Soon after the merger of Daimler-Benzag and Chrysler Corp. six years ago, Susan Unger was named CIO and head of global IT operations of the merged company. Since then, she has carried out the global unification of DaimlerChrysler AGs IT organization and the implementation of many common IT systems worldwide. In an exclusive interview with eWEEK Executive Editor Stan Gibson at DaimlerChryslers U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., Unger explained her approach to IT management.
You have strong ideas about delivering IT value. Can you explain?
About four years ago, in the midst of the dot-com hype, I was presenting at the Automotive News [World] Congress. I had a different message, which was that in the "e-world," you have to have business value. It was kind of funny at the time because I was a voice in the wilderness talking that way. People said, "She doesnt know anything here."
We focused on B2B [business-to-business] initiatives. Its amazing. A number of my peers have had pretty major write-downs of a variety of IT projects. We have had none because we were kind of religious about ROI [return on investment]. Our organization has never felt that we do IT for ITs sake—it has to have business value.
A few years ago, there was a certain hysteria, a belief that all auto sales would happen online and that the auto dealer was going the way of the dodo bird.
Absolutely. But a car appeals to emotion. You want to touch it and drive it. However, the Internet is great for providing information. Ninety percent of our customers have used the Internet as a source of information.
What is your single biggest IT project right now?
Were implementing a software product from Dassault [Systèmes AG] called DELMIA. Whats really cool is that when an engineer is designing a vehicle, we can use the product to create a virtual manufacturing environment—including your work cells, your line, your equipment—and simulate your workers installing a wiring harness or whatever else. We believe [DELMIA] has the same capabilities that [Dassaults] CATIA [design collaboration software] had 15 years ago. It will revolutionize the automobile industry. The other big thing is the DealerConnect project, which we believe is two years ahead of any competition. It gives the dealers a portal on which they can do all of their work.
One of the first projects was unifying both companies e-mail systems. Where is the e-mail system today?
We are 100 percent on one e-mail system today. We use [IBMs] Lotus Notes. We picked it primarily for the groupware function. Before the merger, there were 17 different e-mail systems. Were on Notes 6.0 at this point. We have close to 10,000 different applications on Lotus Notes, from product development to manufacturing to sales and even after-sales.
Do your engineers collaborate globally—for example, sending CAD drawings around the world?
Yes. We have an e-engineering portal. We have a lot of things that we need to collaborate on between Mercedes, Mitsubishi and the Chrysler group. Even though all of us were on the same CAD system, we were using different versions: Chrysler was in 3-D CAD; Mitsubishi was on 2-D. We had to retrain the engineers.
Then we had to collaborate. Thats where the e-tools came in. That was one of our first e-projects; we call it the e-engineering portal. This portal allowed our engineers to get CAD information and parts information. We have close to 20,000 internal people using that today, from engineering and finance to advance product stream to service and after service.
The Crossfire is a good example of how we have used the e-engineering portal. We had a challenge to get the whole thing done in 18 months with no incremental IT budget. We had to collaborate between Karmann [which builds the Crossfire], Mercedes and the Chrysler group, and we were able to do that with a lot of the IT tools. We have expanded that e-engineering portal in the past year to our suppliers.