General Motors’ Information Technology: IT’s Complicated

General Motors and its relationship with technology has been one of innovation followed by periods of stagnation. Its technology staffing strategy of choice has been acquisition, followed by pure outsourcing, until it settled on its current insourcing approach. New startups like Tesla and Uber have a profound effect on a rapidly evolving automotive industry. GM as an industry incumbent must embrace new trends regarding autonomous vehicles and all the requisite software and technology to remain viable. The company currently believes than an insourced IT staff can help it develop competitive advantages.

The EDS Acquisition

General Motors has a long history of employing Electronic Data Systems Corporation (EDS) to service its information technology needs. The $2.5 billion acquisition of EDS in June of 1984 from billionaire Ross Perot was a move to help impose structure upon GM’s unorganized maze of data-processing systems and IT infrastructure. From the start, there were culture clashes between the two organizations; although EDS saw significant revenue increases after the acquisition. The management styles of brash, outspoken EDS founder Ross Perot and the bureaucratic GM CEO Roger Smith were incompatible.

“Problems surfaced within a year when the differences in management style between Perot and Smith became evident. The August 1984 issue of Ward’s Auto World suggested ‘Mr. Perot is a self-made man and iconoclast used to calling his own shots … Roger B. Smith [is] a product of the GM consensus-by-committee school of management, never an entrepreneur.’” [1]

Additionally, six thousand GM employees were transferred from GM to EDS at lower pay [2], which served to stoke the fires of the culture clash.

From 1984 until it was eventually spun-off in 1996, EDS was a wholly owned subsidiary of GM. Although there was an ownership separation, the two behemoths were still tightly coupled in regard to technology staffing. The decision to divest itself of EDS was a strategic decision by GM to focus on its core competency of vehicle manufacturing. EDS also gained the freedom to win additional technology contracting work from other organizations.

1600px-EDS-Plano-TX-5071

HP Enterprise Services (formerly EDS, Electronic Data Systems) corporate headquarters in Plano, Texas (Wikipedia)

Post EDS Spin-Off

Post spin-off, General Motors continued to contract with EDS for technology services as it still accounted for a third of EDS’s revenues at the time. Perceived as Texas “outsiders” by the Detroit incumbents, EDS found it difficult to deal with the fragmented nature of GM’s systems across various business units and divisions. While EDS had the requisite technical expertise, it did not always have enough internal influence to navigate GM’s intense political landscape. Obtaining consensus amongst business units in regard to technology decisions was a challenging endeavor. In an attempt to address these issues, incoming GM CIO Ralph Szygenda spearheaded the creation of an internal matrixed organization called Information Systems & Services (IS&S).

IS&S was created as a matrix organization consisting of internal GM technology executives and various other technologists (e.g. business and systems analysts). The new organizational structure consisted of a dual reporting relationship; IS&S members simultaneously reported to the CIO organization and to their local business unit leadership.

Generally, matrix organizations are instituted in order to promote integration. The advantage of the matrix organization is that it allows members to focus on local initiatives in their assigned business unit and it enables an information flow from the local units to the central IT organization. General Motors is a famously siloed global organization. With the creation of IS&S, members could now promote information sharing between different functions within GM and address the cross-organizational problems that had challenged EDS.

The matrix structure is not without weaknesses. To quote a famous book, “No man can serve two masters.” Employees in a matrix organization often deal with additional frustrations as they attempt to reconcile their allegiances and marching orders from conflicting authorities.  “Matrix organizations often make it difficult for managers to achieve their business strategies because they flood managers with more information than they can process” [3]. From my own personal experiences of working with IS&S while employed at GM subsidiary Saturn, I observed that members were inundated with meetings as they tried to stay up to date with the plans and initiatives of the central IT organization while trying to remain focused on their internal business units.

 A Return to EDS Insourcing

From the creation of IS&S in 1996 until 2012, GM relied upon a variety of outsourced contractors and vendors to deliver information technology services such as Capgemini, IBM, HP and Wipro. In 2010 GM renewed an existing technology outsourcing contract with the old EDS (now HP) for $2 billion.

The general wisdom in regard to outsourcing is that companies will seek to focus on those core activities that are essential to maintain a competitive advantage in their industry. By focusing on core competencies, companies can potentially reduce their cost structure, enhance product or service differentiation and focus on building competitive advantages.

In a reversal of its longstanding IT sourcing strategy, GM made headlines in 2012 with the decision to insource and hire thousands of technologists to supplement its bare bones IT staff. New GM CIO Randy Mott reasoned that an internal technical staff would be more successful working with business units and would deliver technology needs at a cheaper cost than outside providers. These savings could then be used to drive IT innovation and fund the capabilities needed to compete in a rapidly evolving automotive industry.

“By the end of this year (2012) GM will employ about 11,500 IT pros, compared with 1,400 when Mott started at the company four years ago, flipping its internal/external IT worker ratio from about 10/90 to about 90/10, an astounding reversal” [4].

