Thinking Out Loud: Susan Unger
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Having spent half of her career in Chrysler Corp.'s finance department, DC CIO Susan Unger recalls being "one of the most vocal critics of IT." But in 1990, thanks in part to her innovative use of technology to cut costs, Unger became the chief of IS and, five years later, CIO of DaimlerChrysler. Writer Paul A. Eisenstein asks Unger about the challenges to IT in a merger.
CIO INSIGHT: How were the two companies most different on the IT front?
Unger: For Daimler-Benz, IT was a very decentralized activity. Each business and plant was responsible for its own IT. Chrysler was much more centralized. There were a lot of discussions early on about how we would organize this. I put together a plan calling for a global IT organization that would reflect the different business groups. If the new organization was to work correctly, I figured, the business side would need to perceive the strength of the integrated IT organizationnot build things twice and share the best talent to provide a competitive solution. I also recommended an application-standard portfolio and standardized infrastructure. We felt it would take three to four years to get this all accomplished. Much of that initial roadmap has not changed.
The cultural challenges must have been enormous.
Creating a new DC culture was obviously not going to be comfortable for anyone. I made the decision early on that it was extremely important that we physically meet each other, so we spent a lot of time early on doing that. We had to work around the clock to meet heavy deadlines to get systems up and running, and people didn't have time for a lot of nonsense.
Which gap was easier: culture or technology?
I think one of the more difficult things was being able to sit down with each one of the individual business leaders and talk about the next three years, and what they felt would be the key projects. It really was mapping out, through IT, where the company wanted to go. I think my staff thought I was crazy to have those talks right away. When things are tough, all of a sudden, you only do essential projects, and you implement them faster, and you get everybody on board. There's a focus you wouldn't get otherwise. I think this has been a great time for IT.
On the culture side of things, the challenge was to keep reinforcing the integration theme. We underestimated the cultural difficulty. Americans tend to make fast decisions, then correct as they go. Germans tend to agree in concept, then want to take a while longer running everything past experts. I had to come up with a management compromise. On the American side, early on, for example, I had to decide that it's no longer acceptable on big decisions to simply make them quickly and think we can change as we go. To the Germans, I had to say it's no longer acceptable that 100 percent of all decisions have to take so long. We created global incentives and rewarded teamwork. Because IT was the first slice of the new company to have to quickly interface, we were the pilot group on culture training. That first culture class was humorous. We thought we had to be more formal, so we extended our hands for a handshake. The Germans thought they had to be less formal, so all they did was say 'Hi, how are you doing?' And we're going, 'Oh, dear, what are we supposed to say to this?' Other times, the gap posed actual problems. Once, I thought there was a consensus on a decision, but my German colleagues said that "Yes" in Oxford English means "I understand," not agreement, as in American English. We had to find whole new ways to work together.
You keep pushing ROI. How's that going?
It's been a painful journey. The toughest role as an IT group probably is trying to balance the global side of the company versus individual needs. You can get a bazillion arguments for why some things should stay in local control, so you have to be educated enough from a business standpoint to be able to talk intelligently enough to say, 'Wait a minute, I'm not buying this argument.' In some cases, we've got a lot of longer-term contracts or fixed expenses that take time to get rid of. And everybody has his or her own reason for why a particular type of technology is absolutely important. A lot of these decisions tend to be emotional. I think with any company, some IT people have technology biases that you have to deal with. In a merger, you're telling people that, for the sake of the global enterprise, they may no longer have all the benefits they might have gotten before. You have to be a global citizen rather than a local one, and sometimes it triggers great discussions.