Managing relationship managers

Are engineers really 'not good' with dealing with customers?

Shifting gears

Ten years ago, Ralph Szygenda took charge of IT operations at General Motors, a highly decentralized $US200 billion company with 7,000 different information systems. As CIO, he created five IT positions, called process information officers (PIO), to push corporate IT standards -- getting all engineers to use the same CAD program, for example. Eventually, those PIOs helped eliminate 4,000 of those 7,000 IT systems.

Szygenda accomplished this by using what he calls a "matrix" of regional CIOs, who oversee IT services for all the business units in their regions, and global PIOs with deep expertise in business areas such as supply chain or manufacturing quality that transcend regions.

"If you have to convince the business leaders to give up an information system, you had better be seen as a business expert and not just an IT person," Szygenda says.

The PIOs have IT experience, but they also tend to have experience in business process improvement in the auto industry.

Szygenda purposefully created organizational tension that is worked out in what he calls "debating society" meetings. "The CIO has a view of today's needs, and the PIO has a longer-term strategic vision," he explains. "This way, I always have two views in front of me -- the local and the strategic -- and can't get snookered by one or the other."

Terry Kline, global product development PIO, agrees that the matrix setup drives contention about issues such as which CAD program to standardize on. "But this process forces them upfront," he says. "On the back end, they're much tougher to deal with."

Kline, whose auto industry experience includes stints as a director of IT and a CIO, describes the PIO job as a great challenge. "Often, the CIOs own the budget and the resources, so you have to be an educator and convince them to do something," he says. "You have lots of different bosses and customers: design centers, engineering centers, business line bosses, regional CIOs and Ralph. At some point you have to set the direction, or they are going to set the direction for you."

Kline says that line managers see him as a critical piece of their business team. "I am one of the few people who visit every engineering center," he says, "so I often end up playing the role of conduit between regional vice presidents to spread the word about best practices such as how we share data."

In 1999, GM complemented the PIOs by creating business process officer (BPO) positions that also line up horizontally across the company. The BPO makes decisions about unifying and streamlining efforts across the global corporation's business units, whether they involve IT or not. For instance, a BPO might shift production from one plant to another to gain efficiencies.

When a change involves computer systems, a BPO has a ready partner in the PIO. "When the business process officer sends out a message that he wants to be able to engineer any product anywhere in the world he sees fit, it makes my job easier," says Kline.

Szygenda says that Kline and BPO Bob Lutz "practically live with each other. They speak exactly the same language."

In many organizations, relationship managers fail because they're not seen as business leaders, Szygenda says. "The key is that these people have to be business-oriented and measured by business results," he says. "If you asked our head of engineering about Terry Kline, he would say, 'He's a whiz -- a business whiz.'"

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