The Line Takes the Leadership — IS Management in a Wired Society

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WHEN GEORGE DAVID conceptualized an approach to elevator maintenance based on a centralized computer communications network, he had no idea it would become a notable example of the use of information technology to gain competitive advantage. Yet the story of the major improvement in customer service made possible by OTISLINE, the Otis system, has been told and retold from the lectern and in the trade press. David, formerly head of Otis North America and now CEO of Otis Elevator Company, was something of a trailblazer: an executive outside the IS function proposing and implementing a major change in how the company used information systems.

The system itself is striking. Previously, loosely coordinated, decentralized maintenance efforts were carried out in more than one hundred local offices; now Otis centrally coordinates the efforts of its nationwide repair force. Trouble calls are taken by highly trained, often multilingual operators who work from a computer screen to record all data concerning the problem elevator. Repair personnel are dispatched via a telephone/beeper system. Upon completion of the maintenance, all relevant information is once again recorded in the computer.

The advantages the system provides to Otis are manifold. Perhaps most important is senior management’s increased ability to view the status of maintenance efforts nationwide. A specialist can quickly be directed to a particular customer with a difficult problem. Frequent trouble from a specific type of elevator or a geographic locale can be observed as the pattern develops, and corrective action taken. The quality of telephone response to anxious customers can be closely monitored. And fault data, available both to management and the company’s engineers and designers, is more precise, more copious, and more accessible than the information that previously worked its way up through the five-level chain of command.

Although many elements of this now rather well-known story are fascinating, one often overlooked factor is particularly significant. The system was conceptualized and its implementation driven not by information systems personnel, but by George David himself. Ed Burke, Otis’s director of MIS, asserts, “It was and is George’s system. He saw the need. He saw the solution. I helped, but he made it happen.”

Even a few years ago, executives like George David would have been almost unique.


1. A.D. Chandler Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1962).

2. H.J. Leavitt, “Applied Organizational Change in Industry,” in Handbook of Organizations, ed. J.G. March (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965).

3. E.D. Chapple and L.R. Sayles, The Measure of Management (New York: Macmillan, 1961);

C. Argyris, Personality and Organization (New York: Harper & Row, 1957).

4. J.F. Rockart and M.S. Scott Morton, “Implications of Changes in Information Technology for Corporate Strategy,” Interfaces, January–February 1984, pp. 84–95.

5. E. Levinson, “The Line Manager and Systems-Induced Organizational Change” (Cambridge: Sloan School of Management, M.I.T., Management in the 1990s comment draft, August 1985).

6. J.F. Rockart and R. Benjamin, “The Unique Role of Information Technology Organization” (Cambridge: Sloan School of Management, M.I.T., draft working paper, April 1988).

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