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Great Communicators: Genentech CIO Todd Pierce

Great Communicators: Genentech CIO Todd Pierce

This is the second in a series.

Todd PierceGreat communicators focus on the perspectives, priorities and frames of reference of the people they seek to communicate with. At Genentech, that means science. Todd Pierce, SVP and CIO at Genentech, views effective communication as the “circulatory system" of business. Everything he does takes that into account.

Being in the drug discovery/drug development business, Genentech runs on quickly gathering large volumes of information and analyzing it effectively. With 30-40 clinical trials going on at any given time, that's a lot of information.

In addition to supporting Genentech's ongoing clinical trials, Pierce is focused on executing the organizational design and 18-month roadmap that are part of Genentech's recent merger with Swiss biotech giant Roche. The combined organization will move to one set of global systems – which will require 140 integration projects, among other things.

Pierce is also an early adopter of innovative new technologies. In part one of our interview, we discuss how he conveys the benefits of emerging technologies – such as iPhones, Google Apps and social networking – and how he engenders trust in business colleagues and passion in his staff. In part two, we'll discuss in more detail the decisions around the company's early adoption of the iPhone and Google Apps.

Abbie Lundberg: When you think about business/technology alignment, where does effective communication fit in?

Todd Pierce: I think of communication as the circulatory system – everything flows around and is dependent upon it. You can't be aligned if you're not listening and don't have a deep understanding of what the business needs and wants, and where it's going, and what role technology can play in that. You have to be in dialogue. It's not just one side telling the other side; it's both sides collaborating to figure out where do we want to be, and how to get there most effectively.

A lot of companies have trouble with that because they often don't have a common language to communicate around complex technology issues.

That's right. You have to have a common language, and people are incredibly busy, so you can't get them up on the IT language; you have to speak in the language that's relevant to them. That's where a lot of communication breaks down.

It's been very important for me in my career to learn as much as possible about the business: what's important; how the different pieces work. At Genentech, we help employees understand that by having patients come and talk about products, or having scientists come talk about how we discover them, or researchers and clinicians on how we develop them. Every meeting that we have [in IT], we have some communication from the business about the business in the language of the business to keep us immersed in that.

Patients come in several times a year. They speak very personally about what our product has meant to them, but they also speak very honestly about what missing or what's left to be done. That's something you don't get in the typical corporate communication.

Much of IT is complex and specialized. A lot of things must be taken on faith. How have you built trust with your business colleagues so they'll trust you to do the right thing and look out for their interests?

The thing that builds the most trust is transparency and accountability. Even when we're talking about something they may not understand, or they're thinking, “wow, that sure is a lot of money; are you sure we need to do that?" we need to be very clear about what it is we're doing and what we're going to be accountable for – how we're going measure our effectiveness.

Second, as an internal service, we have to put pressure on ourselves just like a market would, to continually up our game. It builds credibility and confidence from the business when they see us doing that.

As part of this merger, we'll be supporting an additional 4,000 people in Genentech with 20 percent fewer resources. So we've come up with a series of things to improve our core processes. For example, we said, let's eliminate 30 percent of all the calls to our service desk. We had no idea how we were going to do it, but we set up a contest and formed teams [to tackle the problem]. We may not actually achieve the goal, but by setting the goal and challenging ourselves, the business sees that we're always trying to improve our performance. Seeing us do that and seeing our performance improve builds confidence and trust.

What can individual team members do to build that trust all the way through the organization?

Trust is created through every contact and every experience people have with IT. It's things like, “Does my laptop work?" “Is it easy to connect to the network?" “Are all of my expectations being met without me having to actively engage with the IT department?" It's constantly staying in touch with users' expectations and how we're doing, and really being honest with ourselves about our performance -- being self-aware both individually and collectively about where we're not meeting people's expectations and what can we do about that.

Where do communications most often break down within the business ecosystem?

You want the distance between the creators of information and the consumers of information to be as short as possible, because then you can make sure that people really are using the information and getting value out of it. Things break down when there are a lot of intermediaries, for example, when corporate functions in complex organizations decide to implement something that imposes on other people, and IT gets in the middle of that. I try to make sure we are always thinking about the ultimate end user rather than the entities that are ordering [a new process] or dictating it. That end user often gets lost, so you build systems that people hate to use or find hard to use, and ultimately the business doesn't get the value out of it.

Genentech has been an early adopter of some consumer technologies that other enterprises have been reluctant to adopt, such as iPhones and Google Apps. How did you get to yes so quickly?

Getting to yes involves having good controlled experiments. I told my staff, “Let's identify risk and manage it; don't hide behind it." When the iPhone came out, the concern was that it was a consumer product, not an enterprise product, and that it could compromise our information, or it would be hard to manage.… All the arguments about why it wouldn't work or why it might be a bad idea came up. So I challenged my team to take all of our fears and concerns and test them – to actually go out and get the information.

Within a week of iPhones being available, we had 100 of them in a test. We had the IT people list out all the risks and concerns and then start solving them and working with the vendors to address them. I've found that to be very helpful, because it brings along all the stakeholders (legal, IT infrastructure, support, suppliers), getting them around the table, figuring out what the issues are, then running the trial and having some exit criteria that say if we achieve these end points, then we'll go to the next level – much like we do with our core business of drug development.

You've developed an internal social network called Gene Pool. Why did you invest in this – what's the business value?

