Proving their mettle

Canada’s century old mining firm Inco Ltd. likes to set lofty goals for itself, as is evidenced by its motto: “building the world’s leading nickel company”.

Likewise, the company’s IT department likes to set its sights high. It aims to be “the most effective IT department in the mining industry”, according to VP and CIO, Subi Bhandari. And it wants to achieve that status in unquestionable, measurable terms, as viewed by the toughest critics of all — the clients within the company. Those terms include realized business outcomes, consistent delivery on promises, and the best metrics in the industry with respect to cost per seat, service levels, customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction.

It goes without saying that if you want to build the best IT department in your industry, you’d better be a dab hand at training up your employees. But can you get to the top by loading up your staff with technical accreditations?

Having a deep reservoir of technical expertise at your disposal certainly helps, but if you want to be truly great, you have to focus on equipping your staff with a type of expertise that’s a whole lot harder to come by: business smarts.

As the gatekeeper of the Emerald City of Oz put it, “That’s a horse of different colour.”

Interfacing with the client

Business smarts are a highly desirable commodity in Inco’s IT department, especially where the rubber meets the road — the point of interface between the IT department and its internal clients.

INCO’S I.T. strategic directions

Read more on INCO’S I.T. strategy here

Three years ago, Inco put some formal structure around this interface, creating the Client Relationship Management (CRM) group, which operates under an arm of IT called Global Service Delivery. CRM is composed of specially selected staff whose purpose is to facilitate the delivery of IT services to internal business clients and to act as IT’s first contact with the business.

“CRM started off very simply at first,” said Bhandari. “We didn’t think very hard about what kind of capabilities and skills these people would need to be successful. It was more a matter of finding people who could work with the business and determine what the business needs.”

One of CRM’s key roles would be to steer the conversation with internal clients in the right direction — to move the discussion away from the business saying it needs this system or that piece of hardware.

“We wanted to be in a position where we could say, let’s talk about your business problem and about the options for solving it. Let’s talk about building a business case, and about how we will determine that you’ve achieved the outcome you’re looking for,” said Bhandari.

Of course a critical factor in the success of the CRM group would be finding the right people to do the job.

“In the beginning, we were looking for some key competencies,” said Armand Chartrand, Director of Global Service Delivery. “Clearly, we wanted people who could focus on a customer. They had to have certain skill sets around business analysis. They needed the ability to go in, work with the business clients, analyze their situation, and understand their requirements. They also needed to have a high-level understanding of the IT environment. And at the end of the day, they needed to really understand the organization so that they could weave their way through it.”

Excellence in building and leveraging working relationships was another key requirement, added Chartrand. “That’s not just the working relationship with the customer,” he said. “The people in CRM have got to bridge the gap between the customer and our service providers.”

The role actually called for people who were generalists, according to Bhandari. “It’s a mixed bag of skills and I don’t think it’s for everyone,” he said. “They have to have a very good understanding of the business and a very good understanding of IT — not necessarily a coder or networking specialist, but someone who understands what it takes to build a system, what it takes to deliver or implement a product.”

Finding the right staff

Inco looked both inside and outside the company to find the right people to staff the CRM practice. For starters, there were certain individuals in the IT department who seemed to fit the bill.

Inco also extended its search outside the company, looking for people with strong IT skills, good business analysis skills, and who had worked with customers. They had to understand and have experience in the client relationship role.

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Last but not least, CRM staff were recruited from the IT department’s internal customers — the miners, smelters, and refiners.

“We’d bring in people in from our customers with a strong business background,” said Chartrand, “For example, we’d get someone with a Masters degree in mining engineering, who was able to really understand the mining side and who would then pick up some of the necessary IT knowledge.”

“In the end, we found that picking someone with good interpersonal skills and who has worked with the business really helps,” said Bhandari. “But you need substantially more than that. You need someone with the ability to listen to people and who can describe a problem and identify its root cause. They must also be able to come up with some alternatives and explain those alternatives, along with the associated costs and risks, to the client. Those kinds of people are few and far between.”

Taking CRM to the next Level

With three years of CRM under its belt, Inco is pleased with the progress that has been achieved so far, however it is now at the point where it wants to take the practice to the next level.

“Until now we haven’t done a lot of training in this area, and that’s why we’ve had an uneven experience with it,” said Bhandari. “Over a period of time we trained some people in customer service, business process analysis and project management, but there wasn’t a comprehensive or holistic approach towards building the CRM capability. We now need to go about it in a fashion where the results will be predictable in terms of the quality of the people that we have.”

When Inco embarked on CRM three years ago, it looked not only at who to staff it with but also at how to build the practice and what kind of processes to put into it.

“We’ve now reached the stage of being able to say what’s worked and what hasn’t worked,” said Chartrand. “Now it’s a question of how do we get closely aligned to the business and add more value? What kind of skill set do these people need? If we step back and look at CRM, how can we enhance this practice and take it to another level?”

The answer, he believes, lies in a combination of things. Principally, it’s changing what you do and, along with that, growing your people in different ways in order to add more value to the business.

It’s not just a matter of developing their competencies; it’s a matter of aligning those competencies with the direction Inc

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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