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HIStalk Interviews Keith Ryan, President, Cornerstone Advisors

February 20, 2013 Interviews 2 Comments

Keith Ryan is president and founder of Cornerstone Advisors Group, LLC of Georgetown, CT.

2-17-2013 8-39-12 AM

Tell me about yourself and the company.

I’ve been in healthcare IT for over 20 years now. I’ve played on both sides of the desk, so to speak. I spent over a decade of my career early on as a provider of professional services, both in Andersen Consulting and subsequently at First Consulting Group. Later in my career, I spent about half a dozen years consuming professional services as an executive-level CIO in a large teaching medical center on the East Coast, and then again at a relatively progressive community hospital outside of Chicago.

What I’ve learned as a result of those first 16 or 17 years is perspective and empathy for the CIO. The role of the CIO is without question the most challenging in healthcare today. It’s a big job. Partnerships are critically important. Having an organization – a consulting firm, if you will — you can trust and rely on and know is committed to your success is necessary. We strive at Cornerstone every day to be that firm for our clients.

Our services are largely focused in two areas — advisory and planning. In this capacity, we help our clients and their organizations elevate their decision-making process regarding IT. From an implementation perspective, which is the second area, helping lead, manage, and staff those implementation or transformational initiatives for them.

We’d like to think that these two service competencies enable us to be holistic, offer thought leadership, and evaluate our ability to effectively enhance the relationship with our clients. We focus on solutions and the effective execution of those solutions and try and work in that space rather than focus on the task of implementing systems.


What kind of engagements are clients calling you about most these days?

We probably spend about 30 percent of our time in the advisory and planning space, and then let’s say 60 to to 65 percent in the implementation space. Implementation obviously is the fastest-growing component of our business. It’s not unique to us. The remaining five percent, we do what we would call interim staffing engagements. It’s a bad label because people often mistake it as a staffing service, but truly interim leadership. We’ll do interim CIO or interim CMIO type work.

On the advisory and planning side, It’s largely Meaningful Use and compliance planning and road mapping. We do a fair amount of systems selection work and we’ve been recently getting engaged in a number of turnaround efforts. Organizations obviously now are elevating IT or the contribution of IT and that’s finding itself on the radars of CEOs and CFOs and COOs. As a result, they’re recognizing they need more out of their IT organization. We often play a role in helping them define what that looks like.


It seems that more consultants are being used for implementation work, where previously much of the work was planning and system selection. Do you get the feeling that almost everybody uses consultants now?

There were always downstream opportunities. It was really bringing more of a process and discipline to the table, whereas now I think the agendas for IT are so significant, largely driven obviously by Meaningful Use, that many of them are just looking for help.

It is largely focused right now on implementation. It’s about building infrastructure and getting some of the foundational elements in place. Organizations are largely consumed by that, and as a result, they’re reaching out more to consulting firms.

As a component of that, everybody’s now in the consulting business. What we traditionally referred to as staff augmentation firms are often calling themselves consultants. There are many more buyers, and a lot of those buyers are blurring the lines between traditional consulting firms — or what I would call solution-based firms — and more contemporary consulting firms, which often look like staff augmentation firms. 

I think it’s fair to say that now there is a lot more activity and it’s largely built around implementation. But I think there’s a question of sustainability for some of these firms who have built themselves around this model of supporting clients strictly from an implementation perspective.


CIOs used to choose consulting firms based on on how likely they were to transfer knowledge to their IT department instead of just selling it to them indefinitely. Has years of that knowledge transfer raised the level of expertise in hospital IT departments?

We as an industry are becoming smarter about our trade. CIOs have elevated themselves within their organizations over the course of the last two decades and hopefully will continue to do so. I’m not sure that that’s a result of them getting intelligence from consulting firms. It’s them just growing with the expectation of the organization.

Organizations now more than ever before, certainly in healthcare, are starting to recognize that IT has the ability to add value and contribute it to the success of the organization, Historically for many — not all, but for many – organizations, IT was always recognized as a cost of doing business and a necessary evil.

With that evolution, so has grown the contribution that the individual is making to the organization. I’m not sure I would draw a parallel that that’s a result of CIOs relying on consulting organization. I think it’s more as result of them responding to the demands of their organization in light of where the industry is going.


