by Martha Heller

Unilever CIO: Digital literacy is the most important new capability to develop

Jul 14, 2021
AnalyticsArtificial IntelligenceDigital Transformation

Unilever North America CIO Alessandro Ventura has created a digital literacy curriculum to drive tech innovation.

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Credit: Unilever North America

Alessandro Ventura, CIO and VP Analytics and Business Services for Unilever North America, sees a distinction between digital transformation and digitization. “After a digital transformation your business is different than it was before,” he says. “Digitization, on the other hand, automates processes but does not change the substance of your business.”

For Ventura, digital transformation starts with self-reflection and asking big questions—What should our business be in the future? How will we respond to shifts in competition and consumer behavior? How are we changing the customer experience?

Digital transformation vs. digitization

In the past, Unilever’s customer business managers would manually enter baselines and promotional plans to reflect company sales forecasts as well as relevant events that might impact sales, or new store openings, into a product promotional planning tool. Ventura and his team recently replaced that legacy tool with a machine learning engine that calculates a baseline for every SKU and every retail customer and tells managers which promotional activities will be the most productive. The tool reviews promotional events and makes recommendations for changes; it also includes external factors, like an impending storm that will impact consumer demand, so that managers can do more precise scenario planning for their customers.

The promotional planning tool is an example of digital transformation because in improving forecasting and suggesting different promotional plans that might be more effective, the tool improves product delivery and, ultimately, on-shelf availability for Unilever retail customers. “With better forecasting, we are giving our customers an experience that is not only more efficient; it actually helps improve product availability—a very important source of value for our customers.”

An example of digitization is Unilever’s “Una” digital assistant, which integrates with Microsoft Teams to answer employee questions. “Yesterday, I needed to find my employee ID number,” says Ventura. “In the past, I would have had to log into our payroll system and find a paystub. Instead, I went into Teams, asked Una for my employee ID, and got it in a second. I received the same information as before, but faster.”

[ Be sure to learn the secrets of highly effective digital transformations — and beware the 7 myths of digital transformation. ]

Fostering digital literacy

In driving both digital transformation and digitization, Ventura and his team need to make sure that all 7,000 employees in Unilever’s North American business are ready for significant change. 

“Digital capabilities do not create value on their own,” says Ventura. “People need to understand and embrace the fact that the way they work is changing fast.” With the machine learning planning tool, for example, customer business managers might be tempted to reject the machine’s suggestions for promotional planning. “When the machine tells the manager not to invest in promotional initiatives that the he or she has been running for the last 20 years, the manager might say, ‘Who are you to tell me? You’re a machine. I’m going to stick with what I have always done because I know better.’ This means that the most important new capability that we can develop for the business is digital literacy,” says Ventura.

Digital literacy, as Ventura defines it, is the ability of one employee—or an entire culture—to embrace technology-driven innovation in changing the way they work. To develop this capability, Ventura and his team created a Digital Literacy Curriculum, which they are facilitating at the top of the organization with CEO Fabian Garcia, and will expand to include leaders in sales and marketing next. 

The Curriculum involves Ventura, key members of his IT leadership team, and select business partners who meet three times a month for 45 minutes for a total of 14 sessions.  Those sessions focus on cloud, platforms, data, and product, and are organized by experiences:  customer, consumer, and employee. “We’ve always talked about ‘applications’ and ‘systems,’ but today we are using so many new terms, that we want to ground these terms in the experiences that matter to our CEO,” says Ventura. “We include our business partners, because Fabian does not want to know about the technical details of a capability; he wants to know how a practitioner will turn insights into action.”

For the Digital Literacy sessions focused on marketing data and analytics, Ventura included the digital brand manager for Klondike, a high-performing ice cream brand, along with the head of data and analytics, to talk about consumer data and performance tracking for their digital initiatives. They started with a 10-minute introduction to define terms including first, second, and third-party data, and how they use each for business impact. “We also demonstrated a new tool that we built to track, by brand, the performance of our digital assets and media investments: websites, Instagram, and other social media,” says Ventura. “Our Klondike brand manager showed what kind of information she looks for, the kind of decisions she actions out of that information, and what the stumbling blocks are. The session was phenomenal.”

In the session on artificial intelligence (AI), Ventura invited both the head of the Unilever careline, and the head of AI technology to demonstrate a new AI tool built to improve customer care. In the past, if a consumer sent an email with a question about order information, a customer care rep would need to login to the system, look for the order information, and then respond. The new tool finds the information for the customer rep, who can send a response much more quickly, reducing response time by 90 percent. “It was great to have the head of our careline in the presentation to share how we use this tool with Fabian,” says Ventura.  “He was blown away.”

3 tips for getting started

Ventura offers this advice for launching a digital literacy program.

  1. Consistency is key. “You need consistency and intensity,” he says. “CEOs deal with so much in one day that you have to keep the curriculum in front of them. If you miss a session, you will have to restart.” Ventura cautions against “undercooking” the program. “If you say the full program will be 14 sessions, don’t stop after 10. You cannot move to lesson five if you skip lesson four. Since we have so many people involved in delivering the sessions, the calendar can get messy, but you have to prioritize the curriculum and commit.”

  2. Don’t stop at the top. “Digital literacy cannot stop with senior executives,” he says. “Be sure to include in the training a process that triggers a bottom-up process for educating all of your teams.”

  3. Transform from the inside out. “There is a lot of technology available on the market that promises digital transformation,” says Ventura. “I receive around 15 emails a day saying, ‘We’re going to accelerate your digital transformation.’ But no consultant or tool on the market can accelerate our digital transformation. We have to drive that change ourselves.”

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