Digital Transformation in the Engineering Industry with HNTB

How are engineering companies adapting their infrastructure for the largest and most complex projects? Brian Swenson, Chief Process Officer at HNTB Corporation, tells CXOTalk about digital transformation in the large-scale engineering industry.


Oct 13, 2017

How are engineering companies adapting their infrastructure for the largest and most complex projects? Brian Swenson, Chief Process Officer at HNTB Corporation, tells CXOTalk about digital transformation in the large-scale engineering industry.

Swenson is CPO and Business Lead for HNTB’s sales, financials and project management modernization initiative known as “Centric.” In these roles, he is responsible for delivering a new enterprise solution that replaces 50+ legacy custom built applications. Swenson is also responsible for assessing, refining and/or creating new processes to support HNTB’s primary business processes in sales, contracting and delivery.


Michael Krigsman: You need an airport; you need a stadium; what do you do? I know when I need an airport or maybe an interchange on a highway, my trouble is I just don't know who to call. Today on Episode #258 of CxOTalk we are speaking with a person you call.

I'm Michael Krigsman. I'm an industry analyst and the host of CxOTalk. We are speaking today with Brian Swenson, who is the chief process officer at HNTB, which is a very large civil engineering, professional engineering services firm.

I want to thank Avanade for underwriting CxOTalk. You know we don't charge people to be on the show. It's based on merit. We don't charge people to listen, and so we thank folks like Avanade for underwriting the show because it makes it possible for us to be here. We're like NPR in that way.

Without further ado, Brian Swenson. You are the chief process officer at HNTB. Thank you so much for taking your time and being here.

Brian Swenson: Thank you, Michael. It's great to be with you and your audience this afternoon.

Michael Krigsman: Brian, tell us about HNTB. You're a large company, and you've been around for a long time.

Brian Swenson: Yeah. Actually, we've been around for 103 years, so there are not too many engineering firms in the U.S. that can say that. We're pretty proud of that. We're about a 4,000 person firm. We're based solely in the U.S. We do about $1 billion of revenue every year and focus primarily on horizontal engineering; so you'll us associated with airports, rail, transit, and highways as the areas that we focus on for our customers.

Michael Krigsman: Literally, if a government or a company needs to build a large structure, like an airport or a stadium, you're the folks who they call.

Brian Swenson: We certainly hope we're the folks who they call. Yeah, we do a lot of work for public governments and private agencies.

Michael Krigsman: Now, Brian, you're the chief process officer, so what does that mean exactly?

Brian Swenson: Yeah, so in my role at HNTB as the chief process officer, I'm responsible to make sure we have documentation, consistency in the processes that our firm operates on, as we pursue contract and deliver work for our customers, work with the business units to adjust and modify those to create better efficiency and consistency. Right now my primary focus in this role is to lead the development and the transformation of our sales and project management solutions into a new platform. It's a multiyear effort for us, and I'm the individual at HNTB responsible and accountable to make sure that happens.

Michael Krigsman: I want to remind everybody that there is a tweet chat happening right now using the hashtag #CxOTalk, so it's a great time to ask questions of Brian and to participate in this conversation.

Brian, the firm is over 100 years old and, obviously to have been in business for so long, you've gone through many evolutions. What are the industry pressures or trends or technologies that are shaping the company today?

Brian Swenson: Yeah, it's a great question, Michael. What we see, and this is specifically for HNTB, but I'd also say in the industry as well, [is] that projects are getting larger. Agencies are looking to get the most out of their money, bundle packages and projects together in larger areas so there's single points of responsibility with their engineering firms. We're certainly seeing that at HNTB, and that's changing the way we pursue our projects. It's changing the way we manage and deliver our projects. That change in project size is a significant factor for HNTB.

We're also seeing a change in our workforce, as we have more millennials and Gen‑Y’ers working at HNTB. They have a different expectation around the technology and the tools that we as a company utilize and work with our employees on.

Then lastly, Michael, is really our systems that we use. Many of our systems to run the company, to manage the company, are quite old, built on code that's out of date, and we struggle. They're not interconnected, so we have a hard time getting data, having single sources of truth for data, and evaluating what's right with that data.

