Three years ago, when Holly Morris took over as CIO at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a faith-based, not-for-profit insurance provider, it was clear that IT was in no shape to support a business transformation effort already under way. Morris went to work on a five-year plan that would rethink IT as a reflection of business needs and sold her vision to the Thrivent board. Today Morris' team is well into the second year of that plan, with at least $10 million being invested in each of a dozen projects that ultimately will replace all of Thrivent's legacy systems with a single platform.
None of this could have been accomplished without first working on aligning IT and the business. Morris recently spoke with CIO Insight contributor Tony Kontzer about her views on alignment. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
CIO Insight: What does IT-business alignment mean to you?
Holly Morris: It is a ubiquitous concept and tough to put your finger on. My job is to continuously ensure that every resource we're investing in IT directly leads to business results. What's tricky about business alignment is that it can change depending on what's going on in the business. It's more a Zen state of mind that you have to constantly be changing and morphing along with the business.
What are the biggest challenges in trying to successfully align IT with the business?
Morris: The first thing you've got to have is the relationship. You have to be viewed as a business leader who also knows technology. You have to have a continuous dialogue, meet each business partner, understand where they are and understand their particular business issues because each of them may have a different need. One part of the business may need you to reduce costs, and another may need you to help create new revenue opportunities. You have to balance short-term, medium-term and long-term needs to make sure you're spending your technology dollars on the things the business really needs.
Where is Thrivent in getting IT and the business on the same page?
Morris: There is very little of the traditional finger-pointing between business and IT that I've seen in other places. Our culture doesn't allow it. We've made the shift away from the technology dialogue to a dialogue about business capabilities and business capability road maps. Then, when new needs come up, we can take the requirements, map them back to the capabilities and make sure we build to those requirements as we roll out the capabilities.
What business problem is the biggest driver of your alignment effort?
Morris: We're facing the same challenges as our peers in insurance. The industry is slowing down, and because of the demographics of the country, it's harder to get new clients and serve them the way they need to be served. Our sales have been roughly flat for quite a few years, as have many insurers. What we're trying to do is transform our company to be more member-centric.
Are alignment issues different for Thrivent because it's a not-for-profit, faith-based company?
Morris: We in IT are expected to be advocates of the mission. We're expected to be members ourselves and to be involved in our communities. So there are some things that are different. For instance, I wouldn't start a conversation with a business partner without the word "member" in it. In fact, every conversation starts with how we can help our members. It's really more of a mind-set than any different set of actions.
What hard business benefits do you hope to realize on an ongoing basis through successful alignment?
Morris: The first thing we expect to do is double the number of clients we have in a three-year period. IT is a major player in that because of the systems we need to support, as well as the need to improve the customer experience, give clients more online options and dramatically improve the ability of our field force to deliver for our clients.