During her almost 30 years with Allstate - the past two as CTO - Cathy Brune has seen the company move from "silos and chimneys" to a common services architecture in which application components are reused. In addition to reducing application development time, Allstate (Northbrook, Ill., $32.1 billion in revenues) has done "hundreds of millions of dollars of strategic work without adding a dollar to the technology plan because we are not building things 10 different times anymore," says Brune.
I&T: Building a standardized architecture can mean that individual business units may not get the exact systems they want. How do you get the business areas to work together?
Brune: You cannot build standardized architectures without strong relationships between your technology group and your business group. Our vision as technology professionals is that we live in the business but we never lose sight of what's right for the enterprise.
We have business unit CIOs who report directly to the business unit presidents as well as to me. They know everything that's going on with the business and help us determine if what we are building is right for the business, as well as right for the enterprise. There are six leaders, but at the end of the day we have to think as one. It was almost easier to get the business entities together than it was some of the technologists, because the technologists had been able to live in their own worlds.
I&T: So how do you get the IT folks to come out of their silos?
Brune: The daily feedings help. Honestly, though, it has to start from the top. Our leadership team made the conscious decision that we were going to spend whatever time and effort it took to make every level in our organization understand the power of standardized architectures. We forced them to get together, we forced them to make decisions together, and we forced ourselves to do it.
You've got one group that thinks they have the answer and another group that thinks they have the answer, and you have to sift through and listen very intently to come up with what really is the answer. Your leadership group - and I mean leadership group down to lower-level managers in the organization - have to understand the vision, have accountability and clearly understand that they have to work together. The alternative is not an option.
I&T: How do you motivate your IT staff and keep them engaged?
Brune: We just don't have a turnover issue. People who come here are happy with what they do. That doesn't mean that they don't challenge me about things that need to be done differently, but I love that we work together to make this an environment where they know they are making a difference and that the work they do is important.
We spend a lot of time not only working on technology skills but on collaboration skills and mediation skills. We do team jams where we get hundreds of our people together. We move people around and we've asked them to be flexible. When people move around and learn new things, they start to see the art of the possible. They start to be innovators.
I&T: What is your relationship with your strategic partners?