Over the past two years, every IT leader has had to up their change game. But a clear distinction remains between the ability to respond to disruption and the skills that enable the kind of proactive reinvention that defines IT-enabled digital transformation.
The latter requires not simply a technology-enabled reaction to shifting circumstances, but a strategy for spearheading capital-C change — most often beginning with the IT organization itself. The value of IT leaders who are able direct such transformation of people, processes, and technologies has never been greater.
With the role of IT change agent in high demand, CIO.com spoke to four change-enabling IT leaders overseeing multiyear transformations about the challenges, rewards, and lessons learned.
Merchant’s Fleet: From order taker to hypergrowth partner
When Brendan Keegan took over as CEO of the fastest-growing fleet technology company in North America, he knew he needed a new technology leader and strategy for the future.
Jeanine L. Charlton began her work with Merchant’s Fleet as a board advisor for six months before agreeing to take on the role of senior vice president and chief technology and digital officer in June 2018.
Charlton had her work cut out for her. The company was growing by leaps and bounds. Its IT organization, with its waterfall approach, was ill-equipped to keep pace.
With a goal of agile transformation, Charlton began with a new IT organizational model. “IT was about more than just getting the technology team in place,” she explains. “IT was about getting alignment with key stakeholders and getting those business partners to understand the role that they needed to play.” She began to hold quarterly forums explaining agile and the role the business would play in it. During this first phase of transformation, Charlton put in place product owners on the business side and built a new governance model, including a business investment council.
“The challenge was that the company was growing so fast and making big transformational change on the business side as well as the technology side,” says Charlton. “The good news for me was that our CEO was very tech savvy and so we had that CEO-level support. It was just a matter of getting rest of management team and the leadership team below them on board.”
Charlton also rationalized the company’s IT services portfolio and moved that work offshore, creating significant savings and “driving what I call operational scale for the company,” Charlton says.
Phase two focused on accelerating digital transformation to keep up with the company’s organic 40% top line growth. Charlton created a three-year plan with a cross-functional team of business leaders. “It’s one of the best I’ve seen in terms of the alignment it has created across the company,” says Charlton, a veteran of the tech services industry. Merchant’s Fleet has emerged as a fleet technology company rather than simply a fleet management company, standing up several new businesses over the past three to four years.
“We’re a 60-year-old privately held business but we’ve been willing to make bold moves and act as a startup,” Charleston says. “Most fleet management companies decided not to fund growth during COVID. But we said nonsense and leaned in and figured out how to do it. As other saw a decline in growth, we accelerated our growth.”
Lessons learned: Leading change isn’t easy, Charlton admits: “Don’t believe anyone who tells you it is.” But being a successful change agent is one of the most gratifying roles you can have as a CIO. “As a tech leader, you see everything across the enterprise. You’re the glue that can bring it all together,” says Charlton, who advises IT leaders not to underestimate their power and to advocate for the transformations they know are possible. “The impact you can have is so significant. Lean in and let your voice be heard,” Charlton says. “Then let the results speak for themselves.”
S&P Global: When experience is the transformation metric
When S&P Global unveiled its new brand more than five years ago, it signaled a clearer purpose for the information and analytics firm — one in which the technology organization would play a primary role. “As we crystallized our mission and purpose,” says Swamy Kocherlakota, executive vice president and CIO for S&P Global, “we transformed our technology and our culture in parallel.”
With the goal to emerge as a digital leader, the technology organization embraced agile development and a DevOps approach. A large-scale migration to the cloud, integrating machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotic process automation into existing workflows created new efficiencies and ushered in its new “cloud-first, automation-first” architecture strategy. This all created a foundation for new digital workplace technologies to provide a best-in-class employee experience.
While new technology and processes were required, they were hardly sufficient to transform the IT organization and the greater business. “Critically, we brought our employees along with us on this journey,” says Kocherlakota. “We know that for technology and our employees to have the greatest combined impact, all of our people needed to be technologists in their own right.” The company’s EssentialTECH program, which leverages internal and third-party courses, created opportunities for all employees — not just those in technical roles — to expand their technology fluency and skills
Today, some 84% of S&P Global workloads are in the cloud, enabling greater speed and agility in launching new products and services and reducing latency for customers. The company has also enhanced its customer experience through its flexible distribution strategy and a commercial technology transformation. Those digital workplace tools became foundational to employees’ ability to work remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to operate seamlessly in a hybrid work model, Kocherlakota says.
“Taken together, we’ve improved the experience across the board, for all these stakeholder groups, the ultimate transformation goal,” he says. “For any stakeholder that interacts with our technology and offerings, our measure of success is the seamlessness and efficiency of their experience.”
Looking forward, the changes in IT will continue to enable the company to pivot and quickly succeed or fail fast and adjust. “Markets are changing, customer needs are changing, and stakeholders’ expectations are changing,” Kocherlakota says. “We need to stay nimble while keeping our productivity levels sustainable during both internal change and changing times. Our transformation journey has us well positioned to do just that.”
