SIM: Stories from the frontlines

Sure, the technology looks great. But it's good governance and a true innovative spirit that keeps these CIOs ahead of the curve.

Innovation, alignment, yada, yada, yada. If you are an IT executive, then you already know that buzz words like innovation don't mean much without real-world examples to back them up. Bill Wray, CIO of Boston-based Citizen Financials, had this in mind when he addressed a crowd of about 600 IT executives at Monday's Society of Information Managers (SIM) conference in Boston. Rather than start off with the expected power point display, Wray solicited questions from the audience to guide his presentation. The point? If you want to be innovative, ask your customers what they want from the business.

Wray was among a panel of innovative CIOs who talked about how they keep the ideas churning at the SIM 2005 conference session: "Innovation in Boston—Where the next Revolution is Brewing."

The panel followed a keynote address that took on the hot-button issue of whether IT can hope to be anything more than a utility or commodity for business.

At Fidelity Investments, IT is seen as much more, according to CIO Don Haile. The Boston-based financial services firm with 17 million customers does most of its business on the Web. It processes more than 250,000 trades and manages 1.3 million Web visitors daily. The company has 36,000 employees, 11,000 servers and 50,000 PCs. Technological innovation is institutionalized at the firm in various ways. The company has a Center for Applied Technology, where 28 people focus on what technology can do to benefit customers. Projects already underway include working with Apple on podcasts; making open source safe for the enterprise; and messing around with VoIP and Fidelity TV, Haile said.

These formal processes help, but Haile said the biggest driver of innovation at Fidelity is the company's chairman, Ned Johnson, who is passionate about technology. And that is a boon for two reasons: Fidelity needs a champion on the business side, and in Haile's view, most business people are not that interested in technology.

More than sexy technology

Mary Finley is deputy CIO of Partners Healthcare System. Formed in 1994 with the merger of two Boston health care powerhouses, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, the organization sees 2.2 million patients per year. Recognizing that it wasn't doing enough to stimulate innovation, Partners introduced formal organizations and processes designed to push technology limits, including a 15-member staff focused on areas such as medical informatics and telemedicine, a 10-person research council that fields research proposals, and annual technology summits.

Partners is currently working on a project sponsored by Motorola on how to care for off-site patients with congestive heart failure by using wireless monitoring devices that "talk" to hospital caregivers. Another IT effort is marketing the hospital's expertise across the country, said Finley. For example, cancer patients seeking a second opinion can access a Dana Farber specialist long distance through technology that allows doctors to share information. IT innovation doesn't have to be the "big idea," Finley said, but rather incremental and specific, such as the wireless nurse call system that takes away that well known pain point – a broken buzzer by the bed.

CIO Scott Floeck of Staples Inc., agreed. He said his company's constant technological innovation comes in increments, is driven by customers and is "not always about sexy technology." The largest office products company in the U.S. with 65,000 employees and $14.5 billion in sales, Staples launched its "easy brand promise" initiative two years ago with a guarantee to customers that Staples would always have their particular ink or toner in stock—or deliver it to their doorstep the next day. In another initiative, IT helped the company make its salespeople smarter by giving each of them a hand held device that "transforms them into librarians." So rather than plead ignorance, the salesperson can access the information to help a customer make a decision. In addition, the company's sophisticated data mining efforts are being taken to a new level by offering customers "easy shopper" transparency in their shopping habits. This not only alerts customers of new offers and discounts, but also analyzes their purchases and suggests ways to help them save money.

Probably the most pressing questions from the audience were how to actually take these ideas into practice, and of course, when and how to show the all-important return on investment. All three CIOs said they set testing with gates along the way to determine when and if the technology should be deployed. But Citizens' Haile, echoing his peers, cautioned that innovation is easily stifled when "people put too much time on trying to stamp it out."

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