Hewitt Associates CIO Perry Cliburn is 100 percent sure about his role in the Lincolnshire, IL-based HR consulting firm. More than just serving as Hewitt’s top techie, Cliburn is an articulate spokesperson for the 12-year-old company. His gregarious personality creates a fast communication rapport. But, more importantly, Cliburn is smart and insightful when it comes to welding technology to Hewitt’s mission—to holding its position as a prominent HR consulting company.
The 43-year-old said his job is helping Hewitt’s clients succeed.
“HR is what we do,” he said. “That means consulting, compensation management, mergers and acquisitions, organization best practices, and administration of HR systems.”
Where tech hooks in to business goals
Yet he’s not a one-man show by any means. The support beam making it all happen is technology, and pulling it together is Cliburn’s 2,000-person technology team—1,000 of whom are direct reports.
“Whether we are configuring a system for a client, maintaining systems, or doing development work, a significant number of our associates are dealing directly with technology,” he explained.
Cliburn’s chief goal is applying technology to achieve business value. While it sounds impressive, he admits it is hard to achieve.
“Our population is becoming more and more technology-literate, and the expectations are going up in terms of speed, quality, deliverables, balancing risk, and meeting expectations and business value,” he explained.
“From an industry perspective, that’s a challenge. There are so many competing demands to balance. I want to grow the company, manage cost, have outstanding quality, and hire good people. And, I do not want to spend a fortune.”
Sometimes too much tech can hurt
But, at the same time, Cliburn warns about the dangers of putting too much emphasis on technology in making business goals a reality.
“Every company talks about the importance of risk taking and technological excellence being a mark of innovation,” he said. “Those attributes alone do not translate to sustained success. Ultimately, what works best are good people. That may seem pretty basic, but it has always been true, regardless of technological innovation.”
When it comes to hiring the right talent, it’s not just technology expertise Cliburn is seeking. For him, bringing “good people” on board means hiring people who understand their organizational role.
“This is especially true for CIOs whose roles have changed,” he said. “Their relationship to automation is more complex and indirect than it was a decade ago,” Cliburn explained. “From a leadership standpoint we become more and more removed from our companies and its employees. We do not get the feedback mechanism we get from smaller companies.”
Despite Cliburn’s send-ups about working for Hewitt, and the cascading rewards of being part of a healthy and profitable company (an accomplishment not to be reckoned with), he admits achieving project goals were a lot simpler when he started in technology as a programmer.
“I wrote a program, installed it, and when it worked I felt great,” he said. “What could be simpler? But, as I climbed the corporate ladder, I became removed from that kind of immediate satisfaction. And, not being able to put your name on a product is a downer.”
The challenging road to success today is all due to change, he said. As companies expand and become profitable, they need to harness more technology and hire people.
“It is evolution, and ultimately that is good because that is what business and progress is all about,” he acknowledged, adding that a CIO’s greatest challenge is technology leadership in terms of balancing all the competing job demands.
“It comes down to managing expectations of everyone I work with, which includes senior management, customers, vendors, and suppliers.”
Where ownership comes into play
While that nerve-racking reality would keep many CIOs up nights, Cliburn’s sleeping peacefully these days.
“Nothing keeps me up nights, because I do not worry a lot when I leave my office,” he said. He takes the challenging aspects of his job and manages them without letting them cripple him. He makes his work time count, and he’s spurred on by helping new or existing clients achieve greater efficiencies.
“It is an affirmation that I am doing things right,” says Cliburn.
A key element in tech leadership, said Cliburn, is understanding that the culture of IT has shifted from access to ownership.
“One of the things we are trying to do is a balancing act where we are meeting our customers’ needs so they don’t say, ‘It’s your problem,’” he explained. “Or, we say, ‘It is a systems problem.’ We all know it takes people, process, and technology to make something work, and the system is only one aspect of it.
That’s where the management philosophy of joint ownership comes into play.
“We have a ton of communications around the balancing act of determining the right mix of technology capabilities, process, and people capabilities,” he explained, “so the whole idea of access is making all this available.”
For Cliburn, ownership means making sure everyone has an appropriate buy-in of what they are trying to do and the mission.
”The essence of administration requires smart technical experts. I want to make sure all these people talk to each other.”
The balancing act, he explained, will always be an ongoing job requirement for technology leaders, especially as more enterprises grasp how critical it is to meld technology to business strategies.
“There is no question that CIOs are more concerned about business goals than they were a decade ago. Still, they have to get closer to their business partners so they can find a balance between technology and business. Money is not the be-all and end-all. That realization is more important than ever.”
But will CIOs ever comfortably learn to meld business and technology?
“They are getting closer for sure,” the CIO said. “The journey will never end because it is easy to be seduced by technology because it is always changing. You always have to remind yourself that there must be a divine balance between business and technology. It all boils down to ROI.”