Ford, in crisis, turns to IT team

But analysts question lack of timely tire data

Faced with mounting consumer complaints and intense media coverage of a series of accidents and deaths caused by rollovers of its Explorer sport utility vehicles, Ford Motor Co. established a high-tech "war room" at its headquarters in a matter of hours. The proprietors: the company's five-person quick-response executive IT support team.

According to James Yost, Ford's CIO, that team provided senior-level managers with what he described as "instant cyber-based capability" to manage the recall and replacement of the Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. tires the company believes lie at the heart of the rollover problem that has been implicated in more than 100 deaths in the U.S. alone.

The executive IT support team "scrambled" to set up that war room last month, with laptop computers plugged into the Ford worldwide network, Yost said. Since then, the team - which Yost said he considers "on duty 24 by seven" for the duration of the crisis - has tapped numerous resources of the information technology department, including massive data centers designed to support the company's engineering and credit departments.

A key task was importing tire warranty data from Firestone to help Ford assess the role the tires played in the rollovers. Since Ford "historically never kept such data," Yost said, Firestone had to transfer it in a variety of ways, including everything from mainframe tapes to electronic file transfer to paper records, "which have been keyed in," said Yost in an interview with Computerworld in Austin, Texas, at the annual Dell Computer Co. Direct Connect user conference.

Firestone didn't respond to requests for comment.

Yost said the tire warranty database was key to unraveling the rollover mystery, which the company has repeatedly said in public statements relates to problems with particular models of tires Firestone produced for the Explorer. That raw data, Yost explained, helped the company zero in what Yost called a "subset" of information related to the Explorer tires. The executive IT support team, he said, can create such a massive database in a day.

While the executive IT support team has hands-on capabilities, Yost said, its real contribution to helping manage the rollover crisis has been its ability to tap into companywide IT resources. "If they don't have the capability, they can bring it in," he said. These resources include the company's large IT integration center, which is normally used to "stress, test and crash" systems but is now harnessed to help the senior IT staff support the rollover war room.

Steve Wilson, president of The Wilson Group, a crisis management consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio, said most large companies today have facilities available where they can organize for major crises and set up direct access to the information they need to manage the situation. However, getting caught off guard when technology is available to avoid such a crisis raises questions about Ford's system and how it was used, Wilson said.

"I don't think a company today should get caught off guard," said Wilson. In the case of the Ford and Firestone tire crisis, the data should have been funneled into a central repository, Wilson said. "The question is whether they didn't have that capability, didn't use it or didn't interpret the data correctly. The technology is there so that this type of thing should not have gone undetected."

Michael Schiff, director of data warehousing strategies at Sterling, Va.-based Current Analysis, said neither company should have been surprised by the crisis. "They should have been able to find out the commonalities concerning the defective tires and gotten a jump on this," said Schiff.

Schiff also said Ford and Firestone could have handled the customer relationship management aspect of the crisis, such as getting the information on the recall out to their distributors and direct consumers, much more efficiently. "They should be able to have immediately responded," he said. "The real question was, Did they have the incentive to do that?"

In addition, Joseph Marino, an Internet commerce analyst at Current Analysis, said there could have been serious problems with the information reporting chain. "The information is there, but it has to be reported," he said. "We don't know how many incidents were ever reported to the company or the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration," said Marino. "We just don't know."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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