Those three areas — projects, end user employee expectations around technology, and the quality of our data — really drive HNTB's journey here.

Michael Krigsman: It's pretty interesting. It's a combination of, say, employee and cultural expectations, along with changes in the technology environment.

Brian Swenson: That's exactly what it is.  Today, with the way technology changes so quickly on our phones, you know, there's an update every couple months, it seems, and it just pushes through. Our employees, they've come to expect that. They've come to demand that. Honestly, we've had employees question HNTB on the modernness, so to speak, of our technology.

I've had a number of conversations with individuals that are very surprised at where HNTB's technology is at today. Now we're changing that, and we're moving it into a more modern situation and scenario, but it's really become more of a focal point, especially in this war for talent that's going on in the engineering industry right now. It is something that employees are looking at and what sort of technology, sophistication, and modernization of solutions that firms have. It does play into their decisions on where they want to work.

Michael Krigsman: That's interesting. You have a war for talent.

Brian Swenson: Yes, it's very tight right now. Certainly, as the U.S. is moving forward with funding, we've seen significant funding increases through the last federal reauthorization bill. Last year's elections brought hundreds of millions of dollars in new money, primarily on the West Coast with self-help funding. And then, with the President's infrastructure program, more money is going to be coming into the marketplace. We clearly see a war on talent within the engineering spaces, and this is one of the areas HNTB is looking at to make a difference to help elevate the firm's capability to respond and deliver programs and projects for our clients, but then also to attract and retain our employee population that we have here at HNTB.

Michael Krigsman: What's the relationship between technology and the type of technology that you purchase and deploy? What's the relation between that and being able to attract the talent and attract millennials, as you were just describing?

Brian Swenson: Yeah, so our legacy systems are just old. They're 20 years old. They're not connected. It's hard to get information. We spend a lot of time manipulating data within our systems because they don't talk. They're not modern. They're not easy to update. They're not easy to adjust.

One of the things that I realize, as I stepped into this role as the business lead for our ERP initiative--I'm a civil engineer by trade. I am not a technology individual, so this has been kind of eye-opening for me in the past four years in this journey I'm on--[is] making these changes to our existing systems, HNTB is not in the business of software development and software enhancement. With these legacy systems, that's what we had gotten ourselves into. We had just really not invested in that because it's just not our strength.

Well, now, as we move to these modern systems, and we're using Microsoft Dynamics for our solution, Microsoft is the one that does that investment in research and development. Then we can choose what pieces of the application we want to apply with this.

It's that link. It's that connection of, how can we keep our technology up to date? How can we keep it current? How can we keep it cutting edge? That's the value. That's the connection that we're trying to make for our employees, and then to also drive the growth and profitability of HNTB.

Michael Krigsman: Are you using cloud solutions when you talk about Microsoft is now responsible for maintaining this? Is this cloud that you're referring to?

Brian Swenson: We're looking to move into the cloud. Right now we're operating on prem with our solutions. We have some cloud solutions in other areas, but we're just going through that discussion and evaluation around cloud, and we certainly see the trend moving more and more towards that. We're evaluating our path to get there and how we make that happen right now.

Michael Krigsman: What about the issue of user experience? I would imagine that that's kind of very much interrelated with all of this.

Brian Swenson: Absolutely. User experience is a key thing. People have to feel it's easy. They have to feel it's efficient. We find in many of our reporting applications now--and again our reporting applications were even homegrown, and so they're 20 years old--all they do are show numbers. There's no graphical capability to it at all. We have to export information out of our data systems, put it into Excel and graphically display it, or put it into Tableau or other solutions that we have, but it's all that manual manipulation moving from one system to another.

We're looking to implement an EIM reporting solution, modern and cutting edge, that we can take advantage of that all in a single system. But you're absolutely right. That user experience is key, and it's what our employees are driving for and demanding as they look at new software and see us implement new software within the firm here.

Michael Krigsman: What about mobile? Again, I'm assuming that that's a key part of what you're doing.

