P.’s Influence

The current incarnation of Uva’s project and priorities tool (it doesn’t have a formal name) has evolved over the years into its present form. There was a lot of outside, expert input in its creation and the processes that surround it; the input came from CIOs who had been there, done that. Uva took bits and pieces from this person and from that experience, blending real-world IT realities with sound project management strategies.

“This isn’t stuff I dreamed up on a whiteboard in my garage,” he says. “There’s a lot of vetting that went into it.”

A couple influences he mentions include his time at Cendant (in senior program recovery roles) and his 12 years spent as an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. But it was his time at insurer The MONY Group that left a lasting impression: He spent his formative years there under the tutelage of CIO E.P. Rogers. “E.P. had a pretty strong influence on what I am doing,” Uva says.

Rogers demonstrated how CIOs could nail both the tactical side of the job—the operational, day-to-day type activities—as well as the strategic duties, Uva says, all with an eye on how to link the company’s multiyear strategic plans down to monthly IT deliverables. “E.P. was a master of this,” Uva says. (See this brief article detailing Roger’s CIO 100 award-winning governance processes to view the seeds of Uva’s tool.)

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When Uva finally got his own shop at Sensis in 2006, he says wanted to be that CIO who could be both operationally and strategically sound. He says that his tools and processes have evolved since then and now allow him to do just that.

The Framework

Talk to Uva for five minutes and you can see how passionate he is about project-portfolio management, governance and alignment.

Four sets of Sensis information are critical to making Uva’s process-based approach work: the three- to four-year strategic component; Sensis’s 12-month operating plan; quarterly targets; and monthly priorities. That’s the framework. Here’s how that plays out in a real-world example.

The Three-Year Sensis Strategy

Everything Uva’s CTS staff is supposed to be working on starts as a component of Sensis’s three- to four-year strategic plan. For example, a long-term apps consolidation plan will start out with this goal: “Continue the elimination and consolidation of applications.” From a list of, say, 60 enterprise applications, Sensis will need to identify the applications to eliminate, modify or leave alone.

12-Month Operating Plan

That overriding strategy is distilled down into more granular, actionable tasks that form the 12-month operating plan. An operating-level plan goal for the apps consolidation strategy is: “Complete the assessment of five major applications during the next year.” Therefore, at the end of the year, the business solutions group will be judged on whether it accomplished this task.

Quarterly Targets

From the 12-month operating plan springs the quarterly targets. “These are broken out by operational goals and are revisited every month,” says Uva. Using the apps consolidation example, the team will space out the evaluations and action plans: In Q1, the team will do a complete assessment and evaluation of all five systems, Uva says. Then, based on results of that, Uva’s team will prioritize, develop work plans and execute against systems 1 and 2 in the balance of Q1 and Q2; then execute the rest of the work for Q3 and Q4.

Monthly Priorities

The quarterly targets give birth to the monthly priorities, which are tightly managed. Again, using the apps consolidation example, month 1 of Q1 would necessitate these priorities to be met: Examine apps inventory and finalize the evaluation criteria for eliminating, modifying or keeping an app. Month 2 entails completing all of the assessment work. Month 3: “Wrap it all up, get your findings, and make recommendations and plans for the operating year,” Uva says.

At those Thursday meetings, Uva says, the minutiae of the monthly tasks are easily linked back to the larger Sensis strategy. “We make sure the priorities set for that month align to the quarter, the year and that three- to four-year strategy,” he says.

That provides his staff with focus and manageable assignments—and avoids a trap into which many IT shops fall. “Most shops have much more demand than capacity,” Uva says. “The hazard is that you’ll spend all your time putting out day to day fires and all the strategic stuff will go on the back burner.”

NEXT: Sensis line-of-business execs decide how to spend IT dollars

Executive Involvement

Uva uses terms such as “lightweight” and “low-maintenance” to describe tool that houses his IT strategy: He keeps all of this data in two documents stored on Microsoft Sharepoint (the Strategic Plan and Operating Plan), both of which he maintains, updates and shares with everyone in the company.

Uva believes that any IT plan that purportedly links to the business strategy should be concise. So his IT manifesto is not 100 to 150 pages worth of shelfware that no one will ever read. “I don’t think people have time to write it or read something that long,” he says.

The three- to four-year Sensis strategy is revisited once a year by Uva and the senior leaders. Gathered all in one room, the group has the opportunity to ensure what’s important to each business group, refine existing plans and validate the forecasted IT projects in the queue.

For example, if Sensis’s air traffic group believes that in 2012 and 2013 Sensis will have a much larger percentage of business taking place in Europe and Pacific Rim, then the group can alter some of the plans for 2012.

The key to all of this, Uva says, is that “the business decides how to best optimize [IT-related] spend for that given month or quarter, based on capacity or demand.” That transparency, in turn, makes IT less of a black box at Sensis.

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“Visibility into the CTS department’s priorities on a monthly basis allows me and my leadership team to understand what other business initiatives are competing for IT resources,” says Peggy Dudarchik, SVP and chief people officer at Sensis, via e-mail. “This helps me understand the relative importance and priority of the HR department’s requests, compared to those of other operating areas within the company.”

When “99% Done” Equals “Not Done”

During a typical month, each IT team is responsible for five to 10 monthly priorities. For each priority, the corresponding business unit has to pull its weight, too: Not only a commitment to deliver 37 percent to 39 percent of the “effort hours” necessitated by each priority, Uva says, but the Sensis unit has ultimate responsibility for project prioritization of what they want and need accomplished for the next month and quarter.

That becomes a critical commitment when, say, a department wants its new software tool next quarter but can’t meet its obligation. For example, Uva says one operating group wasn’t ready to commit to its part in a Hyperion implementation due to the planned timing of the project, which came during year-end close and a planned audit.

