Global CIO: Take everything IT does, then add exponential complexity.

When he first joined The AES, a power company based in Arlington, US, George Coulter traveled the world for four months straight, meeting with business and IT leaders in 15 countries.

At Manpower, Rick Davidson conducts twice-a-year, five-to-six-week global "road shows," visiting the major countries in which the organization operates. On a recent day, having just flown to London after half a week in Prague, he was preparing to head to Tokyo before returning to Manpower's headquarters in Milwaukee.

At one point in his career, Jay Crotts at Royal Dutch Shell in London found himself traveling every one or two weeks for 10 days at a time, so that --as he puts it -- he was always either preparing for a trip, traveling or recovering from a trip. And there's not an hour of the day or night when Crotts hasn't dialed into a teleconference from home.

Coulter, Davidson and Crotts are all global CIOs. The position is one of the most in-demand and hardest to fill in the IT industry, according to Shawn Banerji, executive director at Russell Reynolds Associates, an executive search firm in New York. "Over the past 18 months, three quarters of our CIO searches have had an international aspect if not a requirement," he says.

The demand is emanating from multinational businesses, as well as domestic companies looking to expand their worldwide reach. All want to see candidates who can develop a technology infrastructure that supports business initiatives on multiple continents with diverse cultures and very different business norms. They need individuals who can walk the fine line between developing an overarching technology strategy for the entire company with standard applications for worldwide use and respecting the variances that local business leaders need in order to operate effectively. And they need people who are adept at managing IT staffs whose members speak multiple languages, work in every time zone and follow their own cultural mores. All of this may or may not include dotted-line or full responsibility for country-based CIOs.

These shoes aren't as easy to fill as those of a domestic CIO. "If you have 7,000 employees in the U.S., and you're going through a system change, it's a lot easier than if you had 700 employees in 10 countries," says Steve Bandrowczak, who recently became global CIO at Lenovo Group, now the third-largest PC company in the world since acquiring IBM's PC business last year. "Just think about having to deliver solutions in Dubai, India, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe simultaneously, versus doing that in similar time zones for users who all speak a single language," he says.

According to Banerji, the global CIO job requires a person who's an exceptionally good listener with a high degree of empathy and tolerance for other people, in addition to a genuine interest in learning about other cultures. It helps to have spent a considerable portion of one's career in a global-company environment, perhaps even managing large project teams in various locations worldwide. But at the very least, Banerji says, the candidate should have worked in a complex, widely distributed, multisite, process-intensive business.

And -- don't kid yourself -- candidates need to be willing to travel, and travel, and travel. "We've seen people take an out-of-state job and not even bother to move their families," Banerji says. "What's the point of uprooting their families' comfort zone and support base if they're never [at the corporate location] anyway?"

Sometimes the cost of travel is too high. Plenty of otherwise good candidates leave the global CIO track because of the strain on family life, Banerji says.

The overarching challenge that most global CIOs face is developing a common IT governance strategy that specifies a standard set of technologies and applications in order to leverage global buying power, realize huge economies of scale, spread best practices discovered in one business area throughout the world, and gain a global view of customers and operations. But that entails taking inventory of the hundreds or thousands of local systems and applications that are in many ways redundant but also serve local needs.

At Lenovo, for instance, Bandrowczak's main mission will be to take Lenovo's and the former IBM PC business's separate systems and combine them into one that supports global supply chain processes. "The IBM PC business was focused on large enterprise customers, whereas Lenovo in China focused on small to medium-size businesses and consumers, so each had totally different requirements," he says. To move forward, he needs to determine which functions all sets of customers demand and build a single global system to support them.

In some cases, this means discovering best practices that already exist in the company and developing systems that globalize them. "China is extremely efficient in its supply chain and product development areas, but the challenge will be incorporating that into all the markets we choose to play in," Bandrowczak says.

Identifying Best Practices

Deciding which country exhibits the best practices in a given area is a complex chore in itself, says Crotts, who manages IT for Shell's global business-to-business and lubricants business areas. He's now in year three of a multi?year journey toward common global systems that will be hosted in several data centers throughout the world. As part of that effort, Crotts decided that a CRM system employed in Malaysia was the best available and rolled out a system based on it in 16 countries.

To determine which CRM system was the best, Crotts first looked at metrics such as cost per transaction, customer satisfaction and call center size to compare many countries' systems. Gathering these metrics, however, was "an inexact science," he says. In some countries, these types of measurements didn't even exist, and a simple question like, "How many people run your call center?" led to confusion over which staffers to include. "Defining key performance indicators to measure systems between countries is a significant challenge," Crotts says.

At Cisco Systems, global CIO Brad Boston faced a similar challenge two years ago. At the time, Cisco had "distinctive geographic theaters," with IT leaders in the US, Europe and Asia, he says. Each region chose and managed its systems autonomously, so there was a lot of duplication. "We were really acting like an international company, with a bunch of local systems but not a single, global view," Boston says.

Cisco has since restructured, eliminating the regional IT leaders and having IT staffers report to a global vice president in charge of the business function they support, such as sales, customer service or manufacturing. Boston has spent the past two years managing a worldwide effort to minimize redundant systems by globalizing existing systems or creating new ones with customizations to support the needs of different marketplaces. For instance, a single application now calculates sales commissions on a global basis while accounting for the various plans that salespeople can adhere to, depending on which country and marketplace they serve.

