With more than twenty years of technology experience that brought him everywhere from San Francisco to South Korea, Jonah Hong came to the role of CIO for GE Healthcare’s US and Canada regions with plenty of experience. And he has needed it.
GE Healthcare is an $18 billion subsidiary of General Electric, and about $8 billion of its revenue comes from the United States and Canada. The company also has a life science business that sells equipment related to pharmaceuticals, but the majority of its revenue, about 80 percent, comes from selling and servicing massive, expensive medical equipment including MRI, CAT Scan, and Ultrasound machines. Its clients are typically hospitals’ radiology departments.
With the breadth of GE Healthcare’s business, the stringent regulations on medical equipment, and worldwide reach, the technology to support the business could be needlessly complicated. With that in mind, Hong sought to make IT work for the business. Now, he reflects on simplifying a complicated IT environment, prioritizing the user experience, and perfecting communication.
What do the information systems look like at a business as large as GE Healthcare?
Hong: We have a complex footprint with all the services and products we sell and who we sell to. The country we sell to determines our marketing and regulation compliance. Our IT department must adhere to those guidelines. We’re heavily regulated; regulations are ten times more complex for the medical industry than, for example, the car industry.
It’s complex from an IT perspective because we need to provide details of how our equipment is made and serviced on demand and keep records on them for a long time. It’s a lot of information we need to be able to quickly gather. We need to validate everything we do and provide that information when asked.
We need to be able to trace all parts in our equipment. We can’t just say we used a sixteen-gigabyte memory chip; we must say where it came from, if it ever failed, and if it ever ended up hurting someone. This adds to the complexity of our IT.
So what kinds of steps have you taken to address those challenges?
Hong: We’ve introduced a lot of different systems into our environment—a lot of different kinds of software and hardware. For example, we have Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), a software that manages everything related to operating our business, including manufacturing, inventory, and finances.
Before, we had more than eight hundred ERPs in different countries and different languages. That’s what happens when you allow your organization to do things on its own. Each smaller entity chose to use its own ERP version or used the same software with different implementations. We are at twenty-three ERPs as of right now, and by the end of the year, we will get down to four.
How did having different ERPs affect the business?
Hong: Two systems can’t communicate if their configurations are different. Simplifying our ERP footprint, we went through standardizing to make sure each system is configured consistently.
Before, when systems didn’t match, people would have to translate the information to make sense of it. For example, different entities within the company would define “delivery date” differently. In ERP A, the delivery date was when a shipment left a truck, and in ERP B, the delivery date was when the product reached the customer. The same field, delivery date, would have two different definitions, and therefore we could not merge the two systems together. The people using them would be confused.
How have you seen the process develop?
Hong: By merging the software, we have reduced our IT footprint. The net impact when a system caters to all businesses in a common language is that you capture benefits and productivity. It’s not about just saying that we’re going to pick one application and get rid of everything else. There are a lot of improvements and collaborative work between IT and people who use the systems. People might want to argue that their process is better than yours. The better way to handle it is to not pick one way over the other but to look at the processes all together and decide how to proceed.
This process is what I call a lot of heavy lifting. You get all the users involved and listen to why they are doing what they are doing. GE calls this method a workout, and the outcome is to come up with a new process to satisfy all the people affected by the change.
Have you seen benefits from consolidating ERPs?
Hong: Yes, we needed to simplify our IT in a major way. We sell different types of huge equipment, and there’s a software component to them all. We found that hospitals care a great deal about how to manage their equipment, because it costs more to manage it than to buy it.
Outside of ERP, what other initiatives have you been tackling?
Hong: We transformed our IT solutions using a system called Salesforce, which makes recommendations to customers based on their product history and needs, similar to the way your Netflix account learns your preferences over time. We use analytics to understand how the software is used by GE employees. I have three thousand salespeople on the ground, and the software that tracks all their customers. Each time my sales rep visits a customer, I keep track of that activity. I gather and analyze data to provide them suggestions, such as, “Maybe you should visit this customer and sell such and such. This customer has twelve-year-old equipment, and it should be replaced with a newer or better product.” We map customers to determine where they are, what kind of GE equipment they use, and what they like and don’t like, etc.
So what does your team look like today?
Hong: We used to hire more contractors; we were about 80 percent outsourced. Now, we have more employees and fewer contractors because of security concerns relating to intellectual property. We changed the skill sets, too. Before, we had many people in the company who were experts in all our systems. Now that we have contemporized our IT systems, we need employees with new skill sets.
You’ve had a lot of international experience. How has that experience translated to this role?
Hong: I’ve drawn from my extensive global experience of working all over the world with GE in many capacities. I can empathize with the challenges of selling products outside of the United States, so I appreciate the complexity that goes along with that. Having an international background gives me the empathy and insight to make the right decisions. If our employees have a workout, and they can’t agree, somebody must make the call, and it’s usually me.
Are there any other benefits to moving so much?
Hong: I have lived in seven countries in the past sixteen years. One hobby I’ve continued everywhere I go is cooking. I try to learn to cook the traditional food of each country I live in. In Spain, I cooked paella. In China, I learned how to cook traditional noodles. In Italy, I learned to cook spaghetti the Italian way. Cooking is one of the best hobbies someone like me could have. Variation adds to the hobby.