Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
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7/23/2009
04:49 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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How CIO Szygenda Helped GM Get Out Of The Fortune-Telling Business

As General Motors CIO Ralph Szygenda winds down his legendary career, he'll be remembered for many things: shifting the focus of his team from IT systems to cars and customers; consolidating a near-endless array of systems, applications, networks, and processes; using arbitrage to create a flexible network of third-party IT services; and more. But to me, the biggest impact he had was in helping make GM relevant again by changing it from a mediocre fortune-teller to a real-time global business.

As General Motors CIO Ralph Szygenda winds down his legendary career, he'll be remembered for many things: shifting the focus of his team from IT systems to cars and customers; consolidating a near-endless array of systems, applications, networks, and processes; using arbitrage to create a flexible network of third-party IT services; and more. But to me, the biggest impact he had was in helping make GM relevant again by changing it from a mediocre fortune-teller to a real-time global business.Shortly after Szygenda started at GM in 1996, I had the good fortune to meet him at an InformationWeek event and we got to chatting about the biggest challenges he was facing. And with his hybrid drawl - part Texas, part somewhere else - Ralph said something pretty much like this:

"Y'know, the biggest challenge I face isn't really about technology at all - although some of our IT challenges are pretty big, lemme tell ya - but rather a whole corporate culture that still takes almost five years from the time we come up with a great idea til the time the public can buy it. Five years. 60 months. You seem like a normal guy - can you tell me today what type of car you'll want to buy in five years? I can't. Most people can't. But that's the business we're in today: trying to predict what people's tastes will be in half a decade.

"That was okay a while ago when products and tastes didn't change so rapidly and so dramatically, but it's not okay now. So my biggest challenge is to help the company figure out how to shorten that new-product cycle from 60 months to more like 20."

And over the next 13 years (he is retiring Oct. 1), Ralph attacked that challenge with what football analysts have begun to call "a high-rev motor" and a terrifically confident style that, unlike so many CIOs at the time, seemed as comfortable talking about financing schemes and global economic trends as about network architecture and enterprise applications.

At one of the meetings of InformationWeek's Editorial Advisory Board - on which we've been privileged to have Ralph serve for 13 years, and hope he'll stick with us 13 more - Ralph was talking about the new Hummer that GM had just introduced and, if I may once again offer a paraphrase, said something like this: "So this new Hummer was still in final testing and wasn't really being shipped to the public and my wife and I were having a big Fourth of July picnic and we had a lot of friends and family over and also a buncha folks from work. And right out in my driveway I had parked three of these brand-new Hummers with wild colors and every option you could think of, and all day long my friends and family and neighbors were climbing in and out and asking me how I could git one or at least have a test drive and I'd say, well heck, just gimme your number and we'll have one of our very best dealers call ya.

"And at one point during the party I'm with my team from work and they say, 'Hey boss, this is a party - how come you've got those Hummers out on display and are takin' names?' And I put on a big scowl - I wasn't really mad but I figured I should pretend I was - an' I leaned in and said, 'Now listen - don't ever forget that while we work in the IT organization, our real job is to sell cars. Our job is to sell cars all the time!' Then they looked at me like I was a little crazy but that's okay 'cause I'm sure the message got through."

Ralph Szygenda will be remembered as one of the world's great CIOs because he, about as much as anyone, pushed the CIO persona relentlessly into the sometimes-uncomfortable world of the unfamiliar, whether that's discussions with marketing colleagues or analyzing quarterly financial reports or sitting with customers or pushing outsourcing into areas few companies had ever gone before. And he richly deserves that legacy.

But even more than that, I think Ralph Szygenda should be remembered as a great auto-industry executive because he recognized early on that fortune-tellers make lousy cars. And he spent 13 years helping GM's operations transform out of the fortune-telling tent and into the business of conceiving, building, and selling cars in real time across the globe. And in doing so he helped make GM relevant once again.

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