Brian Swenson: You know it sure is. I'll go back to our legacy systems. That's not available for them. We don't have that implemented. One of the advantages of going to a modern ERP enterprise platform here is that mobile comes with it.  We have a legacy timecard to track time for our employees on a weekly basis. It wasn't that long ago, about a year or so ago, we made a really low-tech upgrade to it to be able to make it mobile, and we were amazed at the response in utilization, implying to us that the pent-up demand for access to mobile information, so that was our first step really going mobile.

Now that we've got a CRM solution up and running, we have our first step of our project management solution. We're looking now at, okay, what pieces would make sense for mobile? What capabilities do we need to put out there? We'll do a stepwise. We'll probably crawl, walk, and run in that pace with it, but we're clearly seeing the need for mobile, the expectation for mobile, the demand for mobile in our solutions as we move forward here.

Michael Krigsman: What I find really interesting as well is it seems that the type of technology that you're selecting now and implementing is very much intertwined with the culture of the company and the expectations that users have.

Brian Swenson: Yeah, and I see it that way too, Michael. None of these solutions that we implement are, in and of themselves, going to make HNTB more profitable or help us win more work. They're all enablers, so what can we leverage with technology to make ourselves more efficient? What can we leverage to share more information? What can we leverage to create a broader awareness and information sharing? That's a lot of what we see with the technology, and it's all enablers.

I'll never be able to go back and say, "Because we implemented this piece of a project management solution, we were able to generate this much additional earnings." But we know, tied together with other pieces from the human side and the system side, overall, we can elevate HNTB and see an ROI on this investment. That's really what we're driving for and looking at with these solutions, as we move forward here.

Michael Krigsman: Brian, this technology then and the ROI that you seek is on the business side as opposed to merely seeing, say, project management results on the IT side; project management results saying, "Okay. We were on time, under budget. That's important," but there are business metrics that you're looking at.

Brian Swenson: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, Michael. At HNTB, we've got a mantra. We call it 4for4. It's quality work, on time, within budget, to the client satisfaction. We know when we deliver on each of those, we're going to have satisfied and happy clients. And those are the easiest ones to win your next job with when the client feels you have their back covered and you've delivered for them.

We look at these solutions as all helping us, enabling us to meet those four metrics. Those are what we're really looking for. That's how HNTB measures success with our clients. It's not about how quick did that piece of software run, or how soon did we get it up and running. It's, “How is it helping us deliver that 4for4 for our customers at the end of the day here?”

Michael Krigsman: Which means, of course, that this then is a business led technology transformation rather than an IT led one.

Brian Swenson: You have hit it right on the nose, Michael. When I think about HNTB's journey, our transformation journey here, that's a key differentiator than other stories I've read and implementations I've seen. It's led by the business. This was a key; it was a critical decision, a decision made early on by HNTB's leadership to set it up as a business led initiative, business engagement. I am convinced the success that we will have as we go forward with this, and are having, is a result of that.

Michael Krigsman: Many times these types of projects are led by IT, and so where does IT and the business intersect in this case?

Brian Swenson: Yeah. Yeah, so let me share. We started out this journey, and we've been on this journey for four years now. We started out this journey that it was really a joint effort between my team, which is our business process office.

I was leading the "what." What does the business need? What type of requirements does the business have?

I had an IT partner who was leading the "how." How are we going to do it technically? How does it all come together?

We worked together for six months to maybe nine months on that. Then it became apparent that this joint effort just wasn't getting us to where we wanted to be. In conversations that I had with leadership around the firm, we decided it was best that we have the business take over the overall responsibility, the overall accountability for leading this solution forward, and we adjusted. We've moved forward from there.

What's important, I think, Michael, with that is an understanding that, with the business leading it all, this doesn't mean that the IT organization is put off to the side, minimalized, or just, well, they're out there; we'll worry about them when we need to. The IT group is an integral partner with me and our program, as we go forward. Our CIO and I work together closely, but I have overall accountability.

I rely on my IT department heavily. This program would not be where it is without that, and so there were barriers we had to break down between IT and the business four years ago that existed due to years of issues and challenges that I'm very glad to say they're not there any more, and it runs like a well oiled machine right now. It's just very different than where we were four years ago, the relationships between the two groups.

Michael Krigsman: You say you have overall accountability even though clearly this is, well, I was going to say this is a technology project. But in fact, is this a technology project? It's an interesting question, I think.