GM decided to hire over 3,000 workers from HP that were already working at GM as part of its Global Information Technology Organization. The move could be considered an act of “getting the band back together” as HP purchased EDS in 2008 for $13.9 billion. Randy Mott was the CIO of HP before assuming the same position at GM. It is plausible that this fact factored into GM’s insourcing decision calculus.

It should be noted that insourcing IT personnel is not without risks. Insourcing requires a company to compete for technical resources which can be difficult in cutting edge technology areas. Furthermore, the complexities of running IT in house “requires management attention and resources that might better serve the company if focused on other value-added activities” [3].

GM’s Information Technology Transitions from Commodity to Innovation

The automotive industry is embarking upon significant changes as it deals with innovations and disruptions from the likes of Uber and Tesla. To illustrate this point, Tesla (founded in 2003) had a higher market capitalization than both GM and Ford for a period of three months in 2017. Auto industry incumbents like GM are focusing on automating and streamlining commoditized processes as well as applying IT to more innovative value-added functions (e.g. computerized crash testing, simulations to shorten vehicle development times and data analysis for profit optimization).

In its early years, GM had been widely perceived as an innovator before making a series of missteps that harmed this reputation. GM fell behind on hybrid engine development after taking a technology lead in the electric vehicle space. The company defunded its lauded EV1 offering in the early 1990s to appease the bean counters. The company also starved innovative upstart Saturn of the necessary funds to introduce new models for a period of five years.

2000-2002_Saturn_SL_--_03-16-2012_2

2000-2002 Saturn SL2 (Wikipedia) The innovative Saturn subsidiary was starved of funds.

“G.M.’s biggest failing, reflected in a clear pattern over recent decades, has been its inability to strike a balance between those inside the company who pushed for innovation ahead of the curve, and the finance executives who worried more about returns on investment” [6].

After a government bailout in 2009, the company promised to emerge leaner and commit itself to technology leadership. Automakers are now focusing on software development as a source of competitive advantage. As a result, GM has opened four information technology innovation centers in Michigan, Texas, Georgia and Arizona. These locations were chosen in order to be close to recent college graduates from leading computer science programs.

GM Opens Fourth IT Innovation Center in Chandler, Arizona

One of GM’s 4 new Information Technology Innovation Centers 

Additionally, GM purchased Cruise automation which is developing autonomous driving software and hardware technology. It is even testing a ride-sharing app for autonomous vehicles. The purchase will bolster GM’s technology staff and efforts in an emerging space.

“Harvard Business School professor Alan MacCormack, an expert in product development management within the software sector, says that outsourcing even routine software development can carry risks for companies that are seeking innovation in that area. He notes that today’s vehicles have more software and computing power than the original Apollo mission. ‘Everybody can make a decent enough powertrain. But what differentiates you is what you can do with your software,’ he says of car makers generally. ‘Companies have to be careful that they don’t outsource the crown jewels’” [6].

The company also developed an internal private cloud nicknamed Galileo, to improve its business and IT operations and consolidated twenty three outsourced data centers into two insourced facilities [7].

With its new cadre of insourced technologists, GM will need to find a way to bridge the ever-persistent culture gaps between innovative technologists, bureaucratic management and the Excel zealots in finance.

“IT is core, I think, to GM’s revival, and I think it will be core to their success in the future,” – Former GM CEO Dan Akerson [7]

References:

[1] http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/electronic-data-systems-corporation-history/

[2] Nauss, D.  (May 20, 1994). Pain and Gain for GM : EDS Spinoff Would Close Stormy, Profitable Chapter. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1994-05-20/business/fi-60133_1_gm-employees

[3] Keri E. Pearlson, Carol S. Saunders, Dennis F. Galletta. (December 2015). Managing and Using Information Systems, A Strategic Approach
6th edition. Wiley Publishing ©2016

[4] Preston, R. (April 14, 2016). General Motors’ IT Transformation: Building Downturn-Resistant Profitability. ForbesBrandVoice. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/oracle/2016/04/14/general-motors-it-transformation-building-downturn-resistant-profitability/#67b37d551222

[5] Boudette, N. (July 6, 2017). Tesla Loses No. 1 Spot in Market Value Among U.S. Automakers. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/06/business/tesla-stock-market-value.html

[6] Leber, J. (November 5, 2012). With Computerized Cars Ahead, GM Puts IT Outsourcing in the Rearview Mirror. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/506746/with-computerized-cars-ahead-gm-puts-it-outsourcing-in-the-rearview-mirror/

[7] Wayland, M. September 18, 2017. GM plots next phase of IT overhaul Unlocking the Potential of a Vast Data Empire. Automotive News. Retrieved from http://www.autonews.com/article/20170918/OEM06/170919754/gm-it-randy-mott

Featured Image Copyright: akodisinghe / 123RF Stock Photo

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