IT leadership: 4 ways to find opportunities for improvement

Now is the perfect time to innovate and drive growth. Consider these tips to identify areas that are ripe for transformation
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When you’re in a war, you’re focused only on the fight in front of you. Once that fight is over, you clean your weapons and patch your tents. Then you take care of your soldiers. You send them to college and get them training so they’re ready for whatever is next.

That’s how we’ve operated over the past 15+ months at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. We prioritized and attacked the most important projects first, then we took a step back to strategically examine the work we did and identify opportunities for improvement.

We’re transforming business processes and rethinking future needs.

As we emerge from this fight, we’re looking toward the future. We’re thinking about how to create a competitive advantage for our university by leveraging all the investments we’ve made in IT from both before and during the pandemic. We’re innovating and transforming business processes and rethinking future needs.

[ Want more real-world advice? Read also: 4 change management strategies for the hybrid work era. ] 

Now isn’t the time to pause, nor is it the time to reflect. Now is the time to take leaps forward, build upon what you have, and make decisions to generate a long-term competitive advantage. The following four tips have helped us identify opportunities and priorities in the past, and they may help your organization do the same as you think about the future and continue to transform.

1. Identify and remove senseless policies

At UAB, we’ve established a policy that if one of our standard practices doesn’t make sense, we don’t keep doing it just because it’s a standard practice. In other words, if we’re wasting the collective intellect of our organization by asking them to jump through hoops or perform unnecessary steps to get their jobs done, let’s find a better way.

For example, it’s a common policy at many organizations for workers to change their network or email passwords every 60 or 90 days for security purposes. Nobody enjoys doing that, though – they forget their new password, waste time guessing it, eventually get locked out, and need to submit a ticket to reset it. That’s a waste of people’s time – and that’s why our passwords at UAB no longer expire.

[ Get more advice from CIO Curt Carver. Read also: 5 IT leadership mistakes to avoid: Alabama CIO of the Year winners share. ]

2. Eat your own dog food

Technology leaders should regularly use their own technology to better identify pain points and opportunities for improvements. That means that I should be teaching and using the same systems that faculty does to understand their experience through their lens. I should be meeting regularly with them and generating a Letterman-style Top 10 list of the things I hate most about my technology experience. This is something to do with the students, too. What do they hate most about the technology at the university? And how can we partner with them to address these issues over the next 12 months?

Several years ago, for example, we reexamined our application process. If a prospective student wanted to submit an application, we required them to generate a unique username and password. If the one they chose was already taken, they needed to continue creating alternate versions until they eventually landed upon one that was available. If someone began the application process and logged off to complete it later, then forgot their username and password, they’d have to start all over again. It was absurd.

Once we went through the application process ourselves and saw first-hand how complicated it was, we knew this was something we needed to fix. So we optimized the entire application process to make it easier to apply. People can now log in to submit an application using 15 types of social media accounts, or they can choose not to log in at all and just apply.

3. Make experiences delightful

One of our key metrics is to improve the lives of our customers in a hundred different ways each year, whether they’re faculty, staff, administration, researchers, or students. “Delight” is the only important word when you deliver products: If your product matches the competition, you’re losing. You want to strive for a delightful experience. 

"Delight" is the only important word when you deliver products: If your product matches the competition, you're losing.

As soon as we started to see the COVID-19 vaccination cards, we knew we could do better. Those cards are awkward sizes and don’t fit well in wallets, so we developed a digital version that could be stored in Apple Wallet and similar Android tools. It shows the vaccination dates, the location where the individual was immunized, and includes a barcode that, when scanned, links back to the hospital, which will verify it. We deployed it within a month, and people were thrilled – a quick project that delighted users.

4. Build a culture of innovation

Everyone in your organization must understand that they are an agent of change – that they are part of the mission to change and improve the organization, and where pearls of wisdom can come from anyone, not just the CIO. We want team members who are empowered, hungry, and always seeking new ways to improve what we do – that’s how you build a culture of innovation, and that’s how organizations maintain a competitive advantage.

One way I’ve instilled this in my IT group has been through a special night at the movies. I’ve rented out a movie theater the night of the premier of each new Star Wars movie and invited each employee to bring one guest. Every time, I tell them: “Look, I don’t care if you’re a Jedi Knight or a Sith Lord. I just care that you think you have the power to shape the destiny of the entire galaxy. I want you to feel empowered to make changes and improve the lives of our customers.”

I came to UAB in 2015 on the heels of two interim CIOs. It’s difficult to get things done when you’re interim, and there was frustration in the administration, IT staff, and in the community. I’ve spent the past six years with great support from the administration to fill in holes, end nonsensical processes and policies, and build an emotional connection with our customers by delighting them with innovative, exceptional products. As we look forward to the next four years, we’re continuing to focus on real business transformation to succeed in this digital age. These four best practices will help get us there.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Curtis A. Carver Jr., Ph.D. is the Vice President and Chief Information Officer for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In this role servant leader and enabler of others, he leads a team of dedicated professionals focused on providing solution to the UAB through world-class IT with a focus on innovation, agility and cost efficiency.