Volkswagen aims for 'rolling computer'

Volkswagen Group of America's CIO is building a different kind of IT organization to focus on connecting the business to innovation

LAS VEGAS -- The road Volkswagen wants to take in building cars is one that infuses them with intelligence, connectivity and new kinds of capabilities.

Warren Ritchie, CIO of Volkswagen Group of America, calls this vehicle an intelligent device that really is more or less "a rolling computer."

To help reach that goal, Ritchie is also building a different kind of IT organization that is more integrated with the business. And he is doing this at the same time that business units are declaring independence from IT by buying their own touch screens and cloud services.

The car of the future will be both a product and a service, hence the need for even more integration. Such a vehicle will have the ability to sense and diagnose a fault, recommend a fix, check on the availability of a part at a dealer or warehouse, and even offer scheduling options to the owner.

This is a vehicle that will be connected to back-end systems, said Ritchie, speaking at Forrester's IT Forum here. "A lot of the services that we're envisioning will require access to corporate functionality or corporate data," he said.

The vehicle will also be designed to work with a consumer's electronics.

"We have to make it a place where the consumer can bring connectivity to the vehicle," said Ritchie.

The broad parameters of what Volkswagen is trying to achieve is also an overall industry goal for automakers, said Ritchie, pointing to services such as OnStar as an early iteration of the goal.

But what Ritchie did was peel back a few of the layers to reveal how the IT organization will make it happen in what is a rapidly changing time for many IT departments.

According to Forrester analysts, IT organizations are being challenged by business units that feel increasingly liberated from IT. These business units are being enabled by the consumerization of technology -- the ability to self-provision services via cloud services, for instance, to meet immediate business needs.

Sharyn Leaver, vice president and practice leader at Forrester, sketched out the problem in a survey the research firm recently conducted with 2,700 business leaders.

"The good news is there is no question that the business leaders believe that the future of the organization hinges on technology," said Leaver, who noted that 87% of the survey respondents said that technology is critical to their organizational success.

The downside is that 65% of that group are making technology purchases directly -- without IT, said Leaver. Many of the business people who bypass IT are marketing employees who feel that IT doesn't move fast enough for them, said Leaver.

Ritchie said in an interview that he is responding to these changes by creating a layer of people within his IT organization who are focused on understanding the business and its direction, and knowing how to architect future needs to emerging technologies.

Ritchie has created a "business technologist" position, someone who fills a consulting role to help people on the business side make technology decisions.

A business technologist needs to have an IT background, coupled with an understanding of integration and the ability to speak the language of business.

Ritchie agrees that self-provisioning capabilities are helping to change the role of IT and that the trend is here to stay. "That's the reality of what's taking place," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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