Profiles in IT: Molding Information at Myers Industries
Transforming IT thinking by changing how a company's strategies align with its information technology people and products.
Sometimes, the greater challenge isn't gathering information, but molding it into a format that helps advance organizational goals. That's the challenge Myers Industries of Akron, Ohio and its CIO, Andrew Winer, are meeting today with innovative software solutions and a view to aligning IT with strategic thinking.
Myers is a $653-million company that makes and distributes plastic and rubber products to agricultural, automotive, commercial and consumer markets internationally. Thanks to an aggressive program of expansion, diversification and acquisition, the company has more than doubled in size since 1996. It currently operates 25 manufacturing facilities in the United States and abroad, and 42 distribution branches.
Diverse hardware and software platforms separated Myers' operating units, and this tended to leave potential opportunities undiscovered. Converting the units to a single platform was an option, but Winer wanted more. "If you want to put everyone on a single platform, you can spend 18 months and a lot of money and do that," Winer says. "But you really haven't yet taken advantage of potential synergies. We wanted something that would allow us to integrate quickly, but would also point out market opportunities and allow us to react to them more quickly than had been possible historically."
Rather than standardize on a platform, Winer concluded the more productive solution was to integrate his firm's many applications. He then went digging for enterprise application integrators that would do the job. About two years ago, he spotted Computer Associates' BizWorks at a trade show, and discovered he could get lots more from his integration efforts than just linking systems. The software would also let him mine data intelligently from both the Internet and Myers' own systems, predict events with fair accuracy based on internal data and flag business opportunities, previously buried in mountains of information, using rules-based technology.
Winer holds an MBA in management policy and operations management, and is trained in Talmudic law—a good background for business, he says, because it trains one to look at issues from various perspectives. He came to Myers 10 years ago as an advisor and project leader for the company's CEO. "One of the initial projects happened to deal with the IT function," he recalls, "and my overall recommendation was that the company needed to get somebody in IT leadership who could help the staff understand business, not just technology. If they're business people who can also deliver technology, it makes them much more valuable." Myers' management liked the idea and offered him the job.
With BizWorks, Winer saw an opportunity to create new functionality that would support his company's business strategies, rather than merely turn out reports. "What this allows us to do is align technology to strategic thinking," he says. "Historically, technology has been tactical at best. You hope the technology advancements or technology projects that you use in your organization at least support a portion of your strategic outlook." Often, he adds, companies seem to pursue technology for its own sake.
Myers' first BizWorks application, implemented a year ago last spring, tied the software to databases created by a shop-floor online process monitor, which was originally meant to supply data for the company's ERP system. By analyzing real-time manufacturing information and comparing it with historical data, BizWorks was able to predict manufacturing problems in time to head them off. "You can actually tweak the production process, while it's operating, before you start to produce bad-quality parts," Winer says.
Properly set up, Winer says, the technology mimics an organization's strategic thinking, and creates business opportunities rather than merely solving problems. Defining the rules that drive the systems has helped transform IT thinking at Myers. "The IT people actually define the rules to the system," Winer says. He feels that this kind of opportunity actually changes the nature of the conversation inside an organization because it aligns IT with strategy.
"For us to provide what we really want to provide, what the company can take the greatest advantage of, we have to understand what our business objectives are much more clearly than we ever had to before. This is changing the nature of what we do." Several of Winer's IT staffers are serious enough about learning the business side of Myers' operations that they've gotten MBAs, something the company encourages as part of its benefits program.
Managers tend to look to IT for specific reports and specific information, Winer says, because that's what IT has delivered in the past. "Someone has to say, 'Stop; we have to change what we're talking about.' That's what I'm trying to do within this organization."
Bob Mueller is a writer and magazine publishing consultant based in the Chicago area, covering technology and management subjects.