They might not fly yet, but cars increasingly have a few tricks up their sleeves. Many of them are coming from the use of IT and disruptive technologies including mobile and big data, as the Fusion 2014 CEO-CIO Symposium learned from Paul Pebbles, senior manager of technology planning and sandbox development at General Motors.

In an age of free, add-on and ad-supported services, GM’s OnStar is a paid subscription (after the first 6 months) that relies on re-subscribes for revenue. Their technology organization has to be very aligned with customer value while continuing to innovate, so that customers will continue to see the worth of a subscription.

“We have to keep providing value to them,” Pebbles said.

In recent years OnStar has been moving from a model where all interaction is with their central system to one that is increasingly open to customer and third-party interaction. In 2010 the company launched RemoteLink, a mobile app allowing customers remote access to their car’s systems and data, including fuel and oil levels, remote unlock and start, or sending a destination to the in-car navigation system. Along with in-car 4G and WiFi, this is opening the way for more disruptive technologies.

It wasn’t all clear-weather driving for the internal development team, though. Pebbles revealed there were four other teams competing with them to build essentially the same app, using different technologies and solutions. Although there was some expected infighting, the process led to the innovation that OnStar delivered to market.

The results? People using RemoteLink have re-subscribed to OnStar at a higher rate.

The next step is to go even further and allow installable apps. That allows individual customers to have different experiences in the same car. There are security challenges — the prospect of a car hack would be more serious for many people than, say a browser hack — but Pebbles said GM has been working on that for 10 years.

What about becoming a platform company, the Amazon of cars, and really opening the doors to other auto makers? Pebbles said that’s not currently in GM’s interests, as the company views OnStar features as a competitive advantage that outweigh the potential upside of running a platform company. In 2013, GM announced that remote starting & unlocking would be offered for five years even without an OnStar subscription on certain new models.

Big data

Another area OnStar is working on taking to the next level is what to do with all the data. They have been e-mailing customers reports on information such as fuel and oil levels and maintenance needs, but the approach to data is moving past that.

“We’re taking a very systematic approach,” Pebbles said.

“We’re now in the phase… to be able to analyze this data at speeds we’ve never been able to do before,” he said. That speed allows GM to do more predictive analysis, letting them aggregate information across their cars to discover problems that customers may not even know are problems yet.

“If we tell you to go to the dealership in advance, there’s real cost savings for us, but more importantly there’s real cost saving for the customer,” he said.

There’s plenty more GM could do with anonymized aggregate data as well. Weather predictions based on where drivers have their windshield wipers turned on could be more accurate in real-time than other methods. Aggregate mileage patterns and a host of other data have potential.

Data science, as opposed to just reporting, will have huge effects over the next 10 years, said Fusion speaker Peter Coffee, VP for Strategic Research at Companies will not just be generating and testing hypothesis, but increasingly looking for patterns and trends they may not have expected.

The key is that it’s not just about what organizations can do with big data internally, it’s about how they can bring the benefits to the customer. That’s part of the shift that Coffee and others have noted toward greater expectations of connectivity overall.

“At this point, it’s about the way that people’s expectations and behavior change when they are connected to a global network,” Coffee said.

Organizing for innovation

Pebbles said his organization’s approach to innovation is to try a lot of things and to be willing to quickly discard those that don’t work or are simply not things the marketplace is ready for. People may want to hold onto their favorite ideas and “make them” work, he said, but it’s important to be good at killing ideas.

Also, if someone working in engineering has a lot of relevant skills, he’d try to bring them onto the innovation team. This has occasionally created issues when other managers who felt it was poaching, he said, but “it’s important to be able to identify people who can innovate.”

Another tool Pebbles called out is the internal wiki, which in his organization allows anyone from top to bottom to see where the company is at from a technology perspective, what tools are available and what people are working on.

Wikis, along with instant messaging and file sharing have been shown effective in engaging employees and reducing turnover, said Rena Rasch, research manager with IBM Smarter Workforce Institute.

They have number of advantages. They help people connect to the culture of the organization and find information. Instant messaging lets people get back to a project with fewer delays waiting for information. And encouraging employees to look at and contribute to wiki-style intranets can be a good “teach a person to fish model.”

“If something comes up, you can look here first,” Rasch said. “It may be that ten other people had that same question first.”

And the alternative? Employees will increasingly turn elsewhere if not given the tools they need.

“People are using an externally powered social network to find out, ‘Who is a subject matter expert? I mean, in my own company?'” Coffee said.