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A GE CIO uses IT to boost productivity for employees, customers

Who says you can't serve two masters? GE Capital Americas, CIO Sigal Zarmi makes it IT's business to serve colleagues and win over customers.

Ask Sigal Zarmi whom she's referring to when she says "customer," and the CIO of GE Capital Americas, doesn't mince words. "When I talk about the customer it is our company's customers," she said. "My internal people are my colleagues, my associates."

As business goes digital, today's CIO is being asked to serve not one, but two constituencies -- all those internal colleagues who require IT services and the  customers of the business. That's a tall order at GE Capital Americas, with $108 billion in assets and 300,000 customers from all industries. A subdivision of financial giant GE Capital, the Americas group focuses mainly on the midmarket companies with revenue of between $10 million and $1 billion, offering loans and financing for equipment, franchises and inventory.

Sigal ZarmiSigal Zarmi

In addition to financing, GE Capital, Americas, also offers its expertise to its midmarket customers -- in supply chain management, for example, leadership development and analytics. The service component was forged during the recession as part of GE’s strategy to differentiate itself from competitors. "Part of our slogan at GE Capital is, 'We are not just bankers, we are builders,'" Zarmi said. When being "just bankers" may not have as much cache as it once did, the slogan -- and the strategy -- makes good business sense. We talked with Zarmi about how she uses IT to deliver on that business proposition.

CIOs have to keep in mind two customer bases: internal employees and external customers. How do you prioritize the goals for each of those two groups?

Sigal Zarmi: Well, I don't see them as mutually exclusive. We're in the business to serve our customers. At the end of the day, if we don't have customers, why are we in business? We need to make sure the customer wants to do business with us and understands the value that we provide to them. So, if we start there and all of us think that way, it is really easy to make sure we focus on the right thing, and that is how we prioritize.

Sigal Zarmi, CIO, GE Capital, Americas

  • Joined GE in 1997
  • Prior to current role served as: CIO, Order-to- Remittance, GE Capital, Americas, with responsibility for service delivery and risk portfolio management applications
  • Other positions: CIO and chief quality officer, Corporate Financial Services; CIO, GE Financial Guarantee Insurance Co.; CIO, GE Corporate Treasury
  • B.S. in engineering from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology; MBA from Columbia University

Now, we do have a lot of projects that are internally focused, because we need to do them, right? I need to upgrade to the latest releases; I cannot fall behind and be on very old hardware. I need to make sure my environment is secure; I need to automate processes because the market is changing; the industry changes and I want to make it more efficient for my operations team to do their processes. But that is supporting the customer, as well.

Do you have an example of how taking care of internal projects for colleagues can apply to external customers as well?

Zarmi: A great example is our customer self-service site. Customers can come into the site and do drawing requests, funds transfers and so on. That is automating our processes internally and also making it very easy for our customers to do business with us. They can request a copy of their invoice. They can do e-bill and e-pay. That self-service side eliminates customer service call center calls, so it is improving internal productivity, and, at the same time, customers can come in and transact very easily -- they don't need to wait in line, they don't need to call, they can get what they need.

The other example I have is in our equipment finance business, where we automated all of our new deal transaction credit approvals. Before everything was manual and we had over 60 hours of average time to get deals through the pipeline. Now we are less than six minutes, because we automated the credit approvals, we automated the document generation; we automated all of the scoring of customers and the prescreening of customers. All of that really helped, not just our internal people because they don't have to type documents -- the documents are going through templates and are automatically generated -- but also our customers now get a decision. Within six minutes they know if they got approved for a loan or a lease. They don't have to wait any longer. Now customers have certainty, and we are able to capture more volume because they want a quick answer -- nobody wants to wait. It's productivity on both sides.

What helps you most in being able to identify these opportunities that boost productivity on both sides?

Zarmi: It's really a deep understanding of the business and technology domain expertise. I personally have a passion about technology innovation. I love to see how technology can change the world and bring that back to my business, and [to see how being] able to innovate with all that technology can make an impact on the bottom line, on outcomes for customers. I think that is the big difference.

GE is known for taking a quantified approach to business results. Has the company put a dollar sign on what the IT department has been able to add to either the top or bottom line?

Zarmi: Of course, we measure everything. You know, for every project that we do over a certain amount that we spend, we have the whole cost/benefit analysis and understanding if we indeed got the productivity out of the project; we check that. Also, for projects more geared to customer solutions and revenue generation, we keep track of how many more customers we were able to sign up, how many more deals came through the pipeline because of that solution, what the average was before and after; we have a baseline.

We hear from IT recruiters that the compensation structure of IT departments has not kept up with this new mandate to focus on both the internal and external customers. Has GE taken a stab at this? Does compensation for you and your staff reflect this kind of innovative work?

Zarmi: I have five main goals. One of them is growth, one of them is customer experience and then I have three others. So it is definitely in my goals and objectives. My direct reports have it in their goals and objectives. Different people specifically have different goals. If you are dedicated to a customer experience team, then your goals and objectives will be aligned with that. Compensation is aligned to how you are making your goals.

What haven't we discussed in regard to what you've been able to accomplish at GE Capital by focusing on the external customer as well as internal colleagues?

Zarmi: The big thing that we didn't talk about is how we are driving innovation. A lot of those ideas are coming through encouraging the IT team and the business team to think differently. If you're just going about your day, they're not coming up. You really need to dedicate time to think about those kinds of initiatives. We have done a lot of work around that. We've had seminars just focusing on customer experience. We've had innovation tradeshows, where we have brought in technology that shows new technologies, like 3-D printers, Google Glass, drone technology and technology that we created. We have brought in GE employees and customers to those tradeshows, and worked with customers on how technology can help them grow. We have had structured innovation sessions where we brought in a digital media consultant to work with senior leaders and do exercises that will help generate new ideas.

When you are trying to come up with these ideas and implement them, what kinds of obstacles get in the way of completing these projects? Is it labor? Capital? IT infrastructure?

Zarmi: We have challenges. I think [for]a lot of companies, not just GE, one of the challenges is finding the right skill set or training for the right skill set. That is the main one. And the other big one is sometimes we find we want to move faster than the business. Changing the whole culture around how fast can we go and how fast can we prototype is a challenge.

Last question: What skills are you hiring for this year and why?

Zarmi: The main skill we are hiring for is data scientist because we know we can do a lot more with the data that we have in your systems and we want to be able to create sophisticated predictive modeling.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, executive editor, or find her on Twitter at @ltucci.

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With so much focus on IT as a driver of business goals, the CIO job is being stretched. Does it need to be divided among several information leaders, e.g. chief digital officer or chief data officer?
I would say yes - if an organization can afford to pay all those executives. Expecting one person to manage all the growing responsibilities of a CIO is probably unfair, and will likely lead to less progress overall. I would imagine most CIOs would welcome the support, as long as they don't feel they were being pushed aside or out. 
A digital head could be employed and/or even a data head to ease the burden of the CIO, but they should all still be in line with being aligned to the business, and this is made more possible and streamlined with them reporting directly to the CI, so they all have shared KPI's as well.
Those are inter-related job functions
One chief is enough
One C-level position is enough. The rest, his subordinates could be directors of departments.