CIO Makes a Statement With Mobile Solutions

The Advisory Board Company is a leading provider of insight-driven technology, research and services to more than 230,000 leaders at 5,200 member organizations across health care and higher education. Dan Holohan joined the company nearly three and a half years ago to oversee the Enterprise Technologies organization while setting direction for member-facing product technologies, enterprise data management and the implementation of social, mobile and collaboration solutions to help the firm’s predominantly Millennial workforce work smarter, faster and better. He has led the introduction of employee productivity, business unit and corporate shared application services and infrastructure. Holohan discusses his passion for IT and how he approaches his work with CIO Insight contributor Peter High.

CIO Insight: Dan, when you joined The Advisory Board Company roughly three years and a half years ago, you inherited a relatively small team in need of development and a portfolio of processes and technologies in need of modernization. What were the first things you addressed and why?

Dan Holohan: After I joined, my early assessment revolved around three primary areas: the capability of our internal network, the management of our data and the delivery of internal software.

My initial focus was to ensure that internal traffic flowed reliably and external Internet bandwidth was robust, redundant and fast. Within the first 90 days, the entire DC office network was completely replaced including the core backbone, all switches and wireless access points which, for the ensuing three years, has resulted in eliminating the serious service interruptions that the firm was used to experiencing.

Next, I noticed the emphasis that was being placed on managing the complex datasets and data flows that were being used by our internal tools and member facing products. I created a new group, Enterprise Data Management (EDM), charged with maintaining the quality, reliability and integrity of firmwide data and data technology platforms.

Lastly, internal stakeholders were dependent on our development team for providing solutions which kept the workforce productive and engaged. The challenge was prioritizing the intake and making sure that we were working on the most important things. I was able to convince six of the most senior leaders in the firm that we needed their input and the Prioritization Steering Committee was born. As a result, investments were made on this development team and we delivered a plethora of upgrades and enhancements in support of our growing business including cloud-based tools for HR, Finance and Member Support functions. One notable achievement was delivering the “360 Degree View of the Member” where nine disparate client systems were migrated to our Salesforce platform enabling staff to interact with all aspects of the member relationship from one place. My development team won the “2013 Breaking the Mold Award” at Dreamforce for their innovative uses of the Salesforce platform.

CIO Insight: You noticed early that the needs of a tremendously mobile workforce needed to be met in a different way. What steps did you undertake?

Holohan: At the time, one of the larger firmwide initiatives was to allow our employees to “Work Anywhere at Any Time.” As part of our senior leadership’s commitment to support healthy, sustainable and balanced lifestyles for our staff, we undertook several initiatives including “Eliminating the Faceless Meeting,” “Building for Mobile First,” and “Untethering Employees from Corporate Assets.” Remote Web and video conferencing capabilities were introduced to all employees resulting in a 70% increase in usage within the first year. We also rolled out a new intranet that was rebuilt on a modern, flexible platform which allows for off-network access to many firmwide resources from just about any device. This allowed us to begin the migration of legacy corporate apps to cloud offerings and their accompanying mobile clients. We now have the ability to support a large percentage of our workforce who work from home, all over the country and the world, and allow mobile connectivity and productivity for anyone who needs continual, interim or long-term remote access.

CIO Insight: You have also been a big proponent of implementing technology to facilitate analytics. Please talk about how you undertook this, and what value has been derived.

Holohan: As The Advisory Board’s product suite has evolved, a majority of our offerings are now data-driven software tools. My goal became to remove the human touch points in our existing data processes-acquisition, staging, transforming, loading, etc. I would much rather see our folks exploiting their talents exploring new technologies and initiatives than dealing with the drudgery of manual data manipulation. New tools were introduced and enhanced automation put in place which resulted in freeing up several talented resources. We then charted those analysts to start asking around the firm for questions that people would love to have answered but have never had the data or means to do so. Since the EDM team had visibility into all firmwide data, we implemented big data technologies that enabled us to answer these questions by drawing insights from large volumes of disparate data that was never before possible on product usage, employee tool usage and member needs. These initiatives have been leveraged by key personnel in our Data Analytics Group, Strategic Marketing, Human Resources and Product Strategy teams. We have learned how to better serve our members through enhanced product offerings and our employees through work-life balance indicators.