Just deciding which systems and applications can be centralized and which should stay local is a major conundrum, Manpower's Davidson says. Manpower has embarked on building a "global/local" IT organization, in which a global staff reports to Davidson and is responsible for creating a common infrastructure and business applications, while local IT staffers in the 72 countries in which Manpower operates report to a regional or country-based IT leader.

Balancing global and local needs is a constant struggle, Davidson says. "Every day you have to think where that line is drawn, and it's not a straight answer; it's always a negotiation, and the line continues to move," he says.

Any CIO needs to understand the fine art of negotiating: Who's going to give up their favorite tool or application, and is a particular customization really necessary? But it's a whole different art when you have to work out prickly issues with people in diverse cultures. This requires an acute understanding of cultural differences.

In the U.K., U.S. and Germany, for instance, people tend to be very comfortable jumping into intense discussions, Davidson points out, whereas in Latin America and Japan, the culture is more focused on building relationships before approaching a difficult task.

"In Japan, they have seven ways to say no; they never want to offend," he says. "Sometimes they nod their head, and you think you have an agreement, but they're just saying, 'I hear you.' "

This is true throughout the Pacific Rim and Asia in general, says Fred Danback, vice president of global technology at XL Global Services in Stamford, Conn. "You get nods and agreement, but that's just to honor you," he says. "To get someone to buy into your strategy, you have to navigate their culture."

It's equally important to understand different countries' business climates. At Lenovo, for instance, system requirements are very different for products sold in fast-growing markets in China and India than they are for those sold in emerging markets in Brazil and parts of Eastern Europe, Bandrowczak says. In addition, small businesses and consumers buy products and services very differently in China than they do in Dubai. "Getting a geographic understanding is very easy when you're playing within the four walls of what you're familiar with," Bandrowczak says. "But in a global position, you have to understand the differences in conducting business around the globe and create solutions that meet those differences."

"There's just a whole lot more to remember and a lot of moving pieces to keep track of," adds Davidson. "Imagine a new financial system in 30 countries: Even the statutory requirements are different, like how you report financials and what chart of accounts you need to set up."

Sizing Up the Situation

Differing data privacy laws can also wreak havoc. Manpower is hosting several applications, such as CRM and payroll, in its U.S.-based data center, which will contain contact information for customers and employees who reside in Europe. As a result, the company needs to obtain approval from the various European governments to store that personal data. "When you design these systems, they need to be extensive enough to accommodate those differences," Davidson says.

Different countries' economies also play a role in how global IT decisions are approached, Davidson says. Since Manpower's profit margins are highly reliant on the wages a country's temporary labor force can command, when planning a new system Davidson has to balance the economic conditions in Thailand or Vietnam with those of wealthier places like Europe. "You can't put a sophisticated technology solution in place to manage people making US$4 to US$5 per hour," he says. "You have to plan a platform that can scale from the low end of the technology continuum to what a country like the U.S. or France can handle."

One person obviously can't manage all these differences; that's why it's so important to hire a really great team. And functioning as a truly global company means hiring the best person for every role, no matter where in the world he may reside.

At Cisco, Boston says that taking a global skills inventory and then leveraging those skills has been one of his biggest challenges. For instance, because Europe is more aggressively adopting mobile devices than the U.S., he commissioned IT staffers in the U.K. to build converged PDA/cell phone devices because they could more creatively run that project. Meanwhile, IT staffers in Sydney, Australia, are leading the IP telephony effort because engineers there had developed an innovative architecture for remotely supporting telephony for the Asia-Pacific region.

Danback has learned to use the cultural differences among worldwide IT staffers to his advantage. He has found, for example, that the culture in the U.S. tends to be more action- than detail-oriented, while the cultures in Germany and Switzerland encourage a more engineering-intensive mentality. The U.K. culture, he says, is generally very results-oriented.

Put all these together, Danback says, and you've got a well-balanced team. "We realized we can leverage the great qualities of these different cultures," he says. "Someone from Switzerland might drive the team toward the highest possible quality, while staff from the U.K. will insist on meeting project deadlines. Add positive energy and spirit often contributed by the Americans, and we have the recipe for a high-performance team."

But hand in hand with locating skills globally is the challenge of managing people in far-flung places and teaching lower-level managers to do the same. For instance, Boston says, you can't schedule a staff meeting every Friday at 8 a.m. California time, because that's midnight for others. "It's bad form to call a four-hour 9 o'clock meeting on a Friday, because that's either Saturday in Asia or 5 p.m. in the U.K., and you're really cutting into someone's personal life in an unnecessary way," he says.

Videoconferencing can fill some gaps, but it's crucial to schedule face-to-face IT staff meetings throughout the year. "The efficiency of the team goes up dramatically," Crotts says. "Don't underestimate the power of bringing people together. Projects will never move forward unless people can put a name and a face together."

That brings up the dreaded T word: travel. Whether meeting with business leaders or IT counterparts, "you just have to reconcile yourself to being on the road quite a bit," Boston says.

"Sleep when you can and drink a lot of water," Crotts advises, and when crossing time zones, don't assume that your wits are always at their sharpest. Perhaps most of all, he says, "you've got to love what you do; otherwise, it's a burnout waiting to happen."

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