Management With A Global Spin

System helps National Semiconductor's technology team use resources more strategically around the world
Ensuring that I.T. projects stay on track at National Semiconductor Corp., the 46-year-old maker of products such as power-management circuits, display drivers, and communication interfaces, is a delicate balancing act. With more than 400 people worldwide and several hundred ongoing projects, senior VP and CIO Ulrich Seif handles the task with the help of software that promotes collaboration and innovation within the company.

Sharing decisions is fundamental, National Semiconductor's senior VP and CIO Ulrich Seif says.

Sharing decisions is fundamental, National Semiconductor's senior VP and CIO Ulrich Seif says.
The Web-based portfolio-management system that National Semiconductor developed in conjunction with ITM Software Corp., helps foster communication, problem solving, and process sharing among IT workers spread out around the world. Though many are in the Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters, there are two to three dozen in other locations in the United States and at chip-design centers in Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, Scotland, China, and Malaysia.

National Semiconductor has a "centralized structure," Seif says, but "where the rubber hits the road is not always in headquarters." For example, it's important that if Japanese employees encounter a problem with E-mail that can't be solved there within a few hours, the problem can be handed over to IT staffers in Europe or the United States until it's resolved.

The portfolio-management system holds information about current IT projects and is available to anyone in the company. Projects are color-coded to indicate their status--green for on-track, red for a problem that must be solved, and yellow for "things aren't quite kosher," Seif says. Such information makes it easier to elicit help, suggestions, or information from others in the company that have encountered similar issues. "We don't want to hide anything," Seif says.

Moreover, anyone anywhere in the company can input new requests, as long as there's a business case. The proposals are discussed once a week at a staff meeting, and if they get "buy-in" from Seif's team, they're then reviewed at weekly design-review meetings.

The proposals and corresponding business cases are entered into the system, where others in the company can evaluate which are worth pursuing while checking to see that similar efforts aren't already under way or have been tried and failed in the past. Lessons learned from past failures also can help steer new ideas in more successful directions. Also, if a project idea originates in one region, it may be a good idea that can be applied elsewhere in the company, perhaps in other regions, Seif says.

This process helps push innovations along, while eliminating redundant efforts. "The biggest problem in IT departments is that there are creative people who will develop ... mountains of code no one needs," he says.

The system helps Seif and his team work within an IT model that he believes is fundamental to an organization's success: sharing strategic decisions among IT staffers and lines-of-business colleagues. Seif also believes it's important to have some of these business partners report to him so that he can understand the needs of those businesses. For instance, a business partner that works closely with the company's CFO and human-resources staff reports to Seif.

Seif learned the importance of close contact between IT and business many years ago when tight office space placed him in the middle of the customer-service department. Through that close contact, he was able to better develop a system that met the department's needs.

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