Martha Heller

How Huber spurs innovation in a historically decentralized business

Aug 23, 20236 mins
CIOCloud ManagementDigital Transformation

With IT/OT convergence, digital technologies, and the growing importance of data, Huber CIO Dwain Wilcox leads the creation of a cross-functional, cross-business innovation engine.

Dwain Wilcox, CIO, Huber
Credit: Huber

Since 1883, J.M. Huber Corporation (Huber) has evolved from a single factory dry ink company in New York to a global portfolio management company now comprised of four businesses earning $3b in annual revenue. The portfolio model, and a healthy appetite for acquisitions, has served the company well with profitable businesses that manufacture everything from engineered wood to specialty food ingredients.

Today, however, with digital technologies key to the customer experience, the importance of enterprise data, and the convergence of IT and operations technology (OT), Huber’s IT organization has shifted its strategy. Led by CIO Dwain Wilcox, the IT team has developed a strategy to leverage common technologies throughout all of Huber’s businesses to accelerate innovation.

Why are you creating an enterprise model for IT?

We’ve historically operated as independent companies, each operating with its own technology, architecture, and support models. That model works up to a certain point, but as we continue to expand globally, we need to shift our strategy to enable scale. The decentralized model has created silos in our organizations, and that’s where we’re now focusing our time. We’re breaking down those barriers and building some common platforms and practices, but we don’t want to tip the balance too much toward standardization; we still want our business units to be nimble and focused on their customers, innovation, and assets.

What’s your target modernized architecture?

With our decentralized structure, we had a lot of data centers and hosting providers. We’ve consolidated our hosting providers and managed services to put in some common services and free up resources to do more value-creation work. Now we’re modernizing those manufacturing plants that aren’t yet ready to move to fully digital. Since we’re seeing real IT/OT convergence in several of our businesses, where everything will be IP and network related, we need to focus on the plants whose infrastructure isn’t ready for that convergence. We’re bringing them up while we’re standardizing.

Why are IT and OT converging?

Traditionally, there’s been a wall dividing information technology and operational technology. IT provided services to every part of our business, but we stopped at the production line. As plants have become more digital and network based, though, there’s a need for IT to cross over to cover data, security, backup, recovery, and redundancy. Plants now need the same infrastructure resilience as business operations. But we need to be careful because when we do maintenance, upgrades, and changes, we can’t disrupt production. IoT in the production lines creates a lot of data. Where do we store and use that data? Does it go to the cloud? How do we control it? Those are the questions we’re now starting to address. So with this convergence, we’ve added OT-specific resources in the IT organization. These are people who have an OT background; they function as business relationship managers with the plants.

One of the benefits of scaled enterprise IT platforms is that teams have more bandwidth to innovate. What is your innovation engine?

We’ve started with communities of practice (COP), one for each key business process or technology landscape, and these communities will evolve into mature centers of excellence over time. The COP creates the pipeline of opportunities, filters for best fit and benefit, and then plans and resources each project. They’re also spawning some very high-value projects, and will help us plan by giving us that pipeline for future investments.

The COP sits in IT and is led by business relationship managers from each of our businesses. Once a quarter, they lead innovation workshops for each business unit, attended by IT people and process owners from that business.

Many of these workshops focus on innovation opportunities from the manufacturing side of the business, and we’ve led one on the digital customer experience, which was across all the businesses. When it comes to scaling these ideas, we try not to boil the ocean. We take a crawl, walk, run approach starting with one location and one business unit. We pick the locations where there’s a high probability of success because that business has the need, bandwidth, and fortitude to stay with it. This way, by the time we fund the idea and turn it into a project, we know that everyone’s all in.

What is an example of innovation produced by the COPs?

In one of our businesses, we’ve begun to take manufacturing data almost real-time and move it into our cloud analytics platform. We’ve provided a dashboard for our business leaders to see plant operations on a single screen. Managers can see on a computer screen exactly how their plant is operating 24/7. They can click through and see how many orders they have coming in, and how many trucks are scheduled to come through the site that day.

In the past, if there was a production problem, managers had to drive to the plant to see what was going on. Now managers can see and even fix problems remotely, which drives up operational performance. The data also allows our process engineers to make real changes to our manufacturing processes, improving throughput, uptime, and quality.

In that same business, we’ve just implemented a quality system that takes video of our products as they move through the line. We have a proprietary opportunity with one of our vendors to use AI/ML to manage our quality real-time before something really gets out of spec. The convergence of IT and OT is really opening everybody’s eyes to the true importance of data. These efforts are opening the doors to apply learnings from our work in this one business to our other businesses.

What advice do you have for CIOs trying to create an innovative culture in a siloed business?

For me, collaboration and communication are king. Make IT and business engagement as routine as possible, both to innovate and avoid shadow IT and technology sprawl. Just yesterday, I took six IT people from various businesses to visit one of our plants in North Georgia. We did full plant tours and looked under the covers at the technology, strategy, and pain points, and we shared with the plant manager some of the new technologies coming to the plant. The more you make collaboration and learning a part of your culture, the better the solutions become, and the better the adoption across the business.

Martha Heller

Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.

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