How Ford.com Gets in Gear

Thor Ibsen offers insight on running an Internet initiative within a large organization.

In 1997, Thor Ibsen became Ford's first full-time internet sales-and-marketing strategist. Since then, he's built a 100-member team and established ford.com as one of the auto industry's most progressive Web sites. "We are constantly thinking about how to combine the best of both worlds -- the flexibility of the Net and the power of Ford Motor Co.," Ibsen says. Fast Company asked for his advice on running an Internet initiative within a large organization.

Balance outsiders with insiders.

In putting together Ford's Internet team, Ibsen made sure it included both Net-savvy outsiders and well-connected Ford insiders. The outsiders would push the team toward technology solutions and new business models. The insiders, meanwhile, would give the team credibility within Ford and would help it work efficiently within the company's structure. "You've got to allow institutional knowledge into the team, and let people develop familiarity with the Net as they go," Ibsen says. "The results are incredible."

Hire only people who are comfortable with change.

When hiring inside Ford, Ibsen and his colleagues look for candidates who are risk takers and have a vision for change. "There are some questions that are strong signals to us in job interviews," says Jeff Liedel, 33, the team's director of technology at the eConsumer Group. "Things like, 'Who am I going to report to?' or 'Can I see an org chart?' or 'What is my job description?' We don't know the answers. Everyone here reports to everyone else."

Don't get busted by budgets.

Ibsen wants his group to have all the freedom it takes to develop new Web applications as the market demands. Working with Kim Plummer, 29, the Consumer Connect Group's finance manager, he has established a rolling budget plan for his group, which means that although he doesn't have access to an infinite sum of money, he can decide throughout the year how he wants to spend the resources that he does have. "The worst thing I could do is have these guys manage against artificial restrictions," Plummer says. "There's no reason that they should have to think on an annual cycle, because that's not the way the Internet works."

Avoid battles over status.

Ibsen points out that at any company, when two executives who are close in status discuss an initiative, it often devolves into a face-off. "Each one tries to show that he is the sheriff, and nothing gets done," he says. "We don't like face-offs. So we send a less-senior person who's not in the running to be sheriff." It's not unusual for a member of Ibsen's group to present a new idea to a Ford executive who is four steps up the hierarchy. "I might set someone up with a phone call saying this guy's an expert, and he's going to make his case. It gets the red tape out of the way, and that person can really make progress because he or she won't threaten anyone's status."

Campaign at every level.

Ibsen acknowledges that high-level backers are important to any corporate Internet group. But, he says, "If you don't get support from the working lieutenants and line managers, you won't be able to deliver on your projects, and then your top-level support will quickly vaporize." Ibsen and his colleagues spend as much time getting buy-in from mid-level managers as they do courting senior VPs and divisional chiefs. "We have to hit people at all levels to make change happen here," he says.

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