GE Capital's Karen Blackie manages a follow-the-sun operating model

As VP of enterprise systems and data, she oversees a team of 180 people in nine countries.

Karen Blackie has held several IT, quality and risk leadership roles in both the U.S. and Europe during her 20-plus years with GE Capital, roles in which she led teams through a quickly changing technology landscape. She now holds the title of CIO, enterprise systems and data, and is responsible for design, development and operations of enterprisewide applications.

Karen Blackie [2015]

Working in what she calls "a true follow-the-sun operating model," Blackie oversees 180 people in nine countries. "As one team closes down their day, another team picks up the baton," she says. Her tenure has given her insight into what it takes to build and run a world-class organization.

What is your division's role? We're a centrally managed organization in different locations, but we work with the speed and agility as if we were local. From the shared services perspective, GE Capital is not any different from other large organizations. We want to eliminate complexity from processes and the system. I think of "smartification" as the new simplification: working much smarter than we did before.

What do you mean by smartification? It's a word for me that encompasses everything we've been striving for. It's being more nimble, reducing costs. If you can do all that and work smarter at the same time, it helps the organization across the board. To do it well, you need a great team that's business-savvy — that in some cases knows the business as well as the business people do — and they need to contribute to shaping the strategy. If they can do that, that means IT is being successful.

How do you enable this as a leader? One way is by attracting and retaining the right talent. You have to have the core foundational skills to begin with, have the right level of career planning with your team, and make sure the plans are aligned with the business imperatives. From a coaching perspective, all my leaders have individual responsibilities to coach and develop the more junior talent we have and, of course, GE Capital has a very strong people development program.

How should IT be structured and organized to make the most of its promise to improve business results and advance business objectives? I have a team that is constantly looking at emerging technologies, keeping abreast of the industry, watching what's happening generally across our peers. At the same time, we're engaging with our business colleagues and often directly with the customers to understand what they want from us going forward.

That's one model. From a service perspective, we're constantly pulsing our user base and asking their input on how we shape our services going forward.

How do you ensure continuity and unity of your team, given its global nature? The follow-the-sun model has a transition period built into it. It's not a direct "I go to bed at 10 p.m. and you pick up at 10:01." There's an hour built in that allows for partnering.

The second thing is we're hugely focused on collaboration. We have lots of technology internally here to make sure we have that face contact, so it's not always by telephone. We have times during the year when groups come together for not just work, but for team bonding and strategizing, too. And we're a very open culture, and I'd say that employees would feel very comfortable sharing concerns.

There are a couple of other things we do. Putting leaders at each of these sites is fundamental to making that work, making sure that you have someone who can instill the culture and drive some of the behaviors we're looking for and ensuring that the employees are motivated and have the ability to have input into how we shape the organization and what it delivers.

What are the top characteristics you need for establishing effective global IT organizations of the future? Depth of technology, employing resources that understand the systems and applications is key, whether it's global or not. The second thing is if you can build a global team that has business process knowledge, it's certainly a success enabler. And having a team that is innovative and creative and constantly challenging the status quo, regardless again of where they sit.

How do you recruit and retain these people? We have a very strong HR organization within GE Capital, and they partner with us in building our training programs and our communications program. Spending time with each individual is also key: understanding what they're looking for in terms of their careers, and working with them to help achieve their goals.

The other thing for a global organization is it's very attractive to work on global projects, global programs. There are tons of opportunities that present themselves to the team.

What's the biggest change you've seen in IT during your career, and how did it change you as a leader? The biggest change I've seen is IT having a very strong seat at the table. We're now viewed as one of the most critical partners within an enterprise. That's really very, very positive. And I think from an IT leader's perspective, that helps us — that gives us much more breadth, it helps us understand the business and its strategy and imperative, and it makes us more rounded in how we are as a partner.

Moving forward, what do you predict will be the biggest differentiator in successful IT departments? Speed. Technology has resulted in the world moving at such a fast pace. We know, as the IT organization, that we need to make sure we're keeping up. Being nimble is going to be really important. I'm looking at that in my organization. We're doing much more agile project deployment now rather than the traditional waterfall approach, where you start something and deliver something six or 12 months later. Now it's much more iterative deployment.

This story, "GE Capital's Karen Blackie manages a follow-the-sun operating model" was originally published by Computerworld.

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