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The Changing Face of IT Leadership

By Kevin Dawson, VP, Information Services, LA BioMed Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute

Kevin Dawson, VP, Information Services, LA BioMed Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute

IT executives are expected to be business leaders responsible for the information services function from end-to-end and not just the custodians of the IT infrastructure. They constantly need to demonstrate how IT contributes value to the enterprise and understand very accurately how the enterprise is creating value. LA BioMed at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center is a relatively large biomedical research organization with focus on genomics, infectious disease, and metabolic conditions. From an informatics perspective, our core business process entails collection of data, translation of data into meaningful information that will then lead to new knowledge such as discoveries and innovation. It is IT’s main responsibility to support the pipeline from data through information to new knowledge discovery. Our department’s operating model aligns well with the organization’s business process and provides services at every point in the pipeline.

"IT executives need to monitor constantly how much effort is expended on projects and how much on operations"

The term ‘technologist’ may be misleading. What is the alternative – ‘business person’? This dichotomy implies that technology managers are not business persons. On the other hand, in a successful enterprise, all managers ought to be business persons first and foremost. While pure technologists may be challenged to align their operation with a business process-centric view and may be inclined to a more technology-centric view. The risk of creating building blocks without business context is that you may end up with too many blocks that are less important for the company’s operation and deliver less value, irrespective of the greatness of the underlying technology.

Paradigm shift in mindset

We intentionally changed the name of our department from Information Systems to Information Services to express the importance of services the department offers to the enterprise. We also introduced industry best practices based on ITIL and ITSM. Although none of these frameworks were implemented with religious adherence, they assured that members of the department use the same terminology. Formal IT processes were put in place including change control, project management, project portfolio management, a service catalog, service level agreements, incident management, vendor management, etc. We took advantage of SharePoint to set up many of these processes.

Faster delivery

Most IT managers are project managers at heart and have a preference to deliver projects over improving standard operations. IT executives need to monitor constantly how much effort is expended on projects and how much on operations. Over time, needs may shift from one to the other based on the business cycle in which the company is. The right allocation of effort on projects and operations driven by the needs of the enterprise and delivering projects on time, budget, and scope are key metrics when evaluating the effectiveness of an IT/IS department.

Skillset required

Firstly, technology leaders need to understand the industry they are in and how the company does business and creates value. Having prior experience in other business functions important to the company could also be an advantage. IT executives need to communicate and partner with other business executives to achieve business objectives. Secondly, there is no other department in most organizations that has such a broad insight into all operations of the company than IT. Successful IT executives are able to leverage this insight for the company and serve as drivers of information-driven decision making. Thirdly, IT leaders need to be good change agents, as most IT projects change business processes. Even more, a need for process change often emerges as a need for technology change. Good IT leaders recognize the underlying business process and will help to improve it with the help of technology rather than just delivering an isolated technology solution. Automating the wrong process won’t improve it – it will just make it faster. Finally, and probably most importantly, successful IT executives have the skills to hire the right people, build a great team, and give them the right responsibility, freedom, information, motivation, and resources to do their job well.

IT professionals are exposed to numerous hype cycles during their careers. It requires much due diligence to separate real progress from sales talk. With the availability of inexpensive storage, we have now the ability to store and analyze much data that was discarded in the past. The capability to extract valuable information from large amounts of data creates an impetus for the development of many new technology solutions. This progress is commonly described by the term of “big data” and defined by technologies supporting the 4 V’s of data, such as high volume, velocity, variety, and veracity. The data-through-information-to-knowledge pipeline has been commonly implemented using the Extract-Transfer-Load (ETL) process followed by Business Intelligence. With a new demand to process huge amounts of data, now ETL is often replaced by an Extract-Load-Transfer (ELT) process. New data processing paradigms allow us to reprocess and optimize the data at a later time for new analytical platforms rather than having to conform it to previously defined rigid data models. Emerging data processing and business intelligence technologies give the power of information-driven decision making into the hands of the decision maker. The new tools are more dynamic and reconfigurable than what we used in the past and allow for shorter development cycles and better alignment with the needs of rapidly changing enterprises. Another technological development that I’m excited about, in the field of biomedical computing in general and genomics in particular, is the adaptation of graphics processors (GPUs) for genomics computation. Genomics demands more computational power, storage, and network bandwidth than practically anything else in the healthcare industry and biomedical research. GPU clusters allow for faster and cheaper processing of some genomics data sets and could contribute to making clinical genomics and Precision Medicine a business reality.

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