CIO Strengthens American Cancer Society’s Cause

Jay Ferro has been the CIO of the American Cancer Society (ACS) for three years, but the fight against cancer has been a passion of his for longer. His life was touched by the disease when he lost his wife to cervical cancer in January of 2007. He established a non-profit organization, Priscilla’s Promise, in her honor to stimulate awareness and education of cervical cancer, and to provide funding research for a cure for cervical cancer.

While adjusting to his new reality as a single father, Ferro climbed the ranks of a number of organizations, becoming the CIO first of AIG Aerospace and then AdCare Health Systems. When he learned about the CIO opening at ACS, his life’s work and his professional interests intersected in an unexpected way. The opportunity to do well by doing good was too much to pass up.

CIO Insight: Jay, with the New Year upon us, what are your IT priorities for 2015?

Jay Ferro: Improving our security posture is always an IT priority, given the ever-evolving threat landscape that we live in. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made, but there is no finish line when it comes to protecting our data. We’re always pushing to get better.

We will build on the successes of 2014 to deliver more sophisticated analytic capabilities, including mobile dashboarding and access to near real-time data, which will be beneficial for nearly every area of the American Cancer Society.

2015 will bring a completely new platform for and other Society digital properties to improve user experience. This is a large undertaking for many reasons, not the least of which is the importance of this resource for tens of millions of visitors each year who depend on the American Cancer Society to be there for them with the latest research and information on preventing, treating and surviving cancer.

We’re also building the next generation of mobile fundraising and resource apps to create an omnichannel experience for supporters. Fundraising isn’t all we do, but delivering on our lifesaving mission depends on it.

And we are expanding our bring-your-own-device program beyond tablets and phones to include laptops–and expanding our Microsoft Lync deployment to provide staff with cost-effective and reliable video meetings. It’s all geared toward being better stewards of donor dollars, securing our systems and information, and helping our staff to be more efficient and effective in delivering our mission.

CIO Insight: From our past conversations, I know that a key metric for the American Cancer Society generally is to help those who live with cancer to celebrate more birthdays. Can you talk about IT’s role in helping to accomplish this?

Ferro: Like any other organization, technology is an integral part of everything we do. Strategic organizational decisions are made with IT at the table, not in a vacuum. Besides all the requisite infrastructure, IT provides applications, social media and event support for fundraising efforts (Relay For Life alone is over 5,000 events around the world) which fuel business intelligence and data management for cancer research; networking and communications technology for our advocacy goals; and applications and process improvement for improved mission efforts (such as Hope Lodges, Road to Recovery and Look Good Feel Better, to name a few).

CIO Insight: You have led a transformation to consolidate IT. Where are you in that journey?

Ferro: Our transformation journey has been an enormous undertaking. We are basically nearing the end of a 13-divison merger which, of course, had 13 different IT groups. Organizationally, we are now one unified IT department, but we have no time to rest because we are still supporting and enabling the complex work of combining the business processes of 13 different divisions. IT was the first group to “transform,” and our success was critical to set a positive tone and stable platform (literally and figuratively) for the rest of the organization. The scale of this effort is unprecedented not only at the Society but also in many organizations of our size. There have been a few bumps along the way, as could be expected, but overall we’re doing very well.

CIO Insight: How did you begin the journey, and what mile markers did you set along the way?

Ferro: We began the journey of IT transformation by conducting a professional assessment of how assets and processes were distributed to get a better understanding of what we had, and where, and how we were using them. We needed to know where all our moving pieces were nationwide before we could begin to assemble them into a more cohesive unit. From the beginning, our markers for success relied on feedback and interaction. We broke down any walls between IT and the rest of the enterprise, and this new open dialogue helped us gain a greater perspective on how our work was perceived. Using external benchmarking, focus groups, surveys, enterprise social media and customer satisfaction through our Service Desk, we measured ourselves against our goals each step of the way.

CIO Insight: What value do you hope to drive through greater consolidation of what was once a distributed IT function?

Ferro: The value from consolidating our IT functions cannot be overstated. We moved from having 13-plus different structures, approaches and delivery mechanisms for technology services to one unified function. Through consolidation, we were able to simplify a highly decentralized architecture, standardize our computers and systems, better protect our data and information, and offer industry-standard tools to the enterprise. Managing and supporting all technology efforts has greatly improved by transforming and centralizing our IT team. We exist to serve the lifesaving mission of the American Cancer Society, and our supporters expect–and I fully agree–us to be the most efficient and effective group we can be. This transformation effort has enabled an evolutionary leap toward that goal.

CIO Insight: You came from the private sector, where people compensation packages included bonuses and stock options, in some cases. As you have upgraded the talent on your IT team, what levers have you pulled as motivators?

Ferro: One obvious lever would be the nature of the work that we do. Our “IT Cures” Relay For Life team was one of the top teams in the nation–primarily due to the hard work and active participation of our nationwide IT team fundraising together toward a common goal. Beyond that, applying your trade (in this case, technology) toward something that is making the world a better place is uniquely satisfying. There are many personal and powerful cancer stories in our ranks, and that motivation is sometimes all it takes.

Recognition has played a key role as well. In 2012, we established an IT CODE (integrity, teamwork, communication, ownership, dynamic and excellence) of conduct which articulates what we stand for and how we achieve success. Every IT staff member, including me, is held accountable to our IT CODE. In addition, we created the Spirit of Excellence Award program to recognize employees who exemplify that code. The program has proven successful in keeping staff motivated.

Transparency and open communication play a large part in retaining top talent. My door is always open, and we have numerous formal and less formal communication vehicles that help our team–local and otherwise–feel connected to the greater whole.

Another lever would be our “quick win” program. All staff can initiate and own a “quick win,” which is essentially a short, sharp piece of work, usually no more than 30, 60 or 90 days in scope, that addresses an urgent need. This could take the form of anything from a process improvement to an innovative proof of concept.

CIO Insight: I’ve been intrigued to learn about partnerships you have forged with other CIOs at other health-related organizations. Can you talk about the genesis of the partnership, and the value you have garnered from it?

Ferro: I believe knowledge sharing is at the core of being a good leader and having an effective team. We have engaged with a coalition of IT chiefs at ALSAC/St. Jude and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to discuss our strategies behind mobility, cloud and other key projects. We’ve also worked with leadership at Habitat for Humanity International and AARP to share technology strategies and goals. Though we may be “competing” in a sense for the same donor dollars, our missions have similarities: Making the world a better place and improving the quality of life for everyone. We’re all in this for a higher calling.

Peter High is the president of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of Implementing World Class IT Strategy and World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.

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