How Adam Noble, CIO-GAF Inc., drives innovation through collaboration

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As a CIO, I’m sure you’ve been reading a lot about collaboration and how, as a strategy, it helps CIOs improve their working relationship with business units. After all, as companies begin to recognize that technology needs to be at the core of their business, CIOs are continuously challenged to collaborate with business units to leverage technology to create new and improved products, services, and processes. But have you thought about how you would go about doing this?

A few months ago, I was prepping my collaboration presentation undisturbed in the green room for a CIO event. After about ten minutes someone walked in, and quietly began to prep his presentation. After a few minutes, we exchanged pleasantries and shared our presentation topics. As it turns out, he is Adam Noble, CIO of GAF, the Parsippany New Jersey company with 3,500 employees that manufacture building materials worldwide. I quickly learned that Noble not only understands the power of collaboration but has implemented a model within GAF.

Noble’s success at GAF is his collaborative style. He focuses on business first and technology second and, as a result, he is recognized across the CIO community as a strategic CIO. We met a few weeks afterwards to discuss collaboration and his implementation model. Following is a segment of the interview.

Phil Weinzimer:  Many CIOs recognize that collaboration is a key ingredient to succeed. Why is this important?

Adam Noble: Today, companies recognize that technology is a core strategic asset and, as a result, IT organizations are more relevant than ever. To succeed, IT organizations need to effectively communicate and collaborate throughout the organization, across the value chain with strategic partners as well as customers. More importantly, collaboration is a necessity if you want to innovate. It’s all about identifying ideas, understanding what the business is thinking, and then creating new products, services, and improved processes.

[Related: How CIOs Drive Innovation Through Collaboration]

PW:  There are different collaboration models in use today. Which model do you use and how has it implemented within GAF?

AN: One of the business collaboration models that works best at GAF is the Business Relationship Management Model (BRM) where we have IT resources that work and are embedded in the business.  These individuals become the trusted advisor for the business area and work with the respective management teams. Their objective is to understand the strategic goals of that function and work with IT peers to prioritize the areas we should focus on that are in the best interest of GAF to help drive the business forward.

For example, our marketing BRM has marketing skills, understands the business environment, has very senior business analysis skills, technology skills, and the individual combines these skills to improve business outcomes. These are difficult skills to find in one person. In some cases, we are taking people that have strength in one area and we’re helping grow them in the other skills that we’re looking for. We also need people with strong business acumen and interpersonal skills. I do think the next generation resources coming through the universities now are being trained to have both sets of skills.

It is also critical at GAF that we have the ability to attract and retain some of the best and brightest technical talent.  I have worked closely over the past couple of years with GAF HR to establish a technical career path, allowing individual contributors the ability to further progress in the organization as a technical specialist. If you are a manager in this organization, you have historically had a clearly defined career path. However, if you’re an individual contributor, somebody who has highly specialized technical skills, historically it may have been more difficult to carve out a path for those individuals, and many felt they needed to cross over to the manager career path in order to progress within the organization. We now have a model in place that gives these individual contributors a defined career path. They can progress and continue to specialize their skills.  The technical career path at GAF now provides a clearly defined career path for technical specialists and individual contributors.

[Related: Is Your IT Organization Developing the Business Skills Needed to Succeed?]

PW: Every CIO wants to help the company innovate by leveraging technology. How have you been able to leverage technology to drive innovation at GAF?

AN: Our customers expect us to innovate and continue to lead the industry with world class products. More importantly, they want to interact seamlessly with us and want us to continue to make it easy to do business with GAF.  Innovation is also critical in all aspects of our business and an important part of how we operate as a business. The GAF Culture is our strength. We are a very nimble organization across every business function and continue to have a competitive advantage because of our agility. A couple of years ago, I worked with our Executive Leadership team to better understand technology investments at GAF along with the most effective way to innovate moving forward. We wanted our business leaders outside of IT to continue to explore technology because they can continue to provide a different perspective. In order to streamline the process, we implemented a Technology Acquisition Process (TAP) that allows the business to go out and look at different technologies, explore innovation, and then collaborate with IT during the initial assessment. Not a full-blown engagement, not to have everything funnel through IT, but have us look at it to say, “Does this fit into the GAF model? Will it work here? Is it secure? Does it create something truly innovative and is it a differentiator for GAF?” If it does, we may partner with the business to help drive an initiative forward, the business may move forward with an external partner or it may become a larger technology solution. The advantage of using this model enables the larger GAF to continue to innovate and do things that don’t have to funnel through the IT organization. So not everything has to happen here, but what this process does is allow us to understand what’s happening. We may see something and ask, “Have we gotten this request from four other areas? Is there an opportunity here for us to collaborate across these areas? Have we thought about using this technology in this way? Is there a way to leverage this in another part of the business?”

PW: Innovation also involves customers and you have integrated the customer into GAF’s innovation process. How have you gone about doing this?

AN: One of our customer relationship models is where our largest customers work with GAF through a separate channel called The Customer Zone. We haven’t eliminated any other channels but they can work in this channel and they can do just about anything they need to do from a business perspective with GAF through this channel. That was really a collaborative effort between GAF and our customers. A joint team consisting of customer care and IT personnel that physically meet with customers and ask what types of things do they want to do? What will make it easier to do business with GAF? We then build these customer suggestions into the solution. It’s a continuous improvement process to build upon our customer relationships.

I’ve also developed direct relationships with our customers. In some cases, they reach out to me directly to coach them through some technology issues. The reach out and say, “Adam, we’re doing this. What do you think? Can you provide us some insight on this challenge?” It’s not that we are smarter than anyone else. We just provide a different point of view. It also works in reverse. Sometimes I reach out to them and ask, “Can you help me understand what you are doing here. We want your insight.” To me that’s the partnership. That’s the real value of GAF’s business with our customers. It’s not just a customer/manufacturer relationship, it’s a true partnership.

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