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IT leader of world’s no. 1 chemical company talks ‘business-centered technology’

CIO of worlds leading chemical company talks business-centered technology pro pixGermany’s CIO of the Year: With Office 365 ‘we’re not following, we’re leading’

At BASF, the world’s leading chemical company, Wiebe van der Horst is Senior Vice President Global Process & Enterprise Architecture. But given his philosophy, colleagues might also call him “captain” or “coach.” Van der Horst runs IT at BASF in an optimistic, collaborative, “all-aboard” way, which is probably why he was named Germany’s CIO of the Year last year.

Jurors for the German CIO award, which is presented by Computerwoche and CIO magazine, were pleased by van der Horst’s leadership in creating “a uniform, global workplace infrastructure using the latest technologies,” such as social networking, online document collaboration and exchange, and web conferencing.

Van der Horst recently talked with Microsoft about leadership, the importance of human-centered change and business-centered technology, his company’s leap to Microsoft Office 365, and the power of a “glass-half-full” outlook in modern IT.

What was the IT environment like at BASF when you decided to bet on Office 365?

I think this has not been a bet, first of all. Before we took this decision, we did a thorough analysis of the pros and cons of various vendors. Generally speaking, the tradition here was to play it safe. In doing so, I think in a certain way we were surprised by a few developments in the market. We had been thinking about a new approach to collaboration for a long time. With our well-established platform connect. BASF, we had a very successful business network for internal exchange. Nevertheless, we needed to broaden our scope. We knew we wanted to engage people internally more strongly, but also as a partner to our suppliers, to our customers, in our research—but we were lacking the occasion to make this happen. It was basically the right technology coming together on the one side, and a certain pressure to do something on the other side.

You describe the company’s IT journey as going from follower to leader. How did you do that?

We have a history reaching back 150 years and you can only manage that by embracing change. Of course, adopting Office 365 is a paradigm shift in technology and in how we work. I think one of the most daunting elements has been convincing people a cloud solution was secure enough. I think the important point there is to bring everybody along and make sure people understand the types of security built into Microsoft products, and that Microsoft has established first class security in their data centers.

Have you noticed any dramatic changes since adoption?

I would say it’s too early to declare we’ve succeeded, but we did win support. We attribute this in part to the people who have participated in the pilots of Office 365 and implementation of video conferencing.  It’s important to do very thorough change management. You may have current tools, but it doesn’t help much if people don’t change the way they work. When we show what Outlook and SharePoint and other new tools can do, people grasp how our way of working is changing. There are many people who say, “You know what? This is really making sense—this is really making my life easier. This is making a difference to how we do business.”

How would you describe your leadership style?

I think I have a very collaborative and empowering style. I’m trying to give people the freedom they need to be able to shape and move things. Am I the best enterprise architect of the company? Definitely not. But I do ask the right questions, and I understand what is important, how technology fits with process and organization and how to reduce complexity.

I see myself as a coach that challenges people to be their best.

Is there some piece of advice you typically offer business and IT colleagues?

The advice that I typically offer others is that IT is not about technology, it’s about generating business value. It’s not like being the electricity company in the background that delivers the juice, and everybody’s depending on you—that is necessary and important. The conversation you need to have is about how you can improve the business with what you’re doing, how IT can help make a difference for the business.

Do you have a personal philosophy or motto?

I want to enjoy myself when I work, and I want to enjoy my life. I’m definitely somebody who always tries to see the positive side of things, and then deal with what I need to when things are not right. I think this is very much also an American attitude. What would you call that? “The glass is half full”, “Just fix it” and “Move on and get traction,” you know? In school, many of us are trained to immediately find a hole or an inconsistency, but in doing so we forget about the 95 percent of things going well  and focus on the 5 percent that are wrong only. This produces great, great cars. But it might not be the best thing for an industry like IT, where you have such short lifecycles.

What do you love most about your job?

Most people in a position like mine have eight meetings a day and go home and think, “What did I do today, and what did I achieve today?” And it’s hard to pinpoint. However, if you look at things from a certain distance and look at how things have evolved, you can see that the change you pushed for has occurred and how it has benefitted BASF and its people. So that gives me a lot of pride. In the case of the CIO award, it is very motivational for me, but also for our employees to see and think, “Wow, we’re on the right track, we’re doing something not everybody has done. We’re not following, we’re leading.”

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