Global CIO: 5 Ways Ford's CIO Is Driving Growth

Jun 29, 2010 (02:06 PM EDT)

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Nick Smither is one of 10 IT leaders we’re recognizing as leading Global CIOs, for their outstanding efforts to use technology to drive growth at their companies. (See all 10 profiles here.)

Having spoken with the Ford CIO twice in recent months, as well as with several of his team members, here are five areas where IT can have a real impact on the automaker’s revenue growth and profitability. This is my list, not Smither’s, and it’s based in part on areas other CIOs tell us they’re trying to improve--and where Smither’s team has ideas worth copying.

1. Increase Use of Analytics

Ford has IT teams embedded in every global functional team, such as product development and finance, and “most of the functional teams have got an IT initiative around analytics,” Smither says.

Ford’s like a lot of companies: The data’s there, and it’s trying to wring more value from it. One example is applying business intelligence across product creation teams, to give them a single view of the amount that various vehicles are sharing common parts and commodities. Whether it’s metal or steering wheels or seat springs, Ford would like to standardize as much as possible, and it’s using analytics to assess that.

2. Reorganize IT Globally

Ford spent the last two or three years restructuring the IT organization to do two things, Smither says. One is to map IT goals to the company’s One Ford initiatives, focused on making Ford more profitable as a single global organization; the second is to make sure IT provides a platform to support growth.

IT had been fragmented, with each regional business unit having duplicate operations. Now, it’s “one IT,” Smither says, with shared services for infrastructure, application development, and application support. That restructuring cut IT operating costs 30% over the past four years, he says. But Smither also tries to keep IT close to functional units. “We have people embedded in each of the skill teams, so we have IT people working with the development team around things like Sync, and the same is true across each of the other functions,” he says.

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3. Help create new products

At too many companies, IT teams are at arm’s length from the actual products. That misses an opportunity for IT to shape the product itself, as well as improve the product development process. Both are happening at Ford.

Personal tech will be a growing part of why people pick a particular car. At Ford, IT teams work alongside product development teams in advancing the Microsoft-based Sync system, which links smartphones, music players, and Internet services for safe use in Ford vehicles.

IT’s also helping Ford look into the future, to figure out what a generation that has grown up with social networking will want in their vehicles. Even more, they’re thinking of the car as a development platform, one that third-party developers will write to much like they can an iPhone. TJ Giuli, a Ford research engineer with a Stanford PhD in computer science, co-taught a University of Michigan class this spring where students tested that platform by creating apps they’d want in the Fiesta, a compact car just coming to the U.S. The winning app: one that lets people in a multivehicle caravan share info on stops and status.

The IT teams are also bringing more use of simulation technology into product development and manufacturing, and helping share the results across regions— increasingly important as Ford strives to design vehicles once for manufacturing and sales worldwide.

4. Improve collaboration

Ford’s Digital Worker program includes unified communications (Ford was among the earlier mega-companies to embrace voice over IP), lots of WebEx videoconferencing, and growing use of SharePoint.

In a lot of ways, that’s standard-operating-procedure for companies-- it’s rare for a CIO not to have these kinds of collaboration on his or her agenda. It’s using SharePoint for social networking and team project sites. It’s experimenting with Yammer for more informal discussion threads.

What matters is not the tools, but how well IT can map this collaboration effort to a key Ford goal--creating one global organization. That has as much to do with culture as technology. But it won’t get anywhere without an IT platform that makes it possible.

5. Enable mobility

Ford is headed in the right direction with employee mobility. Now it needs to step on the gas. It has a program called e-pod--e-mail on personally owned device--that lets people use their own BlackBerry to access work e-mail. It’s piloting e-pod for iPhones, and looking at Windows Mobile and Symbian platforms.

Smither thinks this will soon be the expectation of most employees, that they can stay connected to work as needed wherever they are. Ford is ahead of a lot of companies by letting people use a personal smartphone for work, at least with BlackBerrys. But people want their iPhones now (and their Android-based phones).

Ford’s on a bit of a roll. Its “didn’t-get-a-bailout” status brought it some new looks, and Ford took advantage by having some fresh new vehicles on its dealers’ lots. IT has only a small part to play in keeping that mo’ going. What matters is that it knows that part very well.

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.

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