Guide your IT department on the road to change

Although I was hired by YRC Worldwide nearly two years ago to create a strategy to drive innovation, I quickly realized that there was more work to do within IT than just creating a strategy.

In the wake of the merger of Yellow Freight, Roadway and USF, the IT groups from our three companies operating in multiple locations had been merged into one unit but had yet to jell into a cohesive team. Adding to the stress from its change of identity, the group had to develop an application road map for the merged organization that would modernize and simplify the application portfolio. Only then would we be able to free up the resources needed to focus on innovation and driving growth. The IT transformation is the biggest change effort ever seen within IT, ultimately involving hundreds of people.

The size and scope of such a task requires change leadership from the CIO. I have to be actively involved, and it’s a tough balancing act. I’ve been spending between 20 to 30 percent of my time as the hands-on manager of our change initiatives during the past 18 months, while at the same time fulfilling my strategic role. Fortunately, change leadership is one of the C-level competencies that seems to be native to the IT profession, even in the middle-management ranks. There aren’t many disciplines that have experienced as much change during the past 20 years as IT. People who have worked in IT over time have benefited from rolling with a series of technology changes. That experience makes us less resistant to change.

When we become corporate executives, we quickly realize that we are not working in a dictatorship. We learn that we have to take time to understand the needs of our constituents and stakeholders and help them along with technology changes. Without these basic change leadership skills, no IT leader is going to get far.

Creating a corporate identity After the mergers, we had multiple technologies used for similar functions, and this creates a level of complexity that is difficult to manage. It’s taken a year and a half to evaluate our portfolio and to decide which of the applications and technologies we want going forward, as well as how to manage the migration to our target state. Our target state represents a 40 per cent reduction in applications and a 30 per cent reduction in total technologies by the end of 2010. Regardless of the technology challenges, however, change leadership is still about people. My IT department is a blend of cultures. We have mixed together employees who were accustomed to supporting one operating company in one geographic location but now must support multiple operating companies across three different geographic locations: Chicago, Kansas City and Akron, Ohio.

We began a campaign to divorce people from their parochial thinking, to emphasize that as a new corporate entity we needed to begin acting and thinking together. We chose the name YRC Worldwide Technologies because we support all the brands in the corporation. It’s not a sexy name, but it’s significant because there’s nothing about Yellow, Roadway or USF in that name. We also created a tag line for the organization–”Smart People, Powerful Technology”–that helped to establish a new identity. New names, of course, aren’t enough to change behaviors. So we went on a change “binge” starting with our staffing structure. We created an architecture and strategy group that also had responsibility for standards and IT processes.

Through this group, we implemented common processes for development, change, release, workforce and project management. Our managers also created a “Guiding Council,” which is a group of managers that comes up with practical ways to help implement change and serves as a “voice of reason” for the organization. It points out flaws in our change initiatives and offers suggestions for how they can be implemented. The council also has been very helpful in suggesting the amount of change the organization can absorb over a period of time. To get our message out, the leadership team used a variety of communication tools, ranging from the more traditional all-hands meetings and employee roundtables to holding Web chats.

Everyone needs a stake

Along with the new identity and structures, we needed to motivate people to embrace change as individuals. I believe people enjoy a challenge. But they need to believe the challenge is achievable or you’ll have failed before you even get started. On the other hand, if it’s not a big enough challenge, then you won’t get them in the game; they’ll think of it as just the initiative of the day.

There’s also the question of, “What’s in it for me?” This one is tricky because the answer will vary from person to person and location to location. When you speak to mixed groups you can’t always know how to personalize the benefit for each individual. But you can speak generally to the benefits of change to the company, which will in turn benefit employees who are shareholders.

Or you can take the opposite approach and talk about how, if we don’t change, we risk underperforming our competitors. And underperforming the competition is dangerous because it puts jobs at risk. But I prefer to stay positive and motivate people around positive messages.

You can also tailor your message when you are talking to specific groups. For example, we have some legacy technologies that we’re moving away from. The people working in those technologies are concerned about their relevance. To get them on board, I explain to them that as long as they are willing to learn the technologies we are moving to, we will make the investments needed to retrain them.

Leaders need to change, too

One thing that helps us to develop strong change leadership skills is our ability to create change for ourselves. Everyone gets comfortable in a role after a while and complacency can set in without you even knowing it. So you always need to find new ways to learn and to challenge yourself. For me, that means I don’t sit in one place too long. I’ve been in several industries: manufacturing, consulting, telecom and now transportation.

Some of the career moves I’ve made were lateral for the sake of going into a new area and continuing to learn. Having to adapt to new cultures and structures, develop new relationships and comprehend new business models and markets makes you sensitive to how individuals react to change and what makes change harder or easier.

Up-and-coming IT leaders should make sure they are moving around within their companies and making selective, intelligent choices to move to other companies. You’ll see that type of activity in the background of people who excel at change leadership. In the end, to inspire change in others, you have to embrace change in yourself.

Michael Rapken is executive vice-president and CIO of YRC Worldwide.

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