New information technologies have rushed into the corporate mainstream and the global auto industry like the Internet.
But its embrace has not been instantaneous. In fact, the "Worldwide Web" has triggered numerous concerns from human resources to network security.
Its proliferation from an oddity for a few scientists in basement labs to an open access point for thousands of employees creates new risks. Managers had visions of unproductive employees surfing the Web, browsing inappropriate material while information technology managers lost sleep trying to keep top-secret information out of the hands of teenage hackers and corporate espionage.
Attitudes are changing, and nowhere is this clearer than the Big Three.
Today most companies with research and development organizations recognize that they have been on the Internet for years. AtCorp., engineering groups have worked with government institutions and universities on joint projects over the Internet for more than a decade.
Engineers atfrequently use the network to upload and download software, remotely examine work and collaborate with engineers at these institutions.
"We always have seen the utility of the Internet going prior to '85," says Ronald J. Bienkowski, executive engineer of technical computing and vehicle engineering at Chrysler. "And as more material is put out there, we encourage people to use it."
Chrysler overcame its security issues early in the game, deploying firewall technology that created a buffer between the Chrysler Intranet and the outside world. All of Chrysler's engineers now can communicate over the firewall via Internet-based e-mail. And each engineer also has the ability to connect to the Internet with approval from a supervisor.
Mr. Bienkowski says that the approval process is fairly simple: if you need it you will get it. "Our engineers are smart, innovative people. If an engineer has a need to be connected, then they can request it through their manager and they can get access within a day," he says.
One reason why Chrysler doesn't give everyone access to the Internet all at once is resources. Security firewalls can only handle so much traffic, and IT (information technology) departments need to keep pace with the demand. So access is granted on a needs basis.
But Mr. Bienkowski also says that some engineers don't have a need to get onto the Internet, because the content simply isn't there yet. "Generally, (content) is rapidly getting better. And for getting current information, it's intuitively obvious that the Web is the place to go," he adds.
What about those corporate concerns? "Right now between 30% and 40% of all (Chrysler) engineers have Web access," says Mr. Bienkowski. "The Internet is not really any different from any other medium in that people can read the paper at their desk and not be 'working' or they could wander the halls and drink coffee and commiserate with their friends about hunting. If you have the kind of people at your company who you can trust, it's not a problem."
Mr. Bienkowski expects the number of engineers with Internet access could double in a year. "You can't just run out and give 126,000 people access. But in some cases, we work with entire engineering groups, setting up a Web-access strategy for them. I'm working with one group that has more than 100 people in it, and I'm helping them define what they need from the Web and how to get it," he says.
"Most people athave access to the Internet through the firewall," says Dave Principato, Ford's public affairs manager for quality and process leadership. "They just need a supervisor's approval, and it is essentially a formality. They just need to present a good business purpose for it."
has seen results similar to Chrysler's from employees working on the Internet. Once-worried managers are realizing the gains made by engineers who have access to the Web. "By giving people Internet access, it actually accelerates their proficiency," says Mr. Principato.
Supplier sites on the Internet need to focus on this education component, he emphasizes. "There also needs to be news and information that keeps people up-to-date about the industry," he says.
Corp. is following the same principles in granting its employees access. Those who can justify access to the Internet need only sign off with their managers. Former GM affiliate EDS provides the connectivity, user accounts and passwords to move across the EDS firewall.
Internet use has gone up dramatically in the last few years, says Sam Uthurusamy, merging technologies director at GM. And the corporation is taking the next step by striking deals with content providers and site managers to gain corporate-wide access. "If there is a proprietary issue, we will get an enterprise license to access the site. Then EDS will grant user accounts to access that information," he says. "In addition, we often funnel information into our corporate library," he adds.
As at Chrysler, GM engineers were among the first people accessing the Internet. In fact, sources inside GM say that engineers were setting up their own Internet access well before it became part of standard corporate IT policy.
"We don't really know how many engineers have access to the Internet; a good many do, though," says Ed Killingsworth, manager of media.gm.com, GM's media-only website. "And the numbers are rising."
Rob Cleveland administers the Ward's website at www.wardsauto.com.