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When Marc Klevorn was appointed Ford CIO in January 2015, her succession was not a surprise. Klervorn had been groomed for the role by her predecessor Nick Smither. On her first official day in the job, the two of them sent a video to employees discussing the IT transformation plans for Ford. It was a fitting first move for a CIO with a high value on interpersonal skills.

"The business of being a CIO, or even being in information technology, is a people business," Klevorn told CIO UK's sister title CIO US.

Her appointment was the culmination of more than 30 years working on emerging technologies, IT functions and management experience at Ford. Decisions on technology dominate her new role, and the staff that support them play an essential part in their success.

Klevorn began to combine both both business and IT skills as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. She had enrolled for a bachelor's degree in business, and also elected to take additional computer science classes.

Her first job out of college was at AT&T, where she took a six-month course in telecommunications. Ford soon snapped her up, and she has remained there ever since. Her spell in marketing had been a brief one, but it provided a useful lesson in people skills for her future career.

"Not starting out as a pure technologist helped me lead with relationships, building trust, and seeking to understand first, and then come with the solution next," she says.

This is especially important in the changing environment of agile methodologies, collaborative processes paired programming focused on sharing and trust.

Klevorn describes herself as an introvert and was classified as a feeler in her Myers-Briggs assessment, a category typically populated by those most interested in the concerns of key stakeholders and in making decisions that are best for them. Her personality seems a helpful skills for a role requiring the committed support of IT professionals.

"When I started this job, I needed to find ways to make a very big place seem very small," she says. "So I brainstormed with the team, and we decided we’re just going to try some things. Some might work, and some might not, but that's OK - we’ll learn."

A global conglomerate requires a functioning team to survive but individual innovation to thrive. Klevorn implemented a new initiative to harness the creativity of her 11,000 staff called 'Power-Up Time' that gives each of them fours hours a week to work on a new idea.

Not only does it promote progress in the company, says Klevorn, it also helps individual staff members "to stay relevant and have the kind of roles they want to have".

A changing industry

The automotive industry is being transformed by collaborative consumption and technological trends, from disruptive taxi services such as Uber, car-pooling companies such as blablacar, self-driving vehicles and computerised cars.

Klevorn has embraced the challenges rather than be left behind them. Ford is no longer merely a car maker, but a technology-led company, experimenting with ride-sharing schemes, electronic bikes, autonomous driving and smartphone-requested shuttle services.

Ford established a Bimodal IT process to manage separate streams of tech delivery, with one "emerging mode" section focused on experimental ideas and the other "core mode" area on the essential, traditional systems that keep the company functioning securely. When the former proves successful it can be added to the latter, ensuring innovation is supported without risking the stability of the central systems.

Robotics technology is one example of an emerging mode pilot at Ford. The company uses iRobot's Ava 500s, with a tablet added at their heads using Cisco videoconferencing software to stand in at team meetings in the absence of remote workers. They can also provide headquarters tours for potential employees on college campuses via web browsers.

Analytics have followed a similarly two-pronged approach. Descriptive analytics review previous data to establish patterns, while predictive analytics anticipate future trends to keep the company ahead of its rivals.

Other IT initiatives at Ford include an $182.2 million investment in Pivotal, the software and services company that produces the popular CloudFoundry, to expand Ford’s prowess in software development, analytics and cloud computing.

The partnership was established to introduce "extreme Agile" concepts into Ford, says Klevorn, to support software developments such as mobile solutions. It has already led to the opening of a new lab in Dearborn in Klevorn's home state of Michigan. Further locations in Detroit and Ann Arbor are being investigated, as well as a number of international sites.

Less glamorous but equally important is ensuring that IT successfully integrates the various technologies Ford uses and properly architecting the system infrastructure.

Human needs are sometimes neglected in a digital transformation, but such an oversight seems unlikely under Klevorn's watch. The communication skills developed in her life outside of IT remain prominent in her current role.

They're seen during her video conferences and open Q&A sessions with all employees, in her forging of connections throughout the company and in her all-hands meetings with colleagues from around the world.

“Seeking to understand helps build trust," she says. "I've always focused on building trust in ways big and small.”