Ford CIO: IT is a ‘people business’

Ford CIO Marcy Klevorn focuses heavily on culture and talent as the car manufacturer strengthens its tech posture in an era of massive disruption.

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That’s a complicated thing, she said, particularly in IT, where the work and nomenclature are often mysterious — even intimidating — to many involved. That’s where the “feeler” element comes in. “Seeking to understand helps build trust,” Klevorn says. “I’ve always focused on building trust in ways big and small.”

Focusing on the big and small, she says, helps her get inside everyone’s heads to understand their concerns. That brings her to the next stage: introducing change through technology — and the change management to help those technologies deliver business value for Ford.

Changing IT — and Its culture

Late last year, CIO.com’s Clint Boulton wrote, “With several IT initiatives under way, Ford is demonstrating that it is as much a technology transportation company as it is a motor vehicle manufacturer.”

This is the shift that Ford’s CEO, Mark Fields, conveyed to Klevorn when she became CIO. And with it came a number of new initiatives for the company.

In June 2016, Ford announced a $182.2 million investment in Pivotal, the software and services company that produces the popular CloudFoundry, to expand Ford’s prowess in software development, analytics and cloud computing.

The primary focus of the partnership, Klevorn says, is to instill “extreme Agile” concepts into Ford to fuel software development, including mobile solutions. Together with Pivotal, Ford created a new lab in Dearborn and, at the time of the interview with Klevorn, was looking at locations in Detroit and Ann Arbor, as well as different global locales, for additional labs. (Klevorn joined Pivotal’s board as well.)

Klevorn and her organization have also invested in robotics technology, like iRobot’s Ava 500. Armed with videoconferencing software from Cisco, these robots serve as a stand-in for remote workers at team meetings and also help in recruiting new talent by displaying headquarters tours and inventory inspections for new recruits.

Ford even appears to be looking into “last-mile” transportation concepts, according to this recent story.

Beyond the cool factor of some of these breakthroughs — and even some of the possibilities of new business models for the company — Klevorn keeps a sharp focus on IT’s “huge responsibility” to make sure the underlying systems are properly architected, and that IT plays the role of “integrator” in making sure all the technologies work together.

Still, perhaps her biggest priority is on the people side of work. When it comes to things like extreme agile and paired programming, employees are assessed not only on their technical chops, but on their interpersonal skills as well, Klevorn says. For many in the programming world, these new concepts of working side by side with another programmer, giving and receiving feedback, and knowing that it’s “our” code, not “my” code, require new levels of trust and collaboration.

To help spur more innovative thinking, Klevorn says she took a page from Google this summer, announcing a new initiative to free up employees to develop new ideas. Each employee is given four hours a week to work on something new. She calls it “Power-Up Time” — in other words, taking the time to plug in and recharge their skills “to stay relevant and have the kind of roles they want to have.”

And Klevorn herself is leading by example. She puts a heavy emphasis on communication. She takes notes from anyone and everyone. She strives to connect people with similar interests. She started beaming out videos of herself talking about key initiatives across the organization, and takes open questions submitted by her employees. She started all-hands meetings, bringing together employees from all over the globe. During those meetings, she pushes her leadership team in a “lightning round”-style question-and-answer session.

“When I started this job, I needed to find ways to make a very big place seem very small,” Klevorn says. “So I brainstormed with the team, and we decided were just going to try some things. Some might work, and some might not, but that’s OK — we’ll learn.”

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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