Building a commercial team

In today’s weak economy, companies tend to think of IT mainly as an engine for cost reduction and increased efficiency. But in many industries, including the pharmaceutical testing business that my company, MDS, operates in, IT can and should be a differentiator that directly drives top-line growth. The path to being an effective partner in growth begins with an IT team that has a strong understanding of the business, a commercial orientation and a focus on the end customer.

A commercially oriented team needs to be built around a core of program managers and business analysts. These are the people who can play both sides of the table, sit down with the business, understand what they’re asking for, and then translate that to our technology partners, both internal and external. Your reputation as the right group to deliver commercial solutions rests on their shoulders.

I’ve been involved in delivery of very big applications, going back to 1996 with the first customer Web site at Fidelity Investments. The projects that failed, I found, were most often the ones in which IT tried to do everything with an internal mindset. The ones that were successful tended to have talent involved that appreciated the external customer.

When I started at MDS two-and-a-half years ago, we had a key project in one of our lines of business that got off to a rocky start. It is a system that helps manage the customer’s trial and delivers data results from the trial to the customer. It seemed that when we got the technology side working, the business side was broken, and then when we got the business side right, the technology side was broken. And the business was telling us that even if we succeeded in rolling this out, it would only put us at par in the marketplace. So we put in a good high-level project manager from the business and one from IT and coupled the two tightly to get a much more focused view on the features this application needed. Within six months we had it ready, and the customers who have started to use it have said it is the gold standard in the marketplace and is a competitive differentiator. We are winning customers – and growing the top line – with this system.

The key to that success was strong project leaders on both sides. The IT manager brought a good understanding of the business, strong skills in managing the compromises that come up in these projects, and a drive to see the project completed.

We have team members with these skills because I deliberately recruit for and develop them. MDS has multiple business units, and I have not centralized my application teams because I want people to develop strong industry knowledge supporting the specific businesses and understanding their particular customers.

My entire team goes on sales calls; it’s really important to hear directly what the customer wants. The sales person isn’t going to go in and ask, “What kind of systems would you like to see from our company?” Or “What do our competitors have from a technology perspective that we don’t have?” When those points emerge, it’s not only you or your team member hearing it; the sales people hear it as well. And that can really build momentum for a specific initiative.

I have not imposed a quota for going on these sales calls, but I’ve hired people who like to do it. Those are harder people to find, of course. In fact, that’s the biggest staffing model challenge I have. I think people who like to work with the business tend to naturally like to be in front of the customer. Their ideals of success are making sure that they are not only putting in a great technology solution but also meeting the business needs. It’s that attitude that I’m looking for.

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Tom Gernon is CIO of MDS Inc. in Toronto, a $1.3 billion heathcare company. Mr. Gernon is a member of the CIO Executive Council.

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