National's Virtual Inventory system isn't the only innovation that pushed National to the top of the InformationWeek 500. (The company was No. 2 last year and No. 87 in 2006.) Seif's IT staff, which dubbed "collaboration" as the theme for new projects in 2008, has come up with a Collaboration Toolbox, a Google Desktop panel on each employee's computer loaded with gadgets that launch applications.
The toolbox includes Google desktop search, the Sametime chat client, Skype for voice over IP, and GoToMeeting, a Citrix Systems app that simplifies setting up videoconferences. GoToMeeting can use a Microsoft sound-activated Roundtable camera that sits in the middle of a conference table, using mirrors and five lenses to capture the speaker, regardless of where he's sitting. GoToMeeting replaces a more expensive and complex videoconference system that employees used only sporadically.
National's IT staff has jiggered GoToMeeting so that it works alongside Microsoft's SharePoint document collaboration system. The SharePoint document under discussion in a conference can be edited jointly as the remote parties confer on camera. The video falls short of full motion quality, but the speaker's expression, gestures, and body language all come through.
Seif's team designed each element of the toolbox for ease of use. Each tool is activated by clicking on a gadget. A user's ID and privileges are set through an Active Directory single sign-on. The toolbox draws together National's scattered, overlapping, and varied user-interface collaborative tools. Santhanam, Seif's head of product line and technology development, along with Neal Casteel, manager of information security, pulled the toolbox together earlier this year.
Senior VPs started using the toolbox and selected groups around the company were allowed to adopt it. As they tried it out, news of the tools spread by word of mouth and more employees wanted in, leading to swift adoption. In May 2007, for example, National hosted 100 teleconference meetings using the old system. This May, it hosted 1,800 meetings with a total of 4,500 participants. "We tend to have 10 to 20 meetings going on at any one time," Casteel says.
Halla encourages a casual atmosphere at National, and Seif seems to abide little standing on ceremony. That collegial atmosphere prevails at IT staff meetings as well. "We've built good relationships with the COO, CEO, and president--and among ourselves," Seif says.
But for all the informality, Seif comes out of the tough disciplines of purchasing, factory production, and supply chain management. Indeed, the first title on his business card is senior VP of supply chain services, followed by CIO. At National, it's not a goal to align IT with the business. IT lies so close to the order management, factory production, and distribution--the heart of an electronics manufacturer's business--that under Seif, the two can't be separated.
Even Virtual Inventory is a continuation of past hard-nosed attempts to squeeze excess out of delivery processes. It's hardly an abstract idea. Every year, Halla, a former CFO, "tightens the screw on inventory," Seif says. For National Semiconductor, Seif says, it's nothing less than "a matter of survival."
Production control czar Owens (left, with chief architect Yuan) spent two weeks at Arrow to understand how designers select parts
National's Singapore distribution center can ship 4 billion components a year
Wearable scanner offers view into supply chain