GM's new CIO plans big desktop changes, expanded mobile support

Terry Kline likes Windows 7, the iPhone, a PC on a USB drive and cloud computing services.

And Kline's preferences matter -- a lot. As the new CIO of General Motors Corp., Kline oversees the technology budget of what is still one of the world's largest buyers of corporate IT products, despite its recent brush with bankruptcy protection.

Kline, a nine-year veteran of GM's IT operation and most recently the company's global product development process information officer, took over the CIO post held by his former boss, Ralph Szygenda , who retired Oct. 1.

GM's sheer size -- nearly $150 billion in 2008 sales and still employing about 235,000 workers -- means that just about anything the company's CIO does gets the attention of IT vendors and watchers.

Szygenda reshaped GM's businesses processes, adopted global standards for managing IT, and used the power of $15 billion in outsourcing contracts to convince the company's vendors to deliver products that interoperate. For instance, GM was the major force in encouraging Microsoft and Sun Microsystems to collaborate on identity management technologies, which the company sees as critical to improving the productivity of employees, contractors, dealers and anyone else involved with its operations.

Like Szygenda before him, Kline is readying broad changes and the adoption of new technologies that will have broad impact both within and outside GM.

For example, Kline said in an interview this week, the company plans to replace 100,000 Windows XP-based laptops and PCs with Windows 7-based "next gen" desktops that will include mobile device integration capabilities and additional collaboration tools, such as video conferencing. The mobile and desktop environments are getting "extreme focus" he said.

Kline said that he believes Windows 7 is "a big enabler of productivity" and will be an "easier operating system to sustain from an IT cost perspective."

The GM corporate standard for mobility is currently Research in Motion's BlackBerry devices, though Kline said he wants to add support for other devices, including Apple Inc.'s popular iPhone.

"I'm a big iPhone user, my kids are big iPhone users," said Kline, while noting that he's looking to support other devices as well. "We have to open our environment to mobility, not just the Blackberry."

Kline said he has also talked recently with Amazon.com about its Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2, cloud offerings. If external cloud providers deliver the means for rapid creation and tear-down of compute environments when needed, he added, "that would be a significant value proposition."

While Kline said the external cloud-based test and development environments could prove positive, better software pricing models are needed before the technology can become "really attractive" to IT executives. The ideal would be the ability to use software already in the cloud and pay for usage, something akin to pay-for-click, he added.

The GM CIO said he's also interested in exploring other emerging IT approaches, including what is sometimes called a "PC on a stick" -- a USB drive that is loaded with the user's desktop. The drive can recreate that desktop on multiple machines.

The "PC of a stick" technology can "enable my home PC to do everything that I want to do at GM," said Kline. The drive is encrypted, so a misplaced drive would result simply in the loss of a $15 device, he said. "It's something I'm pushing really hard with my technology guys - that's got my eye," he said.

VMware makes a USB tool it calls the Assured Computing Environment, which contains a virtualized machine running an operating system and applications and storing files. Even if it is loaded on a PC infected with a virus, the drive operates in its own protected bubble, said Raj Mallempati, director desktop product marketing at VMware. The downside is that the small USB drives are prone to be lost by their owners, he added.

Kline noted that all of his technology explorations and initiatives have a single goal -- to improve the customer experience. "The customer is at the center of our culture and the top of our new operating pyramid," he said.

Thilo Koslowski, vice president of Gartner Inc.'s automotive and vehicle industry advisory service, said that as GM improves the technology experience of its employees, the company's customer base benefits as well. Koslowski believes that GM, since emerging from six weeks in bankruptcy protection in July, is working anew to more quickly understand market trends, more quickly translate them into processes, and to develop new ways to interact with customers.

By expanding its use of mobile platforms, GM would make it easier for employees to use the devices they enjoy working with, said Koslowski. And employees that use consumer technologies "will have a better understanding of how consumers want to use GM products in combination" with their favorite devices, he said.

A consumer technology mindset is very important when dealing with a new generation of younger car buyers who "will expect the car to be connected in some form or fashion," said Koslowski. And Kline is clearly taking a more consumer focus, both in the mobile strategy and with plans to increase the company's investment in CRM applications.

GM officials also note that earlier IT efforts helped GM to manage some of the IT challenges it faces due to the bankruptcy filing. For example, Single sign-on identity is making it possible to manage access to systems amid the constant addition and subtraction of employees, dealers, vendors and others.

If GM had gone through its reorganization five years ago, "you would have had a lot more people sitting in rooms with spreadsheets, calling system administrators," said GM's CTO Fred Killeen.

Identity management helps the company move in new directions by making it easier to get working on the tasks that need to be done, said Killeen. "This will be a significant advantage in how we go faster in integrating with our partners and how we handle the access for that," he said.

The focus on innovation runs throughout the company's various IT operations. In fact. though officials admit that its benefits aren't easy to measure, innovation may be more top of mind among GM executives today than ever before.

Andi Karaboutis, GM's process information officer for global manufacturing and quality, noted that next generation technologies and process are a key focus of the organization.

The first focus, she said, is making certain everything is running. Second is ensuring that "we're delivering on some of the commitments that we have for continuous improvement of the systems that are out there. The final top daily focus in "taking a look ahead and what we can do for transformation and further development of our manufacturing systems," she said.

This story, "GM's new CIO plans big desktop changes, expanded mobile support" was originally published by Computerworld.

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