THE REALM OF THE POSSIBLE: Change Leadership in a New Digital Landscape

Erik Arnold, CIO, PATH
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The CIO as Change Leader

The role of a CIO has changed. Advances in IT infrastructure and software are having a transformative impact on the way all organizations achieve their goals. The reliability and availability of broadband in low- and middle-income countries has improved. Cloud-based applications built on human-centric design concepts are ubiquitous, making software easier to use. Governments, donors, corporations, and nonprofits all recognize the importance of data and analytics to drive impact.

All this means that there is no divide between digital and non-digital business anymore. At PATH, for example, we advance technologies and approaches that improve health, and we are increasingly adopting digital technologies and tools as fundamental elements of how we deliver on that goal. So we are no longer talking separately about digital health; we’re just talking about health. This requires us to integrate modern solutions into our international programs and use technology to drive operational efficiency.

  ​We are no longer talking separately about digital health; we’re just talking about health 

Today, the person running technology in an organization is also often the change leader. He or she drives digital transformation, the adoption of new practices, and new ways of doing work.

Relentless Technology Innovation

As technology leaders, CIOs are responsible for maintaining information security, data protection, and compliance while also making it easy for people to adopt new technologies. We need to maintain the right balance while helping our organizations adopt and be comfortable with new technology.

Fifteen years ago, technology leaders often measured success in the enterprise by counting the number of applications in play: the fewer applications, the better. That’s not true anymore. The pace of innovation is far out stripping any IT department’s ability to take things in and provision them through the enterprise. Platforms like Azure, AWS, Salesforce, Tableau, and Box are enormously empowering. New applications appear every week and provide creative collaboration opportunities to a distributed workforce. Trying to stop the proliferation of applications in the workplace is like trying to stop the tide: first, why would you want to? Second, you won’t succeed!

Having a good systems integration strategy, good data integration, a rational security model, and making bets on platforms: that’s where you see successful organizations.

Adapting to IT Trends

Moving from a traditional IT to a service offering model requires us to support staff as they embrace that change. At PATH, we are in the thick of evolving our IT business model. Key partners, including Microsoft, Tableau, Salesforce, Box, and others, have been integral to our success. When I started in 2009, we had five people in IT globally; most were help desk. We had a traditionally structured IT, and the team was reactive: there was no data strategy, the global network needed redesign, and we needed to attend to user needs across international offices.

We focused first on building trust. PATH is global and works in some difficult parts of the world, so first we made our network more reliable, stable, and accessible. We standardized basic hardware configurations and stabilized services like email—and we worked to shift hallway conversations from being about broken laptops to being about digital enablement.

We’ve since moved to a more agile and service-oriented model, focusing on our business teams and on organizational efficiency. To keep global staff trained on “heartbeat” applications (things we think every staff member will have and must know how to use), we’ve rolled out IT business partners and are introducing internal customer success staff who focus on training, adoption, and helping staff embrace the realm of the possible.

Unlocking Potential

This concept of the “realm of the possible” is significant. It is about helping people be comfortable enough with technology to see what it can do for their goals and mission. My job—IT’s job—is to help our program staff see that potential and incorporate digital tools into their programs and operations to realize it.

The Role of Digital Health

CIOs can help stakeholders embrace digital solutions. To do so, it is important to start small, focus on the data, iterate, show success, and keep delivering. Here is an example. In Zambia, PATH works with the government and partners to stop malaria. So far, tools like anti-mosquito bednets, drug treatment, and more have reduced cases in key areas. But once that was underway, we needed more granular tools to find or anticipate remaining cases.

So PATH worked with the Tableau Foundation to add digital tools that allow leaders to visualize and use data sent via mobile devices from workers at the frontlines. By overlaying data points—such as cases found and treated, transmission patterns, and health system barriers—they can focus their activities more effectively. Because of this approach, Zambia will be able to move beyond reducing cases and toward achieving zero cases in targeted areas.

The project required us to get many stakeholders on board and help them see, trust, and embrace the foundational role of digital health—that realm of the possible. With Zambia’s leaders, we defined a problem, found a data-driven solution and the tools to help, iterated, showed results, and are now supporting the government to adopt the approach. In this case, that will mean lives saved.

Focusing on Change Management

To be successful, upcoming CIOs can focus on being ready, willing, and able to drive change and digital transformation in their organizations. You need a blend of business skill, change leadership, and technical skill. I often say that “technology amplifies bad process”: just applying a modern technology solution is never the complete answer. The change management work around processes and adoption is the bigger battle.

Technology and Collaborative Innovation

We live in an exciting time. There is a tremendous amount of innovation happening in the technology industry and a huge increase in the availability and stability of internet connectivity worldwide. That contributes to greater availability of cloud-based solutions.

Today, it is possible to innovate quickly without a huge capital investment in infrastructure. Global stakeholders can talk to each other more. We can set up global standards for health information, drive greater capacity and consistency around data use, and help people understand the value of data-based decision-making in health and in all business. I also see a desire from our corporate partners to engage in social innovation. We are at a good place for that—today we can implement collaborative solutions and expect them to work, something we haven’t always had in the past.

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