Agility, collaboration, and accountability are essential to an innovative culture, but they must work in balance. Here’s how to make that happen
Business Vision Drives Business Innovation
An Interview with Tim Elkins, EVP & CIO, PrimeLending
Tim joined PrimeLending in 2008 and serves today as EVP and Chief Information Officer. He is responsible for information security, IT operations, and technology initiatives. Tim has more than 20 years of experience in the mortgage industry and is chair of the Residential Technology Forum (RESTECH) for the Mortgage Bankers Association.
THE ENTERPRISERS PROJECT: In a new CIO survey of 100 IT execs, only 18% said they are currently focused on driving business innovation. What can they do to get themselves out from under?
ELKINS: It’s something I say a lot but really believe in: you need to spend the time to come up with a business vision and share it. Everything for me and the way I operate comes down to having a vision, writing it down and sharing it. Because it’s one thing to think about where you want to be. But there’s something magical that happens when you write it down and you share it. When you just talk about it and don’t put it down, that’s usually where it ends.
The last business vision I created is now a Number One company initiative, so now I’m trying to think what’s next. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t have a plan. But when you come in with a business plan from a technology perspective it’s typically a new angle or a new wrinkle that the typical businessperson won’t come in with. It’s never perfect and never fully accepted as is, it gets tweaked by the people I’m working with, but for me that’s literally how I view it: Come up with a plan, share your plan, you may not always hit, but at least be working toward a bigger and better future.
For me that’s where you’ll start to be seen as a strategic partner and business partner, not just an IT person. And your plan doesn’t need to be "I’m going to grow my data center to accommodate the business." It needs to be, "Here’s how I am going to use technology to grow the business and support the business." If you’re seeing a lot of CIOs identifying opportunities but can’t execute on them, maybe they’re coming in with one-offs and don’t have a comprehensive plan that says, "Hey, in 5 years here’s what I think it looks like, what do you think?"
TEP: What is the business vision you developed that has now become an active project at Primelending?
ELKINS: In our business we have a loan origination system. That’s our core system that everyone uses to process a loan. And it’s all internally focused. My idea was to have a consumer-facing loan origination system. It’s a different twist because consumers today want to do more, control more and have more transparency. They don’t want our system over here to hide what’s going on from them. They want to know if their appraisal has been ordered, are they into underwriting, is their closing date scheduled? They want to have visibility into it. And since a lot of them want to follow along with the data, I asked why we’re doing this all internally when they’re asking for the transparency? And obviously there’s the mobile aspect and the big data to help us complete and customize much of the experience. It’s very much a consumer-focused project.
TEP: 78% of respondents in this new CIO research rate their knowledge of the business as excellent or good, yet only 10% report that their companies view IT as a "business peer" today. What can IT be doing to change this? What are some quick wins they can consider?
ELKINS: Here are a few things I’ve done.
I’ve scheduled one-on-ones with key execs, my peers, and spent time to get to know them, but also for them to get to know me and how I can help them. Either take them to lunch or have monthly scheduled one-on-ones. And it only has to be a 30- or even 15-minute meeting a month. They’ll always accept a regular meeting if you keep it convenient and come in prepared to listen to where they’re struggling. They’ll share that because they know they’re talking to the head of the department, the one who can get things done. And then deliver for them, prove you understand what the business needs and that you can listen and can deliver business value.
Another thing, and this may seem a little odd, but it has worked out tremendously for me, is to move your office to be right there with the C-suite. Our IT department is on the 7th and 3rd floors of our building and our executive team is on the 9th floor. I sit two doors from CEO, one door from our President, right next to the office of our General Counsel. If something is going on I’m right in the middle of it. I’m very accessible, I’m seen as a partner and not the guy down on the IT floor. It did create some other challenges, and I have to make an effort to walk the floor every day since I have to be seen with my technology group as well. But more importantly for your IT group, if you can be right there next to the key execs of the company it can prove very valuable. They may not make the effort to come down and see you a few floors down, but they definitely will poke their head around into your office and say, "Hey, will you come weigh in on this?" Visually, you’re seen as one of the stakeholders. That works really well.
Something else, if you can pull it off, is to consider embedding some of your IT folks into the different departments. In general you have to be a more sizable company to pull it off. But here at Primelending we have a tech person that runs our investor delivery department. He reports in through technology but runs the department that actually delivers loans to investors and sends the documents and data and all of that. We’ve embedded him in that department to help bring it to a much more efficient state than it was. We don’t see it as a long-term plan, because at some point we’ll turn it back over to the business, but we’ve come in and made it much better. We have direct access to the investors and to making that process much more efficient.
You can do it at a lower level as well, where you embed someone in just to be their process improvement person. This was called Strategic Initiatives, where we’d embed someone in and be there to help work as a strategic partner and become part of the department. When you’re there every day, sitting there and seeing what’s going on, you’ll immediately pick up on efficiencies that technology can help with rather than waiting for them to come to you.