by Melissa Solomon

Collaboratively Building a Global Infrastructure

Jun 01, 20036 mins
Collaboration SoftwareSmall and Medium Business

Atefeh Riazi’s quarter-million frequent-flier miles are testament to the fact that it’s not such a small planet after all. As CIO at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Riazi has spent the past three years rolling out global applications, such as collaborative workflow systems, creative asset management, knowledge management, messaging and security for the New York City-based marketing giant. Most recently, Riazi has been trying to convince the Asian, European and Latin American offices to replace their legacy systems with North America’s SAP enterprise resource planning system for finance, human resources and production. A common enterprise system, she says, would provide Ogilvy’s 400 offices in more than 100 countries with access to real-time information so that they can make quick decisions, better respond to market changes and cut costs.

Despite impressive business benefits, Riazi wasn’t expecting an easy sell. She knows all about the resistance that comes from trying to convince Ogilvy’s four regional IT directors and their direct reports to relinquish the legacy systems they had handpicked to meet their specific needs in favor of a standardized platform. She was prepared for the worst.

Then the euro came along, magnifying the typical antiglobal, antihomogenization sentiment she’s witnessed a thousand times. For many Europeans, the euro was yet another threat to their local identities, so they were particularly sensitive to any standardization efforts, be they at work or at home.

Fact is, globalization adds new dynamics to the workplace, and CIOs who stick to the true-blue American business formula will fail. They must abandon the idea of force-fitting their visions into worldwide offices and move toward a global infrastructure built collaboratively by staff from around the world.

More than Emotions

The heightened sensitivity following the euro subsided quickly, says Riazi. But it illustrates how easily emotions can affect the workplace, especially when dealing with global projects where it’s not just individuals interacting but representatives of entire nations. Take the international battle lines drawn over the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Or the ripple effects at worldwide stock exchanges after the latest corporate scandals. What effect do international affairs—be they political, social, cultural or personal—have on companies’ global IT efforts? And what, if anything, can IT chiefs do about it?

To work effectively in a global environment, you first need to understand the dynamics at play. Antiglobalization isn’t just about misplaced emotions, says Christopher Bartlett, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School in Boston and author of Managing Across Borders. Standards often leave managers little wiggle room to make the right choices for their businesses.

Take the company that rolls out a global system with high-bandwidth requirements. That system might not be feasible for IT directors in the Middle East or parts of Asia, where the cost of bandwidth is higher than in New York. Is the standardized system multilingual? Can it convert different currencies? Can it accommodate complex national tax laws?

Standardization also gets a bad rap because it tends to come with various administrative checks to ensure everyone’s following the game plan. As a result, managers get saddled with busywork that distracts them from their real jobs, says Bartlett.

Getting Local Support

George Savarese, vice president of operations and technology services at New York City-based MetLife, says international affairs, such as the war with Iraq or the aftereffects of Sept. 11, haven’t affected his global projects. That’s because MetLife is following an inclusionary approach to global IT.

Savarese is on a two- to three-year quest to roll out common technologies, such as underwriting, illustration and insurance administration systems to MetLife’s 13 affiliates in Asia, Europe and Latin America. Rather than starting from scratch, his team is identifying best practices and technologies from different countries, piecing them together into a global infrastructure, then working with various vendors to customize about 20 percent of the systems to meet local needs, such as languages, laws and regulatory requirements.

Whereas Ogilvy is just now trying to get buy-in from global offices, MetLife has already sold the idea internationally. MetLife’s worldwide offices don’t see these global systems as mandates from headquarters but rather as powerful systems selected by worldwide representatives that can be implemented at a lower cost and quicker pace, says Savarese.

Another factor contributing to the success of MetLife’s global strategy is that someone other than Savarese did the selling. With Savarese, MetLife International’s chief administrative officer developed the plan and sold it to the executive committee.

When it comes to get buy-in on global projects, it’s a mistake to put that job into the CIO’s hands, says Doug Lynn, vice president and research analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group’s Executive Directions division, which consults global CIOs. It’s the job of the U.S. business-unit leader to sell projects to his international counterparts. “You’re going to get saddled with it,” Lynn warns IT executives, “but it’s not your job.”

For global projects, working virtually is critical, but it’s also one of the biggest challenges. “You’re dealing with different languages, different cultures, different time zones,” says Savarese. His 6 p.m. Monday meeting, for instance, falls at 8 a.m. in South Korea and 9 p.m. in Brazil. But, Savarese adds, the telephone and e-mail alone won’t cut it. “You really have to be there, in their space, understanding where it’s at,” he says, adding that he spends about half of each month abroad.

Meeting local managers face-to-face is a first step, but the real challenge is convincing local offices to see themselves as part of a global network. A CFO can argue that a smaller system is more cost-effective for a local office, but the trick is to get him to consider what’s best for the corporation as a whole.

“Globalization challenges your people skills every day,” says Ogilvy’s Riazi. For instance, workers in the United Kingdom often rely heavily on qualitative research; they take their time in making decisions, as opposed to Americans, who tend to be action-oriented, says Riazi. So in a recent attempt to get offices in the United States and the United Kingdom to collaborate on a common system rollout, Riazi hit a wall of resistance because she didn’t spend enough time going over analytical arguments with the people in the U.K. office.

Having international teams run global projects goes a long way toward mending fences. Ogilvy, for instance, manages a financial reporting project out of Ireland. “The IT director there has a European point of view, so we’re not going to be blindsided by something that isn’t a workable solution,” she says.

“We have let control go,” she says of Ogilvy’s New York headquarters. “A lot of global companies cannot let go of that control. They’re holding so tight. It’s destructive.”