How IT Innovation and Mobility Empower Unilever


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Rod Hefford, CIO for Global Customer Development and Supply Chain at Unilever, discusses they key goals of their Compass strategy, how IT is organized to drive innovation globally. Hefford also explains how mobility is empowering Unilever to respond to changing market conditions and customer needs, and is fostering a virtuous cycle of improvement.

If you're a CIO worried about enabling your company's expansion and success in emerging markets or if you're trying to capitalize on cloud and mobile technologies to improve speed to market and shorten cycle times, you'd do well to make the acquaintance of Rod Hefford. Hefford is CIO for Global Customer Development and Supply Chain at Unilever, the joint British-Dutch company whose 400-plus products are used daily by some 2 billion consumers in nearly 200 countries.

Unilever CIO Rod Hefford

In this installment of the IDG Enterprise CIO Interview Series, Hefford talked to Chief Content Officer John Gallant about how IT at Unilever is organized to drive innovation globally -- leveraging tech talent around the world -- and helping improve execution in local markets from Brazil and India to Europe and the U.S. He also explains how mobility is empowering 'feet on the street' everywhere to respond to changing market conditions and customer needs, and fostering a virtuous cycle of improvement.

Q: Rod, let's shift into your IT organization. What are the key ways in which the IT organization that you lead is supporting Compass?

A: IT has a central role in supporting Compass. IT has two components in Unilever: IT Innovation, focusing on developing the technology enabled capabilities the business needs, and IT Services, part of Enterprise Support, our global Business Services organization, focused on the actual delivery of IT. They work hand in hand and we have a joint strategy, aimed at providing IT that supports Unilever in better serving our consumers and customers through improved speed, scale and quality.

IT innovation has four main themes. Digitize brands and the consumer relationship, digitize go-to-market, digitize the value chain and digitize how we work. As you can see, there's a very heavy emphasis there on external-facing capability delivery, which is a very important thing if you consider that Unilever is in excess of 55 percent focused on developing in emerging markets and our products are used by 2 billion people every day. Entirely consistent with that is the constant challenge of providing capability and services to a business that has a focus on shoppers who rely on value from our products and they're not willing to pay a cent, or for that matter, a rupee, more than is absolutely necessary. That forces us to look to new models for IT-enabled capability and to drive the ones we have to new levels of effectiveness.

Q: That makes sense. So let's talk about this global market and global capabilities. Can you go into a little bit more detail about what IT is focused on to help Unilever capture the growth opportunities in those fast growing and emerging markets?

A: I think it's probably easiest if I talk about customer development, because they're our interface into the market. And as I said, they have a strategy which is a very strong vision for what customer development's role could be within the company. And route-to- market for Unilever is very diverse, so the strategy accommodates requirements of many countries and many sets of local conditions. It's a pleasure to work with a function which is so clear about what it wants to achieve and is well aligned to execute.

Our portfolio contains a number of what we've called the "IT Big Bets." We're making substantial investments in capability to move the dial in execution. For example, we have a framework which is around ensuring Unilever products are presented in the right place at the right time with the right shopper proposition, and I think this is absolutely first class. If I go back to my mobility point, if we can equip the front line with technology to allow them to execute, if we can beef up our information infrastructure to allow us to analyze and learn and create a short cycle time and then feed those learnings back into the market, then I think we are going to have an extraordinarily powerful, repeatable model which can be replicated across geographies.

Q: So much of this is around driving the business and being a great business partner. That's obviously critical for Unilever with all of the companies and organizations and people that you work with around the world. Talk specifically about how you are enabling that kind of partnering. How do you work with the business unit leaders and how do you make them understand the capabilities and the tools that you can bring to bear in enabling these changes?

A: Well, I'm not sure that there is anything new here really. I think the basics of transparency and accountability are the things that breed trust and promote a performance culture. I'm a strong believer in good governance and strong internal processes, and the governance that we've put in place contains all of the global functional leaders. The project and portfolio management office has been a huge step forward in allowing us to understand how IT can add value to what the business is trying to do. From a business partnering point of view, it really is about understanding what the business is trying to achieve. If you can develop that relationship, develop the transparency, develop the trust, then you actually begin to feel what it is that the business is trying to achieve. And if that's clear, then I think building the IT portfolio behind it is relatively straightforward.

Q: Let's take that up even one more level. I know we talked about innovation. Talk about your role specifically in innovation and how your role has changed to focus more on that. What does that mean for the way you work with business partners?

Q: What advice do you have for those folks who are coming up through the IT ranks who may ultimately want to have your job or whatever the CIO role evolves into?

A: I don't think that my job as it is now will remain the same into the future. I think the rate at which technology is moving and the rate at which technology is being exploited, both internal and external to Unilever, a lot of jobs are going to evolve rapidly over time. The roles that I had when I was a junior IT person in Unilever, most of those don't exist anymore. They've been replaced by new roles, which young people can cut their teeth on. But my advice for them is to be open-minded. There are fantastic opportunities to learn throughout big organizations and small organizations, so be proactive and be open to opportunities.

Q: Sticking on the advice theme, what advice do you have for other CIOs who are trying to move away from that day-to-day operational focus and really be a driver of change and innovation in their organization?

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