Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Szygenda: Ross Perot's clean-up guy (Detroit's another story)

One of the big awards at the Computerworld ceremony on Monday night--the Information Leadership Award--went to Ralph Szygenda of General Motors. An impressive video showed how, under his IT leadership, the corporation has made dramatic improvements in the smart and efficient use of automated systems.

Now, I was working for EDS when it was bought by GM to do precisely that. I only stuck around long enough to see the Corvettes arriving in the corporate parking garage. What happened next evidently wasn't what was hoped for. Here's what Szygenda says in his oral history (.pdf):

[GM] also had an interesting history in information technology, where the company had acquired EDS Corporation. It had a history that was sordid at times with issues between boards of directors and Ross Perot. All of a sudden EDS was splitting off from General Motors and now the company had no information technology expertise at all. It's the world's largest company, and it's recovering from almost going bankrupt. So now they are looking for a CIO--and they never had one at the company before. In 1996, there was no one leading information technology, which is almost amazing when you think about it.

So he goes for an interview. He finds out how bad the mess with EDS is, and suddenly it becomes an opportunity.

And how interesting it was to think about the transition with EDS, a major provider of technology. In fact, while EDS was a part of GM, all the GM folks were transferred to EDS, so there was hardly anyone in GM working in IT left. So I had the opportunity to take a clean sheet of paper and create how you implement technology at the world's largest corporation. That's pretty special!

He took the challenge and managed to turn the auto company whose IT expenses were the highest percentage of sales cost into the one where they were the lowest.

It's a success story, but it does have a context. No one mentioned what was to be this morning's headline: the layoff of 25,000 GM employees, nor was it pointed out that the company just experienced its worst financial reporting period in 13 years.

For a big-picture view (including dramatic demolition photos), see "The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit" (via wood s lot).

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