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IT Helps Simplify Cloud Provider Complexity

The Information Technology Services department at American Water is gradually shifting towards the cloud, away from a traditional "keep the lights on" mentality.

How will it get there?

That's for Leigh Ann Thomas to figure out.

The senior business relationship manager at the largest investor-owned water and wastewater utility in the U.S. has a broad, overall goal: focusing the department on business relationships and initiatives that add value to the company.

But Thomas has a more specific goal: She wants to make sure the department, and the company, gets the most out of its transition to a more cloud-friendly model.

And that is a role in itself.

At least the way Thomas is approaching it, with a comprehensiveness that prompted Computerworld magazine to name her an "IT Rising Star" earlier this year.

As cloud technologies continue to evolve, Thomas' project is one that other IT pros can learn from. You don't have to have all the answers, but you can quarterback your company's collective learning efforts to get the most from the latest cloud-based products and services.

This is how Thomas is doing it.

At the heart of her approach is a 5-phase "ITS Partner Program" designed to engage the entire ITS department, and the company, in an exercise that will capture the benefits of cloud computing in a way that reap the most benefits for American Water.

The first phase is designed to understand IT's core business and the true needs of its clients.

"We underwent an extensive ‘listening tour’ across our functional departments and geographic regions," Thomas said. "In a non-defensive manner we initiated casual conversations in order to collect perceptions of our ITS department while also learning from our clients and building relationships for the future."

During the next, “report” phase, the IT department shared this feedback within the department, and also among end users -- to begin to foster an open dialogue for business partnership.

"This dialogue will be essential for senior level IT pros as the cloud begins to free time for thinking and acting strategically as opposed to focusing on routine maintenance issues," Thomas said. "We as IT leaders need to build these relationships today and establish ourselves as advisors and educators on the right technology solutions for our business."

David Strober, the chief technical officer at Shodogg, a New York technology platform that enables connections between the cloud and mobile devices, is another IT pro who is planning for a time when CIOs no longer act as a filters or gatekeepers.

"They are becoming the connector to various departments and resources," he said. "As the connector, the CIO is now educating the work force of the best practice evaluation process, providing guidance to the selection of SaaS solutions and their use in general. The effect, if done right is almost like crowdsourcing your IT infrastructure by using the exact people that are going to use it - Marketing, HR, Sales, etc."

Next, American Water will align its ITS projects to business drivers, guided by an in-house governing body. This council provides the forum for IT pros to represent solutions (cloud-based and other) with their business counterparts and begin to share a common language with regards to the drivers for capital project priority and selection.

Throughout these conversations, Thomas is continually looking for ways to communicate the department’s efforts, to demystify the “black box” of IT and its associated costs and facilitate informed decision-making about the cloud and the opportunities these and other technologies present.

To encourage innovative thinking throughout the process, American Water has initiated an ITS innovation program with Systematic Inventive Thinking (S.I.T), a practical approach to creativity, innovation, and problem solving that was developed in Israel in the 1990s.

"The goal is to ‘think differently’ about our traditional ITS approaches," Thomas said.

"With opportunities such as the cloud,” she said, “our ITS pros need to be poised and ready to leverage new resources in new ways -- and to do so quickly.”

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