From Rebuilding a Country to the Science of Transformation

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Ron Johnson, the new managing director of the Tennenbaum Institute, has earned a reputation for problem solving and crisis management through his career as a soldier-engineer. But few projects have ever been as daunting as the one that he faced almost ten years ago. 

“Initially, the goal was to come in and resolve the electrical infrastructure... in a country that had islands of electricity,” recalls Johnson. “The question was, how do you get it across the whole country of Iraq?”

It was fall 2003, and hostilities had just ended in Iraq. General Johnson was on the scene with the Army Corps of Engineers. Following the conflict, he was named deputy of the Department of Defense Program Management Office for Iraq Reconstruction. Effectively, it meant he had been tasked to put the country and its infrastructure back. The first step was to get the power working. The next step was even more complicated.

“You had no one in charge of the country and no one had a consolidated list of projects,” said Johnson. So they got as many stakeholders as possible – former ministers, commanders, and governing chiefs – together to hammer out a plan. “So we went into this room and came up with a list of twenty-three hundred projects.” Afterwards, the US Office of Management and Budget released $18.4 billion for the reconstruction to the PMO, and the reconstruction of Iraq (electricity, oil, roads, schools, etc) was on its way.

It is not hard to see the roots of Johnson's interest in transformation – from West Point to Georgia Tech; his career has been an exercise in development and reinvention. As he notes, “I've always been a student.” Shortly after his time in Iraq, the army placed him in charge of Army installations worldwide, where he provided city management to 181 bases. Upon retirement, in search of another challenge, he was asked by NBA Commissioner David Stern to stand up a new department to oversee referee operations in the wake of a scandal. This new challenge reinforced a long standing interest in organizations, and the methods of effective enterprise transformation.

Now at Tennenbaum, he intends to continue the Institute's work in the study and application of enterprise transformation, developing courses for industry leaders and assembling a body of work in two key economic sectors: specifically, healthcare and manufacturing. Given the nature of change in both those sectors, Johnson believes a lot of the principles of enterprise transformation apply.

 “Industry leaders recognize that with the rapid rate of change, in technology, in business models, in markets, that transformation is the "new normal," he remarks, “all businesses, even ones that are currently market leaders, need to be thinking about the transformations that are right around the corner.”   To this end, Tennenbaum has spent a great deal of time trying to outline how industries can react to sudden fundamental change, whether initiated from within or imposed from outside. One common problem is that organizations faced with such change often end up having to re-invent the wheel, a process which Johnson states wastes valuable time, given Tennenbaum's store of information on the topic. “We want them to come through IPaT or Tenenbaum to work through it... we want them to stop thinking about this. We’ve got the solution for it.”

“That's our vision – whenever someone is thinking abut some large-scale transformation, before they do it, they might think – hmm – I wonder what Tennenbaum thinks about this... We're not just about trying to figure out what the solution is, we're also about knowledge transfer.”

Another important element of enterprise transformation is effective personnel management, something Johnson's military and NBA experience has made him particularly sensitive to. 

“You want to have the right people, but sometimes you have the right people and don’t know it because you haven't motivated them to know what their role is, know how they can contribute. I don’t believe that every person needs to have the same skillset. I believe you take the people you have and take advantage of the skillsets they have.”

In that light, Johnson believes one of Tennenbaum's great strengths stems from its people - its deep connection with Georgia Tech's researchers and students. As he points out, the seminal book on enterprise transformation – Understanding and Enabling Fundamental Change, by William Rouse – was written at Tech. Since Johnson is also a professor at Tech's Stewart School of Industrial & Systems Engineering, he is enthused about the opportunities for collaboration between academia and industry. Usually, if you can create a good problem for a student, or a professor, he notes, they can add valuable insight beyond what has already been done.

In the end, Johnson hopes Tennenbaum's work in the next few years will lead to a fundamental rethinking within American organizations -- government, industry, not-for-profits -- about the way they plan for and handle large scale transformation. And when that rethinking begins, he adds, “Come to Tennenbaum. That's what we do – we think about and help solve hard problems.”



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