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This article is by Featured Blogger Peter High from his Forbes.com column. Republished with the author’s permission.
Arthur Hu joined Lenovo nine years ago after more than eight years as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. Hu ascended the ranks to become Chief Information Officer a bit more than two years ago while still in his 30s. In that role, leads the information technology function and business transformation activities for a Chinese company with major operations in the US and in a variety of other countries. As a Chinese-American who speaks fluent Mandarin, he leads a diverse team, and spends roughly half of his time in Beijing, and half of his time either in the United States or at other strategic locations for the company.
Hu pushes his IT leadership team to have a strong grasp of Lenovo's strategy, what is happening in the broader industry, as well as to remain abreast of crucial technology trends in order to drive transformation. He also strives to be the company's first and best customer, leveraging its technology, and providing feedback on its strengths and where it might improve.
Hu represents the CIO of the future, in many ways. His ability to work seamlessly across the two biggest economies, his ability to impact the company's transformation and products, and his ability to master both strategy and tactics set him apart. He describes his journey and his methods herein.
Peter High: Could you describe your role as the Chief Information Officer of Lenovo?
Art Hu: As the CIO and business transformation leader at Lenovo, I have a dual role. I am responsible for keeping the business running and creating a strong employee experience, which involves our workspace and our private and public cloud. The second element of my position targets Lenovo’s business transformation. In this role, I focus on defining and evolving our business processes and models, which ultimately helps us serve our customers better and improve Lenovo's competitiveness.
High: How do you define what a business transformation entails?
Hu: Fundamentally a business transformation is about the intersection of three aspects:
- The first component involves understanding the company's strategy, which entails what the company is trying to do as well as what needs to be done to accelerate the implementation and landing of that strategy.
- The second aspect is having a strong grasp on what is happening in the industry, which has become increasingly more important as the competitive landscape intensifies with more uncertainty in the markets.
- The third element is having a firm command on the relevant technology trends that will help better enable the business.
High: Can you talk about the strategic roadmap that you and your team are focused on?
Hu: Lenovo has a clear three-way strategy, which is comprised of our PCs, our data center and mobility business, and next-generation devices and enabled computing, both in the data centers as well as for consumers. From a strategic roadmap capability perspective, our approach is designed around Lenovo’s use of digital techniques to better navigate uncertainty and gain agility. This roadmap is especially helpful when we are facing an uncertain arena where we need to run experiments to acquire information as to what is happening in our landscape.
The design of our strategic roadmap is dependent on how we connect more parts of our business in a holistic way. We divide this strategic roadmap into three sub-areas:
- The first element entails the business initiatives that will foundationally improve Lenovo's capabilities. For example, this may involve bettering our internal ability to process orders with fewer errors and return rates or improving our consumer’s experience by being able to deliver seamless quotes faster.
- The second aspect is focused on our own technology and architecture. Lenovo never wants to miss a trend or fall behind, and it is essential that we continue to modernize our technologies to meet the demands of the business. We want to be able to grab a hold of new technologies as they emerge and incorporate them into our business.
- The third component involves the talent and capability of our people. As new technology emerges, Lenovo is focused on ensuring that we have the proper people in place to drive both our business transformation roadmap and our architecture roadmap evolution. For example, Lenovo is working to modernize the software-defined data center. However, evolving our technology requires introducing an entirely new set of skills into the landscape.
High: Unlike tech-based organizations such as Lenovo, many companies' IT talent is within the IT department. How do you view creating unique value from IT within a tech-forward organization that has extensive tech talent throughout?
Hu: At Lenovo, I get to wear an additional hat as an internal consumer of our technology, which is a position many CIOs are not in. Typically, the CIO is the exclusive provider of technology solutions, but because we have a data center business, I am privileged to be a customer in that sense. This is a great experience because I aspire to be the best and first user of Lenovo's products, which has become an increasingly exciting role over the years. Five years ago, Lenovo’s primary focus was exclusively on PCs, but as our data center business has expanded, I am now a prime candidate for being the first customer as a Fortune 500 CIO.
As the data center group has pivoted to expanding its computing storage and network technologies, there are more opportunities than ever for collaboration. As a customer, I get a first look at our product, which I use if they are a good fit, and if they are not, I give my feedback as to why. As an example, Lenovo recently needed to have larger machines to support some of the scale-up aspects of our global SAP instances. When I looked at our offerings, I found that this was not on the roadmap for the data centers, which I found strange as this was a common use case in the industry. I spoke with our segment leader [at the time], Kim Stevenson, and I asked why they did not have something that supported this particular scenario. Kim agreed with my concern, and the roadmap was updated to have a scale-up server that would better be able to cover some of the needs for large, global SAP instances.
Beyond this, another aspect is that within a technology-centric company, there are many centers of engineering excellence, especially around software. I believe that digital becoming enmeshed throughout the business is one of the key changing trends in technology. With this evolution, I recognize that I am not the only person with competent and talented software engineers within the company. When I select teams, I evaluate what each team’s core strength is in creating maximum value. For example, with our product engineering teams, both the IT and engineering teams have the skills to build the tools. However, it fundamentally comes down to what each team should be focusing on as part of their mission. As CIO, my goal is to provide the best industry-leading solutions to enable our business, and I must help engage and understand our customers to do so. On the flip side, our product team's mission is to build the absolute best-performing products for their customers. While both teams are talented and capable, that is not the most important element when selecting teams. Instead, we must collaborate to decide whose mission best fits the task. I believe the acknowledgment that all of our talented engineers could build these systems is important because it gives them a point of validation. While it is better to have respective focus areas so that we can differentiate and add value to our unique spheres, their talent is still being recognized.
