Martha Heller

At Black & Veatch, a new IT operating model enables digital opportunities

Mar 30, 2022
Digital TransformationIT Leadership

CIO Irvin Bishop says the new model ensures that the company either wins, learns, or fails fast on its digital investments u2013 but never loses.

Irvin Bishop Jr., EVP & CIO, Black & Veatch
Credit: Black & Veatch

Founded in 1915, Black & Veatch is an employee-owned global business that employs more than 10,000 professionals and provides a wide range of engineering services. The advent of digital technologies has had a major impact on the business, in both what services it delivers and how it delivers them, including IoT (internet of things) technologies and predictive maintenance capabilities.

When Irvin Bishop, Jr. became CIO in 2020, he and his leadership team defined a new digital strategy and IT operating model to bring the full force of digital technologies to the company’s customers and employees. I recently spoke with Bishop to learn his perspective on IT’s role in business transformation.

Martha Heller: What is the business transformation underway at Black & Veatch?

Irvin Bishop: We have recently consolidated our operating model from 13 business units down to three market sectors so that we can go to market with an integrated solution approach. This model gives our clients greater access to the full scope of our expertise and allows us to be more responsive to client needs. We can develop and deliver innovative solutions while focusing on quality, cost-effectiveness, schedule, scope, and safety. We are also able to move resources more quickly across the enterprise.

What are examples of solutions you are now better able to deliver?

As an internal example, we just put in place a new workforce management solution that allows us to move talent more fluidly across our business. We have better visibility into our labor supply, skills, and project demands, which has decreased the time we spend on resource utilization.

Externally, we can take a look at our Government and Environment market sector. Some of our water clients in that business struggle to use data to manage costs in their water and wastewater treatment facilities. Since the relevant data is spread across multiple sources, leveraging that data is slow and manually intensive. We developed a cloud-based data platform that integrates the data and allows our clients to predict, for example, how weather will impact their processes. They can now also do scenario-based planning to manage costs, make the right decisions, and provide high-quality water to their customers.

Have you changed your IT operating model to support the move from 13 business units to three sectors?

Yes, we have. In January, we created a new operating model that consolidated IT functions into seven areas: Engage, Innovate, Transform, Operate, Secure, Comptrol, and Manage.

Engage, or Business Relationship Management, is populated by Business Relationship Leaders. These leaders sit within our market sectors and business functions. They help us understand the pulse of, provide thought leadership to, and collaborate with, our business sectors and functions to identify technology solutions for their business problems.

What are the qualities you look for in a Business Relationship Leader (BRL)?

The BRLs bring a wide range of skills. They must be “multilingual” and able to talk about our business capabilities, our clients’ needs, understand emerging technology and be credible with our internal technology teams. They also must be keenly aware of the external market trends and understand the competitive landscape. They have to be able to ask our business partners, “Have you thought about it this way?”

BRLs need to collaborate across the team to have visibility into other market sector priorities and initiatives to ensure we are not duplicating efforts. They also need to understand the security landscape and protocols we are using and inform the business of the new enterprise systems. It’s important to avoid having a market sector go down a path that is not supported by core IT. Finally, they must have great interpersonal skills and be thought of as a trusted partner. 

Sometimes tough conversations are necessary such as, “The last 17 requests you sent over have been emergencies. If everything is an emergency, nothing is an emergency.” On another occasion, the BRL may then need to turn to IT and say, “We’re just not moving fast enough to meet the needs of this market sector’s project. They have client expectations and a P&L to meet.” Strong skills in relationship management can make or break this role. 

What were some critical success factors for the new organizational model?

In addition to ongoing executive sponsorship, managing finance differently has been key to the new model. First, we moved to a venture capital model to invest in business optimization and transformation initiatives. If a business case costs $600,000, we may approve the first $200,000, review the promised deliverables, and then provide additional funding if the promised delivery progress can be confirmed.   

Second, we are using a “pivot principle” where we add and drop initiatives much more quickly than in the past. That way, we either win or we learn, but we never lose. And third is our use of Gartner three Fs principle, Fail-Forward-Fast. It’s a mindset: we can fail, but let’s do it fast and for as little money as possible. If we don’t fail and are successful based on the KPIs set forth, we extend and scale quickly.

How would you describe your target architecture?

Our target architecture consists of five platforms: Information Systems, which you might think of as the back office; an IoT platform, where we collect social media and the sensor data that we use for digital twinning; a Customer Engagement platform, to provide the appropriate messaging to our customers; an Ecosystem platform, provided by third parties; and an Analytics platform, the source of business intelligence, predictive analytics, AI, and machine learning.

This platform architecture allows us to do three things quickly: sense, decide, and act. It provides a simplified way to assemble “fit-for-purpose” solutions without starting from scratch. It also allows us to expose unique capabilities to our customers, clients, and prospects.

For example, we have developed digital twins that monitor the infrastructure that runs in our customers’ water facilities. With our platform architecture, we can sense when sector three’s turbine is about to fail, decide how to leverage that data, and act by updating the customer on the health of the asset.

What have you learned about change management from all of this transformation?

True change requires that organizational change management is part of your culture and DNA. Yes, you need a communication plan, but that is not enough. You need to create the sense of urgency, craft the appropriate messages for different audiences, and assess how well the change is being adopted. You also need a culture of empowering professionals, which is something we are focusing on in The Office of the CIO. 

For the entire organization to perform optimally and embrace change, you also need a diverse culture, and a good work-life balance. We have not yet arrived regarding either of these, but we are absolutely determined and focused in the right direction. Soon, I believe these will both be bright spots in our story.

How is the role of the CIO evolving?

The primary role of the CIO is to be a thought partner with our executive leadership team and vigorously leverage digital technologies to accelerate the growth of our customers’ businesses. Not everyone understands the impact of and opportunity for digital technology to drive business value. Digital is not an IT function. Digital is sales, marketing, finance, legal, and operations — everything. I spend significant time evangelizing, carrying the digital torch, and collaborating with the market sectors and operations on ways to shift our investments from run, to grow and transform.

Martha Heller

Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.

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