Imagine you’re a CIO, and you just hired on with a $600 million publicly traded technology company. You walk into work the first day on the job, and you find yourself in the throes of an ERP deployment that—well, let’s just say, it isn’t going so well. The previous CIO, who had been with the company for 10 years, left two months ago, so the hand-off wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. You know if you don’t act fast, the deployment is going to spin irreversibly out of control, which would put your CEO in the lousy position of having to explain to shareholders why a technology company failed so miserably with a technology implementation, and threw a boatload of money away in the process. Just try to imagine the pressure you’d be under.
Dave Brady doesn’t have to imagine it. He lived it.
Brady is the CIO at Datalink, a cloud services provider in Eden Prairie, Minn. When he joined the company in March 2013, that bleak scenario was precisely the one he faced. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about it, and one of the things that struck me was the even-keeled manner in which he recounted the story. There was no embellishment, no woe-is-me vibe, no self-aggrandizement. If anything, he downplayed the whole mess. This is how he brought it up:
They were on the heels of having just done a major [Microsoft Dynamics AX] ERP deployment. Pretty much over the course of six months before I came on board here, they just ripped out all the business systems and put in a whole new portfolio of business systems. So when I walked in the door here in March of 2013, there was just an awful lot of excitement going on around that ERP deployment. It just wasn’t going well. So I would say the first four or five months were exclusively spent on not only learning the business, but understanding what needed to be done to stabilize that entire business environment. As with any ERP deployment, it’s about stabilizing your business processes. There’s technology behind it, but usually when ERP projects get a little exciting like that, the business processes are what get impacted.
I noted that historically, companies have often found in such a situation that their best option is to bite the bullet—to blow it up and start with something else. Brady said he didn’t have to do that:
[Datalink CEO Paul Lidsky] and I had some very serious conversations, probably 60 days after I started, about whether we should back it out. By then, they had put in ServiceNow for customer ticketing; they had put in NetSuite OpenAir for all of our time expense. The intent was to bring that in as a professional services automation platform across the board. I was like, ‘We could go back, but you’re not going back to the same business, and it’s not going to look the same.’ So I said, ‘Let’s just push ahead, and knock it out.’ And we did. But my approach to tackling that was not a technology approach to say, ‘Let’s fix the system.’ It was, ‘Let’s fix the business processes. And oh, by the way, let’s understand from a business perspective, what are we having the most pain with, and let’s just kind of chunk our way through it.’ So by the time we got through the end of summer, we had pretty much worked our way through all of the issues that were causing a lot of excitement in the business, and things settled down pretty quickly.
The next step, Brady said, was to bring in lean business practices:
So Paul and I had a lot of conversations like, ‘The next step is, how do we actually start to leverage the investments that you’ve made in these new technologies, and how do we position the company to grow to become a billion-dollar company and beyond that?’ At the time, when I hired on, I think Datalink was around $500 million; we had a good year last year, and ended up around $600 million, and we’ve done an acquisition [of Bear Data Solutions] since. He’s moving forward with his business plans, so I said, ‘Let’s put some foresight into this and figure out how we need to change the business to operate efficiently at these new levels, without having to tear everything apart.’ So one of the first things that I did was I brought in lean practices and said, ‘OK, if you’re going to grow, you need to grow efficiently. Otherwise, you’re just going to throw headcount at everything you’re trying to do, and that’s not going to be good for shareholders.’
There was a recognition that we really didn’t understand how Datalink processed the business as it was anyway. So we brought in Kaizen as the continuous improvement methodology—we did a bunch of process analysis, and started creating strategies on how to improve the business. Technology is an enabler behind that, but it’s a lot more about people and process than it is the technology.
So one of his key roles when he came onboard, Brady said, was to figure out how IT could help the business efficiently navigate through this growth:
You can’t grow efficiently by throwing people at everything to get you to the next level—you’ve got to start automating and looking at your processes. You’ve got to figure out how to add scale into everything that you do, without having to add cost at every step of the way.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.