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.

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Q. You've said that your team is taking a three-level approach to helping drive these changes in the business. Can you talk about that approach?

A: There are three legs of our business strategy as it pertains to technology and information. One is around information attainability, one is around information orientation and the third is around workforce advancement. We see ourselves moving from that professional services posture to that of an information broker with professional services together and highly integrated. So, we have to make sure that our processes and our platforms -- and I mean not technology platforms alone, but the platform on which we deliver all of our services - are highly oriented towards obtaining and pulling the most important and relevant pieces of information out of our transactions. That's information attainability.

Information orientation is then having the skill, the discipline and the wherewithal to take that information and use it in new and innovative ways to provide ever-increasing value to our customer base. With supply chains becoming infinitely more complex, with the need to get to market quickly becoming more important, can we work with our customers earlier in their product development lifecycles to help them achieve their goal of getting that safe product to market the moment it rolls off the assembly line? The answer is yes, we believe we can do that with great services, combined with this information underpinning. That's our information orientation. The last one is workforce advancement and this is something every firm needs to think about. This overused term of "big data", which it seems every company says it is moving towards, is more difficult to achieve than most people understand. If we think big data, but fail to consider that a firm must also ensure that it has the workforce that's capable of capturing, analyzing and ultimately using massive amounts of information in the most effective fashion, you will simply find big failure. What I like to say is that if you have big data and you don't have big discretion, you're going to fail miserably. You'll have people lacking the appropriate skills to deal with it. What you will end up with is a workforce that has all the information they need to contemplate their navels in perpetuity.

At UL, we have thousands of highly skilled engineers who are, of course, incredible and valuable resources. Still, they are going to have to think about working a little bit differently in the future. Often with more information, comes greater ambiguity. How to handle this increased ambiguity is new to our historical culture, and one that we'll focus on and manage through. And we have to think about those things as well as other things in advancing our workforce so that as we move the company towards this different orientation, it is moved with, by and for, that workforce that's going to support it.

Q. Christian, is there also an effort around modernization of the infrastructure?

A: Absolutely. Modernizing the infrastructure was the predecessor to advancing the workforce and that's what we call the technology advancement program. We have spent considerable effort to uplift the company's technology foundation. It's a continuing effort. We have made some remarkable changes in the organization in terms of putting great tools in the hands of our colleagues and giving them the technology that's going to help them advance themselves. The best workforce is going to be the workforce that has great technologies that they can use, that they can apply, change and modify to the benefit of our customers without having to get IT involved. We've made important and big investments and changes to accomplish just that goal.

Q. So what were some of the key elements of that modernization?

A: Our technology advancement program started with the base infrastructure: it was networks, PCs, data centers - a refresh of the technology foundation. UL had a credible technology foundation before, but as we discussed, the times and assumptions have changed. Today we are executing against both a clearer vision, as well as the broadened mission we discussed earlier. This concept of becoming an indispensable partner to our customers in part through the acquisition and application of information required us to make different bets and different investments. At the same time, we know that the best way to attain information is by connecting our workforce and creating a truly global, unified working community. To that effect we've made big bets in terms of how we look at our internal communications and collaboration. As part of that we look to ensure that there's a seamless way for our colleagues in, for example, China, to talk and work with our colleagues in Melville, New York. We need to give our engineers the ability to work on product designs and schematics, and discuss knowledge and information that are contained in any number of our systems, so that they can come to better, quicker judgments regarding the standards that we help our customers' products meet. In short, we are becoming a truly global company vs. a multi-national so that our teams can work with customers to get their safe and sustainable products to the markets as quickly as possible -- certainly, quicker than our competition. Simultaneously, we're also looking at how we continue to modernize both our back-office and our front-office systems to facilitate both attainability and orientation.

Q. Consumerization of IT is a hot term these days. It seems that was a big piece of this effort, empowering the workforce with new information and new tools to access and utilize it.

A: Absolutely. Again, that's why the context here is so important. If the workforce is going to advance, then the workforce has to have the technology that's going to allow them to advance themselves, to allow them to achieve their greatest individual potential. I'm going to pause for a second to say that I passionately believe that technology exists only for one reason. And that one reason is to amplify human ability. Insofar that we can, as a firm, loosen the reins of IT to allow our colleagues to find the technologies that amplify their abilities to the greatest extent possible, well that's going to allow us to get greater and greater productivity out of our workforce. Insofar that we create applications, frameworks and interconnectedness, if you will, amongst our many, many offices across the globe, we will allow our colleagues on their own to find new ways to work with one another to the great advantage of our customers. Again, that's amplifying their ability, but now on a team and worldwide basis. Those things have caused us to look at technology differently. In the first case, we're creating options. What phone do you want to use? How do you want to be mobile? What is the persona, if you will, that you fall into that says you work on a corporate PC or a corporate phone or something completely different that you decide you need to use? We're loosening the reins and allowing people to make a lot more decisions on their own. Right now that's exclusively happening in the mobility space, but we're already well down the path of figuring out how that affects all the corporate assets - PCs, home offices and even, to some extent, fulfillment workflows. Build a really good internal infrastructure and then you are well positioned to offer choices.

Q. Within the context of this overall transition that you're going through, you've discussed this concept of Amazon.com as the metaphorical competitor. What does that mean and how does it shape what you're doing?

A: UL's mission is to ensure safer living and working environments. We do not sell books, DVDs or other products like Amazon, but that doesn't mean that Amazon is not our metaphorical competition. I say that because while Amazon is a B-to-C player primarily and we're a B-to-B player, the customers we interact with on an individual basis are increasingly bringing their B-to-C experiences into the workplace. The individual employees of firms that use our services are also consumers in another aspect of their lives, and their perspective is that consumption and the use of services should be seamless. It should be intuitive and transparent like Amazon. You should be able to go online, have a great experience by finding what you need in the easiest way possible, get the answers that you require in the most intuitive fashion possible, and conduct transactions in a way that is not just functional, but is also -- and I like to use this word -- delightful. The concept that people are having these delightful experiences with technology and transactions and they're bringing those perspectives into the workplace, so Amazon is our metaphorical competition. And it's a gold rush out there. It's a gold rush to be like Amazon in B-to-B industries because any company that can provide that superlative experience combined with absolutely exceptional services, which we already provide, is going to win the hearts and minds of the individuals within the manufacturers [we] service.

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