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The CIO's Cabinet

June 26, 2008
by Mark Hagland
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IT chiefs are finding that success depends on building a seasoned supporting team.

The 897-bed Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago is a beehive of transformative activity these days. Leaders there are pursuing dozens of patient care quality improvement initiatives; broadening and expanding the terms of their physician ties across multiple medical organizations; and working to flourish financially in the hyper-competitive Chicago metropolitan area healthcare market.

Given all the activity, it's no surprise that the workdays of Tim Zoph, Northwestern's vice president and CIO, have been consumed with strategic planning- and organizational change-related work. Indeed, as Zoph finds his role is becoming ever more strategic, and includes extensive interaction with the hospital's board of directors, as well as constant contact with other members of the organization's C-suite, he has come to rely on a top-notch team of IT directors. This team includes a chief technology officer (CTO), a director of service management for customer service, two directors of applications services — clinical and business — as well as the organization's chief medical informatics officer (CMIO), who reports to Northwestern's CMO, but has a dotted-line relationship to Zoph.

“All these positions are well balanced as part of the team, and essential” to a CIO's success, and the success of the overall IT organization at Northwestern Memorial, says Zoph, who has been CIO there for 15 years. Indeed, he says, smart CIOs are realizing that their success, indeed, their career survival, will depend on selecting and nurturing crack teams of IT executives at the director and vice president level. Those executives will run operations day to day, as the CIOs strategize and lead change.

Savvy CIOs also understand they must distribute some of the prestige — and the responsibility — to make things work in an emerging, high-pressure, high-profile environment. “It's almost like leading when you're not in charge — that kind of thing,” says Zoph, with a rather Taoist-sounding turn of phrase. “It's about the cultivation of teams of all kinds — the cultivation of sponsorship for driving value from IT through cultural change.”

Not only are Zoph's directors making the IT trains run on time, he emphasizes, they're also helping him act as an organizational change agent in interactions with stakeholders of all stripes.
Northwestern Memorial Hospital's IT Team (right to left): VP & CIO Tim Zoph; Medical Director of Clinical IS David Liebovitz, M.D.; and CTO Charles Colander.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital's IT Team (right to left): VP & CIO Tim Zoph; Medical Director of Clinical IS David Liebovitz, M.D.; and CTO Charles Colander.

For those director-level IT executives, ‘teamness,’ as in the quality of working and acting in concert as a unified executive team, and organizational change agency, seems to come naturally. To Charles Colander, Northwestern Memorial's chief technology officer, Zoph has created a clear concept of his IT executive team, and parameters that make his job as straightforward as any healthcare executive position can be.

“Tim's at the strategic level,” Colander says. “And when we looked at the new women's hospital (the replacement facility for the Prentice Women's Hospital that opened last fall) we began to conceptualize what kinds of technology could be brought to bear. Tim and others on the executive team looked several years out at the kinds of innovative technology we'd need in the future. It became my responsibility to deliver it. For example, it became my task to translate the overall goal of establishing direct communication between patients in their rooms and their caregivers, which we think is the wave of the future, into a practical reality.”

Meanwhile, David Liebovitz, M.D., Northwestern Memorial's medical director of clinical IS, says ‘teamness’ is essential in executing the complex clinical applications being implemented (the organization has had EMR for several years, though CPOE for just a few). Liebovitz also credits Zoph with creating a strong, positive executive-team atmosphere.

Recruiters have a field day

The team of high-level IT executives that Zoph works with at Northwestern Memorial is increasingly becoming the norm among CIOs of academic medical centers, large community hospitals, and multi-hospital and integrated health systems, say industry experts. What's more, CIOs at industry-leading organizations like Northwestern are responding to broader underlying trends and developments that are helping to reshape how CIOs work at diverse hospitals and health systems. Some of those include:

  • The general proliferation of vice president and director titles, as implementation of a whole range of more complex information systems becomes a reality nationwide;

  • Tremendous growth and expansion of all sorts of technology, including wireless systems, explosive growth in data storage needs, the development of data warehouses, and the expansion of public data reporting (such as quality outcomes data);

  • Above all, the near-universal push for the implementation of EMR and other advanced clinical information systems, and efforts to integrate clinical information systems.

Because of these trends, researchers and industry analysts and executive recruiters alike are seeing a proliferation in executive IT positions nationwide. Most advanced hospital organizations now have several executive positions reporting to the CIO, according to Frances Turisco, a principal in the Waltham, Mass.-based Emerging Practices area of Falls Church, Va.-based CSC Corporation.