'Digitization is a necessity, not an option': 5 questions with Navicent's chief information and digital officer

Omer Awan was named chief information and digital officer of Navicent Health in February, nearly three years after he first joined the Macon, Ga.-based health system as CIO.

Now, in overseeing both IT and digital operations, Mr. Awan not only works hands-on with Navicent's IT leaders to implement new technology, but is also developing the system's overall digital transformation strategy. As such, he is uniquely positioned to influence and develop both internal IT infrastructure and outward-facing digital efforts to improve the patient experience.

Here, Mr. Awan discusses the advantages and challenges that come with combing the CIO and CDO roles, which he classifies as having a "symbiotic relationship."

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: How has the change from CIO to chief information and digital officer shifted your role, responsibilities and priorities? 

Omer Awan: It has added another dimension to my role. For one, it's now more of a forward-facing, business-oriented role with more focus on patients: creating choices for patients, putting the focus on patient engagement, patient experience, how to keep existing patients and how to drive new patients to the organization by connecting with them digitally and giving them more choices and options.

It's also about being a change agent. All leaders play the role of a change leader, but more so in the CDO role, which entails partnering with the business and the clinical leaders in our organization to co-develop and co-create new possibilities in terms of operations and also strategy. It's unlike the old-school style where the business used to develop the strategy and then they would come to IT and say, 'OK, this is what we want to do. Can you make it happen?' It's taken a shift from that; it's more about inclusivity, it's more about possibilities.

And this role is also about sharing with the customers what they don't know. If our business and clinical leaders have been operating a certain way, it's kind of like when Steve Jobs used to say, 'Our customers don't know what they don't know.' It's about sharing the new possibilities that digitization or technology-based innovations can open for you and then implementing them to achieve excellence.

Q: How does the combination of CIO and CDO play out? Have you encountered any challenges in holding both positions?

OA: I've found that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two roles. The CIO role, the technology, really acts as a catalyst for digital innovation.

Additionally, the CIO role is a full-time role and so is the role of the CDO. This is where having a bench of really seasoned IT leaders helping the CIO becomes even more important and necessary so they can support the IT functions and maintain the status quo and optimizations as I assume the new role and get people into the CDO-related responsibilities. I've been very fortunate in that regard, in that I've got a fantastic team who have risen to the occasion in getting things done.

Q: What are the major obstacles or challenges keeping you from achieving your goals for the new role? How do you avoid or overcome them?

OA: The most important challenge would have to be changing the culture. The business leaders have worked a certain way for years and they have made technology decisions or digital decisions a certain way as well. What they have done has appeased all their customers and that is what kept them going. And so, with that, if something is working pretty nicely, they do not want to make any changes to what's working.

This is where the 'change agent' aspect of the CDO really comes into full play. It's about working closely with these business and clinical partners to align with the famous management dogma of 'stay close to your customers.' When underlying technologies and processes change and when the customer base changes, many businesses have not been able to keep up. So that's the role — that's the challenge and the opportunity for myself, to think about the customers not just of today but of the future. What works today may not work in the future.

So the goal is to help those business and clinical leaders change the culture and shift their mindset to think differently, and to work with them not really to disrupt what's working today, but to create a path so that we can also be working toward what's about to hit us very quickly, if it hasn't already.

As for how you make that culture shift to propagate innovation, it's really by being an educator and by making sure that the leaders and the teammates clearly understand the implications, that they understand and support the value proposition associated with digital health and know what it really means. I've always said I feel strongly that digitization is a necessity, not an option, in healthcare.

Q: What are some strategies CIOs and CDOs can employ within a health system to improve their digital strategy?

OA: I was shocked when, a few months ago, Harvard Business Review came out with a study that found 70 percent of all digital transformation initiatives never actually reach their goal. On top of it, $1.3 trillion is spent on digital transformation, and of that, $900 billion went to waste. So that's what I've been thinking about — how do you avoid that?

Some ideas that we've been employing here — which were very much echoed in that article from Harvard Business Review, too — include four key messages that, if you stick to them in formulating your digital strategy, it's pretty much bound to be successful.

The biggest one is about making sure that you're not just doing digital strategy by yourself, making sure that it's tied to a business strategy because that's the only way that you're going to get the visibility, the funding, the approval and the buy-in.

The second one is also very important: leveraging insiders. So many times people who are technologists like myself are very excited about new initiatives, not realizing that we have to make sure that everyone is on board and that there are not any precursors or prerequisites inside our organizations that could pose a hindrance in people getting on board. You have to leverage insider information so the strategy can stick, because it's not going to bring about the change by itself — technology on its own isn't going to go anywhere.

The third is looking at the customer experience from the outside in. Very frequently we become a victim of our own internal wisdom. It's about taking time to survey and spend time with the customers, the users, and really capturing their expectations — not just thinking about what we think the customers want.

And lastly — and this is a little different from a CIO, a little more of the CDO role — is approaching the projects and initiatives in a different way. It's more like leveraging a startup culture. Take a look at a startup organization: They look at an idea, define its purpose and the business reason for it, then do it. If it works, great; if you fall forward, go to the next one. You need to have that kind of agility because time is moving quickly. You can't spend two years just watching something develop.

Q: How can digital leaders create internal enthusiasm around an organization's digitization strategy?

OA: It's about being an educator and sharing in the promise associated with digital health. You also have to make sure that they are on board and make sure that you address any potential fears that they might have, especially, from an internal digitization perspective, addressing fears that they may have about being replaced. I'm starting to see emails where the vendors are saying, 'Omer, you can eliminate six FTEs by using this combination of AI and machine learning with this solution,' so it's important to address those fears when propagating digitization to make sure that people understand how their roles can only become bigger and better by becoming users of those technologies.

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