Magazine article Management Today

The Rover Route to Computing

Magazine article Management Today

The Rover Route to Computing

Article excerpt

MANAGING IT The first of a series on the strategies being adopted by organisations in different industries to maximise the benefits of their investment in IT, focuses on Rover's multi-faceted manufacturing business.

Guy Hains has always liked building complicated things -- the more complex the better. As a child he put together ambitious Meccano constructions; as a young man he liked taking apart car engines; and now, as IT director at Rover, he is in his element.

The business of Britain's only sizeable car maker is highly complex, spanning engineering, manufacturing, sales, marketing and finance. All this has to be seamlessly integrated with the activities of hundreds of suppliers and dealers. Further levels of complication are added by Rover's wide range of models, and its history of numerous takeovers and mergers. Crucial to the smooth operation of this multi-faceted business is Hains's vast 50-million [pounds]-a-year computer operation. 'My role is to see how IT can be focused and to define the contribution it should be making to the business,' says 41-year-old Hains, who has been with the company since he left university. 'It's absolutely the best and most enjoyable job I've had yet.'

Rover's mission is to keep ahead in the car race in terms of product innovation and speed to market. To help Hains put together a strategy to meet this goal, he has a dozen-strong team based at the company's Advanced Technology Centre at Warwick University. The location keeps the strategy team away from firefighting the day-to-day problems of IT. 'If you try to blend an operational role with a strategic one, the operations side tends to dominate,' says Hains. The university also provides a stream of postgraduates for work on research and demonstration projects.

In all, just 200 staff have direct responsibility for IT at Rover -- a tiny proportion of the company's 30,500 employees. This is because much of Rover's computing is sub-contracted. So-called outsourcing is becoming increasingly fashionable among large computer users because it releases them to focus on their core businesses. At Rover, it dates back to 1987 when the company's computer operation, Istel, was sold off in a management buy-out. Istel, now owned by AT&T, has continued to provide much of Rover's mainstream computer needs.

Critics argue that outsourcing is like placing your company secrets in the hands of an outsider, but Hains reckons the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. 'Often when companies have bad experiences, it is because they outsource a problem and do not retain intellectual ownership of the direction of IT.' It is vital, he reckons, to retain a high level of expertise so that you keep control and dictate your own IT future.

Outsourcing has also reduced Rover's training burden and loosened its links with hardware and software manufacturers -- a welcome release in the view of Hains, who is suspicious of their frequent claims to want to work in close partnership. 'There can be genuine partnership if you work together on product development, but the term has been overused by suppliers who are really expressing the way they would like to work with large companies.' Rover's approach is to share its strategy with a handful of top suppliers and provide them with a forward view of its goals. 'We let them show how proactive they want to be in working with us.'

Hains assumed his current role in 1989 as part of Rover's move towards flatter management structures, with responsibility devolved further down the organisation. The move created a team of top level managers like Hains to think about the next 10 years. 'The luxury of this role is that it is all about IT strategy rather than having to worry whether last night's payroll ran properly or sort out a problem precipitated by some aspect of IT.'

Significant change has already resulted from the strategy team's work. There is now a clear blueprint for major systems to be deployed over the next seven years. …

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