Sometimes trying to save a little money can end up being quite costly. Take the case of a U.S. auto parts supplier that entered into a manufacturing joint venture in Vietnam. The local plant tried to set up its information processing system on the cheap: It bought fax machines, computers, and software that fit nobody’s standards for easy maintenance or communication. The ad hoc system, simultaneously crude and complicated, did not mesh with the U.S. company’s centralized IT architecture. All of this introduced a logistical challenge into the joint venture’s supply chain, nullifying many of the intended cost benefits that had taken the supplier overseas in the first place.
Unfortunately, that story is all too typical. Chief information officers at several Tier One automobile companies recently surveyed by Booz & Company cited the shortchanging of information technology at overseas joint ventures as a significant problem that affects costs and efficiency. They reported that the difficulty of delivering IT services in a consistent manner to the partners in a global relationship continues to impede success. Even in the most advanced and critical joint venture partnerships, nonstandard solutions are spread across operational business processes — from purchasing to product design — to deleterious effect. There’s nothing wrong with trying to cut costs by moving operations closer to a supply chain, but an enterprise is almost certain to fail if it neglects the importance of efficient back office activities — by putting in, as one joint venture did, a bunch of typewriters to save money on computers.
Although the typewriter example may be an anomaly, information technology at many joint ventures often isn’t much more sophisticated: Back offices and factories are filled with cheap and disparate computers connected to ad hoc networks with little or no thought given to standards or security. The IT problem in overseas joint ventures isn’t isolated, it’s endemic; it isn’t tactical, it’s strategic; and the lessons are relevant to all manufacturing industries and senior managers, not just to CIOs. Whether a joint venture in China or India or Southeast Asia is producing car parts or computers, chemicals or candy, CEOs and other top managers who shortchange IT are putting their profits at risk. Often, security is unnecessarily compromised; in many cases of technology theft, lax IT security made things easy for the criminals.
IT is often viewed as a detriment in joint ventures because a major goal of these partnerships is to cut costs. IT, however, sometimes requires substantial cash outlays and is regarded by many managers as a cost center. Moreover, budget choices are typically made by country managers who work at a level above the plant or back office, where IT is particularly prized, and who are rewarded for keeping costs low. In particular, country managers in developing economies often don’t see IT as a strategic tool, or even recognize the need to tie their information systems into larger supplier networks.
Yet information technology, when properly managed, leads to major gains through automation, synchronization, and process optimization. Enforcing a set of standards for IT architecture can actually save companies money over the long term and more than make up for the required upfront spending. And it provides critical leverage for companies and their supply chains linking up operations overseas. If executives get the IT network right, everything else will follow.
Non-tech managers might see the issue more clearly by imagining a truck fleet for traveling salesmen. The optimal situation is when your 10 salespeople have Ford trucks and one mechanic can service all of them. If instead you had five different kinds of trucks, you might need several mechanics, you would lose the ability to buy parts in bulk, and the lack of scale might become a cost issue. It’s the same with IT. If you have many sites set up with different standards or, worse, no standards at all, the result is a complexity that damages the ability to manage the business holistically. Something as simple as a security patch becomes costly and cumbersome if the laptops, desktops, and servers are all operating under separate systems.