Brian Swenson: It is. Clearly all of this happens because of technology, but the driver is the business side of this. If we don't get it right for the business, the business doesn't see value out of it, what are we doing this for? How are we helping the business? It's clearly technology. That's the basis that we sit behind. That's how we're going to tie all of our solutions and systems together.

With the business driving it, with the business making decisions of how are we going to do this, what is it we want from the setup and the operational, at the end of the day that's what will drive the success. It's not the technology behind it, but it's the decisions that make the technology function the way we want it to. That's what will determine our success at the end of the day here. That's again where I look at, with the business making those decisions, owning those decisions, being responsible, that's the difference in a lot of what I've read and talked with people in other companies that haven't had success to the degree that they wanted to.

Michael Krigsman: How do you make that work? You are expert, large scale, professional project managers, but this goes beyond project management alone. This gets to the fundamental fabric of the connection between IT and the business inside your company.

Brian Swenson: It sure does. When HNTB first, four years ago, picked, selected a team to lead this, I had heard about it through the grapevine that we were starting a program like this at HNTB. What truly intrigued me about it was an opportunity to leave a legacy with the firm, as far as the new project management and sales solution. I've got 30-plus years at HNTB working in our business, working with clients, understanding how we do business. I've got two other business partners with me — business leaders. They both have 30-plus years in the industry and in the business here, so a very well-seasoned, very skilled, very knowledgeable group of people who have done project management; who have done office leadership; who have done general management.

They understand how all the different pieces and processes fit together. That's what's driven the success. It's that team that's come together. The team understands what the business needs to operate, and the IT component — the IT partnership. They understand how all of our systems operate and work together today. We meld, again, what's needed with how we're going to do it, and we've got a vendor helping us with that as well. IT, again, it's a critical partnership. We would not be where we are today without the focus and the commitment and the drive of our IT group to make this program successful.

Michael Krigsman: Brian, you mentioned what it is we're trying to do combined with how we do it. Can you elaborate how these two, the "what" and the "how," map onto the business side and the IT side, and how they come together?

Brian Swenson: Yeah. When we think about the business processes--and we've been around for 103 years--we've got some pretty sound business processes going forward here, but those form the basis. As we started this program, we had some pretty strong guardrails in place around our business, around the design on the business side that we weren't going to customize. We wanted to minimize customization. We wanted a "take the solution right out of the box" functionality. Where we would customize would be where it gave us truly a clear business advantage, a competitive advantage, and/or we'd customize where there were contractual requirements that we had with our customers that the out-of-the-box system wouldn't work. Well, that's where we, the business, has spent a lot of time with working through those, figuring out what's right. It's what's helped us get to the point so far around, again, the minimal customizations; trying to drive out of the box.

We're looking long-term with this, Michael, that this solution is going to be around for many years. We know we're going to have upgrades with it, and a lot of what I've heard with this over the years is that upgrades get really difficult the more you customize, so it drove us to really take a mantra, to take a stand. We wanted to minimize, eliminate customizations to a very high degree, and look to even adjust HNTB business processes. We've got different examples where we've done that to change the way HNTB operates to take advantage of how the technology operates natively. We haven't done it in all cases, but we have had some successes in doing that.

This is the time we want to look at those. This is the opportunity to know how the business operates. But if we're putting a new piece of technology in and we can set it up to do what we want, or we can adjust HNTB to operate the way the technology does, well then we want to look at both those scenarios. That's a lot of what my and my team's role is is to make those decisions, make those evaluations, and make the best decisions on behalf of HNTB.

Michael Krigsman: IT is bringing the knowledge of software, software implementation, and you're bringing the knowledge of the business processes. Then you're marrying those together.

Brian Swenson: That's exactly what it is. That's exactly what it is. Now it's been a number of years since we've done a major ERP implementation, but we've got lots of skilled people on our IT group and our IT team. Yeah, they implement software all the time. This is nothing new for them. Very new to me, but where I come to the table is I've got many years as a project manager, so I've got a great team set up around me, and I rely on them. I reach out to them; give them the reins, so to speak, to bring to the table what they need to do; let their areas of expertise come forward.

