One of the hardest hitting questions Eric Hanson has ever received came from a friend in IT who asked, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Now, as the current vice president of information services for Wisconsin-based hydraulic and electro-hydraulic component manufacturer HUSCO International, that same question highlights one of the underpinnings of the IT professional’s approach to innovation and transformation.
Hanson’s history of intelligent risk taking is extensive, and repeating that success at HUSCO International is only the latest roll of the dice. “Every critical inflection point in my career has been associated with embracing risk,” Hanson says.
It’s applicable to both Hanson’s career moves, as well as the innovation he has initiated along the way. Prior to joining HUSCO, Hanson’s first senior role in IT was not one he took on with hesitation. While working at an enterprise organization, he and his team took an early bet on Microsoft Skype by transferring the entire company phone system to the then-still-burgeoning communication platform. The success of a call center that fielded about thirty thousand calls a month was seen as a victory, but it wasn’t only the benefit that the IT team valued. The company also saved roughly $2 million that it was then able to reinvest into a CRM program and a new business intelligence program.
“We took something that most people might view as commodity—communications and collaboration—and we took a risk, specifically so that we could fund these more strategic initiatives,” Hanson says.
Another early risk included taking a chance on yet another evolving technology that has since become standard practice. Hanson says the company’s early adoption of hybrid cloud storage was quite uncertain at the time because many were still hesitant to trust information held off-site. But the company’s fragmented engineering team across the globe needed fast access to critical files.
“Instead of having someone in China double-click on a file and go to lunch, they’re pulling it up in a few seconds,” Hanson says. That risky move saw exponential improvement in global file-access performance. It also had a wider payoff. “On the business side of that, it’s faster, but more importantly, that risk delivered savings to the organization in terms of headcount management and allowed us to improve our product-launch targets by an average of two months,” he adds.
When Hanson then joined HUSCO, it was again with a mandate for change. “I was brought in with the stated goal to elevate the business value contribution of IT,” Hanson says. Seeing HUSCO as a high-performance innovation company, Hanson believed that IT had to start matching the pace and focus of those he saw working tirelessly on the business and R&D side. But it wasn’t just a tech issue. In fact, it’s what Hanson considers the most serious risk a company can take: cultural change, especially initiated by a new hire.
“We had decades of cultural misalignment with IT,” Hanson recalls. “There was this ocean of opportunity standing in direct conflict with all this misalignment. That made for some treacherous steps for sure.”
For Hanson, this meant processing a culture change not only in IT, but also in the way the entire business interacted with IT, working to build trust in the department’s ability to help deliver the business strategy. It started with redeveloping the IT work-management system and installing simple Kanban systems. That has since yielded a significant increase in project velocity.
A lack of strategic alignment with the business also meant creating the right project-intake, -evaluation, and -reporting processes. “This meant not hiding behind ambiguity for both IT and business,” Hanson says. “Once we understood the business strategy, we published road maps that committed us to delivery. Now, we were both accountable.” That clarity in planning has provided an important second wave of bringing IT to the table.
Hanson’s ultimate goal is to move IT from simply an order-fulfiller to a business driver. That includes major initiatives around digital manufacturing and product digitalization. It also means a new ERP system, new business-intelligence and information-security programs, and a modernized infrastructure system. But ultimately, it means making IT’s business-value contributions accountable just like every other department.
And that’s only the beginning. Hanson believes intelligent risk taking in IT should be as inherent as it is to all other parts of the organization. “When risk is coupled with vision, it becomes a potential catalyst for transformational change,” Hanson says. “Intelligent risk taking is risk that is required for change.”
Throughout his career, that has meant taking informed chances that don’t always work out. But Hanson doesn’t fear having a defining role in IT. In fact, he would rather think about IT as if fear didn’t exist.
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