AARP's chief innovation officer looks at IT as a 57-year-old startup

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Digital Acumen gears

The IT landscape is changing, shifting from a support organization to one that is much more entrepreneurial. In this new digital realm, most all businesses are becoming technology businesses no matter what industry you are in. Every business is being disrupted because of the marvels of technology. When you go into the executive office, the boardroom, or the circle of strategists within any organization, technology is at the core of almost all conversations focused on the future and growth of the company.

Terry Bradwell

These changes are happening quickly. For example, organizations have already moved past figuring out how to get on social media to engage customers. Now they're talking about how to use social media as a revenue channel. You hear mature organizations talking less about how to revive interest in offerings from past generations of products, instead businesses that want to stay successful in this new digital and mobile world are discussing how they can deliver better products and services that compete with young startups and hungry disruptors.

Companies that are still leveraging their IT organization as a commodity are missing out on the ability to tap this key, in-house resource of talent and technology understanding for business-transforming ideas and inspiration.

Don't get me wrong, I get it. IT departments are typically stereotyped as operational. We’re traditionally are not seen as entrepreneurial.  We can sometimes get obsessed in regards to process and governance. We focus on choosing the right technology and keeping it stable, instead of relevancy of the technology to the bottom line of our business. And even though we have to respond to the pressures of constant change internally and externally, we sometimes can be the most reluctant part of an organization to change, which frustrates our now tech-savvy internal customers because they can go to an app store and find a solution to meet their basic needs in minutes.

But change we must. The future of business and the future of the CIO role depend on it.

I personally came to this realization after taking an inventory of the numerous products, programs and information services we offer to our valued members. Although AARP is a not-for-profit and a very unique organization, we assess competitive factors and threats just like any other organization does. Interestingly enough, we began to see a slow but emerging trend, that indirectly, most of our threats were surprisingly coming from the technology sector. In the past, we never even considered digital-based companies as competition, but we started to see that they were bringing relevant value to the 50+ audience we serve in very creative ways. Now, for us at AARP, this is great news because we want every company to do as much as they possibly can to make lives better as we grow older. But there are certain programs, products and services that we feel bring a unique value proposition; and like any other organization we nurture and protect those things so that we can fuel our social mission to fight for and equip people to live their best lives as we age.

In today’s world, technology is a critical way to move the overall business agenda forward, and organizations that have a mature IT organization should be at the forefront of driving this agenda. Although we at AARP have been servicing the wants and needs of our members for over 57 years, as a CIO I begin to look at our IT organization as a 57-year-old startup within AARP, and focused on identifying unique opportunities to run it like a business. Because technology is such a strategic advantage for businesses, I realized our IT shop was in the best position internally to provide additional value to our organizations and to contribute to the bottom line.

To move this transformation forward, I focused first on the culture of the IT organization. I wanted everyone in the IT department to think about ways we could be more innovative. I wanted them to experiment and make bolder decisions, so I needed to help them understand that it was okay to fail. Most importantly, I needed to regularly emphasize and evangelize the contribution that we could make as a team in directly serving our members and to expand our focus from solely business operations and systems integration. The primary goal for IT should not be help desk tickets resolved; nor should it be system uptime or any other process-driven objective. Those should be a given in any organization – a box for the CEO to check so it’s not a worry. The real value that IT can bring is to continually look at the business in a critical way. Since IT is so embedded in just about every aspect of the business, we are uniquely positioned to see the disruptive ideas and areas of growth for the business.

Once the mindset was adjusted, the IT organization began to clearly understand our untapped power and potential; and the ideas just started pouring in. We began a journey of taking the best ideas and experimenting in areas that were very foreign to us. The results of our transformation has yielded a national technology training program call AARP TEK, as well as AARP’s first retail product, which is a tablet device called the RealPad. Both of these offerings are targeted towards an older audience and designed to increase digital literacy for those who are technology shy. My goal has been accomplished in terms of ensuring the organization at large is truly leveraging this incredible asset – not just for internal technology support, but meeting the needs of our members and ensuring that people 50+ have possibilities and are not limited as we age. That’s our bottom line at AARP, and now it’s intrinsically in the DNA of each and every member of our IT organization.

Terry Bradwell, AARP’s chief enterprise strategy & innovation officer, helps shape AARP’s future through the development of a clear enterprise strategy and a strong innovation pipeline. He is responsible for strategic planning, corporate relations and an innovation lab that continually looks at how we can do our work better and discover new solutions that help our members and people 50+ live their best lives. With over 25 years of domestic and international experience in information technology development, delivery and management, he has held a number of senior leadership positions. As AARP’s Chief Information Officer, he transformed the IT organization from a “cost center” to a “value center,” running IT like a business and stimulating innovation across the enterprise and closing the gap in digital literacy for the 50+.

Terry Bradwell, AARP’s chief enterprise strategy & innovation officer, helps shape AARP’s future through the development of a clear enterprise strategy and a strong innovation pipeline.