When Ralph Szygenda walked into General Motors Corp. (GM) on June 28, 1996, it must have been a little like entering a movie set for "The Company That IT Forgot!" The automaker had just completed the spin-off of Electronic Data Systems, its information technology provider, leaving a company that seemed stuck in 1970s thinking.

As the first-ever CIO of the world's largest automaker and corporation, Szygenda (pronounced zhe-gen-da) had accepted a mandate that many thought was undoable -- enabling GM to become the first major manufacturing company to transform into a digital enterprise.

"That's exactly the reason why I accepted the challenge," recalls IndustryWeek's 2001 Technology Leader of the Year. "I've always been attracted to jobs that seemed impossible."

As this task continues, Szygenda sees it as an opportunity to both transform and broaden strategic options for GM. He also emphasizes IT's role as a differentiator with the potential to develop and retain new profit streams by creating new value for customers.

"We have entered a time of electronic transactions and knowledge sharing, a time when our relationships with customers, suppliers, dealers and employees are drastically changing and improving," Szygenda says.

Boston-based Adrian J. Slywotzky vice president, Mercer Management Consulting, and co-author of "How Digital Is Your Business?" (2000, Crown Business), applauds Szygenda's success in rejecting the notion that e-business techniques are applicable only to dot-coms and new businesses.

"Szygenda kept to the key issue -- 'How can I use digital options to build a better business model for my company?'"