17 Dec CIO Leadership Series: Steve Cretney's task at TASC is building Web channels
Madison, Wis. – It didn’t take too long for Steve Cretney to notice the difference in being the vice president of business technology services for Total Administrative Services Corp., and being vice president of information technology for Land’s End.
Size and scale is the obvious difference between the local third-party administrator of tax-advantaged employee benefit programs and the prominent catalog/online retailer. Coming from a $1 billion dollar company to a smaller organization like TASC, there is a difference in the scope and magnitude of projects that are served up on a daily basis.
Both companies, however, have asked the person who occupies these positions to be close to the business (and executive leadership) and bring technology solutions to bear on business problems. The Madison-based TASC is growing rapidly and technology is an enabler of that. At Lands’ End, growth was a goal but profitability was the pursuit, and IT’s role was to drive cost reduction that enabled bottom-line results.
Two different approaches, but one common denominator: providing sustained business value, primarily through strategic and technology investments.
Cretney joined TASC earlier this year, bringing 20 years of IT experience, most recently with Lands’ End, where he oversaw 250 technology workers, directed global technology operations, and developed strategies to support business operations and customer service.
With TASC, his role is even more web-focused. TASC’s customers are generally small business owners and their employees, and a growing percentage of them want to interact with TASC through the web channel.
Cretney’s immediate task is to deliver dependable and secure web applications and internal systems – primarily for the organization’s clients. As such, the major strategic focus for TASC is revenue growth and differentiated customer service, and its most important strategic initiative is to bring products onto the MyTASC platform before the 2007 tax season. These products include FlexSystem, a Section 125 cafeteria plan, plus AgriPlan and BizPlan, which provide tax advantages for small business owners, allowing them to deduct 100 percent of their healthcare costs.
By aligning these products under MyTASC, the intent is to empower businesses with new web-based tools that easily track and report healthcare expenses, including expenses paid for with the TASC card, a debit card designed specifically for this program.
MyTASC is not only a benefits administration solution; it increasingly is TASC’s face to the customer. Behind the scenes, the J2EE-based solution is hosted in TASC’s new corporate data center with enough technology foresight to meet scale, performance, and security needs, as well as future growth plans.
Most of TASC’s product innovations require custom web development, but the IT team has suffered some of the classic quality and schedule problems that often plague custom developed solutions.
Given that, the application development process is Cretney’s chief concern. The IT team is switching to an “Agile” approach, with weekly solution iterations that are tested and production-ready.
TASC is wrapping up its first major development project using the agile process. The applications are AgriPlan and BizPlan, both micro business solutions. “The business problem is bringing up to date its existing agricultural and business plan products that serve the small market, including sole proprietors and small C-Corps and S-Corps, into the MyTASC platform,” he said.
Cretney, who reports directly to the CEO and sits at the table of the TASC leadership team, said improving the experience for small business consumers, while positioning information more securely in a more integrated fashion, will allow TASC to “grow the business line going forward.”
TASC has built the individual components of the application and is in the final testing phases, with plans to deploy in late December.
Cretney believes the MyTASC website, introduced this year, has positioned TASC to compete aggressively on the basis of innovation and customer service. MyTASC not only provides a platform for TASC to deliver new products, but it is “bringing together our total relationship view of the TASC customer base,” he said.
It’s not a “Web 2.0” concept in which TASC relinquishes control of data, but customers have some control over the content. Multiple groups have access to the platform, including the sales and distribution channel and business customers who log into the site to roll into TASC’s flex benefit system, to change contributions, or conduct other business.
The platform is architected so that access is dependent on who you are and what business you’re transacting. “Depending on who you are and the context, you will see different information and processes that you can effect,” Cretney said. “We had to build a strong security framework that is role-based.”
Cretney, who holds a bachelor of science degree in computer science and statistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, measures business value with a number of key financial metrics. They include customer persistency, sales production, and customer-service metrics such as average hold time and the number of times the initial contact can handle a service call (without transferring).
“For technology projects, these same measures are involved to establish priorities and to help us manage project scope,” he said.
Cretney, who mentors MBA students at his alma mater, said finding IT talent is difficult in what he considers a tight IT labor market. While retention does not appear to be a problem so far, recruiting is another story, especially for a smaller company that has a hard time being heard alongside the big boys. To raise the volume, TASC is using recruitment firms, local and national web job boards such as JobsinMadison.com, and is hitting the network circuit. The latter just may be the most effective way to find employees that fit the organization.
“Many of us have colleagues and friends that we’re calling upon to help identify talent for our needs,” he explained. “The relationship network is a powerful tool, and we’re doing our best to exercise this channel to find high-quality IT professionals that want to use the leading-edge technologies, be engaged closely with the business innovation process, and have fun along the way.”