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CIO Leadership: Trek's Brent Leland cycles through business-IT alignment - Part 1

Editor's note: This is Part I of a two-part CIO Leadership interview with Brent Leland, director of information technology for Trek Bicycle Corp. in Waterloo.

WTN: What was the reason you were brought here? What did Trek need you to accomplish?

Brent Leland
Brent Leland
Leland: I've been here about a year-and-a-half. Trek has grown very fast and is a very lean organization. In a lot of ways, the growth of the business and the success of the company have really outpaced the IT function. I was brought in to put in the right infrastructure to position us for future growth.

WNT: How have you gone about doing that?

Leland: When I had previously worked for Spectrum Brands, we acquired about a dozen companies and integrated them into our organization. I took a lot of the same approaches that we used there. I came here and laid out a 90-day plan, interviewed everyone in the IT department, interviewed all of the key business leaders, and really focused on figuring out where the gaps were in the people, process, and systems.
What I found were some things Trek had been doing pretty well. There were a lot of talented people; they had invested in a lot of information technologies. They had fully unified communications, virtualization, and a lot of the core infrastructure technologies were in place. They had good tools, but they needed to link the business to the business process.

We set up steering committees with each function - sales or finance or manufacturing - and we handled the prioritization at the intermediate level. When it came to tiebreakers at the higher level, I ran what we called the IT steering committee. It's basically myself and probably eight or nine other executives, including the president, tracking projects like a Top 20 list. It's where the real strategic initiatives were tracked in the big, cross-functional projects.

WTN: Are you saying IT was not aligned with the business?

Leland: IT was not aligned; it was fairly disconnected from the business. IT was also made up of fairly independent silos, so we put in more structured methodology, but not too structured. One of the core values of Trek is being flexible. We're very agile and we want to keep the ability to move fast.

We've centralized support, and we've centralized project tracking. There were a lot of business functions that were handled within IT, and we're slowly getting them handled in IT more appropriately. With my background, I've worked in various business functions, even after I've been in IT roles. A lot of what I try to drive is to get the key people that report to me to think like business people and come up with recommendations. What I've found is that if somebody understands both business and technology, it's a much more efficient process to figure what you're going to do with technology, versus having the business say we need this. They are focused on the business; they are not focused on trying to understand what the technology can do.

We are also bringing in outside best practices. As I said earlier, Trek has grown very fast, and it's a very flat organization. There is a lot of invented process here.

WTN: Have you had to shed some legacy systems and retool there as well?

Leland: Yes, we've reshaped our BI [business intelligence] environment. We're in the process of really looking at our whole PLM [product lifecycle management] environment - basically the way we handle all product data.

The technology we use internally is fairly standard, although what I've zeroed in on is the Microsoft tool set, and I implemented this when I was at Spectrum as well back in 2001. For 80 percent of the users, the people who are already living and breathing Excel, we basically built it on top of Microsoft analysis services, OLAP [online analytical processing) cubes, and they run Excel pivot tables as a front end. It's very powerful and requires very little training. For more formal reporting - for sales reports and things that need either a dashboard capability or more of a reporting feel - we use other [BI] tools. Other than that, we're pretty much using Excel.

So all the new infrastructure is in place and we've rolled out to a couple of the different functional areas, and we're continuing to roll that out.

WTN: For the BI program, how much was built internally and how much do you rely on the vendor?

Leland: The stuff we've done recently was all internal. Historically, Trek had purchased some data marts, and they had external vendors doing that, but our more recent stuff has been internal. We're building up the skill sets in that area. Actually, I need another BI person in that area; it's one of my open positions.

WTN: What's the next step with BI? Obviously you have more business units to roll it out to, but are you scratching the surface in terms of what it can do in terms of data?

Leland: Yes. I think a lot of what we focused on in the last year was getting the core infrastructure in place. So getting everything upgraded to SQL Server 2005, and making sure the data marts are populated with every piece out of our J.D. Edwards system. What we're really focused on, now that we have that, is working with the business to actually get that more sophisticated reporting in place.

WTN: What type of dash boarding have you done in terms of the presentation? Is there a typical type of dashboard that people like - graphic or text-based?

Leland: It's interesting. I spent a lot of time, even with my last company, where I was responsible for BI. One of the things that I found was that when we tried to set up a very glitzy looking dash board, at the end of the day the people just wanted the numbers. Some people just seem to be wired for text, and it takes a lot of change management to get them to think more graphically and look for alerts and look for stop lighting.

I read a book titled Information Dashboard Design, and the first three-quarters of the book shows examples from all over the web of dash boarding; basically showing you how not to do it. It's not until the very end that they zero in on the recommended approach. A lot of the time, if you don't focus on your key performance indicators, what you're really trying to accomplish, and look at it from a business perspective, and really back into the dash board, you just create just a cool-looking dashboard and that's really all you get.

What I've found in the past is that user adoption in this case is not very good.

It's much more in line with the way the business units are thinking, that these are the things they are already looking at to measure their performance, that's where I think you get a lot more of the power out of the tool. It has got to be focused on the KPIs first, and worry about the technology later. That is, technically, the easier part of it.

WTN: Whether it's graphic or text, is that a generational thing, with younger workers more interested in graphics and more experienced workers wanting text?

Leland: There is probably some of that. I worked with an executive team at a previous company, where we tried to introduce a more graphical approach, but they came out of M&A. They were more numbers and financially oriented people, and they just liked the numbers. Whereas I worked for Hewlett Packard in the ink jet printer division, where the money was in the ink, and because of that they were much more open to having things graphical. So we had much more capability back there and much more acceptance of taking a graphical approach. It's a different way of thinking.

I would suspect that the younger generation, if you look at a lot of the rich Internet technology that is out there, if you look at Google maps and sites like that, the next generation is going to be much more capable as far as using the tools and picking them up. The other thing that is interesting is just that as opposed to five or 10 years ago, when anytime you would roll out a new technology, you'd have to have a big training program. My belief is any tool that you roll out should be intuitive. It should require very little training. With the new technologies, there is no training for going into Yahoo and using the stock analyzer. It's the kind of thing where it should just work. I think where the training comes in would be more on the behaviors and on how you run the business. I think you should focus your time on that rather than on okay, you click here or you do this in order to make it work.

WTN: Where are you at in this business-IT alignment process? Sounds like BI is helping you get there faster.

Leland: The BI, that's more of a tool. The actual alignment has been much more than that. Really, in the processes that we've put in place for prioritizing projects, I spend a lot of time with the business leaders of the company, so it's obviously a partnership. At Trek, the business is very open to having IT help with process. They want to focus on running the business and the expectation in some of the functions is that IT should be very business process focused. IT should basically come up with recommendations.

Read Part 2 here

Brent Leland bio

About Trek Bicycles
  • Waterloo-based global bicycle designer and manufacturer whose products have been used in victories in the world's premier cycling events, including the Tour de France (Lance Armstrong) and Ironman world competitions (Tim DeBoom).
  • Products range from its original hand-built steel touring frames and more technologically advanced OCLV Carbon, used in competitions worldwide. Products also include bikes for use off-road use, including mountain terrain, road and triathlon events, plus bikes designed for women and children, and bikes custom designed by consumers through the company website.
  • 2007 annual sales of $600 million (Hoover's); 1,189 employees, including 75 in information technology.

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