The Technology Point of View

Joseph Solfaro is Global Chief Information Officer at InVentiv Health

Joseph Solfaro, Global Chief Information Officer, InVentiv Health

Health care’s CIO club isn’t just about being tech-savvy. Joseph Solfaro discussed what it takes to push forward a long-awaited data system reform and slash 35 percent of IT expenses at inVentiv Health, as well as why understanding the clinical side of the business is paramount to his success as global chief information officer.

When you stepped into the management team, what changes did you make in terms of industrializing the IT unit and making the whole system more cost effective?

When I joined, inVentiv Health was just finishing a series of significant acquisitions, so every operating unit had its own business and technical infrastructure. Everything was unique: the technology, the processes, the people, and the culture of operating the business units.

The first change was a shift in mind-set regarding IT, [making] it an explicit integrated function—“One IT”—in order to deliver the value on the dollars being spent. Prior to this, IT was completely fragmented and unrecognizable as a capability, and the fragmentation of staff and technology was a mirror image of the disparate business units. As the businesses were beginning to integrate, so did IT. This was the real beginning of industrialization.

The second step was to focus on the technologies that are the foundation. The infrastructure was consolidated under single leadership and the process of standardization and transformation began. As a third step, we took a hard look at back-office integration needs and a strong focus on business-technology needs driving toward a core enabling platform-based approach instead of a complete best-of-breed strategy. It was this very challenge that attracted me to this role and that our CEO, Paul Meister, believed in and supported from the beginning.

How did you develop and optimize the clinical data-management system that runs multiple centers across the world?

We had to change the way we thought about deploying technology. It started with looking at the whole of the clinical development process. In many ways the clinical development process is an information supply chain: it’s rather linear, it has a well-defined beginning and end, and there are many supporting and interrelated processes. These processes build on previously known information, and to the extent that you can leverage that information without touching it again (a lean concept), you can drive efficiency and higher accuracy earlier (less reconciliation). Couple this belief with a more refined view of what is a technology commodity and technology differentiator and you have the basic ingredients for industrialization of the process and the properly constructed information factory.

How important is it for you to understand the clinical side of the business?

It’s essential. I spent a significant portion of my career at Merck, supporting R&D. By having a combined knowledge of the business domain and the business technologies that matter, I am able to provide the necessary consultation to our businesses in order to drive the right outcomes. It’s very important to be able to speak the language, understand the business challenges, and have a clear idea of what “good” looks like. Having “been there and done that” is an edge, because this is not a place for learning on the job.

An important example is in managing investigator information. This information is managed and used throughout the full clinical development and regulatory processes. Everyone knows this fact; however, what is not known is how to solve for a more efficient handling of this critical data while increasing quality. What does “good” look like in that case? How does this change how the independent functions that operate on this data have to change? If you don’t know the solution and you don’t know how to speak about it in business terms, it’s going to be a long day.

You listed cross-functional team leadership in your LinkedIn profile. Tell us how you recruit and mentor your team in pursuit of this.

Cross-functional leadership is an area that for a long time was not recognized as a critical capability in our industry. The focus was purely on functional excellence and driving results within a given silo. While this is still very important, there is tremendous value in looking end to end across functions to achieve better outcomes.

With respect to recruiting, not only do I look for deep functional expertise, but I also look for natural collaborators and integrators—folks that can look upstream and downstream to connect the dots and have the ability to influence leaders as a result of strong relationships and communications skills. Mentoring is a critical component of getting this just right. This is where the more subtle aspects of what you’re looking for are taught or coached. It’s about expressing broadly what I want and sharing past experiences to add the color and specifics that drive the desired behaviors, actions, and results.

By 2017, the health-care IT market is going to be $60 billion, up from $40 billion in 2012. Where do you see opportunities for inVentiv Health?

It’s an exciting time across the industry, and the role that IT plays is more and more critical. It’s something I have believed for a long time; however, the timing and environmental conditions weren’t just right yet. They are now. So, it’s time to step up. Our commercial operating unit is forming itself into the next frontier as a commercial contract organization (CCO). This is driving demands on the organization to press hard into social and digital technologies and analytics like never before. Connecting with the right people in the right way at the right time with the right insight cannot be done without the proper convergence of business and technology.

Our clinical operating unit will continue to commoditize the core business processes through leaning out and automating the core repetitive activities, while differentiating itself by exploiting our wealth of information to provide critical insights that dramatically affect clinical development cycle times, costs, quality, and overall outcomes.

How do you see your role in facilitating innovation at your company?

The role is simple; it’s the execution of the role that’s tricky. The role is to educate on what is possible given the state of technology and where the business is going. Our COO, Mike Bell, likes to speak in terms of where the puck is going, not where it is. My role is to understand the technology and business dimensions, which are in a constant state of motion. Once these ideas take hold and are deemed feasible, my role becomes that of a guardian ensuring successful execution, as transformations (innovation initiatives) come with a high degree of risk. I think of it as making sure the space shuttle doesn’t break up on reentry.

What takes up the majority of your time as a CIO?

I’d like nothing more than to tell you I spend 100 percent of my time on innovation and industry-changing activities. The reality is that a good portion of my organization focuses on keeping this business up and running every day, and it certainly requires my attention. The good news is that we have made the right investments to integrate our companies, standardize our platforms, and improve the overall operations. This is allowing me to spend more time with the businesses, industry leaders, and clients to focus on the next part of our journey.

There is one other area that I do spend time on that we haven’t yet spoken about, and that’s maturing the IT capability to run as a business. This is something that I have done in various capacities in my prior life, and we are hitting it hard in this environment. We are improving overall transparency around our cost structure, providing business levers to drive appropriate decision-making around IT consumption and investments, and implementing shared services in a flexible capacity model. While running IT as a business is important for effective and efficient operations, it is essential as part of our journey where we offer IT-based services to the marketplace.

Many people believe that big IT spending on enterprise architecture has little value and leaves no room for innovation in the health-care industry. What do you make of that?

Internally, I’m smiling regarding this question because this reaction is a function of many poor implementations of enterprise architecture. First, the notion that you need big spending in this area is definitely misguided. This function needs to be lean and directly provide tangible value to the line operation. This is accomplished by working on real business problems while providing a strategic perspective. This is the key.

It’s always a balance. If you take it to an extreme, then you will definitely stifle innovation. Many organizations overgovern, focusing on control rather than enablement. It’s been far too easy to lose one’s way, which has led to the pendulum swinging to the extremes of excessive control or none at all. Further, it’s essential to provide a clear line of sight to the short-term and long-term value that is being created. Generally, that’s not a strength of most IT organizations, so from my perspective, the sentiment against enterprise architecture is a clear example of shooting the messenger.