Why It’s Vital for CIOs to Speak in Business Terms

By Peter High  |  Posted 08-10-2015 Print Email

The CIO of insurance company Word & Brown discusses how IT’s voice has grown in the business and how earning CPA and MBA degrees has been a tremendous asset.

The mission of Word & Brown is to simplify access to better health insurance choices. Privately held for 30 years by entrepreneurs John Word and Rusty Brown, the organization connects businesses to industry-leading solutions in every area of health insurance and employee benefits.

When Allen Fazio joined the company in May of 2014, as Fazio tells CIO Insight contributor, Peter High, the team had a lot of talent, but it was not a high performing team. He embarked on a major transformation that continues today, and Fazio has helped technology bring value to the enterprise.

CIO Insight: What role does IT play in driving Word & Brown's business?

Allen Fazio: As with many successful 30-year-old organizations, at The Word & Brown Companies, IT plays a critical role on several fronts: transforming current operations by providing technology solutions to streamline operations, move traditional products and services to a Web/mobile consumption model, and manage higher transaction volume at marginal cost; modernizing the legacy systems that have been the backbone to the success of the business; reducing technology operating costs; and leveraging the technology portfolio to gain greater levels of value from technology assets.

CIO Insight: You are not a "back-office only" CIO. Across your career, you have focused on delivering customer-facing technologies, as well as helping to run the operation of the company. How have you inspired your teams to follow your lead to become more cognizant of customer needs?

Fazio: I have always worked in environments that required operational excellence; however, it is the customer experience that has always been my passion. When you have an opportunity to change the way potentially millions of people consume or experience a product, it is a powerful feeling. Within Word & Brown, I am a champion for the changing customer experience. Today, much of our business is transacted over the phone; however, the consumer shift to Web tools and services is happening quickly. From online enrollment to health care calculators and provider search, our clients' and customers' needs are rapidly changing. I believe my team would say IT's voice has gotten louder, and our thinking is now materializing in our solutions at a faster rate.

CIO Insight: When you arrived at Word & Brown, a significant transformation was necessary. How did you organize yourself, and how did you prioritize people versus process versus technology changes that were necessary?

Fazio: The Word & Brown IT team I inherited was loaded with individual talent, but was not a high-performing team. Each division worked in silos with very little information and expertise shared across the company. With the support of our Executive Steering Committee, I have been able to remove the invisible force fields between businesses. We have focused the team on the good of the company and the positive impact our collaboration can have on each of the individual business divisions. We have moved from playing "small IT" in teams of 30 or 40 people, and we've begun to leverage the size and scale of a 150-person team. In addition, we've launched a three-year IT transformation effort that is 100% driven by the team volunteering its time and talents. Our IT transformation objectives are:

*People strategies

*Delivery excellence


*Financial excellence

*Data analytics

*Enterprise architecture

Each objective has goals within a crawl, walk, run metaphor to ensure we are matching our goals with the investments necessary to become successful. Too often leaders launch efforts with lofty goals that weren't achievable from the start. With crawl, walk and run, we are constantly calibrating our ability to reach our goals utilizing the allocated tools, investments and resources.

CIO Insight: Where you are you in that journey at present?

Fazio: Having just celebrated my one-year anniversary at Word & Brown, I would say we are making strong progress. Our IT transformation program continues to make progress, even during our busiest season of the year. We have seen our best talent stay with the company and have added new players and thinking to the mix. While we still have a significant effort required to hit our goals, we have advanced. Moving ahead, it is critical we do not lose momentum on our transformation objectives and that we begin to demonstrate the value of our program through tangible results.

CIO Insight: You have a CPA and an MBA. Have these more general business disciplines helped you as a CIO?

Fazio: Absolutely, especially the CPA. Being able to communicate with the CFO and Divisional Presidents in their own language has been critical to my success. Understanding how the financial statements work, how to demonstrate value that resonates with finance, how to fight for budget and how prepare long-range plans, properly track Opex vs. Capex costs, understand the impact of depreciation, and R&D Tax Credits only helps put the CIO role in a better light with business leaders. If you don't speak the language, you can be at a significant disadvantage--especially when it's time to make budget cuts, or when deciding where to invest. We all have been in those meetings where no one understands why IT costs what it does, or how new capabilities drive a need for incremental staffing. Having a strong business acumen allows us to communicate in a more collaborative way.

CIO Insight: Prior to Word & Brown, you held a variety of IT executive positions at Disney. How has that experience colored your approach in your current role?

Fazio: I was very fortunate to work for some amazing leaders at Disney. I spent 10 years in IT under the direction of Roger Berry, who retired last year as the CIO of Starwood International and who was CIO of Disney Theme Parks and Campbell Soup. Matt Ouimet, the current CEO of Cedar Fair Entertainment and former president of Disney Cruise Line and Disneyland, also heavily influenced me. Those leaders set the standard for professionalism, being accountable, taking care of your people, having fun, inspiring others and delivering outstanding results. I think their lessons and teachings provide the best description of how my Disney experiences have carried over to my current role.

CIO Insight: What technologies particularly excite you as you look to the future?

Fazio: I am excited by all of our evolving and new technologies, including the cloud, big data, social and mobile. However, what's particularly exciting for me is the changing face of--and the pace of change for--technology in health care. It's transforming how nearly one-fifth of our nation's GDP is spent. We are creating new technologies and implementing older technologies from other industries in new ways. That includes electronic data interchange, which was used 25 years ago in the auto industry. We have SaaS providers giving insurers and others the ability to rent capabilities, instead of investing in custom technology-development efforts. We have data locked in our systems that can become new sources of revenue. It's an exciting time for CIOs, developers and the entire IT industry.

Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy, has just been released by Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs. Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.


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