Manufacturing CIO: First word in merger is "me"

Barnhardt Manufacturing CIO Kevin O’Rourke shares wisdom on mergers and building a partnership with the business
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When Kevin O’Rourke joined Barnhardt Manufacturing as the company’s first CIO, he had his work cut out for him: Build an IT department from the ground up and create a technology road map with a vision toward reliability, agility, security, and automation.

O’Rourke recently won the Corporate CIO of the Year award from the Charlotte CIO Leadership Association. We asked him to share more about how he built his team, managing through mergers and acquisitions, the role of automation, and how to build a strong partnership with the business.

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprise Project (TEP): When you joined Barnhardt seven years ago, there was no formal IT department. Today, your organization uses data to drive decisions, has an app designed to reduce waste, and a new CRM platform. Can you highlight how you organized for success?

Kevin O’Rourke: It was interesting: It felt like joining a startup, but the company was 110 years old. There was a lack of fundamentals and a lack of understanding of what needed to be done. While that sounds difficult, it was also very exciting. It was a big challenge.

When I joined, I focused on three things: One was encouraging people to understand the work in front of them, and building an organized routine to accomplish that work. There were a lot of infrastructure-oriented things that needed to be done, so I created an infrastructure team. I had huge ERP systems that had to be upgraded, so I carved out a team of people that just dealt with that. Then I carved out another group that dealt with everything else.

The second thing centered around people. Great people are the foundation of a great team. I had to make decisions around who would stay and who wouldn’t, and how best to fill those holes. There was a lot of interviewing folks to try to build the best team possible.

Finally, I had to adopt an IT governance model and gain executive leadership buy-in with the overall IT vision. This was important so everyone knew how decisions would be made.

TEP: You’ve had to lead IT teams after several company acquisitions. What leadership lessons can you share about merging teams? 

O’Rourke: I think that everyone who goes through mergers and acquisitions has battle scars. It’s really important during the merge that you’re upfront with your IT team. You need to start managing the transition when the merger activities are announced. You can’t wait: You need to build trust by explaining what will happen in the next weeks and months.

It’s important to remember that the first word in “merger” is “me.”

You also have to protect your team’s productivity, because it will suffer with anxiety. You do this by operating on short-range goals versus long, three-to-five-year plans. It’s important to remember that the first word in “merger” is “me.” You have to address those questions that impact the employees personally, like whether they will have to relocate, who they’ll report to, and what their new role might be. That needs to be addressed very quickly.

The last thing is to monitor employees’ performance closely during this time. Give people feedback, whether it’s good or it’s constructive requests. They need that feedback, and you need to set the expectation that you demand a higher level of performance during the merger to ward off any insecurities and failures that feed on the uncertainty.

TEP: As a CIO at a manufacturing company, how are you evaluating automation? What role do you expect automation will play in the future, and what implications does that have for ITs role?

O’Rourke: When we say “decisions to automate,” I think we tend to think more about robotics or the manufacturing floor. Our company is a long way from that type of vision, though. But we do tend to automate and improve our processes on the manufacturing floor a lot. We’re willing to take risks and invest the time and energy to do that.

Those decisions to automate — for any kind of manufacturing operation — are really driven by a business department leader, and we get that direction and timing from them. Automation forces you to make decisions across your whole enterprise architecture. In regard to how that changes the role of IT, what I really see in automation is that you need to have a really good understanding of your enterprise architecture: how automation is going to impact things like flow of data, network resiliency, and cybersecurity.

The role of your organization really needs to remain tightly coupled with your manufacturing operation so you can proactively plan for when they try to automate. It shouldn’t catch you by surprise.

TEP: Strong partnership and close collaboration with the business is key to IT playing a more strategic role. How do you facilitate this partnership, break down barriers, and encourage open idea sharing? What is your best advice for other CIOs hoping to do the same?

O’Rourke: We consider the IT department a part of the business, just like any other department. The role of the CIO is a political one: You have a very finite set of resources and time to serve all these different business units’ priorities: Everyone wants a little bit of your time and energy. You need work to build trust by listening to your department leaders and understanding their priorities and what drives them.

One of the first things I did when I came here was have my CEO help me put in place an IT governance model. This tells them how decisions are made, how they can influence it, and how they can shape IT priorities to get the resources they need.

I’d also look for some quick wins. There may be a department that has this pain point that can be solved in a week or two, so do that. You’ll earn some respect by doing that.

Finally, try to share some key IT metrics with your department heads. It helps to demystify what the IT team does all day and helps them understand our importance within the business. 

Kristin Burnham is a reporter and editor covering IT leadership, business technology, and online privacy and security.