IT culture change: A manufacturing CIO shares lessons

IT culture change: A manufacturing CIO shares lessons

Graphic Packaging International CIO Vish Narendra discusses his team's move to a rapid prototyping approach

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March 06, 2018

During the last two years, packaging manufacturer Graphic Packaging International has undergone a digital and cultural transformation. For CIO Vish Narendra, leaping the first hurdle was easy: He started IT's transformation with the full support of the business. He needed to focus on changing an entrenched “order-taker” view of IT by the business, as well as getting his IT team to start believing in themselves as value drivers.

[ See our related article, Anthem CIO: How agile helped us drive value. ]

Narendra recently won the Global CIO of the Year award from the Georgia CIO Leadership Association for his efforts in leading this change. We spoke with him to learn more about how he empowered IT to change its ways.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): Changing IT culture is often one of the biggest challenges for CIOs. To what do you attribute your success so far?

Narendra: The company has evolved over time through multiple acquisitions, and in the pursuit of growth, there was a lack of focus on building up the core systems and infrastructure needed to make us a connected enterprise. At the beginning of 2015, management decided to change that; they implemented the ambitious growth plans needed to build a scalable enterprise.

I was very fortunate from that standpoint. The leadership team at the time was not beholden to the past. They were looking to the future, and they wanted to build a more scalable organization. Therefore, I had a tremendous amount of support in my efforts to drive change. That change was twofold: I needed to change the perception of IT by the business, as well as the IT team’s belief in itself.

TEP: What were some of the biggest roadblocks you encountered in pursuit of those efforts?

Narendra: This was an organization that had purely operated in keeping the lights on, and so there was a tremendous amount of technology debt that needed to be paid down. While it’s true that I walked in with a lot of support, it wasn’t a blank check to go spend a ton of money all in one shot. I had to go through a prioritization exercise amidst tremendous demand from all corners of the organization saying, “Me first, me first!”

Overall, there was a willingness to take on the challenge and try new things, and a hunger for change. But, of course, there were some people who were skeptical. It was like re-building a house from the ground up. We needed to work on our foundation first. We laid out a vision and strategy, met with business leaders and individuals one-on-one, and then everyone jumped on board pretty quickly.

TEP: Facing a lot of technology debt, how did you prioritize what needed to change first?

Narendra: One of the things that was critical was improving our security posture. Over the years, cybersecurity has become a board-level concern for us, so it was an immediate priority. The next thing we looked at was our core platforms and what we needed to do to shore them up, enhance them, and bring desired new features and functionality to the business. Those were no-brainers. Third was putting a lot of intelligence in the hands of the sales, commercial, and customer service teams, so they could focus on and better serve our customer. Prioritization was very straightforward from that standpoint.  

TEP: How did you empower your team to innovate and experiment? Is that something that they were accustomed to doing before?

Narendra: Prior to our transformation effort, IT hadn’t had either the pull from the business or the push from within to go innovate and create new things. But, once we got some of the technology debt paid down, we were able to start looking at all of the unanswered asks from the business and dedicate some time and effort to solving them.

The team had the freedom to bypass the PMO process and our traditional architecture guidelines.

We took on a rapid prototyping, rapid deployment approach. The goal was to show some quick wins, and let a small, empowered team go operate and come back with results. The team had the freedom to bypass the PMO process and our traditional architecture guidelines as long as they could deliver on high-impact projects that directly benefited the business.

It was really just a matter of saying, “Let’s go do something and see if it works. If it doesn’t, we can pivot and do something else.” That got the team really excited, because we were able to prototype something, get the business excited, and then start actually deploying the solution in a very short order. That helped the team to see that, A) their voice was heard; and B) they were empowered to work with the business to solve real problems. Once we knew the solution was primed for showtime, we took it through the regular process to build out a scalable model. 

TEP: In what new ways is IT now working with the business?

Narendra: There are a couple of things we’re doing now that will help our sales, commercial, and customer service needs. That’s been more of a focus for us: how do we get the rest of our organization closer to the customer? We’re also trying to help our marketing and sales teams build the kind of customer intimacy that leads to a better understanding customer thought processes.  

IT works hand-in-hand with marketing on analytics in an effort co-sponsored by the chief marketing officer and myself. This cross-functional approach was relatively new for both teams. Now, both are adept at taking market data, matching it up with social media and other types of unstructured data, finding ways to predict how the market is going to go, and how it’s going to diverge from the trends of the past. It’s been extremely successful for the business, and it helps me work toward my twofold goal: changing the perception of IT, as well as the IT team’s belief in itself.  

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Carla Rudder is a writer and content manager on The Enterprisers Project.

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