I don't have the answers to many of the questions that come up on this project day in and day out, but I've got a team around me that has a lot of experience, a lot of insight that we collaborate, we discuss, we dialog, we debate in cases. At the end of the day, I'm responsible to make the decisions around how we go forward and what we do, but I've surrounded myself with a very strong team from a business side, from an IT side, and from a vendor side. It's those three legs that I lean on that I leverage to help the program, in total, move forward and make sound decisions about where we're going.

Michael Krigsman: I want to come back in a minute to the issue of the working relationship and how you cultivate trust across these three groups: the business, the external vendor, and IT. In this case, I know the external vendor is Avanade.

Brian Swenson: Correct.

Michael Krigsman: Who again was so grateful for underwriting this episode. We have, in the meantime, an interesting question from Twitter. Arsalan Khan asks, "How much business optimization has happened in these 4 years since it's a long time for business processes to be still--" and unchanged?

Brian Swenson: Yeah, so I would share, again, we're 100 years old, so our processes, they're not changing every day. We've gotten pretty darn good at winning and delivering work. We've been on a four-year journey here.

At the end of 2, 2.5 years, we implemented CRM. That's our customer relationship management solution. That was to take a system that was 20 years old, a legacy system, and bring it into the modern world. We haven't done a lot as far as process change, but access to information, a common platform that we can share data across was one of the real benefits we got from that and what we were driving for.

We just recently, just in June of this year, implemented our work planning solution for the firm. We've actually had more process change go into that, and it's optimization. Again, we're not rewriting the books of how we work at HNTB because it's pretty defined, well-oiled. But there are adjustments that we're making, and we're even considering adjustments now, as we're moving forward into the next phase.

Again, I think my answer on this is our processes are fairly stable. This program, this journey wasn't meant to revolutionize our processes. That's not what we were looking for. We were looking for a way to bring -- actually, the big driver was we wanted an enterprise wide work planning solution. By work planning, I mean scope, schedule, budget, and resources all in a single system.

HNTB is a professional services firm. We live and die by our work plans. That's how we track our progress, how we staff our projects, how we manage our budgets and finances. Prior to this program, all of that was done externally in silos, and information wasn't shared and coordinated between them. Our real journey was not process transformation itself; it was to create a single enterprise location to drive and house our work planning activities. That's what we've been going on to get to this point up to now.

Michael Krigsman: When you say "single enterprise location," you're talking about, in a sense, a virtual location because you have people working all over the country on projects and offices and so forth.

Brian Swenson: Yeah, that's exactly right. It's a virtual location. The challenge that we've had prior to this is a lot of the information, what sat in our enterprise system, was the budget. I said scope, schedule, budget, and resource. Well, budget sat in an enterprise system, but the scope was kind of loosely coordinated. Scheduling: That was all in Microsoft projects or Excel files on individuals' computers, their desktops or laptops. Resourcing was all manually updated and challenged to keep up to date, and we'd do a lot of resource management by phone calls. "Hey, I've got some work for someone here. I've got some work for someone there."

Again, we're a 4,000-person corporation. That's not a very efficient way to manage our workload. And so part of what we want to get out of this, out of the ultimate journey here, is a way that we can have insight into how utilized or underutilized staff is in a given office, how we can share work amongst staff and given offices. An enterprise solution like this gives us that visibility to see that as we go forward in the program here.

Michael Krigsman: Before, you had all of these legacy systems, so the information was scattered in different places and was highly fractured and fragmented, I'm assuming.

Brian Swenson: Yeah, it's exactly right. It was a very inefficient way to access the information. Again, I mentioned resourcing, in many cases, was done by phone calls. It's one office calling another. "Hey, do you have some work? I've got some people that are slow. Can you help me out?" Again, just not an efficient use, not a timely way to evaluate what is the availability or the need in a given office of staff and resources.

Michael Krigsman: Now let's go back to this issue of IT and this being a business led project. How did you get IT? In so many companies, IT and the business are kind of almost separate tracks, and so how did you develop the trust across these two groups to kind of break down those silos?

