Why overhauling IT was an ultimate life-saver for American Cancer Society

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CIO Interview

The American Cancer Society has been through a lot of change recently, especially in IT. Our IT transformation was precipitated by the downturn in the economy in 2008, as well as the need to meet the speed of innovation, the speed of the market, and the sophistication our constituents required for us to become a more agile, streamlined, and efficient organization. That’s pretty hard to do from where we started – which was 12 different divisions representing 12 sets of people who could potentially veto anything you want to do.

Becoming better stewards

The vision behind the overall IT consolidation was simple. The American Cancer Society could become better stewards of donor dollars if we were one unified organization. We could react to market, research, and fundraising opportunities faster. And we could vastly improve our decision-making.

Executing on that vision was a bit less simple. Until 2011, just before I joined, we had 13 different IT stacks if you included Corporate. That meant 13 independent set-ups with their own technologies, some loosely coupled (like email, collaboration, and CRM), but even those were sub-optimally implemented.  We also had more than 600 independent applications in our portfolio.

To become better stewards, here is some of what we did over the past three years:

  • Reduced 600 core systems down to fewer than 200
  • Cut our infrastructure by 40 percent
  • Consolidated dozens of data centers into three
  • Increased our development and implementation cadence tenfold
  • Increased our spending on strategic projects from 5 percent to 40 percent
  • Created one global entity, one legal unit, and one set of senior executives
  • Created repeatable processes that are measured, tracked, and improved
  • Reduced our run rate cost by 20 percent

Our journey has meant a lot in terms of the numbers, but what has this consolidation meant culturally to the American Cancer Society and to the world at large? Morale in IT is higher because we’re able to take advantage of more emerging technologies. Decision-making is faster. And critically, all of these things feed into saving more lives, which is our end goal. Our 6,100 employees work at ACS for one reason and one reason only: to end cancer as a world health problem. We simply owe it to our donors and constituents to be the best organization we can be. And one of the ways we can do that is to be the most streamlined and efficient.

The greater human impact of IT

That efficiency means we can roll out mobile capability that we’ve never been able to do before, both from a fundraiser perspective but also from an internal operations one, giving folks access to the tools they need to do their jobs wherever they are. We’re also able to manage many of our systems and our programs with one core stack of technologies. In human terms, that means our Service Match technology can more easily put together volunteers with chemotherapy patients who don’t have access to a car or might be too sick to drive. Now our volunteers can say, “Hey, I have availability Mondays and Wednesdays between noon and 5:00. What are the opportunities within 20 miles of me to help out ACS?” We could never have done that prior to transformation.

Everything we do at the American Cancer Society has a technology component, whether that means managing the 70 million customers in our CRM system, tracking HIPAA compliance, or appealing to a very youthful, very Millennial-heavy volunteer and donor base that wants to interact with us on their terms. That interaction might be to volunteer, or it might be to ask about a lump they’ve found at 3:00 in the morning halfway around the world.

Coming from AIG, where I was a CIO, I see very little that we do from an IT perspective that is different from the for-profit world. Our costs are still the same as other organizations. Our benefits don’t happen to be widgets; they are research grants or patients touched or lives saved or fundraising campaigns enabled. Those are the payoffs that we could potentially fund with the work that we do, but the economics are very similar. The rigor required for transformation is the same, in other words, but the end goal in front of us helps us all work a little bit harder. And at last we have an IT system that directly supports that passion.

Jay Ferro is currently Chief Information Officer for the American Cancer Society (ACS), a nationwide, community-based voluntary health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem. Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, the American Cancer Society has hundreds of local offices nationwide and presence in more than 5,000 communities. Jay is responsible for the people, strategy and operations of the Global Information Technology organization. Additionally, Jay has been a leader in ACS’s historic transformation, which includes the consolidation of 12 independent divisions into one agile and focused global entity dedicated to saving more lives and curing cancer.

Jay Ferro
Jay Ferro is currently EVP, Chief Information, Technology, and Product Officer for Clario, a global data and technology company that minimizes risk and uncertainty in clinical trials, so that organizations can move ahead quickly – and with confidence.