Whirlpool CIO Mike Heim is taking IT, and all the other business units, in a new direction. Heim is moving the company, with its 69,000 global employees, to Google Apps. He says the move could transform how Whirlpool employees get work done by increasing real-time collaboration. Indeed, he sees the potential for IT-driven transformation in other areas, too. Here Heim, who joined Whirlpool in May 2012 after 33 years at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, shares his ideas on leading IT through change.
What was the biggest challenge of moving to a new company for the first time? I spent most of my career in IT, but I had two significant cross-functional assignments, and I think those are important for anyone in IT. I spent three and a half years in finance and then three and a half years in the engineering function. There's nothing like being outside of your home function to see what you need to do differently. For me, those are important elements from a career development standpoint. And for me personally to work in engineering, where I wasn't an expert, I had to find other ways to lead. So the biggest challenge was learning the business, and it was one of the biggest rewards, too, to see if what you've learned can apply somewhere else.
On the flip side, what did you see as the biggest opportunity in moving to a new company? What was really exciting -- and you didn't have this in pharma -- is this is a consumer-focused business, so one of the things I've had the most fun with is being an advocate for our products and our brands. In pharma, the customer was a bit diffused. Here we have a consumer, a user, and they have opinions, and the fact we can connect and engage with them is an interesting element.
Did that change your IT strategies? The biggest mindset shift is this is much more of an outside-in business. You're not looking for unmet medical needs. Here it's really about your competitive position, product leadership, speed to market, much more rapid cycle times, engaging the consumers and understanding their needs.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as the new CIO? I found that this is a global business, but it's run very regionally. And the IT operating model that was in place when I arrived, it was very central and it wasn't as responsive as it needed to be. So aligning the IT model to the business model so we're appropriately responsive was the biggest challenge. The way I approached that, I went out and met people in the regions and looked at our products in showrooms and factories. The products are very different in different regions, so we needed more agile operations than we could drive with a highly centralized IT model. So we're creating a much more business-focused IT model.
Can you summarize your objective as CIO at Whirlpool? It's driving business value through our IT investments. Every dollar you spend on IT is an internal investment in your business and ensuring that those drive value in the business is crucial.
What's at the top of your agenda? The Winning Workplace really matters to us. It will touch every employee. It's email, calendar, chat -- all these capabilities that allow us to work more effectively anywhere at any time and be more mobile. It creates a better work environment. We're just beginning the cutover to that platform. It's not just getting the tools implemented, but transforming the way work gets done.
There's also tremendous opportunity for us in the connected space. Sensors are getting to be so low-cost that you're finding them in everything, and we will be able to put sensors into our products so we could predict the need for maintenance, monitor fluctuations in temperatures, [enable people to] download recipes to a stove. There's a whole set of things that let us create a better experience for our customers. And the connectivity and network effect to that will be the next big thing in appliances.
What's the biggest challenge with the Winning Workplace project? I think optimizing, leveraging the Google platform will be the greatest challenge. How do we take how work gets done to the next level? We're trying to think about those possibilities. Envision this: Superimposing sales onto a Google map and looking at trade partners, looking at sales in communities and the size of the sales bubble increasing over time, and then drilling down into that on a real-time basis. [That's] a different way of doing business. That can happen on a mobile device. You can bring out a chat or hangout to talk about that. It's immersive, and it's driving a different level of opportunity in how you react or plan. Contrast that to a report that comes out on the Monday after Black Friday on an Excel spreadsheet.
How do you drive innovation within your own IT operation? You have to paint a vision for what's possible and then you have to be that possibility. That means when you show up, [you have to ask] how do people experience you and what are they left with. I know that gets a little philosophical, but I believe in our products, and the contributions we can make to those products. One of the best things you can do is tell stories that resonate.
So you paint the right vision and create an environment where they feel they can win. Nothing happens without the people, and if you can't drive their passion and enthusiasm in a way that's linked to the purpose of the firm, you're just not going to get great output. I think we've been successful at doing that. Our chairman gives out something called W awards, and at the end of 2013 our IT department won a W award for highest employee engagement scores in the company. That takes the whole team believing.