The CIO Interview with Nancy Wolk, CIO at Alcoa. BY Martha Heller.

Nancy Wolk, CIO, AlcoaWhat is the most valuable project, program or innovation your IT organization has delivered over the last year?

My first task as CIO was to establish a new five-year IT strategy. Over the past several years, we've executed a standardization and consolidation strategy that enabled us to take 25 percent out of our cost structure. But more than that, the strategy gave us a foundation to build upon and become more agile.

Our new strategy began with those capabilities, but focuses on new capabilities such as smart manufacturing: connecting to customers and suppliers, turning data into actionable insight, leveraging the cloud and managing cyber risk.

Our most significant accomplishment has been getting that strategy in place and gaining executive sponsorship.  

What is some advice you have for CIO's on how to gain executive sponsorship for a comprehensive IT strategy like that?

Obtaining sponsorship starts with having a track record of credibility. The Alcoa IT organization focuses on disciplined execution and delivering value to the businesses through services and projects at or better than world-class benchmark.

"I want (my team) to understand that they do need to drive for results, but they also need to develop our successors."

At the center of that disciplined execution, we have mature and well run operational processes and customer-driven metrics. We look at metrics from the eyes of the customer.  And, we contain costs. We are in the world-class category for both efficiency and effectiveness in The Hackett Group best practice benchmark. 

We also regularly benchmark within industry. We look at industry trends and benchmark other companies and incorporate the best-of-the-best into our processes.

Do you have a motto or have you renamed your IT organization to focus the team?

Standardization and consolidation drives modernization.

How would you describe your leadership style?

My leadership style is about developing and empowering people, which starts with making sure my team understands the relevance of the contribution of the IT function to broader corporate goals. It also involves working closely with the IT organization, so that everyone understands their role in achieving those goals. In the end, you win with people, and those people need to be engaged and empowered to pursue their objectives in the context of what the business is trying to achieve.

What’s the best piece of career advice you have ever received?

Earlier in my career, I was in a position to ask for a job in Europe, even though I had two teenage children at the time and a spouse with a career. Nobody would have guessed that I would have wanted the role. In fact, most people assumed that I would not have wanted to move. Well, I did ask for the job, and it worked out really well for me. The advice is: Don’t leave people guessing about your career goals.  If you want something, ask for it. A corollary is: If you ask for a career opportunity, be prepared to take it. 

When you interview people for senior positions, what question have you found to be useful?

When it comes to my senior team, I believe in the concept that one plus one equals three and that we achieve more as a team than we would as individuals. So, when I interview candidates for senior positions, I ask them how they balance delivery of their own objectives and individual results with talent development across the organization. It is a gating question for me because it helps me understand how that individual will work with their team to deliver results and whether they will let go of their best talent to contribute to the overall growth of the organization.

In their response, I am looking for balance. I want them to understand that they do need to drive for results, but they also need to develop our successors. 

What technology or business innovation is exciting to you right now?

For me, it is the combination of new mobile technologies and business intelligence tools. In a company like Alcoa with large manufacturing operations, mobile devices enable new opportunities for the direct usage of information technology where it previously had been either too expensive or physically impossible to reach.   Examples are use of mobile devices to capture and display photographs to support product quality or use of a tablet containing maintenance instructions in a confined space.

It is also the combination of mobility and analytics as applied to our manufacturing processes and the utilization of data that comes from the process.  There is potential to use this information to reduce defects and change operating parameters in the moment.

In IT, we initiated a program to solicit innovation proposals. Our inaugural event (Innovate 2012) generated 80 ideas.  We are piloting several of them, while others are undergoing further analysis.  We are building on this effort to continue identifying opportunities for business and technology innovation.

The CIO Paradox is a set of contradictions (IT “and” the business, for example) that prevents CIOs from delivering maximum business value.  How do you know when you have broken the Paradox?

Alcoa provides the perfect venue to discuss that paradox. We operate via three groups. Our Global Primary Products group has a strategy to move down the cost curve. Our other two groups, Global Rolled Products and Engineered Products and Solutions, are executing against growth strategies. So, our IT organization is closely aligned to the business strategy, which is to support both cost and growth.  We must be operationally excellent and deliver highly efficient, resilient and low cost IT services.  At the same time, we continually strive to be strongly linked to the businesses to deliver value added capabilities.  I know when we've broken that paradox -- when we play more and more in the transformational side of the business where we're growing the top line as much as we contribute to the bottom line results. 

About Nancy Wolk and Alcoa.

Nancy Wolk is Chief Information Officer, Alcoa, responsible for the company’s information strategy, implementation and service delivery to support Alcoa’s business groups, business units and 61,000 employees.  Nancy is accountable for the strategy and execution of Alcoa’s major global information and business process initiatives – Enterprise Business Solution (EBS), Global Data Centers, India sourced Development/Support/Test Centers and Alcoa’s e-Enablement & Business Intelligence projects.

Nancy joined Alcoa in 1990 and has held a series of leadership positions. Most recently, she was the CIO for Alcoa Global Business Services leading the global infrastructure and global applications functions for the company.  This position was responsible for supporting 44,000 customers in the 200+ locations Alcoa operates. 

Nancy is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Science degree in applied mathematics and a double major in administration and management sciences.  She currently resides in Pittsburgh, where she actively participates in civic and non-profit organizations.

Alcoa is the world’s leading producer of primary and fabricated aluminum, as well as the world’s largest miner of bauxite and refiner of alumina. Among the solutions Alcoa markets are flat-rolled products, hard alloy extrusions, and forgings, Alcoa® wheels, fastening systems, precision and investment castings, and building systems. Alcoa employs approximately 61,000 people in 31 countries across the world.

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