The Company That Keeps Moving Forward
Written by Jenny Kinsman
Alan Abramson didn’t take a conventional path to his career in information technology. He started out in the academic world. “My area of interest was in business and social sciences. In graduate school, I was heavily involved in data analysis and forecasting simulation models,” he states. “I got deeper and deeper into the technology. It was an alternate pathway from what you would normally expect for someone more involved in liberal arts.”
He was always interested in social change during his academic pursuits and was deeply influenced by a professor who said if he wanted to be knowledgeable about social change, he must be involved in it directly. “What better place to observe and participate in social change than in the introduction of technology,” Abramson added. “Organizations had gone from using technology in the back rooms of HR and finance to the pervasive nature of today, where IT is involved in everything we do and many companies can’t distinguish between what is IT and what is the business because they’ve merged to become essentially the same.”
After several years leading data analytics and IT teams in retail and health care organizations, Abramson joined HealthPartners in December of 2000. “This was an exciting time for healthcare,” he says. “The first generation of electronic medical records for clinics was coming into widespread use, and HealthPartners was at the forefront of that movement. The development continued until we got to the point of a paperless, integrated electronic health record spanning clinics and hospitals by about 2005. Today, we have a single record for well over one million patients that includes care by their primary physician, specialists, hospital stays and home care. And patients can schedule appointments, get test results and add their own outcomes data electronically.”
How has your organization responded to the new environment forced upon all of us by COVID-19?
First off, we’re in the healthcare business. If we’re not deeply involved in this, who is? What’s interesting to me are the care providers who are highly motivated by a challenge like this. These people run toward the scene of the problem instead of running away from it. That’s partly why they chose their profession. A pandemic like this can overwhelm the organization, so we must adjust. You might be surprised that a lot of IT people in healthcare have that same sort of motivation. They want to work in healthcare rather than in some other industry because of that challenge and because of the mission; their work can help their fellow human beings and their communities.
The second part of this is that like any other organization, with 26,000 employees we were unprepared for the social separation, the work at home and how to run a company when everyone ends up in their basement or their family room with a WebEx account and a laptop computer. Our support center, like a lot of support centers, was just overwhelmed with calls about connecting and how to use the technology. We had quite an increase in demand we had to respond to. Now we have gotten through most of that, and most of our employees are working in a stable environment. The big surprise was how rapidly this occurred and how we had to respond to it.
Can you give a specific example of how your technology team has risen to the challenge when it comes to your remote workforce?
The urgency of this pandemic just plunged everybody into immediate support. We’ve done things faster than ever before. In one weekend, we set up remote videoconference capabilities using handheld devices between caregivers (doctors, nurse and patients) from their homes. By the end of that first week we had over 200 videoconference office visits remotely. In two months, we’ve scheduled over 800,000 video visits. So, we just went into an instant project implementation mode without the prior planning, checking in with multiple leaders, analysis of the alternatives. Security is right there too as part of the whole effort. It was just a ‘get it done’ kind of requirement. We looked back at that and said we did a pretty good job and it’s working! We may have done three or four weeks of work in a two-and-a-half-day weekend, and it works well!
What are you most proud of in how your organization stepped up?
The company keeps going forward. There’s growth going on in other areas of the company that IT is supporting as well. In the larger context, what I think is showing in our case is our company culture. We really pride ourselves on how we work. Our name is HealthPartners, and when new employees join the organization, we say: health is what we do, and partnership is how we do it. We really have a culture of partnering horizontally with collective decision making, respect for everybody, whatever background they happen to come from as they enter the organization. There is a sense of partnership in everything we do. I think that has really come to the forefront in how we are responding as an organization.
How are you growing as a leader through this? What leadership principles are carrying you through?
I recognize that there are many different leadership styles. I don’t think there is only one that works in any situation. A lot of what I do is try to discover where there are barriers that are keeping people from becoming better as teams and help knock down those barriers. A lot of that is about how, especially with new technologies like AI and ML, work itself is going to change. I think we will see that change in IT before we see it in other parts of our organization. The structure of the IT organization will evolve over time as a result. Handling that cultural transition is as big a job for me as a leader as managing the digital transformation that is taking place in technologies we deploy.
What positives are you seeing from this crisis in your organization?
In addition to the pandemic, we are in the midst of a disruptive technology revolution. The combination of those two things is going to be transformational. The biggest positive is for people to re-evaluate what they do every day. I see this happening already in my own work-from-home experience. Looking at one another and talking to one another in the neighborhood as we walk our dogs, we are reacquainting ourselves with people we might not have talked with for a long time. Reestablishing ourselves and our relationships. I think our organization, and perhaps many other organizations, will re-evaluate not just how they organize work, but how they engage their human resources differently. Organizations of the future will regard their employees as more than “means of production.” They will view them as true partners in creating value for those they serve.
Special thanks to Alan Abramson and HealthPartners.
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