by James Henderson

‘Single source of truth’ dictates RMA Group’s tech priorities

Mar 18, 2020
Artificial Intelligence Cloud Computing Digital Transformation

As group CIO of RMA Group, Alex Konnaris is spearheading standardisation efforts at the Bangkok-based global business solutions specialist.

Alex Konnaris, RMA Group CIO
Credit: IDG

Continuing the journey towards the creation of a ‘single source of truth’ is RMA Group’s leading technology priority in 2020, as the global business solutions specialist ramps up its digital transformation efforts.

The aggregation of data from multiple systems within the organisation to a single location is part of a widespread standardisation process at the Bangkok-based business, spearheaded by Alex Konnaris as group CIO.

Central to such efforts is the introduction of new enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to better leverage centralised information systems, with the target of reducing the number of manual processes currently in place.

“We are largely in the standardisation stage of our digital transformation,” said Konnaris. “Increasing the number and scope of dashboards is also a key priority, allowing senior management to access accurate data and gain insights from automated analysis at their fingertips.”

According to Konnaris, however, the standardisation and mapping of business processes should be driven by the organisation as a whole, not the IT department.

“Often employees are so busy doing operational tasks that they do not have time or the drive to focus on process standardisation and improvement,” he observed. “Change management must be driven from the top, empowering resources allocation and decision makers.

“New systems should fit well in to the ‘start small, think big’ concept, to allow for confidence building, through ‘proof of concept’ before scaling up. Legacy systems can present roadblocks but as long as this has been achieved, it should be manageable.”

RMA started out supplying goods and equipment to the government, non-profit organisations and private contractors in Cambodia and Vietnam during the 1980s. The business soon became known for demonstrating expertise in establishing high quality distribution and service support networks, in addition to helping build infrastructure.

Today, core operations centre around automotive retail, manufacturing and parts distribution, fleet management, sales and distribution of heavy equipment, power generation as well as food franchises and engineering services.

The company has over 7800 employees, operating in 14 countries, with subsidiaries including RMA Automotive, Global Fleet Sales, Minecorp, Comin Asia and Express Food Group.

“From a technology perspective, we usually look for opportunities to make incremental changes,” added Konnaris, in reference to how technology fits into the company’s wider business strategy. “This isn’t always a fit for all projects and technology, but it can significantly help with managing change and staying close to budget.

“We also believe that behaviours are generally more important than capabilities, although the ability to learn and adapt is key.”

Tech ambitions

As group CIO, Konnaris holds responsibility for two core technology divisions within RMA: Group IT Operations and Group Business Systems. IT Operations delivers and maintains IT infrastructure such as servers, workstations, telephony, website and application hosting, internet and office suites, while Business Systems provides analysis and ERP solutions.

“We measure ourselves in a quantitative way,” he explained. “Metrics are related to service uptime, outstanding issues, cost savings, adherence to budget but ultimately, we are measured by the sentiment of our business customers.”

To meet his CEO’s expectations of supporting business growth while maintaining a standard of excellence, Konnaris sees cloud computing as the leading opportunity for CIOs today, complemented by data and artificial intelligence (AI).

“The use of cloud services is to reduce risk, increase manageability and scalability,” he said. “Whether on the infrastructure or ERP side, cloud solutions are providing huge benefits in the way that information systems are deployed and managed, allowing more time to gain insights into data and systems, in addition to spending less time creating and/or maintaining data and systems.

“In terms of data insights, technology is providing multiple ways to achieve results, with AI being the technology leader right now. AI is the culmination of many layers of analysis involving both humans and technology but the advancements in compute power, analytical templates and the abundance of data storage are making AI a reality for anyone with a data source.”

Not everyone sees things the same way, though, and Konnaris says that in Southeast Asia it is common to hear people say that cloud services are less secure than on-premises systems – but always cheaper.

“These two challenges are interesting because the former is a perceived negative and the latter is a perceived positive and in reality, they are often the other way around.”

For Konnaris, cloud services often have a great deal more infrastructure, monitoring, policies and processes supporting such a strong foundation, whereas legacy systems can represent a compromise and therefore actually cost less.

“Different organisations will have a different appetite for security, performance and scalability and the urgency to journey to the cloud might be quite different based on initial perceptions,” he accepted. “Personally, I have taken some time to observe the developments, learn about the new landscapes and try to judge the right time to transform with the least cost and disruption.”

For Konnaris, security is something not to be neglected: “We have seen a large increase in cyber-attacks on all levels and we are making great progress with monitoring and detection. This can be attributed to the large increase in compute power, tools and storage, the dark web is providing organised and opportunistic automated attacks.”

Secrets of a successful career in IT

Since an early age, Konnaris has held a passion for the sciences. While computers featured along the way, the industry executive started his career in the automotive sector, carrying out engine lubricant research and development at Castrol.

A switch to core IT soon materialised during the early 2000s, with Konnaris – who joined RMA in September 2006 – drawing on more than 20 years of technology market experience, 15 years of which spent in Bangkok.

“My advice to aspiring IT leaders is to be humble and remember that those around us may not have the technical knowledge or experience required to have a clear vision of what we are delivering to them,” he said. “Another is ‘start small, think big’: break everything into small, modular tasks but keep an eye on the big picture.

“This is often an advantage with cloud services, especially via ‘pay as you go’ as you can efficiently create a proof of concept before taking developments further.”

Looking back on over two decades of IT leadership, Konnaris said that the hardest things in his career have involved starting projects with a blank sheet of paper, tasked with creating a concept from the ground-up.

“But I would say that my greatest achievement was developing a low cost ‘branch office’ template that could work anywhere in the world,” he recalled. “This also had to provide a robust and efficient office experience for users, no matter the challenges of the physical location, the level of local IT support or the budget.”

Aligned to the philosophy of ‘do the next thing, next’, Konnaris cited virtualisation as the most defining era of his career, a shift in market dynamics which has ultimately triggered the rise of cloud computing.

“On its own, virtualisation has greatly reduced the amount of time we spend setting up and configuring hardware and has allowed us to become hardware agnostic,” he said.