CIO Insight: You have also championed better collaboration technology. What approach did you drive?

Holohan: We found that different teams had varying work styles and the one-size-fits-all mentality would not be a successful model. We implemented new firmwide tools such as instant messaging with voice, video and screen sharing capabilities, a cloud-based file sharing and storage application, and a wiki to help employees organize and share work. Chatter is another tool we deployed to the firm that has been widely adopted by those teams looking for persistent collaboration across internal teams and with external partners, as well as for those seeking tight integration with the Salesforce platform. We’ve also embraced open source workflow management applications, code repositories and automation tools that were more appealing to our technical community. We measure tool adoption through a monthly metrics review and are able to identify our top collaborators, contributors and consumers of shared knowledge.

CIO Insight: You have increasingly gotten involved in technology-centric products to a degree that is more than the average CIO. What have you focused on, and what has been the fruit of these activities?

Holohan: Within my first 90 days on the job, I identified an opportunity to enhance our product capabilities and to improve operational efficiencies by collapsing our many disparate data centers into one virtual data center. Within a year, this vision became a reality and for the first time all products were run under one roof. With the implementation of a 24/7/365 Network Operations Center, I now had a collective view of all product capabilities, performance and feature roadmaps. As a result of this shift into the product world, I changed my organization name from the traditional IS department to Enterprise Technologies to reflect our expanded mission. With this new emphasis, the team quickly began to identify redundant platforms, opportunities for consolidation and bottlenecks to rapid product growth. We went on to implement a private cloud and partnered with the product engineers to move from near 100% physical environments to 98% virtual. We developed highly secure and scalable compute platforms, storage platforms, IP load balancing, and shared service technologies. Our goal was to remove technology as an impediment to member satisfaction, product availability and developer productivity while fostering innovation, rapid growth and scale. We are now able to share common features across products, rapidly provision infrastructure, and in some areas, offer Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).

CIO Insight: 60 to 70 percent of your workforce is made up of Millennials. You’ve had to think a lot about delivering tools that they will engage with and make them productive. What insights have you noted about the younger workforce?

Holohan: First of all, our workforce is always on the move and requires a seamless mobile computing experience. We need to make sure those batteries are fresh and can get you from point A to point B without running out of juice! The Advisory Board Company issued thousands of iPads just a few months after I joined the firm and has provided laptops to all employees requesting one. Most of our employees connect to corporate resources via 2-3 different devices. Our workforce demands options and transparency. They want collaboration space when they need to work with colleagues; they require private space when they need to make sensitive calls; and they seek quiet space when they need to do heads-down focused work. We thoughtfully invested in technology-enabled collaboration spaces where teams of 2-6 people can work comfortably with physical and virtual colleagues while wirelessly sharing their screens. We also enabled access from “outside spaces” around our facilities for those that want to meet on rooftop decks, patios, or some other outdoor space on a nice day. We provide easy to use tools for knowledge sharing, transparent project and issue tracking. I have to say that our Gen X and Boomer workers are just as happy about these benefits as the Millennials!

CIO Insight: What technologies particularly excite you when you look out, say, two or three years?

Holohan: I like to solve problems and having a large dataset at your fingertips usually produces more results than a small one. As I look out two to three years, the Internet of things will produce incredible amounts of data just waiting for someone to mine. Big data technologies are developing and morphing almost as quickly as the data is being collected. The extreme paradigm shift I am witnessing on how rapidly data is collected, consumed and turned into insights is phenomenal. These technologies are mind blowing in their raw form but imagining how disruptive they can be to our health care and higher education systems in a way that supports each of us more holistically is what really excites me!

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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