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.

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

October 18, 2010

4 Min Read

Nicholas J. Smither

Nicholas J. Smither

Nicholas J. Smither
Group Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Ford Motor Company

"We're diving smart content into our vehicles as one of the key pillars moving forward," Smither says. "From an IT perspective, we have people embedded in each of the skill teams, so we have IT people working with the development team around things like Sync, and the same is true across each of the other functions."

The other major front for IT-led innovation at Ford is to make employees more productive. There, social networking and mobility are the biggest points of change.

Ford has implemented Microsoft SharePoint across the company as the collaboration standard, letting teams set up their own sites to share information. "With the challenge of people split across time zones and geographies, and also the opportunity of having a very diverse base of employees, the whole social media is a huge opportunity," Smither says. "It allows much more real-time collaboration across different time bases, where historically we relied on traveling or video/audio conferencing." With SharePoint entrenched, Ford's also experimenting with tools such as Yammer -- a Twitter-like messaging capability for businesses -- for real-time work.

Under a program called EPOP -- employee personally owned device -- Ford has started letting employees use their personal BlackBerry devices to access the company network, and it's working on allowing other smartphones onto the network. "It comes back to the expectations and requirements of the workforce to be more mobile, and the expectation that they're always connected," Smither says. "We think there's some value to enabling employees to do that with their own devices rather than having to have a separate personal device and company device."

Smither thinks it's important for Ford that U.S. IT companies stay global leaders, and that the U.S. continues to produce world-class IT talent. While Ford will pick up innovation from tech partners and looks to employees around the world for ideas, "we still have a very significant U.S. presence and partner with many of the major players in the IT industry here," he says. Smaller, Web 2.0 companies are using Sync's API to integrate smartphones with vehicles, so that the driver or a passenger can ask music-streaming provider Pandora to play a type of music, or ask Sync to read her Twitter feed using the mobile app OpenBeak. (Exciting listening, we know.)

One of Ford's biggest challenges is its scale, something Smither grappled with early in his career at the company when he helped apply IBM's DB2 database to massive projects. Now, scale is a big issue as Ford and the vendors it works with try to roll out consumer tools -- whether it's smartphones or employee social networking or voice-controlled in-vehicle streaming media -- to a global operation. "If there's one thing I worry about as we look at the capabilities that are emerging, it's to ensure that we can experiment in a way that we can assure they can be applied at scale to a global operation that can break applications relatively easily," Smither says.

So is the U.S. IT industry up to the task of helping Ford solve these kinds of problems? "It comes back to that point I made earlier around ensuring that we maintain a level of investment in the research and innovation portfolio," he says. "That's what's going to drive the next Google or Twitter or whatever the next innovation is going to be."

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About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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