Fixing the IT Business-Disconnect

By Jerome Oberlton  |  Posted 06-11-2009

In June 2008, as the new CIO at Mannatech, a global provider of proprietary diet supplements, weight management and skin care products, I realized that there were many IT challenges that faced our organization. Primary among them was a recently implemented multimillion-dollar ERP system that cost more than was originally projected but did not deliver the promised functionality. Worse, key members within our business had begun to retaliate, feeling that IT pushed this new system on them.

This situation, and others like it, gradually created a disconnect in which the IT department was viewed as out of touch with the needs of the business. Many senior leaders began to see IT as a nonstrategic component of the business: Instead of being a vital part of the team, IT was looked upon as nothing more than a shop that helped maintain costly technology.

In my previous roles as the CIO for a major school system in Atlanta and the IT controller at General Electric, I was aware of the need for IT to be viewed as a business partner rather than a mere cost center. I knew that the lack of alignment with key department heads and the organization's core strategy equated to a death wish for the department.

My challenge at Mannatech was to find a way to quickly transform a department that was misaligned and losing credibility within the company. Its growing reputation was that of a necessary evil that was capital-intensive and in need of being outsourced.

After considering a number of possible approaches, I set out to build alignment with key decision makers and executives throughout the organization. The idea was to reposition IT as a value-added component of the business.

I began to study the strategy, goals and objectives of the business and spent time with key decision makers, department heads, executives and board members in order to understand the core challenges that faced the business. In addition, I studied the language and culture of the organization to better understand what was important to the business.

It wasn't long before I realized that one of the biggest problems was a monolithic Website that was difficult for our external field sales force of more than 500,000 independent sales associates and members to navigate and use. They often struggled with the process of ordering products or recruiting new associates via the Web--a huge problem for a company that takes nearly 70 percent of its orders online.

With this critical pain-point identified, I set out to align myself with our chief marketing officer (CMO), a highly respected and influential voice in the organization, who could help champion a turnaround in this area. After analyzing the problems the Mannatech

Website created for our field sales associates, we created a strategy to reposition our Web presence in both the domestic and international markets. We armed ourselves with customer surveys and market analyses, and presented a business case, plan and strategy to the CEO and board of directors.

The result? We secured the additional capital needed to rebuild our image, our brand and our sales engine via the Web. We also were able to leverage that support to install strong leaders who could successfully execute this program.

The alignment of marketing and technology on Mannatech's Web redesign program blurred the lines between the two departments. With the CMO and CIO co-championing this effort, we've been able to add value through a newly redesigned Website that, when finalized, will enable us to effectively meet the needs of our field sales organization. What's more, online orders are projected to grow, thanks to the new capabilities, ease of use and improved navigation of the site.

Throughout this process, we've also been learning a valuable lesson: While it's difficult for a single leader to influence the overall direction of an organization, executives who have aligned their strategies can garner momentum and advance agendas that otherwise would have languished.