Spreading IT Expertise Throughout the Company

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These days, information technology touches just about every important business decision. Yet most IT professionals remain stuck in an IT backwater, out of the loop for most corporate issues. Ask yourself, How many IT professionals do you know who successfully made the leap to line management?

If you worked at Canada's Clarica Life Insurance Co., the answer would be “lots.” Clarica's roster of key business officers is peppered with former IT folk. The vice presidents of group administration, human resources and marketing, as well as the director of quality business all began their careers as IT professionals. Six of Clarica's 16-person top-management team have IT backgrounds.

Clarica's success incorporating IT pros into business management is the subject of a February 2001 white paper, “Creating Advantage With Information Technology.” The authors are Blaize Horner Reich, professor of information technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Michelle Lynn Kaarst-Brown of the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Reich says the advantages of Clarica's approach include “faster innovation, faster deployment of new technologies, better utilization of existing technologies, and staff retention. They quickly see opportunities to solve business problems with workable IT solutions that others simply don't.”

The company's commitment to IT has paid off: Clarica was the first of Canada's life insurers to demutualize, doubling its IPO share price in 18 months. Since becoming a public company in 1999, Clarica has consistently surpassed key growth targets. For example, year 2000 earnings jumped 22% over 1999 earnings.

According to Clarica CIO Brian Gill, much of the company's business is technology-intensive, so it is critical that IT initiatives succeed. The firm's policy of transferring IT people into line management, he says, means that “even the very large initiatives that we undertake have a very, very high success rate. We never face a problem of educating senior management. We have the right sponsorship and leadership from the business area. It works.”

Those results are encouraging, but not necessarily extendable to companies without a heavy reliance on IT. It's also possible that spreading IT people throughout the company may encourage a bias toward technology-based solutions.

The bigger question, though, is how to make it work. “Clarica management has always promoted from within, encouraged cross-departmental transfers and committed to developing the individual,” answers Reich.

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