Technology Coaches Help GM Execs Get In Gear

Two years ago, Harold Kutner, group vice-president of worldwide purchasing at General Motors Corp., had never even popped the cover off a laptop computer. Today, he carries one wherever he goes. He buys his golf clubs and tracks the stock market on-line and is a regular groupie on certain Internet sites.

“I love to go on eBay and watch auctions or to Fulton Fish Market on-line,” Kutner says.

Mark Hogan, another longtime GM executive who heads the automaker’s Internet commerce unit, is a self-described “car guy” more so than a tech guy. But, thanks in part to the help of a “personal technology coach,” Hogan is also now a proficient user of a PC and the Internet.

Like all senior executives at Detroit-based GM, Hogan and Kutner rely almost exclusively on both tools throughout the course of their daily work, meetings and travel. They have to, according to CIO Ralph Szygenda. “It’s not just about selling cars and trucks any more,” he says.

Even Szygenda has a personal technology coach — a 28-year-old employee of Compaq Computer Corp., a key supplier of desktop technology to the automaker.

Like all executives, Szygenda dedicates at least an hour each week to being coached in new Internet technologies.

Indeed, if GM is to successfully transform itself from purely a car and truck company to a provider of information services, its executives must be technology-savvy. Szygenda, GM’s chief Internet strategist, has helped get them there by “wrapping technology around them wherever possible.”

The personal technology coaches were just the beginning. All of GM’s major divisions now have their own CIOs, all seasoned technology executives whom Szygenda personally recruited from other industries. Szygenda himself came to GM, as its first CIO, from Bell Atlantic Corp. in 1996, just as the automaker was cutting its longtime information technology ties to Electronic Data Systems Corp. in Plano, Tex. At the time, GM “had maybe 100 Web browsers in the whole company,” he recalls. But it also was starting with a clean, post-EDS slate.

It took Szygenda more than a year to interview 270 people for the top 30 IT slots. His strategy was to “tag-team heavy-duty IT people with car experts.”

“When I came here, I thought recruitment would be a problem,” he notes. “After all, Detroit is not the tropics.”

Szygenda says he sold the recruits on GM by playing up this once-in-a-career opportunity to help “transform the world’s largest company.” Most of them jumped at the opportunity, he says, although he acknowledges that six-figure salary-and-bonus packages — plus a new car every quarter — helped immensely.

Once they were onboard at GM, the automaker brought in an organizational psychologist to work with the group members to mould them into a team. This was imperative, since virtually every Internet-based business and IT project at the US$176 billion company requires a group effort that transcends organizational boundaries. There can be no turf wars or lone rangers, Szygenda says. “The worst thing you can do here is not want help,” he says. “The scale at GM means you’re going to co-manage, no matter what.”

Four years later, GM has “thousands of IT development projects,” says Szygenda. Yet project management is a critical challenge that GM may have miscalculated at first.

“We underestimated the magnitude of managing any number of projects and outsourcers, and projects have gotten off track,” Szygenda says. “I have meetings monthly about projects not going well.”

To help remedy the situation, GM has built a project management group of 1,500 people. The company also now measures the progress of all projects as well as executives’ performance against 92 electronic-business metrics. These include things such as the number of customers who come in contact with GM via the Internet and the percentage of Web-enabled vehicles the company sells.