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A newly appointed CIO finds that some of the greatest challenges of her new position don’t involve technology.
By Ilse Wuyts, CIO, Bekaert
If you look at Bekaert’s IT department in traditional terms, you would think I have an easy job. Over the years, my predecessors built an IT infrastructure with a good, solid backbone, an SAP enterprise system, a wide area network, and stable infrastructure. They centralized decision-making, hired a team of 180 professionals around the world to run the system, and forged solid partnerships with some great vendors.
Yet when I was hired as CIO just over a year ago, in late 2016, I found out that I actually had my work cut out for me. Despite all the solid work behind me, my team faced three major challenges. We needed to reduce the friction within the department. We needed better project and program management. Most of all, we needed a vision for the purpose of IT at Bekaert.
The Wisdom of Workshops
To tackle those challenges, I began leading workshops with other business heads. My goal was to clarify the role of IT at Bekaert, to see what my colleagues needed from IT, and work out what we could do that would add the most value for the company.
In these workshops, we realized first that IT has become so intertwined with everything else the company does that in certain ways, it no longer made sense to think of it as a standalone function. We’re a 30,000-employee, 4.4 billion-euro global company that is focused on steel wire transformation and coatings. As in so many industries, IT has grown from a tiny support function into a key business partner involved in everything from product development to order fulfillment.
Reflecting on this evolution led us to realize that at Bekaert, there is no such thing as an IT project. As a result, although we should still consider IT a key strategic asset, it doesn’t make sense to treat it as something separate from the larger business. Nor does that stop at our front gate: our CEO has made co-creation with our customers a core competency, so our boundaries now include not only all of Bekaert’s business units and vendors, but our clients.
Another outcome of these workshops was that the business units were encouraged to appoint individuals to serve as business process owners. IT had been asking for this for years because when you’re streamlining a process or integrating the processes of an acquisition, the challenges are often more political than technical. Historically, it was difficult to find people who could make decisions, or if they had the authority, to get them to work with IT so that we could understand their needs. Since these workshops, the businesses are taking more time to talk with us about what they need and what ways we might help them.
It’s worth adding that, although I think we’ve made advances in integrating IT into the business, this idea of deep integration isn’t entirely new for Bekaert. My own career is an indication of just how seriously the company believes that IT must be made a part of the larger business. Before I became CIO last year, I’d been working at Bekaert for eight years not in IT but in Procurement. My appointment didn’t mean that the executive team didn’t take IT seriously as a discipline. I began training in IT management three years before becoming CIO, and I already had a lot of responsibility for IT supplier spending in my previous position. Rather, my move from Procurement meant that the company’s leaders no longer thought of the function as a separate silo.
This collaborative attitude is a natural part of Bekaert’s culture. That’s because we’re an industrial company accustomed to being a critical supporting player. Nearly 30% of all the tires in the world contain Bekaert tire cord. Eight million cubic tons of concrete are reinforced with steel fibers invented by Bekaert. And when the world celebrates, chances are good we’ve got a seat at the table: every year, people pop 300 million champagne corks by untwisting a Bekaert wire muselet!
In addition to the workshops, I also spent time getting to know the people in my department, not just the people in our headquarters I knew already but the people in the regional offices as well.
People sometimes asked if I find it intimidating to lead a department that’s mostly men, but I have to say, it hasn’t been an issue. I’m an engineer by training—my graduating class was 12% female—so I’ve been working in mostly male groups for my whole career.
Now that we have a reasonably good idea of where we’re heading, we’re trying to figure out how to get there. I have a team of four developing a road map for the next five years. One person focuses on the commercial side, one on manufacturing, one on computing, and one on Big Data and analytics. At the moment, our top priorities are:
- The fight for talent
- Choosing the best opportunities in Big Data and IoT.
- Right-sizing automation—that is, tailor your automation plans to the market. The current business case for automation in the US right now won’t necessarily make sense for Indonesia.
So what have I learned in my first year as CIO? I’d say the most important thing is to talk to as many people as you can before you make your plans. Your road map won’t be worth much if you don’t know the geography you’re trying to cover. Beyond that:
- Make sure you talk a lot not only to your own people but also to the rest of the business. I set up an informal sounding board of senior executives to help me get my bearings.
- Most consultants suggest keeping departmental leadership groups small, no more than seven, but I found that in the beginning it’s helpful to have a larger team. Ten was our winning number. If you’re a global company, like Bekaert, make sure that you include people from every region.
- At the end of the year, ask everybody for three items that you do well and three items that you could do better.
Finally, don’t confuse this idea of IT being everywhere with IT becoming less important. What’s really happening is that it’s becoming more strategic. We’re no longer just supervising networks and servers. We’re the change agent. If something important is happening, chances are good that IT is the wire holding the process together.