How to strengthen the business relevance of IT

How to strengthen the business relevance of IT

The CIO of a multi-billion dollar US healthcare provider reports on how IT managers can gain respect in top management. […]

Mark Brooks is Executive Vice president and CIO of Centene Corporation, a Fortune 25 insurance company for the U.S. healthcare industry. In this role, he is responsible for the information technology of the $ 111 billion corporation. Brooks leads a team of more than 4,000 people who develop and implement software and services primarily for the US Medicaid and Medicare programs. In November 2021, he was awarded the St. Louis Leadership CIO of the Year ORBIE Award.

Centene has acquired 20 companies since its founding, seven of which have been acquired in the past five years. Brooks’ “Centene Technologies” team has grown a lot as part of this process. Most recently, the manager was responsible for the technical integration of two healthcare service providers with a volume of over ten billion dollars. In a conversation for the CIO Whisperers podcast, Brooks explained how a culture of “radical openness” has helped manage the scale and complexity of this integration. This applies in particular to dealing with employees, which is often the biggest challenge.

In the margins of the interview, CIO also spoke to Brooks about how the IT department can underline its business relevance and why learning is fundamental to further develop the corporate culture. In addition, his statements are instructive when it comes to justifying the business benefits of investing in IT. The key to this, Brooks says, is building skills to connect business and technological needs.

You have rebranded your IT organization. What were the reasons?

Mark Brooks: When we had to manage a large merger in 2016, we were a classic IT department. As soon as the joint management team was formed, however, it became clear that we wanted to achieve much more than what IT meant at that time – a service organization or a call center. We wanted to be a strategic partner for our internal customers, sit at the management table, help with strategy development and achieve results. The aim was to establish a direct link between our work and the business figures.

That is why we have created “Business Engagement Teams” – well-organized competence centers that focus on business processes. As part of our operating model, the employees were selected in such a way that they could work with our business partners and start building the brand and reputation. And when these things came together, the team decided in a very thoughtful rebranding process that “Centene Technologies” is the designation that best embodies what we want to achieve.

You talked in the podcast about some of the changes you have experienced by switching to an agile way of working. What is particularly impressive is the service culture that they have introduced and that they have maintained the course for the entire duration. How do you change the way your employees act, how they get involved and how they act as partners?

Brooks: We have a structured training program for outstanding service, and we are investing in this program for several reasons. This starts with the actual task of Centene: we offer health insurance and services for people who really need high-quality care. So we are thinking about the results we need to achieve for these people. And, of course, the best way to achieve these results is to have teams that are successful and do their part to achieve this result.

It all starts with how we treat our internal partners. Ultimately, we need to support you in your tasks in the best possible way, and our service excellence mentality is something that we consider as part of our task. This also affects the search for new talent: there are many IT professionals who want to embrace this mission and become part of Centene – not only because we work with the latest technologies, but also because the work we do is actually helpful and has a positive impact on people’s lives.

You are the CIO of a large corporation. Why is it important for you to continue your education?

Brooks: One of our phrases is: if you don’t win, you learn. And we believe that learning is fundamental to further develop our culture and our ability to achieve results. I personally fell in love with IT and technical gimmicks over 30 years ago. So I literally taught myself programming languages. Some of the younger programmers at our company will probably say that I haven’t exactly covered myself with fame over the years when learning Java or Golang. But I see the analogy for me like this: if you love the tools, then the result of the work is simply better.

My grandfather used to say that the best carpenter must love the smell of sawdust, and I really believe that this is true. I have never understood how people can work without knowing the basic components or understanding how things work. Although I did not study computer science, I have always felt very comfortable leading IT teams, because I have always aspired to learn the technology. And when I say to learn them, I don’t necessarily mean to master them, but I want to understand them at a level where I can use common sense to see what it takes to implement something. If one does not feel love for the building blocks, it becomes very difficult to survey them and guide the construction.

The best leaders are usually teachers. Can you tell us what you do on Monday evenings in your free time?

Brooks: A few years ago, I started a course at Washington University here in St. Louis. I teach because I have a real passion for developing technology talent and the course is unique. He presupposes technical self-confidence, and it is assumed that at this stage of their learning journey, students have already mastered the technology. However, the professional challenge is to be a constructive and active participant in a team.

For this, students must learn to write technical concepts in such a way that they are understandable even to a non-technical audience. And most importantly, students are encouraged to make an effective presentation in which they make a recommendation on how to solve a problem and, in turn, describe it to an audience that is not necessarily tech-savvy. So I think this is a really good way to help IT professionals complete their skills. And I hope that this will allow you to build your career over time.

The past two years have been a difficult time, in general and certainly in IT. What do you think about the future of the industry?

Brooks: When I approach college graduates who are considering a career in business or IT, I would encourage them to consider a tech career. After all, Centene’s philosophy that technology is the company’s core competence ultimately applies to all organizations. This can be seen not least in the way digital technologies are changing the business world – for example, when smaller newcomers are severely disrupting traditional legacy providers. I think that the lessons of the past two years and the acceleration that has occurred due to the pandemic will help each individual to decide on a career in the technology field and be successful.

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