Digital transformation in the engineering industry has led to larger projects, evolving data quality and end user employee expectations around technology. Brian Swenson, Chief Process Officer at HNTB Corporation, tells CXOTalk about working with Avanade on IT consulting and the importance of positive cooperation.

“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,” Swenson says.

“My team and I are all on the same page as how we’re going 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… 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.”

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.

Transcript

Michael Krigsman: I'm Michael Krigsman. I'm an industry analyst and the host of CxOTalk. We are speaking today with Brian Swenson, chief process officer at HNTB. And I want to thank Avanade for underwriting CxOTalk.

So, Brian, the firm is over 100 years old and, you've gone through many evolutions. What are the industry pressures or trends or technologies that are shaping the company today?

Brian Swenson: 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.

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 areas — really drive HNTB's journey here.

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

Brian Swenson: 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?”

Michael Krigsman: And you're working very closely with Avanade, so share with us the type of collaboration that you have with Avanade.

Brian Swenson: It’s 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.

Michael Krigsman: 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: We have 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.

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: It's all about leadership, in my mind, with this. You celebrate when things go right, and you give credit to your staff.

When things go wrong, it's me. I take the ownership

Michael Krigsman: I'm Michael Krigsman. I'm an industry analyst and the host of CxOTalk. We are speaking today with Brian Swenson, chief process officer at HNTB. And I want to thank Avanade for underwriting CxOTalk.

So, Brian, the firm is over 100 years old and, you've gone through many evolutions. What are the industry pressures or trends or technologies that are shaping the company today?

Brian Swenson: 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.

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 areas — really drive HNTB's journey here.

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

Brian Swenson: 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?”

Michael Krigsman: And you're working very closely with Avanade, so share with us the type of collaboration that you have with Avanade.

Brian Swenson: It’s 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.

Michael Krigsman: 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: We have 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.

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: It's all about leadership, in my mind, with this. 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. 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: I really want to also talk about the cultural dimensions. Where does that come into play with this?

Brian Swenson: 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. 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: So, 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: I would like to thank Brian Swenson, who is the chief process officer at the large engineering services firm HNTB. Thank you so much.