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August 13, 2014

ACS CIO Ferro Talks Culture and its Role in IT Improvements


When Jay Ferro came on as CIO of the American Cancer Society three years ago, he inherited quite a mess. The organization, which is the leading non-governmental funder of cancer research in the U.S., had a hundreds of independent systems and thousands of servers housed in geographically disparate data centers.

The ACS also had far too many applications, and those applications were outdated and didn’t talk to each other. On his second day on the job an executive stopped by his office and told him that he’d lost a bet because he’d wagered that Ferro would quit after one day.

“We had all the things you see in an underperforming IT organization,” said Ferro during his keynote address on Wednesday at ITEXPO. “Our IT department was where things went to die. And so we knew we had to be a different kind of organization.”

Ferro was charged with cleaning up the mess, a challenge he understood would be neither quick nor easy. But rather than diving right into technological solutions, instead, Ferro decided to transform the organization’s culture, both inside and outside of IT. The first major policy Ferro implemented was a mandate for consistency in his department.

  
“What I tried to establish was that one way is always better than 13 ways,” the speaker explained. “It didn’t have to be my way. But it had to be one way.”

One of the other keys in transforming the company’s IT culture—and its perception across the rest of the organization—was a renewed commitment to transparency and honesty. Rather than sugarcoat the problems everyone knew ACS faced, Ferro believed wholeheartedly in engaging in dialogue with employees in his department and in other divisions about what was working and what was broken.

“I’m going to tell you if our baby is ugly,” Ferro told co-workers early in the IT overhaul. “And ‘man, is our baby ugly.”

Using the new dedication to transparency as a building block, Ferro also set out to create partnerships with other C-level executives, a move he saw as critical to his department’s success. During his presentations to the board he discussed technology in business terms, which helped get people interested in and excited about what he was doing.

And of course, Ferro aimed to boost morale for his own employees. IT workers are used to being told they are doing a poor job, he said during the keynote, but generally these employees badly want to be productive and helpful. Together with his team Ferro implemented the ITCODE (Integrity, Teamwork, Communication, Ownership, Dynamic, Excellence) Award to recognize exceptional IT personnel.

Perhaps most importantly of all the strategies he brought to ACS was Ferro’s goal of making incremental improvements with large projects like data management. He understood full well all the organization’s problems couldn’t be solved his first week, so he didn’t take every issue at once.

“We didn’t try to boil the ocean,” he said.

So, how did it all turn out? In his first year, Ferro began cleaning up the company’s issues without increasing his departmental budget. In Year Two, he cut the IT budget by three percent and in the third year, he slashed expenditures by 20 percent. Various IT initiatives took off, including BYOD, which jumped from a few hundred participants three years ago to almost 4,000 ACS employees and volunteers today. In short, the sinking ship Ferro was told he inherited upon his arrival is now sailing smoothly.




Edited by Adam Brandt

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