Brian Swenson: Yeah. One of the focal points that HNTB use and one of the value points that we feel strong about HNTB is we discover and we deliver. We want to discover what clients value, and then we deliver on that value piece. It was the same approach, Michael, with the IT group. The business, as we started this--and this was four years ago, and we had some walls between the business and IT--my intent and my other business partners' intent was really to discover and learn how IT operates. What are their issues? What are their concerns? What are their challenges? We encouraged IT to discover with the business. Ask us questions. Seek to understand. Seek to clarify.

I just think four years ago the perspective was, well, IT is late again, or we've got another project that's over budget. I don't know all the situations, but that was kind of the general perspective. It's not like that any more. With the partnering and the open dialog, IT has seen that the business is only successful when IT is successful, and vice versa; IT is successful when the business [is].

How do we generate that success? Well, we work together. We collaborate. We're transparent. We're open. It just took a while to get there, but it was that willingness to talk. It was the willingness to listen. It was the asking questions, seeking to understand. That's really what broke down the barriers.

I can remember when we first started this journey. Boy, those first six months, it was like, "Well, business, why are you asking about the 'how'? That's not your space. Don't worry about that. We've got it."

"Well, but I'm trying to understand. I'm trying to get my arms around what it is you have to do." Over time, that's changed, but it took getting used to. It took me continuing to push and ask and drive.

I encourage that same thing from IT. Challenge me on the "what." Seek to understand the "what," so we're both learning and getting comfortable, not just one way here. That has really been effective for us, Michael, to change the relationship and the trust between the organizations, and we're clearly on the right track with that moving forward.

Michael Krigsman: You have had to come up to speed on technology to probably, I imagine, a pretty high degree, and the IT side has had to come up to speed on the business issues and the business challenges to a pretty high degree as well, I would imagine.

Brian Swenson: Yeah, very true. It seems like I'm learning a new IT acronym every other day. [Laughter] I just learned one the other day: Data Integration.

Yeah, there's been a lot of that going on, and we're very open to it. I can make better decisions. I can provide better guidance and counsel if I understand where IT is at and what they're trying to do.

The same thing with them. If they understand the business objective, if they understand the "what," I want to draw on their thinking and their thoughts around, "Well, we could do A, B, or C. Knowing you want this and then you want that, here would be the best way to consider that." It's that open dialog. It's that collaboration.

That's another aspect of just the culture around HNTB. Our approach is we collaborate for the benefit of everyone. This whole mindset around we're going to be stronger if we collaborate rather than put up our silos and work separately. We're going to fail when we do that.

I would say, we started the program and we had some silos. There are no more silos as we go forward now. They're gone. Both the business and IT are extremely collaborative and focused on a common outcome. How do we deliver value to our business, to our line organization with this program?

Michael Krigsman: I love that, that emphasis on collaboration. You know this show is being underwritten by Avanade. Again, I'm so grateful to Avanade for doing so. You're working very closely with Avanade, so share with us the type of collaboration that you have with Avanade.

Brian Swenson: Yeah. Avanade has a team working side-by-side with us in our Kansas City office. That's our home office. We've got a team there, and then they also have a development team offshore in India. So, we work with both groups, but it's a weekly set of activities, collaboration, [and] dialog.

We treat Avanade as HNTB employees. They are a vendor, they are a consultant, but again we're breaking down the barrier. It's not helping us to hold back or be afraid to offer a perspective or raise a flag of an issue just because they're the vendor — they're the consultant.

My guidance, my expectation of my team is, again, a three-legged stool: It's the business; it's IT; and it's Avanade. We all work together as one team. We check our business units or our company names at the door, and we have one objective; we have one focus. It's to deliver this program as cost effectively and with as much value as we can. That drives all of the conversations between all the parties.

Michael Krigsman: How do you do that? This is a very complex project that's running across your entire company, changing your core systems, and so how do you work that kind of hand in glove? You said that you don't see Avanade as an external party, really. You see them as employees of the company. How do you make that work, that kind of relationship?

Brian Swenson: Yeah, so we have, as a lot of companies do, weekly coordination meetings. We have them at different levels. We have kind of executive coordination meetings between myself and Avanade executives. We have project team meetings: so, it's the Avanade program manager, one of my business leads, and an IT lead they operate. Then we have kind of project manager type meetings at a lower level. There's a series of cascading meetings, so I'm going to call it a ladder type management approach. But different levels of the organization driving this program are talking and dialoging all the time.

