15 Apr CIO Leadership: For Greg Marr, there's no faking it at Red Prairie
Waukesha, Wis. – If anyone has to present a solid business case for information technology projects, it’s Greg Marr.
Marr, vice president of IT and facility operations for RedPrairie Corp., has come to realize that being the top technology manager of Red Prairie is different from holding a similar position in other businesses.
“I think one of largest challenges as the head of IT for Red Prairie is that I’m leading IT for a technology company,” said Marr, who has been with RedPrairie for 11 years. “We have a lot of tech-savvy leaders in the organization, including most of the executive team, so it provides its own unique spin on things.”
That means Marr has to operate in a No Spin Zone. As a software company, Red Prairie knows the drill with customers in terms of contract negotiations, project planning, and implementations, and it has the same expectations of its own vendors. Similarly, Marr’s executive team is in a unique position to challenge him, so he can’t put off IT-business alignment issues and bottom-line impacts. For him, those conversations must start earlier in process.
In truth, he wouldn’t have it any other way because working for an executive team that “gets it” has helped him produce results. “The business case is inescapable,” he said. “I sometimes need to rehash work that’s already been done, but if I come in armed with the appropriate answers to those questions, it makes the whole process flow smoother.”
HR business case
A smooth process is just what he’s expecting with one of the company’s most important IT implementations of 2008. The Waukesha-based Red Prairie, a global provider of supply chain, transportation management, and retail operations software, is in the process of implementing a new business system for human resources.
It is needed because RedPrairie has grown explosively over the past four years, mostly through acquisition and organic growth. In that time, its business systems have not kept pace with that growth; the new HR system, which will be in place by the end of 2008, is needed to help RedPrairie support internal customers.
The HR implementation is expected to save more than 3,800 man-hours a year based on automation and the retirement of the existing manual process. Red Prairie’s current manual HR system is only used domestically, does not support international employees, and is not considered user-friendly. The system met the needs of the organization when it had 300 domestic employees, but Red Prairie’s acquisition strategy has grown the company to 800 U.S. workers.
The new solution offers core HR software, plus recruiting and performance-management pieces. The benefit of consolidating the HR technology into a single automated system would move the company away from tracking information on spread sheets and allow for more timely reports to managers.
The reporting capability that will come with the automated system also should save man-hours when capturing information on job candidates, including the status of applicants through the entire hiring process. Managers will be able to go into the system to pull reports on how many people have applied for open positions, or glean information on the progress of a job posting.
“All information on candidates would flow into the core HR piece so that when someone accepts an offer, it’s automatically entered into the system and that person becomes an employee,” Marr explained. “All the paper work we do today would be replaced by that automated system.”
The other piece helps track performance reviews. The technology, which will be linked to an updated business process, features the notification of managers when annual reviews are due, the flagging of managers if reviews are not conducted on time, and the tracking of completed reviews. Red Prairie would like to ensure that performance reviews are completed on an annual basis, and the new tool would not only help management save time, but drive employee satisfaction with the review process.
“It’s great to save man-hours by putting in new solutions, but you can’t underestimate the soft savings out there by being able to provide employees and managers with better information than they have ever had,” Marr said.
To enhance communication, Marr has established project dashboards that will be available to executives for daily monitoring. Monthly executive meetings also are planned, and steering committees of key stakeholders will be used for the purpose of breaking through any barriers, approving (or rejecting) requested changes, and otherwise keeping projects on track. Any modifications and their likely impacts would be explained to the executive team before they move forward.
Project plans have not advanced far enough to set aside time for user training, but change management will be part of the implementation. Global HR employees will be sent to the vendor for 1-1/2 weeks of training on the HR solution, but other technology will come into play as well. To make sure training captures everybody, Red Prairie will hold six to 10 webinars on how to use the employee HR portal “so they can do things like change addresses and indicate any life changes that have taken place, and so managers can review salaries and bonuses,” he said.
Marr is a fairly well-read technology manager whose desk currently holds book titles like “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” and “Competing in a Flat World,” and periodicals like CIO magazine and Harvard Business Review.
Such publications help him stay on top of trends like green IT. At Red Prairie, which is working to reduce the environmental impact of supply chains, IT is expected to play a role in the company’s green initiatives. IT impacts the company’s green vision by greening its data center, located at its Waukesha headquarters.
Through virtualization, IT is working to convert as many physical servers into virtual servers, saving on energy and maintenance costs. Red Prairie has launched a pilot project that has taken 45 servers and virtualized down to 15 servers, and the estimated annual savings for the pilot is $36,000. The next phase, in which the company plans to virtualize another 200 servers, carries a projected annual savings of $120,000.
Spheres of influence
Red Prairie hired Marr in part because of his retail background. Prior to joining RedPrairie, he was director of business systems for Ross Stores, a Fortune 500 discount retailer based in Pleasanton, Calif.
His earliest career influence, one that he still carries with him, came while working for a Japanese company in Dallas. Management gave him the opportunity to move to Japan and work for a year designing and coding systems, where he got a taste of working in a team environment.
“The Japanese had taken that to a level I’d never experienced before,” he said. “In a lot of ways, everything was a group decision for design and code and whether to move forward. I brought that back and tried to apply it in most of the places I’ve been.
“The one thing I know is I don’t have all the answers. If I surround myself with a good team, I know we can come up with better decisions as a group than any one of us can as a single entity.”
Red Prairie, owned by the California private-equity firm Francisco Partners, has made news outside the realm of supply chain software. New CEO Mike Mayoras, who succeeded the controversial John Jazwiec, said he has no plans to move the company and wants to remain part of the southeastern Wisconsin community. Jazwiec had dropped some hints about the company’s desire to move, citing the state’s tax climate and the difficulty in recruiting executive talent here.
To recruit IT and other workers, Red Prairie posts workers’ employee testimonials on its website, but Marr said the challenge comes not in attracting workers in general, but in finding employees with specific types of skills. It has not been difficult to find individuals for positions on the operations side – for example, network and help desk – but application development is another matter.
At the moment, the company is looking for people with specific expertise in applications, and one of the ways it addresses labor needs is with a cross-training initiative to ensure it has multiple people with knowledge of various software solutions. Red Prairie also sends staff members off to training with vendors, and also relies on consultants to help with application issues.
Marr said the slowing economy has not impacted Red Prairie’s IT budgeting for 2008, but the company is keeping an eye on economic conditions. Any IT leader needs to be cognizant of a changing business landscape and be prepared to adapt, he said.
“IT should be run as a business, not a technology center,” Marr stated, “and always be aware of solid ROI for moving forward and being aligned with the strategic direction of the company.”
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