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The grill: Ingo Elfering

The grill: Ingo Elfering

A global view helps this IT leader read cultural differences in diverse teams.

Ingo Elfering talks a lot about opportunities. That's not surprising, considering he has built his career on developing transformative uses for IT. In 1987 he founded his own company, MedicalData Service, which developed software for the medical community. SmithKline Beecham bought Elfering's company in 1997 and hired him as part of the deal. A native of Germany, he came to the U.S. with his wife in 2000 when a merger created GlaxoSmithKline. Last November, Elfering became vice president of business transformation for the company's Core Business Services. He now holds dual American and German citizenship and was named one of Computerworld's 2010 Premier 100 IT Leaders.

Ingo Elfering

Title: Vice president of business transformation

Organization: GlaxoSmithKline's Core Business Services unit

What futuristic technology would you love to see become reality? More intuitive user interfaces.

What did you want to be when you were in high school? I was always fascinated by technology. Literally I wanted to become a rocket scientist. But I started my own company at 16.

What new place would you like to visit? Although I'm doing a project in Nigeria, I've never set foot in Africa; that's on my list to change in the not-too-distant future.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten? There are two. Hug your problems, because they're opportunities for improvement. And you can change only yourself, but you control that 100%.

You describe yourself as "an innovator and change agent." How do those characteristics show in your day-to-day job? We do these big projects around innovative things, or big programs that take years to accomplish or are global in scale, so you have to drive change, but more important to me is to be open every day and look externally. Bring innovation in everything you do, not just the big projects. Scan the market externally in your own field, but also in other businesses. Opportunities can come from the strangest places. I was reading about mobile phones and banking in Africa, and a little while later we started [a project using mobile phones] in Nigeria. People buy our products and they scratch off something on the side of the box, and they see a number that they can text to a service center for us, and we can track that number and show it's unique and that the product is produced by us. It's a great way for us to ensure patients that what they're getting is genuine medication.

You're in a very specific industry. Do you think CIOs need deep industry knowledge, particularly when working in specialized fields? It helps a little bit, but more important is the ability to embrace change. I think your ability to learn is more important than specific industry knowledge, and a part of that is because your knowledge, particularly in IT, can change very quickly. There is something about the speed of innovation that's particularly important in IT. You have to continue your education and stay up to date and find new innovations and opportunities. When you do that, you really have something to contribute to the business. If you can translate what the business opportunities are and how IT can support that, that's where people can make the real difference.

So many companies, even small ones, are global today. What are the top challenges for IT when working across different companies, countries and cultures, with all their different regulations and requirements? The regulations and requirements and the global scale, they do bring their own specific challenges, like how do you make something comply to different privacy regulations around the world and be in compliance with all of them?

But I think in the project environment, the more challenging aspect is the cultural differences. If you have a team spread out across four or five different locations, you can't just walk down the hall anymore and talk to somebody or get everybody into a huddle in the morning. And even if everyone speaks English, they might not talk about the same thing. We had a meeting where there was a lot of confusion about what we meant by a word. We spent half an hour explaining what the word was and our meaning around it.

What was the word? Sourcing.

So how do you deal with cultural differences in a global team? I have a personal benefit. I've worked long enough in the U.S., and I'm German, and I've worked in nearly every European country, so I'm more attuned to the cultural differences. And what my experience taught me is you have to have that internal awareness, and ask lots of questions and be someone who teases out these differences and says, "This is what I think you're talking about," or, "There might be an understanding gap here." That really becomes helpful for teams.

Sounds like this is helpful for all teams, not just ones from diverse locales. Absolutely. My sourcing example was with people from the U.S. and U.K. They all spoke English. But there were at least six different definitions of what sourcing means. I sometimes joke about this because when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and you have to understand when you're looking at a nail or when you're looking at a screw. You have to train yourself to constantly have that awareness. You have to always ask questions, and you can come down to a deep understanding of what's really meant or why something is really happening.

You've talked about driving change during this recession. What about driving change in a good economy? In good times, you should have even more of a desire to drive and implement change because you are less forced and maybe have an opportunity to invest. You might have some upward pressure and growth you can build on. I've seen the need to innovate and change constantly. So it's not a question of when; it's how. The tools might vary slightly whether it's an upturn or downturn, but technology changes and innovation keeps happening, and you should be driving that and driving it forward, and you do it all the time.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (marykpratt@verizon.net)

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