Wanted: IT staffers with vertical industry skills

Fast-changing business processes, tight deadlines, customization demands and ever-growing regulations are complicating day-to-day operations. What's needed now is 'IT-plus' -- a combination of technical skills and business knowledge, plus deep industry expertise.

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One out of five IT staffers on the clinical applications team at Continuum Health Partners in New York is also a nurse, a pharmacist or another type of clinical specialist. For IT managers and directors, a clinical degree is a must.

At $1.3 billion Grange Insurance in Columbus, Ohio, CIO Michael Fergang exclusively recruits IT staffers with insurance industry experience.

Sam Lamonica, CIO at $750 million Rosendin Electric, has taken to luring experienced engineers and operations people in the field to work in IT. Lamonica also admits to "stealing shamelessly" from Rosendin's competitors.

It's not that San Jose-based Rosendin doesn't already have a fabulously talented and experienced IT staff, Lamonica says.

"We have a number of really smart analysts on our business applications team who are mathematics majors as well [as technologists]. The challenge is they're fairly clueless about what goes on at a job site on a given day," he says. And Rosendin typically is working more than 1,500 multimillion-dollar jobs simultaneously in any given month.

Candid CIOs from healthcare, financial services and manufacturing all tell a similar story. Fast-changing business processes, the need for speed, consumers' insatiable appetite for customization and the need to comply with a growing list of government regulations and industry standards are all working to complicate day-to-day operations beyond the most business-savvy technologist's ability to keep pace. Now what is critically necessary are not only technical skills and business knowledge, but also deep industry expertise, the kind that comes from calculating a quote and selling an insurance policy or calibrating and administering intravenous pain medication to a cancer patient, for example.

Think of it as IT-plus.

"At the end of the day, you need a person who gets it all," says Continuum CIO Mark Moroses.

Healthcare reform and the hyper-accelerated pace of change are two of the biggest factors driving the need for IT-plus credentials at Continuum, says Moroses.

"The healthcare industry is highly regulated," and adherence to those regulations is what makes or breaks the bottom line, he says. Under state and federal regulations, Continuum, a partnership of New York's Beth Israel Medical Center, St. Luke's Hospital and Roosevelt Hospital, reports to 11 regulatory agencies. On top of that, there are the hundreds and hundreds of regulations and reporting requirements imposed by insurance companies.

"Getting technical people to understand regulations is tough because it's a field they're not interested in," says Laurie Anne Buckenberger, Continuum's assistant vice president of corporate IT and a nurse practitioner. Clinicians, on the other hand, live and breathe healthcare regulations from the time they enter the field.

To retain certification, hospitals are required to follow and regularly report on 157 different quality measures. "On your first job as a staff nurse, you're taught about the requirements of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations," Buckenberger says. "It's also embedded in you from the time you start [nursing] school."

Johanna Ambrosio speaks with IT leaders at this year's Premier 100 event to find out what types of people they are hiring to work in IT. More often, IT is going beyond technology skills to find the right pieces for their organizations.

That's why "you can't do it without clinical people," says Moroses. It's also why a clinical degree is a requirement for members of the applications support team at Continuum.

The need to work quickly is another key factor driving the clinical requirement, which Moroses says evolved over time.

"Before, programmers and analysts were separate. Then we took the IT person and put them in the business unit and called them a business analyst," Moroses says. "But at the end of the day, you need one person who gets it and does it. In healthcare, you need that clinical component and technical component. You have to eliminate the translation requirement because of the speed of business."

Consequently, Continuum has broadened the reach of its IT recruiting efforts. Company representatives now visit nursing schools to try to persuade students to consider careers in IT (see story below).

A nurse with firsthand clinical experience would, for example, be uniquely qualified to explain why a smaller, lighter tablet would be better than a laptop for a home healthcare provider, says Moroses. "In order to help the industry transform at this quick pace, you need this clinical part in IT," he says. "The [companies that] can transform the quickest [will have a] competitive advantage."

"It's hard for a pure IT person to understand what emergency departments and other clinicians need," he adds. "Yes, they need mobility, but not just mobility. They need mobility in certain ways."

IT-plus credentials can give IT staffers instant credibility in the eyes of users, says Moroses.

"If we're having a conversation about a system upgrade or bringing in new functionality, you need a nurse or physician talking to a nurse or physician," says Moroses.

Before Continuum started bringing clinical people into IT, "there was always skepticism that IT didn't really understand what we do," says Moroses. "The radiology group would have their own shadow IT department because they didn't trust anyone [in IT] to get the way things needed to be configured."

Now, in contrast, someone from IT "walks in with a clinical degree and there is a built-in credibility for talking to people in the clinical community."

At Grange, Fergang characterizes IT professionals with deep technical knowledge plus insurance industry experience as "foundational" to innovation.

"We have skunk works where IT people get together and come up with business solutions. We prototype these for presidents of divisions, but there's no business involvement. You couldn't do this without IT-plus business knowledge," he says.

In one of these projects, IT built a prototype that let Grange sales agents represent various policy alternatives in a single quote system. Agents could change key parameters such as deductible amounts, driver type and risk levels so customers could customize their own policies.

IT Plus

The New Face of IT

Laurie Anne Buckenberger, a veteran healthcare professional with a graduate nursing degree from Columbia University, has worked as a staff nurse, a nurse manager and a nurse practitioner. She got her start in IT as a so-called super user.

"Because I had worked [as a nurse] at NYU, where they had an electronic medical record, I got put on the EMR search committee at Beth Israel Hospital," she recalls. "I was very vocal about end-user workflow and what end users needed."

At the time, she was still treating patients. Today, Buckenberger is an assistant vice president of corporate IT and an active IT recruiter for Continuum Health. Her target hires are other nurses, pharmacists and lab technicians. She advertises in nursing journals.

"I'm actually looking for clinical people to teach them the technical side," she says.

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