After ten years at German print solutions provider Heidelberger Druckmaschinen American Howard Hutchings draws his personal balance about the differences between IT management in the USA and Germany.
One thing I learned coming to Germany was that the coffee was not only kräftig (strong) but also provided many choices; café crème, latte macchiato, expresso, milch kaffee, as well as what the average American understands as your standard cup of Joe. All good stuff.
Going into a German business meeting was often the same way; strong opinions, varied feelings and ideas, and of course lots of talking. Did I mention lots of talking? But did we resolve anything - except to have another meeting?
Arriving ten years ago from the US as head of IT infrastructure at Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, was like being the new kid on the block on a wholly new planet. The cultural differences of our two countries presented challenges not only in everyday life but in the business world as well. I learned in the first week that outcomes are time consuming, that process is king, and that the wheels move slowly to implement.
It also didn't take me long to realize that the American style of management was very different from the democratic style of the Germans. I was used to entering a business meeting knowing that there was already a proposed decision made prior by the boss and the task of the group would be only how to implement that decision. The German style is more open discussions, methodical, analytical, time consuming, and evaluating all the various aspects of the process was lengthy. Because of my preconceived ideas of how things should be run quickly earned me the not so flattering nickname of "the cowboy".
However, ten years later, I have come to appreciate the differences. No one would argue that we certainly see the offspring of method and process in the hundreds of German companies producing top quality. Who doesn't know the time proven quality of a Volkswagen, BMW, Audi, or Mercedes. SAP, the market and tech leader of business software and, of course our own printing presses from Heidelberg. Quality is number one in all aspects of the product and consumer experience.
Thus, my challenge over the past ten years has been the 80/20 rule - to bring together both cultures of managing IT - the quality thinking of a German company, the leanness of an Asian company and the American ability to quickly find solutions meshing them into successful collaboration.
Flash back again to my arrival in 2000. One cultural difference I found was that as in America where new technologies and being "tech savvy" were embraced by the general public, even if only from a conceptual point of view, people in Germany were either more reluctant or weren't given the opportunity to try out new "tech toys" in everyday life.
This apprehension often extended to business world as well. I would say that US businesses were more eager to try new technology with the general optimistic view that if there were cost savings involved it was worth a try. In Germany I was usually faced with the opposite. From their point of view, cost was only one aspect of the total process and savings doesn't always equal value to tried and proven ways of doing things. This scepticism was often seen within the top-level management of German companies, it is better to spend more and do it right than to jump on new technology that has not been proven.
The key question, I was always asking, was: When is the IT infrastructure getting too perfect without adding more value to the business?
The dichotomy of the focus only on quality, as positive as it is, versus innovation can make a German company run into problems when acting globally. Enforcing high standards of technology to your divisions in other countries and not backing them with costs, will end up in huge management discussions concerning, for example, how long a desktop should last, or is it best to use less costly equipment. This leads to a halt in productivity.
On the other side of the coin, to allow people to spend money trying to improve the last 20 percent of a product which is not perfect leads to time consumption that yields little of no value.
It's a tough thing to convince my German colleagues that the perfect solution for a global company will never be found, and that balance of good enough and continuous improvement is the right direction. In the US we tended to throw something in, start working with it, pick out what's wrong and gain benefits at an early stage.
Conversely, our German users have to wait for a year instead for a solution because they spend so much time upfront trying to make the 100 percent solution. I remember one employee responsible for the "client" build decided to leave the company, because as he put it "I cannot build a 80%". A 100 percent solution may be laudable, but as an American I do not see advantage alone in this way of thinking. Getting it perfect before you present it could actually hinder a company from staying in the lead in the global market. It would be like developing the best car in the world and releasing years after others have put five thousand models on the streets already. Quality vs. Time to market must be balanced.
Within our company we have bridged this cultural gap by building up real global teams within infrastructure leveraging each other's cultural differences with a German, Asian, & American teams and global thinking and acting managers possessing excellent technical skills who can leverage the strengths and weaknesses to balance each other we have been able to implement projects at a extremely high pace.
On the other side, we have taken the skills of the talented people from Germany, US and Asia and developed implementation processes that fit the cultural expatiations. By combining and leading these mega forces we are able to get all the relevant options on the table and quickly adjust to meet business needs around the world quickly. This allows us to make quicker decisions, meet the needs of the various cultures and adjust thinking. We now see that total cost of ownership is found in all aspects of the "plan, build, run" process and that you can really bring the complete structure working well. It was a matter of blending these global families together to form the right balance.
Another huge cultural difference between IT in the US and Germany is the difference in the way the employee thinks about the company from a personal standpoint. In the US, being in IT means a salary position and even in higher-level positions, the expectation is that you have to be available during and after normal work hours. Within Germany workers are backed by the unions and certain rights as to what can be or can't be are provided. One must insure that any on-call duty, off hours activity or working from home is properly covered, and that the work and its demands are properly approved by the works council. Tasks have to show the people the importance of both "having rights" and also extending themselves. This takes proper planning and design to ensure that a global company is meeting the various demands around the world.
To get the best of both worlds, we have used the expertise of our German IT team to outdo competitors on the field of quality. We have used the lean thinking of Asians and the quick to the market of the American styles with a continuous improvement process allowing for constant forward movement.
Through the experience of leading a global company I have learned that the only way to success is in allowing different styles and approaches to business. This is the only path to best results. Everyone wins. The challenge is genuine but with a little tenacity and open minds, being global will be more than just a word.
End the end running a global department is like baking a cake; you have to know each ingredient and properly measure and blend them together to have it come out right. Too much or too little of one thing or another will end up with unacceptable outcome. To bridge various cultures one has to listen, plan, and bring people processes and ideas together, allowing the team to succeed makes everyone feel that their contribution was worth the effort.
Howard Hutchings is the former CIO of German print solutions provider Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG. Since 1979 Hutchings had worked for Harris Graphics Corporation in Ohio, a company that Heidelberger acquired in 1988. At the end of the year 2000 he joined Heidelberger Druckmaschinen in Germany. In April 2010 he became CIO. Now he has left the company.
Four hints from Howard Hutchings: Combine the best of both worlds
- Allow different styles and approaches to the business. It is the only way to success when you lead a global company.
- Build up multicultural teams to combine the technical and management strengths from different cultures. It will help you make quicker decisions and quickly meet business needs araound the world.
- Encourage your developers to build solutions that are not perfect, but good enough and fit for the market. It is no use to develop the best car in the world and release years after others have put five thousand models on the street already.
- Ask yourself: When is the IT infrastructure getting too perfect without adding more value? Do you really need to replace it every three or five years?