John J. Patterson joined The Baltimore Life Companies in 2002 and served as Executive Vice President, Chief Operations Officer. He was responsible for Policyholder Service, Agent Service, Information Technology and the corporate Carrier of Choice initiative.
Prior to joining Baltimore Life, Mr. Patterson was President of HMG Technology, a mid-Atlantic systems integration and consulting firm serving the utility and insurance industries. He also served as Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer for Barton Cotton, an integrated direct marketing company for national non-profit organizations and associations.
His related experience also includes serving as a partner at Andersen Consulting, now Accenture, where he oversaw the sales and installation of large transaction systems primarily in the utility and insurance industries.
Mr. Patterson is a native of Elkton, Maryland, and a graduate of Marquette University, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He resides in the Greater Baltimore area. He is Past-Chair of the Board for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Maryland, which serves the state’s five central counties and the lower Eastern Shore. He retired during the composition of this book.Interview Questions
- What is your preferred structure for an I/T department in an organization like yours in your industry? Why do you prefer that structure and why do you feel it serves the business?
John’s interview was very interesting. His perspective was greatly influenced by the convergence of his two positions (CIO and COO), a convergence that some on the interview roster saw as a growing trend.
John was candid “A COO/CIO doing his job should be the #1 consultant to the organization. My role is to make the CEO successful, supporting the corporate strategy and the operational goals. In short, I am the central facilitator to realistically shape and execute a business technology vision.”
John noted that the I/T department structure depends on the industry and degree that technology is the advantage. His point that the structure depends on whether I/T is at the heart of how the company makes money. He was noting that more and more industries are now depending on technology to accomplish their differentiating goals. “You have got to get to the stuff where the magic is,” he said. He was emphasizing that the “magic” is more and more in the I/T areas for many industries. From his perspective, in the past I/T’s value was derived from being the operational efficiency-focused, “back office” automation provider. Now, I/T makes the difference in the front office, enabling and expanding what businesses can do.
John expanded on his comments by addressing outsourcing: “outsourcing options are available (both vanilla infrastructure and special competitive market functions).” The “back office” automation is commoditized, so the world has changed to the point where you now have to focus on the front office to get the true value of I/T! His points were clear:
- I/T is many times at the heart of how the company makes money,
- The CIO is a consultant to the business,
- Organize to support the strategy. Structure should be custom tailored to the mission.
John is a proponent of customizing team skills concentration in a business focused way. “I/T skills need to be directed on what makes the company unique,” he said. He noted that in the old days they used to custom code HR systems to bring value. Then, they became software packages that could be purchased off the shelf. Then, they became Software as a Service available from the cloud. He described the journey in three sentences. His point was that I/T should be re-purposed to front office enabling strategy.
John sees I/T as a key force in the formal business technology strategy process. He did not come down conclusively on whether I/T should plan in parallel or as a fast-follow. It is the “Chicken or the egg scenario” in his words. He described one approach is for the business to come with a wish list and then come back around to see what is possible. The other approach is a completely integrated planning process. He did note that whatever path is chosen, that I/T can avoid being seen as the “guardrail” only (the ‘See I NO’) by being a consultative facilitator in the strategic planning process, guiding the plan to be a consensus driven tool for alignment throughout the year.
- What are the key areas / strategies / tenets you align with on every initiative to ensure it is aligned with the business?
John likes a plan that illustrates the business strategy as the focus, with the technology enablers clearly presented as part of the business strategy objectives. His experience has been to use a three year plan, although he did not necessarily endorse a specific duration given that is often industry specific. He prefers a strategy that in his words is:
- “Lists current inventory of assets vs requested needs”
- Setting expectations on cost
- Setting a vision for all to support (who will we be in 3 years)
- “Is support for the CEO while being supported by the CEO”
- What are the key indicators you see that repeat themselves through your successful business aligned initiatives?
John is a big proponent of delivering value rapidly to the business. That is why he endorses the agile approach to delivering systems in his organizations. “Deliver value early and often,” he said.
John also likes to see that change is needed, meaning it must be planned for. In this way, he sees it as an indicator that the initiative is creating business change in the environment.
He also likes to see joint reporting activities by I/T and the business. When they are going to the CEO as one voice, John sees alignment as strong.
Finally, John continued on his theme of making his leader partners successful. His point is that when you make your business partner look good through success, alignment is easy.
- How do you encourage your teams to stay invested in the business? How do you keep them business focused, and not technology focused?
John encourages I/T to perform field observation of the business. This was a common answer among many of the leaders, and is clearly a frequently used technique. John described design thinking (IDEO). IDEO is a human-centered, design-based approach to knowing what an organization does. It works to uncover behaviors and latent needs. He used the analogy of a hospital putting someone in a gurney and acting like they were sick and putting them through the process of being addressed for care at the hospital. This person then sees a real life experience so they can understand how to improve and serve the process. John supports something similar for I/T professionals whenever possible. Finally, he has a motto he presents to his teams: “Set realistic goals. Don’t try to do more than you can do well. Do less, but make it work great!”
- How do you maximize awareness of I/T successfully servicing the business? Up, down and laterally?
John first noted that to be perceived as great you need to be great! Secondly, John once again restated that the best way to communicate value is to make the leaders for whom he works successful.
- What are the most common barriers to business alignment you have faced repeatedly?
John noted that he has seen as a barrier a lack of clear corporate goals and strategies. This answer was consistent with one of his earlier points, when he said that the strategic plan needs to be “…support for the CEO while being supported by the CEO.”
John also noted the tendency of professionals to underestimate what it takes to succeed, especially in I/T initiatives. He called it the “This should be easy” syndrome.
Finally, John noted that a lack of accountability is a huge inhibitor to alignment.
- If you had to highlight things that you learned from life lessons, what would they be?
John’s faith in agile development was expressed again when he reviewed some of his life lessons. He noted that he had seen many “big bang” projects fail. He restated his endorsement of providing value early and often.
John also noted that he has learned from his experience that you have to be open to input from multiple experts. He described the “Mack Truck Theory,” meaning that there are individuals in organizations that “if hit by a Mack Truck” would leave the organization crippled. John was not using this analogy to diminish the tragedy of that situation, if it were to be real. His point was that an organization is never truly healthy when it has such people in it. In his opinion, you have to be able to have enough talent to continue operations. This avoids what he also called “The Messiah Syndrome,” when one person comes in to save a situation. In short, for John, the organization must always be greater than the individual.
Finally, John noted that he has learned there are times when you need to “cut and run.” He said he has seen these situations, and for I/T, it is often difficult for them to stand down from a disaster. He noted that “you need to get real ASAP, especially when something is ‘bad of out of the box’.”
- Do you have any best practices or tricks of the trade that help you see when technology is being proposed for technology sake?
John’s primary means of flushing out tech for tech sake is to have a business case. Also, he noted the need to use pilots with real customers or users. (This seemed to the author a combination of his IDEO and Agile preferences).
John also mentioned that he is always cautious of the “airplane conversation.” He described this as a conversation someone has in the hallway, on a plane, or at a conference, where that leader comes back to I/T and says “Stop the Presses! I have a new idea!” John’s point was that you have to maintain your vision. It was reminiscent of the saying “Plan the work, and work the plan!”
- Do you have any real life stories where you saw a decision moving towards technology for technology sake and you were able to refocus the decision on the business? How did you do this? What were the results?
John said he has seen tech for tech sake many times in his career, and he noted the recent trend in many businesses is for people to push the use of tablets. He noted that people have seen these tools and gadgets and sometimes try to find a use for them in the business, instead of seeing a need and matching them up to the need.