On any CIO’s shortlist of critical leadership skills, the ability to surf the never-ending waves of technology fads is among the topmost. But there are no shortcuts in learning how to distinguish the essential from the fad, says David Kepler, CIO and corporate vice president of electronic business and commerce for Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical. This skill comes only with hard-won experience. “Part of the key is pattern recognition,” he says. “I mean, how many times can you get excited and run toward the next thing just to get your nose bloodied?”
Kepler’s unusually long tenure in the IT field?26 years in IS offices at Dow Chemical?has given him a superior vantage from which to observe the flows and eddies of technology. But what makes him really rare in this age of migrant professional workers is that he has spent his entire career at a single company. Therein lies his key to deciding which sales pitches to believe: “I’ve always had more affinity for Dow and our industry than the technology,” he admits, “so I naturally tend to concentrate more on where we [in IT] can add the most value.”
This approach has been Kepler’s lodestone since he joined the IS department of Dow’s western division facility in Pittsburgh in 1975, straight out of college (where he received a degree in chemical engineering). “This was a time when companies like ours were still trying to figure out the best way to leverage technology,” he says. “The perception among our businesses was that IT was a function that was struggling. The things we had to focus on in those days, first and foremost, were providing basic service and concentrating on the fundamentals.”
Kepler worked his way through six division and headquarters offices and half again as many titles to arrive at his current position, which he has held since February 1998. Today, as a corporate vice president reporting directly to CEO Michael D. Parker, Kepler sets the direction for IT strategy and operation along with other members of the company’s executive team.
Kepler and his highly centralized department support a geographically dispersed company that seems to be in perpetual acquisition mode. In the early ’90s, Dow Chemical became the poster child for a successful ERP implementation, as many other companies struggled with ERP or gave up altogether. Kepler worked to separate the hype of ERP from its practical promise, setting and communicating expectations to internal users and a reasonable pace of change.
A key to Kepler’s success with ERP and subsequent IT projects is his establishment of a cross-functional committee, comprising many high-level functional managers with strong IS biases. The committee evaluates proposals on a point system, factoring in not only the quality of vendors and their applications but also Dow’s technical and organizational readiness for change. “Most of these things that come along are very good concepts,” Kepler says, “but you have to recognize that they require significant organizational change and will take longer than anyone thinks.” The voice of hard-won experience speaks.