Bon Secours Mercy Health's CIO champions 'best idea wins' throughout merger

When Marriottsville, Md.-based Bon Secours Health System and Cincinnati-based Mercy Health finalized their merger in September 2018, the philosophy was never for one system to take over the other. Rather, leadership, including CIO of the combined Bon Secours Mercy Health Laishy Williams-Carlson, worked to merge the best practices of each system.

"The fact that I came from Bon Secours doesn't mean that Bon Secours portfolio was predominate and everything had to fold into ours," Ms. Williams-Carlson told Becker's Hospital Review. "It was a true merger. We always approached our decisions with the statement that the best idea wins."

Being the nation's fifth-largest Catholic health system with $8 billion in net operating revenue and $239 million in operating income comes with its fair share of challenges. Throughout the past year and a half, Ms. Williams-Carlson has had to navigate technology and digital shifts as well as the adventures of traveling within the US and to Ireland to visit locations within the newly formed system.

Fortunately, the two systems were both using Epic systems, making it an easier transition. Hospitals and practices originally in Mercy Health continue to operate using the Epic system internally named CarePATH, while sites that were originally in Bon Secours use the Epic system dubbed ConnectCare.

If a specific tool or function in CarePATH works more effectively than a similar one in ConnectCare, Ms. Williams-Carlson's team works swiftly to integrate the more efficient functionality system-wide.

She follows the model set by CEO John Starcher of moving with alacrity and zeal.

"He would say, 'we are not going to have the Noah's Arc model,' with two of everything. This model leaves your organization in a state of limbo for a longer period, and it's destabilizing," said Ms. Williams-Carlson. "It's important to move quickly and thoughtfully when making tough decisions."

Among the tough decisions Ms. Williams-Carlson had to make was how to reduce consolidated costs. Working alongside the acting CIO of Mercy Health at the time, Ms. Williams-Carlson developed a roadmap. Ms. Williams-Carlson and her information and technology team were focused on application rationalization, technology consolidation and transformational solutions such as the WorkdayERP. Additionally, organizational design and data center modernization filled her list of priorities.

As a result of her team's relentless hard work, in the first year her team was able to reduce 10 percent of the total IT costs. This year, she plans to reduce costs by another 5 percent.

"Honestly, there was nothing magical in what we did. It's just good old-fashioned roll up your sleeves, have a very disciplined and tactical approach to realizing your goals and focus on it every single day," she said.

The "roll-up-your-sleeves" mentality also has allowed Ms. Williams-Carlson to navigate the merger with no major technology snags. Instead, Ms. Williams-Carlson cites integrating two cultures as the biggest challenge during the merger process.

"Even though we merged two cultures and worked very intentionally to build one common culture with the best idea winning, I'm still surprised how often I hear the proverbial, 'oh that's how we've always done it,'" Ms. Williams-Carlson said. "Both legacy cultures tend to hang onto former processes without stopping to question: does that still make sense given our new organization? It's a good opportunity for us to stop and consider is this the best idea that should win, or do we need to unpack this a little bit."

"On the other hand, I get that you can't change everything overnight," she continued. "If you try to rethink everything in one year, you're going to be spinning your wheels instead of making forward progress."

When clashes and challenges occur, just as Ms. Williams-Carlson approaches everything else, she thinks methodically and intentionally. Her staff can quote her response if they come to her with a problem: "Is it a problem of people, process or technology?" Very seldom is the issued raised a problem solely with technology. Then she has to prioritize the problem.

"I try to discern between the noise that comes from any change. Sometimes people are going to be verbal about the change and then it dies down quickly. Other times the noise continues," said Ms. Williams-Carlson. "This is noise I need to hear because something isn't quite right. Either we've made something too cumbersome or in our design we didn't consider some aspects that we should have."

A keen listener that is focused on gathering and absorbing the thoughts, ideas and concerns of staff, Ms. Williams-Carlson also falls back on the governance structure of the information and technology function at Bon Secours Mercy Health, which she played a crucial role in creating. One challenge, which turned out to be a success in the end, was deciding that the information and technology department would manage as a capacity-based model. Ms. Williams-Carlson had to acknowledge that not all 55,000 associates could have an equal vote on what EHR enhancements the health system would adopt.

"There has to be some sort of top-down structure, where we're making sure what we're focused on is what is driving the organization forward to meet the strategic plan," noted Ms. Williams-Carlson. "With that notion of a capacity-based model, we knew that we would have to make tough decisions. We would say no to a lot of requests, but also say yes to ones that mattered."

Although Ms. Williams-Carlson has developed a meticulous and precise strategy to lead her team and the health system, her journey to the C-suite was different than many in her role. One big difference is she is a female. As a woman in the business world 35 years ago, Ms. Williams-Carlson set out to be the best leader she could be, rather than the best female leader.

"For decades I didn't want to be a great female CIO, but I wanted to be a great CIO," she said. "I still think there's value to that, but I think a more formed and authentic approach is to recognize that there are challenges and differences about being a female leader."

Ms. Williams-Carlson had to learn how to appreciate being perceived as a role model, and a female role model, nonetheless. She has also worked with her information and technology team to develop and rethink "essential skills," which are typically referred to as "soft skills."

Soft skills, which include communication, relationship management and listening, are sometimes considered less important than technical skills. Ms. Williams-Carlson, who argues against this thinking, says that for there to be equity between men and women in the tech space, men need to recognize soft skills as important, necessary and essential skills.

Today, Ms. Williams-Carlson is still navigating how to be a role model. She continues to open her door to women and men who have questions about supporting their female counterparts while assisting with the rapid expansion underway at Bon Secours Mercy Health.

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