We also kind of cross-pollinate those meetings, Michael. So, there will be times that I'll sit in on a triage meeting because I want to know what's going on. I want to see how the teams are operating. I want to make sure we don't have barriers.

At times a year or so ago when pressure was on to get something delivered, we were finding we had some barriers between our vendor and HNTB staff. "Well, they're not getting it to us on time," or, "We're sitting here waiting for it," and, "Why aren't they working on the weekend with us?" Again, it's never that situation, which is, "Okay, we're having coordination issues." It's, "Let's figure out how we're going to respond to it." It's never the situation; it's how you respond.

We got both sides together. We're not going to throw names back and forth. Let's sit down. Let's figure it out. And let's make a plan going forward.

The more we do that, the more then the teams pick up on that themselves, and they just self-regulate, and they self-manage. Honestly, we haven't had problems like that in the last year, year and a half. I do believe it's because the teams have just grown closer. They operate as one, and they don't think of themselves as a vendor and as HNTB staff. We're all working on this program, and we're all basically one entity.

Michael Krigsman: This kind of self-regulation, it doesn't always happen. Again, I really want to drill down into this concept of trust yet again because, how do you engender the trust on both sides that enables this type of close and very positive cooperation to arise?

Brian Swenson: Yeah, so I'd go back to, Michael, I've got two business leads that work with me, both very senior skilled individuals. The IT leads are senior, as well as Avanade. We've got a great team that I've surrounded myself with. I've shared with them my expectations, and we just continually push it down.

My team and I are all on the same page as how we're going to operate together; how we 're going to function; how we're going to treat each other. I think that's the first critical piece because if my team underneath me is out of synch, well, then it's going to fall apart beneath them.

I hold a set of meetings and conversations with my teams. I lay out the expectations. Then, okay, so now you guys, in your specific areas, need to go out and do the same things.

It seems simple to me. Maybe because I've done it so long, Michael. I just take it for granted that this is how we're operating and running. But, it's how I've always managed my teams. It's how I've always managed projects, and I've always had success with it. I haven't had problems.

Where it is, then you have to engage. Again, there's another acronym HNTB uses. It's called EDA: Engage, Decide, and Act. If somebody is not on board with how we're doing something, it's not, "Well, I'm going to hope it gets better," but we're going to engage. We're going to decide what the action is, and then we're going to act on it. If someone needs to have a conversation with, we'll have a conversation with. If someone is not a right fit for the team, we'll make an adjustment to it going forward.

It's all about leadership, in my mind, with this and how you drive whatever style of leadership you have. I'm going to assume it's an appropriate style. [Laughter] You drive it down through your team, and you reinforce it with your team. You celebrate when things go right, and you give credit to your staff.

When things go wrong, it's me. I take the ownership for it. I'm not going to pass blame to others. I'm ultimately accountable here. Again, it's that sense of team. It's that sense of camaraderie. It's the collaboration. It's what I have found to be effective for me, and I know it's a solid leadership style that works in lots of different scenarios.

Michael Krigsman: This carries forth both on your team, as well as on the external team, which in this case is Avanade.

Brian Swenson: Yes. Avanade has a client — an account — executive that is in HNTB's offices weekly that I interact with regularly. They have their program manager, and then they've also got a project manager that works with us. I interact with Avanade's account exec and their program manager on a weekly, many times daily, basis.

We're interacting. And what works, what we have found that works, and what I've talked with them about, is I expect transparency. If you're not telling me something and we've got a problem, I can't help solve it. I can't react to it. If it's going bad, it's not going to be good for you or us if we don't know about it and work on it beforehand.

This is something that we've talked about a lot. We've done AARs, after action reviews, in situations where we've struggled with it and we've changed our approach. But we're at a point that we're very comfortable and confident in cases of sharing the dirty laundry. What's not working? What haven't we reacted to right? What's going on?

