Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Giving IT a Seat in the Boardroom, Not Just Behind the Computer

Niraj Jetly
Niraj Jetly
Senior Vice President - Chief Information Officer/Chief Operating Officer

Interviewed by Sam Narisi
Publications Editor/Lead Writer
Frost & Sullivan

NutriSavings recently earned Frost & Sullivan’s CIO Impact Award for Big Data and Advanced Analytics. The company was recognized for its innovative employee wellness solution, which uses big data to score thousands of food items and help people make smarter choices.

Frost & Sullivan recently spoke with Niraj Jetly, NutriSavings SVP, CIO/COO, about the challenges of getting tangible value from vast amounts of data and how technology leaders can make sure IT is aligned with business goals.

What service does NutriSavings provide?

NutriSavings is in the employee health and wellness space. Healthcare costs are increasing year after year, and employers are struggling to keep them contained. The challenge is that people’s wellbeing is driven by two key components – their lifestyle, and what they eat. There are many providers who are focusing on active lifestyles, and they’re doing a wonderful job. However, based on academic research, the majority of a person’s wellbeing depends on what they eat. The nutrition-focused benefits market is underserved, and that’s where NutriSavings comes to play. NutriSavings provides the industry’s first measurable and track-able nutrition-focused wellness solution for employers and health plans. We have one mission in mind: to help employers and employees reduce healthcare costs.

How do big data, analytics, and other IT issues come into play?

When you’re talking about an ecosystem where we have employers, health plans, retailers, and food manufacturers, there is a lot of data flowing back and forth among all these participants. Let’s take an example. When I’m going for my grocery shopping, I have the best intent to buy the healthiest items for my family. But the challenge is when I pick up a yogurt box or a cereal box, I don’t know if it is healthy or not, because as a consumer, I’m not educated enough to compete with the big marketing budgets of food manufacturers. The first application of big data is to look at food items, ingredients, and nutritional information to synthesize a nutritional score for every food item. We have built a big data application that takes into account 200,000 food items and about 150 million data elements which we compare to give a score from 1 to 100.

The second application of big data is processing data from the supermarkets. The third element is working with the food manufacturers. The traditional marketing media used by food manufacturers are the coupons in supermarket inserts. Their challenge is that you don’t know who is using these coupons. Hence, in the age of digital marketing, these tools may not be very effective. We have built a data infrastructure where we can help the food manufacturer actually identify and target the buyers of their products at a much more granular level than before.

What challenges have you run into in terms of gathering and analyzing all that data? How have you overcome those?

There were business and technical that we encountered in our journey. Business challenges could be attributed to new way of doing things, which are radically different from what has been done in the past. For example - why would a food manufacturer like to play in this space when they have been using the standard coupon booklet for the last several years? Why would a supermarket share the data with us? How do we ensure privacy and confidentiality of the data?

Technical challenges mainly came from building systems to handle a huge slew of data in different formats from manufacturers, retailers, and employers, How to make logical sense of data? How can we deliver value to our constituents? What other data elements might create new business models and opportunities for growth? Etc.

Was there any difficulty convincing other parts of the organization that big data and analytics would add business value?

The difficulty convincing other parts of organization was not the value of “Big Data.” Rather the question was, would we really get access to this data? The value proposition of this data becomes compelling to all players in eco-system, when they all collaborate. NutriSavings is majority owned by a French global giant, Edenred. Edenred has extensive experience in data management and Big Data.

It seems you’ve done a great job getting IT aligned with the mission and business goals of the organization. What advice do you have for other IT leaders trying to accomplish that?

I have been in IT leadership for over 11 years. I have chaired several business and technology alignment meetings where business stakeholders and technology stakeholders would come together and figure out priorities. These are tough meetings where everyone needs to make hard decisions. Over the years, I have seen these alignment sessions get easier. My take-away for making these meetings easier was the fact that when IT leaders learn the art of empathizing with clients, alignment becomes natural phenomenon.

In my own case, over the past six years, the amount of time I’ve spent on a daily basis with my customers has increased to about 60% - 70%.The more time I spend understanding my customer’s needs, the less I spend in alignment sessions. I have seen many CIOs still spending the majority of their time dealing with IT problems rather than client problems. My advice to them would be to encourage their leadership teams build communication and collaboration skills, so they can easily empathize with  customers’ needs.

What are some things IT can do to be seen as more of a strategic partner, rather than a cost center?

Around 11 years ago, one of my CEOs asked me, what’s the value of IT? Honestly, that’s a pretty tough question to answer if you are only focused on technology. But the moment you are focused on people and technology, suddenly this question becomes irrelevant. Now I am working closely with my management team and CEO to create the business plan and the strategy together. CIOs need to earn the trust of their management team and CEO by delivering business value. Only after that, they can earn the right to have a seat at the table. You cannot earn your right if you are too focused on technology. You need to be business first, technology later. Focus on your customer. When the customer is coming to your organization, they are not coming for IT or customer service or for product management. They are coming to you because they value what you are offering. So as IT leaders, we cannot afford to just focus on technology and overlook the customer’s needs. You are an integral part of the business strategy, but you have to earn your way there.

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