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Eye on the prize: being CIO means keeping strategic goals at the forefront of IT initiatives.

For Robert Norris, CIO at Pinnacol Assurance, being involved in strategic business decisions is more than a component of his role as the company's IT leader--it's also part of his job title.

Norris, who's served as Pinnacol's CIO for 13 years, added the title vice president of strategic development about five years ago. The two roles are a natural fit for someone who considers his affinity for planning a key skill.

"The principal function of my strategic development role is to facilitate strategic planning throughout the organization, which gives me a pretty deep understanding of where the company is going, how we're going to get there, and what challenges we might face along the way," Norris says. "I use that deep understanding to drive IT strategy, so everything we do in IT is explicitly and directly linked to business strategy."

Headquartered in Denver, Pinnacol is Colorado's leading provider of workers' compensation insurance. The company provides coverage to more than 55,000 Colorado businesses, garnering about 55 percent of the state's market. Pinnacol employs about 600 people, with close to 85 employees working in the IT department.

Norris joined the carrier in 1997 after working at State Fund Mutual Insurance in Minneapolis, where he was vice president of information services for five years. A graduate of Regis University with a degree in business administration, he had previously held a variety of positions developing and marketing software to several industries, including insurance.

Throughout his tenure at Pinnacol, Norris has seen IT's influence on the company's overall business strategy steadily increase.

"When I look at what IT is doing today and the accomplishments we've made over the past several years, there's definitely a strategic orientation to everything we've done," he says. "IT's fingerprints are all over Pinnacol's strategic plan and what the business has achieved in the past decade."

Part of that influence, according to Norris, can be seen on customer satisfaction survey results, where Pinnacol is consistently receiving high marks in areas IT is directly involved with.

During the next 12 to 18 months, Norris says his department's influence will continue through IT initiatives that focus on Web-based applications, product pricing tools, and process efficiency.

For example, IT is currently building a Web portal to allow injured workers to better communicate with Pinnacol and check the status of workers' comp payments and reimbursement checks. The portal is in the design phase and scheduled to go live in mid-2011.

Norris and his team also are working on incremental improvements to the company's customer, agent, and business-partner Web sites to make them more user-friendly.

"In the old days, just having a Web portal for customers or agents was somewhat of a competitive differentiator in insurance, but that's no longer the case," Norris says. "Today, the customer's experience with Pinnacol over the Web is not being evaluated against another insurance company, it's being evaluated against or some other leading Web site. So we need to make our customers' experience online--and the usability of our Web site--as good as some of the leading consumer sites, which is a pretty tall order."

Norris and his team plan to rewrite all the company's client-server applications to operate in a more Web-based environment, as well as provide mobile devices and applications to more employees, customers, and business partners.

"I don't want to be so leading-edge that we're the ones that fall off the cliff, but I do want to be aggressive in moving applications that aren't part of our core business into the cloud," he says. "The data center and our entire application environment are becoming exceedingly complex and with that complexity comes cost and risk. It would be nice to simplify our platforms in a way that allows our IT professionals to focus primarily on the business of insurance, and not the business of running an e-mail server or network switch"

Norris contends that all IT initiatives are part of Pinnacol's strategy to improve performance and sustain long-term growth.

"Our CEO has directed us to become the best workers' compensation insurance company in the nation, and that's a pretty audacious goal," Norris says. "I feel like we're getting close, and that's both a blessing and a curse because that's where the real challenge lies for IT. What are we going to do next?"

Sharon Baker is a freelance business writer based in Charlotte, N.C.
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Title Annotation:Top Tech
Author:Baker, Sharon
Publication:Tech Decisions
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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