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Innovation Mandate: Ford's CIO On Innovating Through Tough Times

Leveraging its Sync in-vehicle technology as well as internal social networking and mobility advances, carmaker roars out of the recession.

Nicholas J. Smither
Nicholas J. Smither
Group Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Ford Motor Company
For a carmaker coming out of the worst car-buying market in decades, Ford has been on a roll. It avoided the government bailouts and bankruptcy restructurings of its Big Three brethren, General Motors and Chrysler. And as Japanese rival Toyota got clobbered with quality problems, Ford had a fresh vehicle lineup ready to capitalize, fueling 21% growth in U.S. sales so far this year compared with 2009.

Ford CIO Nick Smither, a veteran of 30-plus years with the automaker, has been through rough sales cycles before. Asked if there's a lesson the U.S. IT industry, which suffered its own sales drought during the recession, can take from Ford's experience, Smither points to long-term thinking.

"We need to make sure we are sustaining the levels of innovation through a tough economic cycle," Smither says. "We worked hard in terms of our product investments, and you're seeing that in the products coming to market now, which are really the result of investments made two to three years ago in terms of development cycle or three to five years ago in terms of research cycle. So I think the concern I would have is to make sure we're making the investments in the IT innovations that will come to market one to three years from now."

Understand, Smither likes what he's seeing from U.S. IT companies and is a lot more optimistic than the majority in our Innovation Mandate survey who fret that U.S. tech innovation is slipping. "Certainly from an application standpoint, I see a lot of continued strength coming out of the U.S. IT industry -- whether it's companies like IBM or HP or Google or Cisco, and more recently some of the applications around social media such as Twitter and Facebook," he says. "While I absolutely subscribe to the view that we need to sustain that as a competitive advantage, particularly for manufacturing, the rate of innovation I've seen coming out of the U.S. IT industry is actually pretty strong now."

IT innovation is critical to Ford on two main fronts.

The most visible is that tech is an increasing vital part of a vehicle. Ford's Microsoft-based Sync software lets people plug their smartphones and music players into the vehicle and use voice controls and touch screens to answer calls and pick music. Sync has become a major part of Ford's marketing. The latest version, MyFord Touch, has an 8-inch touch screen that tries to mimic a smartphone touch screen interface. Available in the Edge crossover, it lets drivers customize two 4-inch screens on either side of the speedometer, which the driver then controls using buttons on the steering wheel.

"The application of technology is critical for us, particularly as we reposition our product line in terms of product content," Smither says. The company also offers an in-vehicle office software package called FordWorks, in its F-series pickups and other commercial vehicles. FordWorks is an in-dash computer with wireless Internet access through which a person on a job site can access documents, spreadsheets, even his office desktop, using either the touch screen or a wireless keyboard.

And in that area, Ford is pushing its vendor partners. It's working with speech-recognition software maker Nuance, for instance, to deliver voice-activated features in Sync, something that's vital for carmakers as they try to put more tech toys in the car while keeping people's eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. "It's actually a pretty challenging, hostile environment, when you think of the road noise and engine noise, and the fact that you're working inside a vehicle that's traveling anywhere from 10 to 70 miles an hour," Smither says. After years of unmet predictions that we'd use voice to control computers, the car could be the killer app for voice interfaces. Already, Ford drivers can use Sync to ask for a particular song or artist off their MP3 player, or to call someone using a mobile phone plugged into the vehicle.

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