Are there a lot of people like you who get experience on the provider side, then go into consulting, and then come back?

No, I don’t think it is. It’s one of the things that differentiates us as an organization and our philosophy and our approach to our clients. I’ve mentioned earlier that we value more than anything our partnership with our clients. I don’t think that we’re bringing a higher degree of intelligence to the engagement. What we’re bringing to the engagement is a broader degree of exposure to what works and what doesn’t work within the industry, because we’re engaged with multiple organizations and we’re going through similar efforts on multiple fronts.

That’s what I consider to be thought leadership — the value of experience. In addition to that, CIOs are recognizing that the job is just so big they need to rely on partners that they can trust and they know will have their best interest at heart and bring to whatever effort that they’re working on some of the best resources that might be available to them in the industry. That’s what we’re trying to do for our clients and that’s what we try and focus on. To suggest that we bring more than that seems to be perhaps arrogant.


I assume that the range of engagements has narrowed, with a bunch of organizations doing projects like Epic implementations, analytics, Meaningful Use, or ICD-10 all at the same time. Do you think the breadth of consulting engagements has narrowed?

Yes, I think it has. When you look at advisory services as an example, most of that is built around system selection, ambulatory integration, and compliance planning. It used to be strategy.

Strategy now is, “How do I meet the regulatory requirements of Meaningful Use, for not just Stage 1, but Stage 2 and Stage 3?” That now has becomes the two- to three-year agenda for just about every organization in the industry right now. So I do agree. I think it has narrowed the scope of services.

But some things that fundamentally remain the same is the fact that organizations want partners who can be holistic, who can help them understand how to focus on the solutions rather than tactics. They want someone who is going to be committed to them to work in their best interest.


When prospects choose a consulting organization, what are their most common criteria and why do they choose Cornerstone?

Every organization is different. We’re perhaps unique in that if you look at our client portfolio, you would see organizations with a range in size from 25-bed critical access facilities to 500-plus-bed teaching medical centers. Each of them are looking for something different in a partner.

Organizations that traditionally have not had the resources or the sponsorship within their organization to think strategically about IT are now starting to ask themselves those questions, and are wanting help and finding those answers. They’re looking for a partner who can bring that to the table and can also offer them resources to help execute whatever that solution is.

Organizations on the larger side of the spectrum probably feel for the most part that they have a lot of the blocking and tackling issues under control. They’re looking two or three years out and they’re focusing on other things. They’re focusing on how do we drive our competitive advantage within our organization through the use of IT? How do we drive physician engagement? How do we support ACO efforts and the like?

Our KLAS ratings were a proud moment for us last year. It was validation of who we are and the type of firm that we’re striving to become. Obviously we were touched by our clients’ commitment to us in return for the services that we’ve offered them. Client satisfaction is obviously the hallmark of success in this business. Our goal which, we try and strive for every day, is to exceed the expectations of every client, every time. KLAS was helpful in objectively validating that we’re doing that on a regular basis.


It’s tough to wring a high “money’s worth” score out of anybody’s customers. What did you do to get a nine on a 10-point scale?

Part of this is our evolution and part of this is where the industry is going, which is frightening perhaps at times. There’s tremendous amount of pressure to commoditize these services. The lines between traditional consulting firms and modern-day staffing firms are blurring, at least from the perspective of many buyers. Probably not from our perspective, but that’s not the one that always matters.

For us, recognizing that we’re a smaller organization and in many cases less-familiar player, we often find ourselves competing across the broader spectrum. In some cases, we’re competing with staff augmentation firm rates while delivering a higher value. That’s being recognized by our clients. Not only are we helping them get the job done, we’re bringing a broader focus to the table and helping them execute on a solution rather than just the tactics of installing a system. That probably has a lot to do with it. Our challenge obviously is going to be continuing to sustain that.


Are hospitals still interested in return on investment?

Without question, probably more so today than ever before because the amount of investment is far greater than it’s ever been. We often find that many organizations anticipate that Meaningful Use will provide them the return on investment. We spend a lot of time educating organizations on what the true total cost of ownership is and what it takes to deliver good IT services to the organization.