Lessons learned: Management guru Peter Drucker famously said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. If you ask Kocherlakota, though, it’s execution that eats strategy for breakfast. “Clarity in measuring promise-and-delivery gaps is key,” Kocherlakota says. “For every initiative, we have activities, leading indicators, and lagging indicators.”
Another key learning is the power of harnessing the energy of your people. “Often, I think technologists cite internal culture as a challenge. But our simultaneous investments in purpose and culture, alongside our focus on agile processes, and employee learning, has helped us bring our workforce along with us in seeing technology as a foundational capability for our business,” says Kocherlakota. “The result is an agile enterprise focused on delivering and execution — in itself is a transformation.”
Tapestry: When technology is more than an enabler
For the past two years, Tapestry — the parent company of luxury brands such as Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman — has been on a mission to become more customer-centric, data-driven, and responsive. The IT organization is the key enabler on all three fronts.
“To do this we are leveraging both our foundational digital core as well as building out new capabilities to yield greater insights, inform our actions, and build a platform that is best in class for our house of brands,” says Ashish Parmar, who took over as CIO in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Technology is at the heart of that journey, not just as an enabler, but as a key foundational component to unlock core capabilities needed to deliver for our people, our brands, and our stakeholders.”
To help Tapestry achieve its goals, IT developed four operating principles: To view everything through commercial context lens with a strong focus on execution, to operate at a speed that matters (shrinking time to value for key outcomes), to focus on and excel in those areas that generate the most value for the business and its customers, and to establish a culture of communication, collaboration, and shared outcomes with the business.
Those guidelines have helped during a particularly difficult time. “One of our biggest challenges over the past two years has been helping our teams navigate uncertainty and shifts in demand,” Parmar says. “We are constantly focused on building trust with our teams and forging new relationships with our internal partners as business priorities evolve.”
Tapestry’s IT group has shifted to a cloud-first approach and multicloud strategy to take advantage of elasticity and scale, rationalized applications, eliminate on-prem data centers, empower faster ideation and innovation, and create a better customer experience. The company also adopted a new data and analytics platform, which underpinned the recruitment of 4 million new customers in fiscal year 2021 and triple-digit digital growth.
While technology has been fundamental, the true force multiplier is people, says Parmar, who began his career as an entry-level analyst for the Coach brand more than twenty years ago. “It is indeed a privilege to partner with such amazing individuals as we all work to stretch what’s possible,” Parmar says. “Like many organizations, our teams have had to be agile, shifting how we work together. With the strength of our core infrastructure and strong partnerships with business teams, we were able to pivot quickly and leverage the capabilities needed to excel in this challenging environment.”
Lessons learned: It’s IT leaders’ role to help their teams comfortably takes risks and learn from failure. “Be comfortable with the inherent duality that exists when making decisions — innovation doesn’t come without risk,” says Parmar. “Allow the teams to take chances and be okay when those attempts fail; yet mine these for learnings. It is our responsibility to coach our team through these fumbles and help them gain learning as a result.”
Ameren: Going where the work Is
St. Louis-based Ameren has 2.4 million electric customers, more than 900,000 natural gas customers, and millions of connected devices. As chief digital information officer, Bhavani Amirthalingam has been leading its digital transformation since 2018 aimed at driving ever better service for customers and reliability of that grid.
“We are entering the fifth year of our transformation that began as a journey to transform and digitize our customer and coworker experience while enabling the grid of the future,” Amirthalingam explains.
Customers are at the center of Ameren’s business strategy, and so as their expectations evolve, so too must the company’s digital business model. Providing a seamless, secure, personalized digital customer experience is a key part of IT’s strategy, including smart meter implementation, energy usage monitoring, frictionless web and mobile interactions, enhanced interactive voice response, and engaging our customers in the channel of their choice. In 2021, 79% of Ameren’s customer interactions were digitally enabled.
The company and Amirthalingam see the grid is the center of value-creation for our customers. “Building the communications infrastructure, analytics and automation to support the smart, connected, reliable, and secure grid is a key priority,” Amirthalingam says. “The growth in renewable energy sources and the need to facilitate two-way flow of energy requires the deployment of distributed energy resource management technologies.”
The employee experience is also a key focus. “We are enabling our co-workers to do the best work of their lives by providing the right technology to work anytime, anywhere, on any device in our offices, remotely, in the field, and energy centers,” Amirthalingam says. That’s required rethinking many back-office functions, processes, and systems across business functions.
There is a unifying theme across the digital work being done to improve the grid as well customer and employee experiences. “‘Going to where the work is being done’ and keeping the customer at the center of any transformation has been key to driving successful results,” Amirthalingam says. “This approach has helped understand the real business need or challenge, while also bringing others along.
Lessons learned: Cross-functional teams that span business segments and customer groups drive digital transformation. Amirthalingam values high-performing, empowered, and self-driven teams with a bias for action. “It is key to bring a mindset of continuous innovation and improvement to transformation,” she says.
Openness is also a virtue. “Yesterday’s ‘wow’ is today’s ‘norm’,” says Amirthalingam. “It’s important to approach situations with a curiosity to learn, courage, and an open mind to solving for problems differently.”