Larry Allen Has the Blueprints of a CIO

How Larry Allen stepped in at the Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida to build its IT department from the ground up

Larry Allen’s first day on the job as CIO and vice president of IT at Healthcare Network of Southwest Florida (HCN) was also the first day of the job, period. That meant that his initial objective extended beyond installing his role’s operational architecture. His first order of business involved figuring out the needs that architecture would support, and then letting those needs write the blueprint for his operational pillars and processes.

“Traditionally, IT in health care and other industries has been viewed as an expense to be managed,” says Allen. “But as technology has become very disruptive in all industries, it has started to touch every department. My goal is to make technology a strategic asset to be deployed, not an expense to be managed. Technology can be used to solve business problems, solve clinical problems, and help further the mission of the organization.”

“I need to know who my customers are and they need to know who I am. That is about extending trust.”

Allen found an opportunity to effect the mindset change his goal implies immediately. Leading HCN’s search for a new EHR vendor was the milestone initiative of Allen’s first year on the job, and the manner in which he led the search illustrates his vision for technology within the organization and how he empowers his colleagues to deploy it effectively. “My personal view is that choosing which technology to deploy is not the CIO’s decision,” says Allen. “My job is to help all of the other senior management make informed decisions about that technology.”

The first step in that process didn’t involve any technology; it involved relationships—specifically the earned trust that underscores positive relationships. Allen started forming relationships with his C-suite peers almost immediately after taking the job, leaning on the dialogue and nurtured trust to learn where his new organization was and where it wanted to go. He asked his colleagues across the organization about their pain points, their challenges, and their vision. He saw his colleagues as something more: customers. “I need to know who my customers are and they need to know who I am,” says Allen. “That is about extending trust.”

Gaining and extending trust allowed Allen to accomplish his next objectives: establishing IT’s mission within the umbrella of HCN, sharing that mission across the organization and community, and understanding the challenges to the mission that the IT department could solve.

One of the biggest—and most immediate—challenges to HCN’s mission was squarely in Allen’s crosshairs. Meeting that challenge marked another key accomplishment of his first year. After learning that HCN’s existing EHR software no longer met the organization’s needs, Allen devised and implemented a strategic plan to help find a better solution.

“I didn’t make the decision,” says Allen. “The organization and user groups did.” Allen did, however, own the process by which those groups made the most informed decision possible.

After examining the decisions of other organizations similar to HCN and consulting external reviews of EHR solution providers, Allen narrowed the universe of possible vendors to four. He then convened a committee of employees representing every group of HCN employees that would use the new EHR software. They formed his selection committee, and the committee evaluated the capabilities of each of the four finalist EHR vendors with a systematic scoring process. Allen also asked them to step back, look beyond their specific needs, and make an assessment of which vendor would provide the best solution for all of HCN. The process was exhaustive, involving outside consultants to advise the committee, on-site demonstrations involving simulations scripted to the typical needs of the organization, and site visits to other organizations that ran each EHR system.

Once the group was reduced to four and the process was set, Allen intentionally put himself in the back seat. “The user groups scored their recommendations and built consensus,” says Allen. “That happened because we followed a formal process and people made informed recommendations around the process.”

The final result was as surprising as it was successful. “The presumed favorite didn’t win,” says Allen. “The vendor that was the least well known is the one that won.” And the indication of success was equally atypical: “Every stakeholder group voted the same option number one. That’s unusual in our industry.”

And while Allen cares about the result of the major decision he facilitated with the company in his first year on the job, his greatest satisfaction has little to do with the outcome. “What the process really did was build consensus within the organization that, right or wrong, we’re in this together,” he says. “Whatever we decide is how we’ll move forward.”