When they look at those numbers and realize that it represents now more than ever before, it is obviously an increasing number as a percent of operations, but hovering in the four to five percent range now, which represents a significant investment. They are looking to make sure that they can get a return on that.


Meaningful Use made it easy to measure at least some aspects of return on investment because you know what it costs to get a one-time check for a specific dollar amount. But are organizations paying enough attention to their operating expenses relate to the capital expense?

It’s still difficult to measure, but having those metrics in place — whether they’re qualitative or quantitative — are important. It drives a degree of alignment and a degree of sponsorship, which is important within the organization. Oftentimes when these projects don’t bear the results that organizational leaders are looking for, it’s often as a result of governance or the lack thereof. 

What I mean by that is making sure that you have all the right members and all the stakeholders within the organization understanding the purpose and the objective of the project, aligning incentives so that people recognize that their contribution to this is important and critical, and making sure that the entire organization is rowing in the same direction. Nine out of ten times, the reason for projects not meeting their objectives is because you don’t have that kind of alignment established within the organization. 

We spend a lot of time working on this. We have developed a methodology we call e-Methods. It has five components to it – evaluate, educate, engage, execute, and exchange. Three-fifths of the methodology, as you can imagine, is focused on building alignment, making sure that the organization is fully bought into the exercise and that they understand the objectives and that they’re committed to it. If you can accomplish that, half the battle has been won.


Big IT projects other than infrastructure are really big change management projects. How do you assess a client’s capabilities to manage change on a large scale?

It’s change management, or culture management as we often like to refer to it. Most would recognize that culture eats strategy every time. That’s an important key that you need to focus on. It’s built into our methodology. We address it that way and we spend a lot of time upfront evaluating culture, trying to understand the barriers to adoption and what might get in the way of success. 

We build that into our model. We spend a lot of time educating the organization and helping them understand what we foresee as cultural barriers. We’ll educate the executive team. In many cases, we’ll even include the board in some of those discussions. You can push this change from the top down throughout the organization so that you have the right kind of sponsorship and leadership from the get-go.


What if you find that their culture really isn’t amenable to change management for a project of that level? Do you tell them to not sign that deal or tell them what they need to change?

We try and bring a level of awareness to the issue. We often rely on them to help us understand what we can do to contribute to that. First and foremost, we want them to understand that the issue exists and that it’s a potential risk to the project if we don’t address it. We will sit down. We will collaborate on ways to do that.


What should CIOs be doing right now to prepare for the future five years down the road?

It’s always interesting when you think about the timeline of three to five years, because that’s what we often look to as the future. In probably three to five years, we’re going to be on the tail end of us implementing all these infrastructure that’s being acquired right now. The focus is going to be, now that we’ve put all these technologies and tools in place and we’re capturing data, how do we use it to drive improvements and outcome? 

Data analytics is largely going to be the focus probably five years from now. It’s going to take us a decade as an industry to really figure that out and get it right.


Any concluding thoughts?

In other interviews, you often ask what differentiates once consulting firm from another. My reaction to that is simple. It has everything to do with relationships ­ – the relationship we have with our clients, the relationship we have with our associates.

We have two philosophies that we live by. First is clients for life. Second is associates for life. Although these are simple in words, these two things shape our actions almost daily. They impact our hiring process. They impact our retention and associate development commitment, our culture, how we approach engagements, how we support clients, and how we develop and maintain those relationships with our associates and our clients.

We believe, perhaps maybe even naively, that if we focus on these two simple principles rather than success metrics themselves, success often becomes the by-product.

I think it’s an exciting time to be in healthcare. It’s good to be here. There is a commitment to revolutionize the industry like never before. It’s going to take time.

Information technology will play a vital role. Right now we seem to be largely focused on elevating the IT agenda while also implementing basic infrastructure elements. I look forward to these tools and technologies helping our clients drive value, improve outcomes, and empower patients. I think the future is bright and I’m excited to be a part of it.

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Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Nice interview. I have had the opportunity to recommend Keith and Cornerstone in the past. Those clients that I am aware of indeed have attested to Kieth’s commitment to maintaining a successful engagement. Keith brings real world experience to the table and the ability to bridge the gap between the CIO and the rest off the “C” suite and the board.

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