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Embracing Chaos: How RR Donnelley and Ensono joined forces to manage the IT aspects of a massive divestiture



RR Donnelley is a leading global provider of integrated multi-channel communications services. The company was founded more than a century and a half ago, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and currently ranks on the Fortune 500 list of America’s largest corporations.

The company’s management team has always been focused on growth and customer satisfaction. Over the last several years, RR Donnelley has strategically acquired a number of different companies to help meet these goals and to diversify beyond its traditional printing business. Last summer, it announced an even more aggressive and innovative plan to split into three separately traded companies in order to realize benefits for shareholders.

The company set an ambitious timeline of one year to complete the spinoff. Managing the IT aspects of such a massive divestiture was all-encompassing from Day 1 of the project.

“RR Donnelley has a lot of experience with acquisitions and integrating acquired businesses,” says RR Donnelley’s CIO Ken O’Brien. “But a spinoff is very different—especially one of this magnitude and complexity. It was a very busy year.”

Challenges and Complexities

RR Donnelley thrives when it comes to integrating the complex IT operations of large, disparate organizations. A byproduct of this is the fact that a wide variety of different technologies and platforms are used within the company globally. “We have a highly diverse technical environment because of our many acquisitions,” says O’Brien. “We deal with a little bit of everything.”

Additionally, RR Donnelley has undergone intense consolidation efforts over the past 15 years that have resulted in a highly centralized and consolidated IT environment. While the consolidation enabled global standardization and significant cost benefits, it also presented unique challenges to the divestiture effort, says O’Brien.

Finally, RR Donnelley had thousands of IT contracts and agreements with vendors and suppliers that needed to be reworked in support of the spin. “Ensono has been a tremendous partner and has provided strong leadership in building an aggressive but doable execution plan,” O’Brien adds. “They brought an army to help us in this endeavor and it has paid huge dividends. Ensono demonstrated that sticking to our aggressive timeline was as important to them as it was for us.”

Ensono Goes Above and Beyond

William Flannery—Ensono senior vice president, business innovation and consulting— explains in greater detail how Ensono went above and beyond the call of duty to help RR Donnelley meet their aggressive timeline for the spin’s IT integration: “We migrated hundreds of applications to the new Ensono platform. Normally, I would have modeled at least 18 months for a project of this magnitude, but we accomplished it in a year.”

Aside from the accelerated timeline and need to keep RR Donnelley’s operations running while the divestiture activities were underway, the sheer scope and complexity of the project added to the immense challenges. “Ensono had to come up with a brand new framework to accommodate the evolving landscape encountered throughout the project,” says O’Brien. “Running an IT infrastructure for three different but interconnected companies is very different from running the same infrastructure for one company. Ensono had to design a modular, parallel work stream to make this happen.”

Ensono was flexible to work with throughout the process and able to determine the best options for addressing RR Donnelley’s needs in short timeframes. “We knew from the outset what we wanted to do from an infrastructure standpoint, but we needed additional resources, so we partnered with Ensono,” adds O’Brien. “Their level of expertise was critical to our success.”

Lessons for CIOs

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

O’Brien notes that communication was an absolutely vital aspect of RR Donnelley’s spinoff efforts.

  • Communication about project plans and successes. Having a well-prepared plan is important, but setting expectations and ensuring that people understand the plan is what really builds confidence. “You can’t overstate the value of the confidence it brings when you empower people to do the things that have to be done without second-guessing or delays from lack of understanding,” says O’Brien.
  • Communication internally about specific IT changes and deadlines. There are myriad IT details that needed to be communicated company-wide: everything from when new email addresses and URLs were activated to when entire new business platforms were implemented and took effect. “I think we did a great job with communication, but we could have done even better,” says O’Brien. “You really can’t ever communicate enough. Helping people understand their specific roles and expectations is one of the strongest determinants of success.”

2. Set Priorities

Another key success factor was the ability of the RR Donnelley management team to set priorities and stick to them. “Our commitment was to provide the same functionality— no more and no less—to all employees by July 1 that they had before the spin,” says O’Brien. “We had many conversations where people asked if they could have this or that, but keeping to the same set of expectations across the entire organization kept us from wasting time and money chasing wants versus needs.”

In the end, every IT decision must be viewed through the lens of what is and isn’t mission-critical to the spin. “We had to ask whether or not something will be a differentiator to the success of the spin,” says O’Brien. “This requires the type of thinking like when your house is on fire and you have to decide what is absolutely critical for you to try to save. This may be overly dramatized, but I assure you that there are moments when it gets to this point.” 

3. Embrace the Chaos

One of the biggest lessons O’Brien says he learned over the past year was the importance of embracing chaos.

He uses a nautical analogy to make his point: “Everyone on the team is on a ship that needs to get from here to there in a set period of time. The key is to start the journey with the understanding that there will be rough waters, but that if you stay focused you will get through it and reach the end destination as a team.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect plan—and if people think there is, they’re going to be disappointed,” O’Brien adds. “Our responsibility as leaders is to set the right expectations from the start. How well everyone weathers the storms will be largely determined by how well leadership has prepared them for what’s to come.”

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