How IT Helped Shape UL's New Business Strategy

Underwriters Laboratories' CIO Christian Anschuetz discusses UL's recent transformation from a non-profit to a for-profit organization and how IT shaped and supported that change. He weighs in on the consumerization of IT, offers advice for CIOs, explains why 'big data' without 'big discretion' will lead to 'big failure,' and more.


Lots of people make New Year's resolutions, using the turning of a calendar page as a spur to change. But for Underwriters Laboratories' CIO Christian Anschuetz, January 1 marked the beginning of a profound transformation -- one that he and his team have helped envision and enable. As the ball dropped in Times Square to mark the start of 2012, UL -- the product testing and certification company that has been ensuring safe products for over a century -- transformed from a non-profit organization to a for-profit company in the U.S., with a focus on delivering new products and services to its global customer base. In this first installment of the IDG Enterprise CIO Interview Series, Anschuetz spoke with IDGE Chief Content Officer John Gallant about IT's role in shaping and supporting this business change and what it means for him and his organization. Anschuetz, who worked for years in the advertising industry, described why embracing consumer technology is critical to 'amplify human ability' and how IT should be measured for its success in driving customer value and revenue. He explained why he holds up as UL's 'metaphorical competitor' and why 'big data' without 'big discretion' will lead to 'big failure'.

Tech Titans Talk: The IDG Enterprise Interview Series

Anschuetz, who's a member of the CIO Executive Council -- IDGE's peer-based global community of leading CIOs (click here to learn more) -- also talked about why he believes there's never been a better time to be a CIO and offered advice for emerging IT leaders eyeing the CIO office.

Q. You worked previously in the advertising business, which is a pretty far cry from the business that you're in today. What attracted you to this role with UL?

A: There were three primary drivers that made me want to join this firm. You are absolutely correct that UL is 180 degrees out from advertising. Advertising is about, in many ways, driving conspicuous consumption. UL's mission, however, is about humanity. UL's mission is about making the world a safer and more sustainable place. After having worked in advertising for a decade, I wanted to work for a firm that had a mission I could believe in and truly throw myself behind. That was factor number one. Factor number two was that the company was poised to go through major changes in the interpretation of its mission. The world has changed, and UL was responding by taking a broader, more holistic interpretation of its mission. This would result in significant transformation and being part of those important changes was very, very intriguing to me. Certainly I knew such fundamental change would be a challenge, as such changes are to all organizations, but the challenge itself was appealing. And then the third reason is, quite frankly, that UL's CEO is a visionary. He sees and understands that technology is not a means to its own end, but rather has the ability to change companies and industries. The intersection of these three factors made coming to UL the perfect opportunity for me.

Q. I think most readers have a pretty specific idea of what UL has been up until now, but talk about what the company is becoming. What's driving the transformation UL is going through and why is it changing?

A: We will continue to ensure that the best and safest products get to market quickly. But we are very cognizant of the significant changes in the world and the customers we service, and we are thinking beyond just products to ensure that UL is able to promote and create safer working and living environments. Today we're going through these changes with speed as our customer base and their needs are changing. The global economy, supply chains, how we manufacture, and how we consume are radically changing. Technologies are changing. I don't mean IT, but rather the dramatic and important changes we see in photovoltaic, the advances in batteries and energy storage, and the rapid development and adoption cycles of technology products have changed dramatically. Just think about how intimate we are with our electronics today. Right now, as I speak to you, I have a tablet in my hand, a phone in my pocket and an ear bud in my ear. And these items all have power and they all have the ability to do great good. But if not manufactured to proper standards, similar products could be harmful to the user, the environment or both. UL dedicates itself to a mission that seeks to ensure that that never, ever happens. That's directly in response to the changing needs of our customers and the markets and industries that we serve.

Q. So you made this transformation on January 1st to a for-profit. Can you talk a little bit about that and what that means for the company?

A: To support this broader mission and the more diverse service lines that we are creating [for] our customers' needs, we [made] a structural change effective January 1. We moved from a not-for-profit to a for-profit structure in the United States. This will be transparent to our customers, but internally it is important. I would even say this will drive a genetic-level change across the firm, making us more customer focused, and steadfast in our ability to drive financial results. Really, if you think about it, there's a fundamental mindset shift that happens when you move into a for-profit world. That's also going to be very interesting, and quite intriguing.

Q. So how do you need to serve customers differently and how did you and your team specifically help the organization understand the new ways that you could serve customers?

A: Today, we're a professional services organization. We are just under 10,000 people worldwide, and of those 10,000 people, the majority of our workforce is engineers. Even those that aren't engineers are almost certainly knowledge workers. We provide these professional services for over 60,000 manufacturers every single year. Think about that figure. Think about the impact, and the potential to do more. In all those interactions, we are examining products, processes, standards -- that more often than not we wrote for the industry -- and exercising judgments based on the available information and expertise of our engineers. The access to such a volume of information and perspectives leads to the identification, if you will, of opportunities and potential obstacles. In the end, we help organizations make sure they are doing the right thing for their customers in the markets that they're trying to get into. What we're thinking about, and how we're envisioning our future being fundamentally different, is that while we continue to provide these world-class services, we begin to further develop those services with the very information that we create, or co-create, every single minute of every single day. It's going to be those underpinnings of information elements that will be applied to help our customers solve problems they don't yet know they have, or answer questions they haven't asked. It's not hyperbole -- we see this as real opportunity. Clearly there will be information that will be kept in the strictest of confidence. But consider for a moment just how connected [we are] with so many countries around the world from an information perspective, you can imagine that we are uniquely positioned to help get firms' products into the markets they need to be in.

There's a lot of information that has to be known and/or identified to allow a firm to get their very safe product into a desired market as quickly as possible. And we're seeing ourselves shift from just this professional services orientation to one where we become increasingly an information broker that provides superlative services in pursuit of getting those products into any and every market as quickly and safely as possible.

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