A Report from the Front: Transforming IT to Enable Business Strategy

Eileen Baines, SVP & CIO, CoBank
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Eileen Baines, SVP & CIO, CoBank

Eileen Baines, SVP & CIO, CoBank

Technology is transforming at a faster pace than ever. As leaders of the IT function, we need to think of ourselves as innovators and change agents –as enablers of business strategy –rather than order takers or cost centers. As a starting point, we need to grasp and articulate the nuances of business strategy, then engineer solutions that deliver on that strategy. In order for IT to lead, business and IT strategy must align. Business strategy should not be hindered by the limitations of existing technology, but rather technology must bring business strategy to life.

CoBank provides financing to rural America, from agricultural cooperatives that process and market their farmers’ crops to feed the world to a community building a wind farm, and from the communications co-ops that deliver rural broadband to remote homesteads to the providers of electricity, power and solar arrays to the farthest reaches of the country. It is quite amazing how much technology this takes. For example, the systems for irrigating a farm efficiently are high-tech, relying on GPS and remote management via wireless connections, and are ever-changing; the adaptability of those in rural America to shifting technology is impressive.

Just like our customers, internally we also need to be nimble with our technology so that the bank can best execute its business strategy. Evolving a highly effective IT organization to support our mission of serving rural America, all the while being able to respond quickly within a banking landscape that can change rapidly, is a significant challenge.

So, my team set out on a path to transform IT’s tools, processes and culture in order to increase our efficiency, scalability and ability to innovate…to truly be that highly effective organization that the bank needs. We started by establishing an IT mission and vision that aligned with CoBank’s. Building trusted partnerships, running IT like a business and innovation became our building blocks. These foundational elements were cascaded throughout the IT organization and shared with leadership and key partners across the bank.

Building Trusted Partnerships: Understanding that trust is the foundation for building strong relationships.

Ensuring trust within the team meant intentional leadership and extensive listening. This work was conducted by me and my leadership team, about 30 in all, who now carry out the team’s culture and live our mission. Ultimately, it resulted in agreement of, and investment in, our foundational elements by every member of IT.

 Business strategy should not be hindered by the limitations of existing technology, but rather technology must bring business strategy to life 

We then extended this work to IT‘s internal customers, the various teams within CoBank that we support. Again, we began this work by listening. These conversations are ongoing–a core component of what is becoming the foundations of trusted relationships. Understanding their goals and strategies is key as their strategy informs ours and gives us direction.

Running IT Like aBusiness: Changing the dialogue from IT as a cost center to IT as an enabler of business value.

For all of its prevalence, technology can sometimes be a black box. Everyone likes what technology does and we all know we need it, but few people outside of IT understand what goes into engineering technology solutions and maintaining current, stable, and secure systems – this includes not understanding the costs involved.

Running IT like a business means leveraging Technology Business Management (TBM) to provide transparency into the cost of IT and how the business consumes IT services. Although IT doesn’t have profit and loss responsibility in the conventional sense, we are accountable for business results. True partnership means full transparency and accountability, so we share appropriately in all investment decisions and outcomes, providing information needed to make smarter business choices. Our internal customers can understand better how IT can add to or subtract from business value.

Innovation: Empowering a nimble organization, open to new ideas and focused on continuous improvement.

Establishing a fast-follower mentality on the technology adoption curve also means being receptive to–and hungry for–the ideas that come from our IT associates. Inspiring discussion and debate while cultivating an environment where any and all perspectives are encouraged is vital to an innovative organization. Having associates who come from different backgrounds–with different experiences and different ways of thinking about solutions, who can also own the outcomes of the work we do–fosters a culture of continuous improvement.

It is early, but our metrics indicate progress. We have a very talented team of IT professionals who are changing the way we work with our internal customers. In turn, those internal customers are changing the way they work with and think about IT. Our focus and deeper purpose enable our business partners and customers to execute on their objectives.

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