“So it’s not because the business doesn’t want to do it,” Uva says. “But when they realize they don’t have the capacity, then that forces conversations in the business about what and how they want to prioritize. Again, this is very, very objective, and it’s not a finger-pointing thing.”

The projects’ success (red, yellow, green) are measured by Uva. And the projects are either done, or they are not. For Uva, “99 percent done” equals “not done.” (Uva mentions that there is a “defer” status: A status of last resort that rarely occurs, Uva says, and “you have to fight like hell to get a ‘defer.'”)

The progress of each monthly priority is published out to the company every month. That means any Sensis employee can see how each IT team is performing by month, by quarter or by year against its objectives. “It is pretty easy to see how they [CTS] perform against what they commit to,” says Sam Deeb, Sensis’s director of finance and accounting operations, via e-mail.

“There is nowhere to hide,” Uva says bluntly. “You deliver or you don’t.”

The obvious benefit is that fellow business execs are able to see what IT is focused on. But, and perhaps more importantly, Uva adds, “it also lets them see what we are not focused on.”

NEXT: Uva’s ability to say “No”

Why It’s OK to Say No

Uva’s approach creates a dramatic change in a classic business-IT interaction problem: CIOs often feel pressured to go forward with every dire or last-minute project request from desperate line-of-business execs.

“Typically, you feel like you have to say ‘yes’ to everything, and we do not,” Uva says. “What we have is this monthly priority process, which gives us in IT and the business an objective way to resolve differences in demand of what’s going on in the business.”

For instance, Uva says Sensis’s manufacturing head might call him and say: “Hey, I saw that the monthly IT priorities were published and noticed that installing wireless in our Collamer facility isn’t on the list. What gives?”

These conversations may cause other CIOs to reach for the Maalox or go hide in the data center, but not Uva: What’s already built into the prioritization process makes this conversation more palatable for both sides. “It’s how we handle this [situation] without creating some type of religious war,” he says.

First, all execs should know their monthly and quarterly priorities, since they were the ones, in conjunction with Uva’s teams, who set them.

And since Uva has determined the IT bandwidth (in capacity hours) of his organization (a midsize IT shop) and by each skillset, he can show the manufacturing exec the capacity and demand of his IT staff—how the IT resources are “chewed up” for the month, Uva says.

“There may be a month when my request does not make the list,” says Greg Farnham, VP of operations at Sensis, via e-mail. “When that happens, I know the reason is due to one of my executive peers needing help with something having a higher degree of importance from an overall corporate perspective, because it has been challenged.”

There are options to deal with such a situation, of course, ranging from the business exec rearranging his own IT priority list to making a case to augment IT capability with outside staff.

To Uva, the transparency of the IT priorities list combined with fellow business leaders’ “skin in the game” creates a diplomatic elixir to infamous business-IT alignment problems: One that’s based on operational strategy, finite IT resources and project prioritization.

“It takes the emotion out of the conversation. It doesn’t become ‘IT can’t do this or that,'” Uva says. “It’s a non-emotional way to of trying to increase accountability inside and outside of IT in a healthy way.”

Sensis IT Staffers

Inside Uva’s CTS group, all that transparency leads to a high level of accountability: For instance, 75 percent of Uva’s direct reports’ salary increases are tied directly to the performance of meeting the monthly priorities. (Fifty percent of that is based on how the department did, and 25 percent is tied to how the individual teams fared. The thinking, Uva says, is that “the department’s success is twice as important as any team’s.”)

“When you publish something out to the whole company that says you’ve got to have this deliverable by this date, and it’s also affecting people’s pay,” he says, “that tends to get a lot of visibility.”

To measure the relative success of his IT department, Uva applies a very simple ratio: Projects “met” (completed) divided by the number of projects each group was tasked to do in the monthly priorities. So if a team met eight out of 10, that group scores an 80.

At the start of every year, Uva and the leadership team set out three levels (or grades) of IT performance: 1. “Threshold,” basically a passing grade; 2. “Target,” which is above-average performance; 3. “Above Target,” which is great work.

When Uva first took over, those three grades were 70, 75 and 80, respectively, for his IT staff. And that first year, the average for his entire team was 76. Each ensuing year, Uva has raised his team’s goals. Fiscal year 2010’s goals were 81, 86, 91, and overall CTS scored a 90.4. “So, on the high end of ‘Target,’ but just under ‘Above Target,'” Uva says. “These are non-operational stretch goals. The goal is not 100 percent. The intent is to stretch.” (Uva also reviews CTS’s scores once a month during a one-on-one meeting with Sensis’s CEO.)

“We add a little bit of weight on the bar each year and look at where we are,” Uva says. “So while the bar is always going up each year, it never causes anyone to buckle.”

Now that Uva’s processes and tools have been battle tested, he says he has more time to spend on strategic activities. “You spend a lot less time resolving those priorities conversations of day to day stuff,” Uva says. “For me, my goal is to spend only 30 percent of my time on operational issues and 70 percent of the time on the strategic things and working with the business.”

Today, Uva says, he has all the pieces in place: the three- to four-year place, the 12-month operating plan, the quarterly targets, the monthly priorities, the IT transparency, the measurements, the contribution of the business, and the corporate priority setting.

“All of those seven to eight pieces have to be there,” Uva says. “It doesn’t take an MBA to figure that out. But it takes a very deep commitment to the process, and you’ve got to be unwavering.”

Thomas Wailgum covers Enterprise Software, Data Management and Personal Productivity Apps for Follow him on Twitter @twailgum. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline. E-mail Thomas at Sensis CIO Tom Uva can be reached via e-mail at