High: Lenovo is based in China, and the organization is heavily involved in the United States as well. As somebody who has woven yourself into both cultures, what sorts of insights can you share regarding the commonalities and differences between working in the US and China?
Hu: I have a different point of view in the sense that I believe people sometimes overplay one culture versus another, whether that be China versus the US or something else. That said, Lenovo has made a significant investment in building a global culture, and we have specific meetings around customers, collaboration, innovation, and entrepreneurial behaviors. These concepts represent a common foundation in language, and when I visit any of our locations worldwide, I can quickly tell when I am speaking to a Lenovo team member. On top of that foundation, we have worked to integrate aspects that fit well with the culture we aspire to build.
With the China team, we channel a strong focus on the execution of a plan and a heavy bias towards action, which involves taking a quick first step. With our international teams, we incorporate a strong customer view and advocacy, and we conduct a strategic analysis of the big picture to make sure that we examine the full extent of the problem. There are clear style differences and preferences between the teams in China and the United States. In China, for example, there is a preference for more indirect ways of speaking up, surfacing, and resolving issues, and there is more of a tendency for deference to a hierarchy. It is critical to acknowledge that there are no absolutes as none of these characteristics are inherently good by themselves. Instead, the key is having awareness of some of the differences and style preferences as well as some of the behavioral patterns they may drive. From there, it is critical to determine how you can fuse these differences together into the way you want to work, and you must be able to channel them to the advantage of the company.
For example, if you know that someone is more likely to accept a message through the chain of command versus a peer, that is most likely the path of least resistance to getting the message out. If you sense that someone is uncomfortable saying something, you must recognize and accept that. Instead of fighting stylistic differences, you need to determine the correct communication channel. Having this ability allows you to expedite how you want to interact to achieve a goal. What is great about Lenovo is that everybody wants to win. When we have points of friction, looking at the best interest of the company becomes the common language to allow us to build over the differences towards a more constructive outcome.
High: How do you structure your teams in both the US and China? Specifically, how do you think about who goes where and what work gets done where?
Hu: Lenovo’s global footprint provides us with the ability to choose our talent relative to location. This advantage was partially inherited as our operational headquarters is listed in Hong Kong, and we have large bases of operation in both Beijing and Raleigh, North Carolina. For the partnership aspect, there is a natural tendency for the customer-facing functions to co-locate with the business. This is because there are certain circumstances where face-to-face interactions make the effectiveness, efficiency, and the experience of working with the business substantially better. For example, having a change management conversation about a particularly sticky point with the general manager of the country is significantly easier with someone who is local and has worked in the business for years. Obviously, that conversation will go significantly better than the alternative, which is a discussion over the phone from twelve time zones away in the middle of the night. Lenovo values those face-to-face interactions, especially when working through some of the more challenging change management and transformation trade-off discussions. For that reason, we have multiple teams in Beijing and Raleigh. Additionally, we have senior staff members who are focused on the customer-facing side around the change management, and these individuals sit with various leaders and general managers in major countries across the globe.
On the delivery side, we optimize for scale because scale and co-location matter with large engineering organizations such as ourselves. As an organization of Chinese heritage, we have a large base of engineers in the country who form the core of our product and delivery teams. This allows our teams to get scale, and many of the business teams are in China, which provides an additional bonus.
High: Are there any additional technologies that are making their way onto your personal roadmap?
Hu: I believe that the transformation that digitalization entails is the evolving role of technology among all businesses. Technology will only continue to accelerate its move from backstage to center stage, and I believe this evolution puts a premium on the technology leader’s ability to act as a bridge and translator between the technology and the business world. Businesses need to acclimate to how important technology is becoming, and technology leaders in the organization must speak in a language that is concise, compelling, and easy to understand. This is a challenging task for technology leaders, but it is a trend I want to exploit. I believe a significant part of the value IT leaders provide is how much technology can be embedded into the business, and how we can get the organization to recognize technologies’ ability to create new possibilities. The longer the team thinks of itself as a supporting character, the longer it is going to take them to provide this value. Instead, to get the most value out of technology, IT teams must think of themselves as a key contributor in moving the company forward. Instead of focusing exclusively on the technology itself, the focus should be on getting the business to fully understand their capabilities. If IT executives can focus on this, it will allow the company to get the full value out of the technologies untapped potential.
I am also excited about the increasing infusion of design, specifically around human-centric computing. There have been many systems where the engineering team clearly never thought about how a non-specialized user would use the process, which is a major mistake as thinking about design from an empathetic view is critical. This is because providing seamless usage can unlock significant value in a way that we have not begun to fully capture today. While some companies are struggling with this, Amazon and others have been successful in acclimating users and the enterprise world to expect a strong and seamless design. I believe this brings a new discipline in, which will make our systems significantly more usable and impactful.
The third aspect I am excited about is intelligent transformation. At Lenovo, we use the unofficial word “unsmartify” internally, which is about applying artificial intelligence [AI] to our value chain. This allows us to become more efficient and effective, and it gives us the ability to look into where we can apply AI to an area that we are just starting to scratch the surface on. I am in the camp that the A in AI should stand for augmented, rather than artificial, because in our explorations, humans working with some of our models have made the overall efficiency significantly better than something that is purely AI.
Originally published on Forbes.com