It's taken a couple years, two or three years, to get there with it, but it's where it needs to be. There's this open dialog. Again, I go back to, "It's not Avanade and HNTB." My program is called the Centric Program. It's the program that we're focused on, so let's put everything on the table. Let's be open. Let's be honest. And let's deal with it. That's the only way we're going to see success as we go forward here.

Avanade has demonstrated they're willing to do that. To me, that's a key component of a vendor and a critical piece in my mind of what makes a successful relationship between a vendor and an account or a customer.

Michael Krigsman: It makes perfect sense. You're a large-scale project manager, so when you talk about these issues, I know I'm hearing the truth. We have only a few minutes left, but I really want to also talk about the cultural dimensions. Where does that come into play with this?

Brian Swenson: Yeah, so let me give just a short example here, Michael. When we were interviewing different vendors to work with us, at the interview our vendors were asked to give a price just based on the RFP. When Avanade was asked about their price and not providing one, [we said], "Why didn't you provide a price?"

They said, "Because we won't create a false expectation for you, HNTB. Any price we give you is going to be wrong and, once that price is set, that's always going to be in your mind. And, if it's anything different — and, more problematic, higher — you're going to be a dissatisfied customer."

That really rung true with me, Michael, from a cultural perspective. HNTB doesn't do that either. We're not going to set a price out there to try to get a job and then have to adjust it or change it based on what we learn after the fact. We always look to discover and then deliver on what we find with that discovery. That really separated Avanade, in my mind, from every other vendor we talked to.

It's actually why they got the job because they are so close, similar in nature and culture, to how HNTB operates. They're always trying to find out and discover what's important to HNTB, what do we value, and how can they drive on that. That's the same culture and mindset that HNTB has. It's a very synergistic relationship that has grown over the two to three years we've been working together here.

Michael Krigsman: The cultural fit is really crucial to make all of this work, as you were describing it before.

Brian Swenson: It's very critical, in my mind. Without that, I know we would not be where we are today with our program, and I'm convinced we would have not gotten through some of the challenges that we've had in the past, over the course of the program. But it's because our cultures are focused on the same outcome and driving for client success that we found a path forward when we've stumbled and had to deal with those things.

Michael Krigsman: Brian, we have just about a minute left. I used to study the relationship between outside firms and software vendors and enterprise buyers like yourself, so I could talk about these issues all day, but we have just about a minute left. Share with us, if you would, your advice to CIOs. We have a lot of CIOs that are in the audience.

Brian Swenson: Yeah.

Michael Krigsman: Share with us your advice for CIOs in terms of how they can support the business in a deeper, more profound way.

Brian Swenson: Yeah. I would first say, don't be afraid of the business. Engage with them. Many of your CIOs, I'm sure, do; but in major transformation programs like this, I'm convinced business has to lead it. In having business lead it, it's not part-time leadership; you need full-time leadership, and you need full-time experienced leadership. That business leader or business team has to know how your company operates [and] what their processes are. They need to have access, and they need to have trust of the executive leadership of your business.

This can't be somebody that's coming in new. You're executive leadership has to have the confidence in this. I would push. I would strive. I would encourage to make sure you get capable businesspeople in here so you can maximize the likelihood of success on your program.

Michael Krigsman: Capable businesspeople on the IT team, that's the key.

Brian Swenson: On a major ERP program, that's exactly what I would recommend companies do to, again, maximize the opportunity for success.

Michael Krigsman: Okay. That's great advice, and this has been a very fast 45 minutes. I would like to thank Brian Swenson, who is the chief operating officer--I'm sorry. I take that back--chief process officer--

Brian Swenson: [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: --at the large engineering services firm HNTB. Brian, my apologies for getting your title wrong there, but thank you so much.

Brian Swenson: [Laughter] Michael, it was a pleasure. I appreciate the time to talk with you and your audience this afternoon.

Michael Krigsman: Another huge shout out and thank you to Avanade. They are the leaders in professional services in the Microsoft ecosystem. I have worked with the company for a long time, and I'm so grateful that they are underwriting CxOTalk.

Everybody, thank you so much for watching. Take a look at We have lots of great content there, and we will see you back here next week. We'll be talking about data science next week, so come on back. Bye-bye.

Published Date: Oct 13, 2017

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 474