How U.S. Can Built Its Global IT Shop

I’ve forgotten my high school French. I don’t speak German or Italian. And I speak just enough Spanish to get by on vacation in Mexico. So perhaps it was wishful thinking on my part to assume that IT was a universal language and that it would be easy to blend the skills of IT staffs from seven countries.

What was I thinking?

When I became CIO for U.S. Can in late 2000, I walked into a number of challenges and really didn’t give our people across the pond much thought. My first impression of U.S. Can’s European IT managers, who are based in the United Kingdom, was that they had fancy PowerPoint presentations and fancier visions for IT. And I noticed that they spelled everything with s’s instead of z’s.

They were very proper and had immense disdain for our old AS/400-based systems. They had dreams of RFIDs on each and every one of the 2 billion cans we make annually. It seemed like they were flying, and we were crawling.

Some of the U.S. staffers had a pretty negative attitude toward their IT brethren in Europe. All that really linked us was a Sprint WAN. We had no other systems in common?not even e-mail.

One day, not more than two months into my new gig, our ISP went bankrupt, shut its doors and cut off service with no notice. We were dead in the water. My first thought was to call Sprint and ask them to be our ISP. But there was only so much Sprint could do immediately. While we were in the weeping and gnashing of teeth stage, we vented to the only other people who could identify with our pain: our European IT. While I was running around soothing the fears of the executive management team, my network guy and their network guy started talking, and they figured out that we could bounce data across Sprint’s WAN and use the European ISP as a backup. Within a day, we were back up. Slow, but up. Our data was flowing, and the ancient e-mail system was working again. All of a sudden, these two IT shops were joined at the hip, bonded through crisis.

This initial encounter prompted us to start sharing. There was no plan for any sort of corporate globalization; we were just a group of kindred spirits who found commonality in our business challenges.

Even so, the language barrier between our English and theirs, especially those with a Welsh accent, was huge. The most common phrase heard was, "What did you say?" We finally began using videoconferencing to read facial expressions and body language. Because of the time difference, when our meetings started we were on our second cup of coffee and the European staffers were thinking about stopping at the pub on their way home.

Replacing the company’s e-mail system in the United States was the first project we tackled. The U.S. group was leaning toward Lotus Notes because it ran on the AS/400, while the European operation had the Microsoft Outlook/Exchange combination. Since we already had the Microsoft Office suite on our U.S. desktops, and e-mail was included in the Microsoft licenses, it seemed to me a no-brainer to select Outlook/Exchange. It saved money, we had in-house support in Europe, and it was a huge step toward globalization. (Or is it globalisation?)

Then the European team lost its executive sponsor. They were leaderless. As the CIO, it made sense for me to step up and offer to manage all the IT resources in the company.

The Pub Tour

But first, my CEO decided it was time for me to meet some key folks in Europe. I had never been abroad and didn’t even have a passport (never mind the appropriate adapters for my curling iron!). Finally, everything came together and off I went to Cologne, Germany, London and Wales?all in a five-day period. I took lots of pictures, especially of the members of the IT team. I still have one on display in my office: our guys in the pub at lunch. The pub was a tiny place in Wales, warmed by a coal fire just as it had been in the 16th century. (And we think colonial is old.)

The trip was a success. Meeting the European team face-to-face really improved everyone’s comfort level and generated confidence in the proposed new arrangement. (The beers didn’t hurt either. Key criteria for a global CIO: Be capable of handling multiple pints of ale.)

Even before I approached the CEO about formalizing this arrangement, it seemed like a good idea to review all aspects of our operations and look for other synergies. As it turned out, there were people in the United Kingdom who had skills and experience we didn’t have on our U.S. team and visa versa. At that time, my U.S. technical support team needed an experienced manager, and we didn’t have the budget. I repositioned the lead person in the United Kingdom to fill that spot and help us define a global strategy.

On a more strategic scale, we built a three-year global IT plan to support U.S. Can’s business objectives. It is architected to support a single set of standards and includes a long-range plan to move to a single platform. With buy-in from IT teams on both sides of the Atlantic, I went to the CEO and the CFO with the concept of a global IT group. The idea was embraced, and we were launched.

Going Global

During the past two years, we have reduced our costs by about 10 percent annually in real dollars. Here are some specific examples of what we have achieved:

  • A common infrastructure: global e-mail system, and Token Ring to Ethernet conversion in United States.
  • Joint projects and joint project teams: active directory and firewalls.
  • Best practice sharing: applications, standards and processes.
  • Global contracts and cost savings: We can manage vendors on a global basis.
  • Around-the-clock coverage and backup.
  • Fill-in resources for each other?both strategic and tactical.
  • A sincere appreciation for each other’s cultures.

It’s probably worth mentioning that one of the side benefits of this arrangement is travel. I’ve visited our plants in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, Erftstadt, Germany, and Reus, Spain. Along the way, I’ve driven (slowly) by Windsor Castle and through Catherine Zeta-Jones’s hometown. And now other functions such as sales, HR and finance have started working more closely together with their European counterparts, sharing expertise and information.

It really is a small world after all.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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