The key value is how to continue to have that small company feel inside of a big company. Genentech has grown 3x since I've been here. In small companies, you feel like you know everyone, you can talk to anyone and get the information you need.… We all go to the same cafeteria and have a sense of connection and ownership. These informal networks are how creativity and energy and vitality exist in organizations.

When you scale up and you have 50 buildings, and we're hiring 100 new people every week, you're not going to have those relationships, nor do you have the capacity to find them and build them fast enough. Social networking blows all those limitations out. It's all about how can you effectively scale these informal networks.

What barriers did you have to overcome?

The key barrier for that kind of technology is the management hierarchy. Management doesn't see the need for it. They have their chain of command and their processes to get the information they need or do the work that they need to do. My barrier in that case was just how not to get senior management involved in the decision. Because it's not for them. So I said, you don't get this, and you don't need to get this, and I'm not building it for you. This is for the front-line employee, who doesn't have the hierarchy and everyone sending them status reports and aligning their information sharing around whatever your questions or needs are.

So you were very explicit about that upfront.

Oh yeah – absolutely. It was kind of an epiphany. The company was spending a lot of time and emotional energy thinking about how do we preserve the culture and scale the company. And I thought, this is perfect! You know, “voila!" But then, whenever I presented [the idea of social networking] to the executive committee, they all had this puzzled look on their faces, like, why do we need this? The epiphany was, “You don't need this, you're absolutely right, and I'm not here to convince you that you need it, because you have all the information you need, and if you don't, you have a hierarchy that will help you go get it. But most employees who are just joining the company or haven't been here very long don't have those networks, so how can we build those effectively?"

Why the name Gene Pool?

We were trying to figure out how to explain what this was. If you're not familiar with it, how do you explain it? We were brainstorming a whole number of things. We didn't want a cutesy name that didn't mean anything, you know, some kind of typical corporate branding thing, and a long-term employee said, “oh, it's like a gene pool: we all put our genes into the pool, and the best things come out. That's how we grow and evolve and create." And the minute they said it, the whole room said, “That's it!" That totally explains why you want to play – you want to get your genes in the gene pool. It's that bringing together of different ideas, diversity of genes, that will build the best organism.

We also wanted to have this be not another corporate system. There's application fatigue. We wanted people to think of it not as another beast you're going to have to feed, but this is actually going to work for you.

What are people doing with it that's valuable?

It runs the gamut, which just shows you how creative people are and how many communication needs there are within corporations. One of our most effective executive leaders who has 3,500 people in his organization publishes a blog every two weeks. People can write back, respond and interact with him. That just wouldn't be possible in any other way. Most top executives are in a room with the same 10 people 80 percent of the time. This gives great access and a way to have dialogue that people are comfortable using. He gets more interactivity there than he would in a town hall meeting or if he just sent out an e-mail.

Then there are work groups – dynamic work groups being able to come together, share information, work on problems, publish that and make it searchable and accessible. Think about how much valuable work is redone and lost in organizations.

It's incredibly low cost - low cost to implement, low cost to operate. It doesn't have all the overhead that running a big intranet site does with the same amount of content. Every part of the business is using it for communication and collaboration needs that aren't met by the core applications.

The precursor to this was our intranet, which had 30,000 pages and you couldn't find anything. It wasn't clear who owned what, and what was authoritative versus brainstorming. Where it would break down was in the bureaucracy. You know what it takes to sustain a publication – you need a lot of reporters and editors and reviewers; it requires a lot to keep the quality up. What's nice about Gene Pool is it's clear who owns information, where it's coming from, and whether it's authoritative. You can subscribe to it. It's faster and easier than what you can do with most of your intranet site beyond the homepage and about two links off the homepage.

You've talked about how important it is for people to have a sense of passion for their work. How do you engender that in your staff?

This is a constant thing. I tell everyone in my organization I want there to be three things true about everyone here:

First is to love what you do – I don't think anything great or meaningful ever comes from people who don't have passion or love what they do.

Second, be good at it – and that requires practice and constant learning.

And the third is be easy to work with – have a good user interface.

Our employee development accentuates all three of those. We have three centers of development: head, heart and body, and how do things get integrated and move from your head to your heart to your body. Someone has an idea, and it ties into their motivation, and then they have a practice to constantly improve; that's how people grow and change.

We have a year-long development program that's open to all staff. They meet eight times a year in small learning communities of four or so people. In each of those meetings, they do a head-heart-body check in…. This gives people the language, cultivates their sense of self-awareness, and gives them not only permission but the impetus to do something about it.

I do a three-day offsite with all of my managers, and part of that is finding out, what do they really care about? What do they really love doing? And giving them the assignment to get more of that into their jobs.

There are multiple things we do to tap into that emotional energy. The great thing about emotional energy is it's one of most renewable resources we have, so you need to constantly renew, reward, recognize, cultivate it.

Sidebar: Seven Secrets to Better Communication

Todd Pierce is senior vice president and CIO of Genentech, the $13,418 million San Francisco biotech company that this year became a wholly owned subsidiary of Roche. He joined Genentech in May 2002. Pierce's IT leadership experience spans a broad range of industries, including commercial software products, health insurance, clinical care and government. Prior to joining Genentech, he served as CIO and Director of Information Systems for the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency. Pierce holds a B.A. in Economics and Finance from Austin College and a M.A. in Health Policy and Administration from the University of California, Berkeley.

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