A Pied Piper of the Internet, Brill is leading GM managers to a new understanding

He strolls the corridors of the e-GM offices in Detroit in his stocking feet, sipping Yerba Matte green tea and humming to some inner drummer. But don't be fooled by the casual demeanor. He is no New Age computer geek.

Meet Dale Brill, e-GM's dean of e-commerce.

Brill is a change agent, a self-described business culture revolutionary. Hired in August 2000, Brill says his mission is to initiate all General Motors management employees in information technology through an e-commerce crash course called eBoot Camp.

Brill may be one of the most misunderstood people at GM () today. After all, his e-message comes at a difficult time, when many in the industry say you can't make money off the Internet.

But Brill says he "loves skeptics." And he has converted many by dispensing practical and useful tips on everything from integrating traditional business with e-commerce to driving traffic to Web sites.

A Pied Piper of sorts, Brill teaches e-readiness so smoothly that you don't realize his charge comes from on high.

"Keep in mind that eBoot Camp is just the foundation of a programmatic approach," Brill explains. "It's a (GM president) Rick Wagoner strategy. Top leaders are being measured on an e-business metric."

But his real purpose is to give GM's field managers the Internet tools and techniques they need to consult with and market e-commerce to GM's 8,000 or so North American dealers.

"He's putting e-commerce on the tips of their tongues so they can discuss it intelligently with dealers and be more at ease with technology issues," says Stan Arnold, e-GM's director of sales.

Brill's course is subtitled "What a Difference a Day Makes." Brill's reference is a bit more playful: "Everything you've always wanted to know about e-commerce but sincerely hoped you wouldn't have to."

It's not Brill's role or title that makes him unusual. It's Brill himself. Except for his stocking feet, he's a perfect Dockers fit. The 37-year-old often reports to work at e-GM () wearing a black polo shirt and khakis. His creatively cluttered office is home to mounds of books and about 100 Tigger toys.

"A friend hooked me on it," Brill says of his fondness for the irrepressible Winnie the Pooh sidekick. "I realize I'm a lot like him."

By the end of November, Brill and six interns had trained more than 2,400 GM management staffers and dealers in 48 sessions in 38 U.S. cities at a cost of $750,000. Brill's traveling show includes crew, backup staff and two truckloads of 75 Dell C60 Latitude Windows 2000-loaded laptops and monitors.

Training sessions began May 10. There are plans to extend the program to Europe and Asia in January, pending budget and travel approvals.

Getting down to business

Whether in a stuffy hotel conference room or a sparsely furnished training room, Brill likes to kick off his shoes as he gets down to e-business.

By using humor, personal anecdotes and metaphors, and breaking down concepts into their simplest parts, he deflates the mystery of the "Internet cloud." And he conveys the serious state of American business today - why people need the Internet to survive and compete.

It's not exactly a new notion. But Brill is intensifying it.

He doesn't like shoes, Brill tells disbelieving trainees, staring at his feet. "I'm a University of Tennessee grad, so I want to reinforce every stereotype you have of people in the South," he jokes and then adds under his breath, "I'm a little irreverent; it keeps me healthy in an organization the size of GM."

Even the shoeless gesture is designed to make a statement and keep the attention of those who take the course.

In asides, Brill reveals personal snippets. He was a business dropout in his 20s who got a D in computer science in college. Simple admissions such as these set the stage and reassure that he can relate.

Brill's message: If I can get understand this stuff, so can you, folks.

"You can't leverage technology unless you know what it is," Brill explains. "Today is about the building blocks. I want to demystify technology for you."

Brill plunges into the deep waters of his course with the enthusiasm and energy that drove him as a college cheerleader and professor of e-commerce at Florida State University and Boston University after earning a Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee.

Watch him at work and you understand.

He paces the room, pointing a golf club to a flip chart and then using it as a driver to accentuate key points. He alternately whistles and hums strains to soft rock tunes playing during offline times. Anything to break monotony or the glazed-eye syndrome.

His audience is more used to being wined and dined in cocktail-hour settings than sitting through 7 hours of computer training. Oh, they do get time off for lunch, though Brill tells his students: "It's 12:13 p.m. Let's synchronize our watches and be back here at, oh, 12:45." That's after a morning of copious note-taking, learning facts such as eight bits equal one byte, a megabyte is about 1 million bytes and also how routers pass along bits of information moving at "'Fantasy Island' speed."

Boring stuff, too

Brill quickly covers what some "expect to be boring stuff." That may include an overview of essential Internet terms - "clients," "proxy servers" and "modems" - and how data travels from one computer to another. That gives way to a discussion of the pluses and minuses of connectivity speed options. Time for Web surfing breaks up the lesson.

But is Brill capable of waking what some may view as a slumbering organization?

"He's exactly the fresh air needed," says Sheryl Owens, e-GM's director of global human resources, who helped hire Brill.

In a time of strained budgets, Brill was able to sell his concepts to upper management by showing cost savings. Taking training to an outside supplier could have run at least $2 million more, Owens says.

Former colleague Art Raney, an assistant professor at Florida State (fsu.org), says Brill struck people as the perfect blend between business and academics.

"He was ahead of his time in academia," Raney says. "He provides a nice bridge between the technical aspects of new technology and its practical aspects. It's tough to find other individuals who can serve as master communicators, who aren't the most ardent of propeller heads and can pitch PowerPoint presentations anyone can understand."

Brill uses amazingly simple tools to help his audience grasp complex concepts. Shredded paper in envelopes represents data packets - standard units sent across a network.

Participants toss around brightly colored balls of yarn to create a connected maze of strings. "See, that's how easily data gets from one computer or network to another," Brill enthuses.

A clunky five-box cardboard display shows how computers work, storing and sharing data. Brill hauls it to each training session.

His main lessons: How the Internet works, Internet Protocol addresses, e-marketing techniques to drive traffic to Web sites, and how to measure success.

For now, Brill seems to be flourishing in an environment where risk-taking and original thinking are prized. At times, he says he has to "pinch myself" to remember what company he works for.

But unlike many who toil in corporations on the way to a golden handshake, he isn't worried about the next rung.

"I'm prepared to have the world's shortest career in GM," he says. "I love my job. But I don't have an agenda of where I want to be (in five years). I just want to make a difference."

Lillie Guyer is project manager for the Automotive News IT section.

You can reach Lillie Guyer at autonews@crain.com

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