Sections Technology

It’s Not My Job … or Is It?

When It Comes to IT, Responsibility Is Reaching to the Top


Greg Pellerin

Greg Pellerin

When it comes to your company’s IT infrastructure, whose job is it, anyway? Who takes the blame (or maybe even the fall) if something goes wrong? More and more, responsibility for an IT failure is reaching all the way to the executive suite.

In May, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel resigned after a major data-security breach. Some said it wasn’t his fault, but the company’s board disagreed, saying it was a result of underinvestment in Target’s IT systems. The Associated Press quoted Daniel Ives, analyst for FBR Capital Markets, who said, “ultimately, it’s the CIO and the IT managers that are really more in the weeds, but just like the head coach of a football or basketball team that doesn’t make the playoffs, the CEO is ultimately responsible.”

And consider the case of James Thaw, president and CEO of Athens Regional Health System in Georgia. Thaw’s organization, like almost every hospital in America, had invested millions in implementation of an electronic health record (EHR) system. Whether there was pressure on the IT department to roll out the new software before it was fully tested is unclear, but according to the Athens Banner-Herald, the result was near-chaos.

Physicians sent a formal letter of complaint to the hospital’s administration claiming the implementation process was too aggressive and resulted in “medication errors, orders being lost or overlooked, emergency-department patients leaving after long waits, and an inpatient who wasn’t seen by a physician for five days.”

The letter was published less than two weeks after the hospital’s PR department proudly touted the new, integrated system as “the most meaningful and largest-scale information-technology system in its 95 year history.”

Thaw and Chief Information Officer Gretchen Tegethoff have since resigned.  Whether they were responsible for pressing the ‘go live’ button prematurely is unknown. Most hospitals contract with a team of external consultants who sit alongside representatives of the institution’s medical and administrative staff to oversee implementation over a one- to four-year timeframe. The fate of those consultants and team members is unknown.

So, what’s an executive to do? Most CEOs got to where they are because of their strategic abilities, not necessarily their technical strengths. What questions should they be asking their staff regarding major IT decisions?

“It comes down to two words: integration and communication,” said Michael Feld, president of VertitechIT, a nationally renowned expert consultant in IT management, and the acting chief technology officer at Lancaster General Hospital.  “IT is the engine that keeps an organization running, but oftentimes, CEOs will treat the department as a necessary evil.  Your IT people need to know where the company is going and how technology will play a role in that growth. When they don’t, you’ve got problems.”

Feld offers up three areas of advice on how to avoid an IT disaster that could have implications in the C-suite and the entire company:

• You wouldn’t think of launching a new sales or product initiative without announcing and getting buy-in from the sales and marketing departments. Integrate your IT department in the same way. Make sure everyone, from your chief information officer to front-line system engineers, understand issues that affect the life of the company.  Everyone should understand IT’s role in achieving those goals.

• Plan an off-site retreat with your CIO. He or she is, after all, no different than the CEO, one level down. Senior company executives need to know what your network can do, not necessarily how it’s done. Place the focus on understanding risks, benefits, costs, and the relationships all of them have to each other.

• Put your personal biases on the shelf. That new company initiative may have been born in your office, but it’s easy to fool yourself into believing that IT can just make it happen. Keep asking questions and challenge whether your internal systems and people are ready to press ‘go.’ Is there a fail-safe, redundant backup plan in place when something goes wrong? Are your internal people trained and fluent in its operation, and are there outside resources lined up for those special situations? If the answer is no, find out why.

No one wants to just throw money at a problem, hoping it will go away. But you can’t fight a fire without a long enough hose, and that new fire truck will be useless if there’s not enough water coming from the hydrant. In the end, it’s the chief that will take responsibility if things spin out of control. To paraphrase Smokey the Bear, ultimately, you can prevent forest fires. n

Greg Pellerin is a 15-year veteran of the telecommunications and IT industries and a co-founder of VertitechIT, one of the fastest-growing business and healthcare IT networking and consulting firms in the country; (413) 268-1605; [email protected]