by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #26-50 Sean Davidson, VTNZ/Dekra

Mar 28, 2019
Business ContinuityCareersCloud Computing

“After successfully rebuilding IT capability and modernising and migrating infrastructure to the cloud, we are continuing to accelerate our ‘cloud first’ approach,” says Sean Davidson, general manager information technology, at VTNZ.

This approach has led to local innovations that are now being adopted in the wider DEKRA group in South Africa and Australia, says Davidson. VTNZ is the New Zealand division of the European vehicle inspection service provider DEKRA, jointly owned by the MTA (Motor Trade Association) locally.

Davidson says a recent project is the replacement of a traditional WAN with a nationwide software defined network across 120 locations in New Zealand.

This is fully integrated with cloud-based infrastructure, in effect a ‘virtual network and virtual data’ concept, he says.

With 20 per cent lower operating costs, faster speeds and a backup link for each location, modern SaaS type applications can now be reliably utilised at all of VTNZ’s retail locations.

The system was tested when several regional telco infrastructure outages occurred. VTNZ branches remained open for business where our competitors had to close, he states.

Another recent project is the cloud-based mobile inspection vehicle system, which places VTNZ in a better position to compete in NZ’s motor vehicle market.

Davidson says the project came about when VTNZ’s vehicle inspection system was about to be retired. They decided to build their own inspection system rather than relying on a third party for this mission critical system.

The team designed, developed and implemented the inspection system now running on over 700 devices across the country. Davidson says the project was completed approximately 15 per cent under budget.

But beyond cost savings, the app now allows VTNZ to get a full picture of their vehicle inspections data. With inspection data in electronic form, operations staff are now able to analyse trends and manage business performance at branch or country level on the fly in a way that could never be achieved with the paper-based systems it replaced, he explains.

The same cloud-based platform is planned to be utilised in China and South African subsidiaries of parent company DEKRA, which has headquarters in Stuttgart.

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A case for curiosity and big data

From an innovation perspective, working with diverse teams in various locations, and even offshore, such as VTNZ and DEKRA, can both be a challenge and opportunity for business leaders.

“In a large business with a lot of locations, it is often hard for senior managers to ‘see the wood for the trees’ from an operational perspective,” says Davidson.

“This can make it really hard for new or existing managers to see problems or opportunities to improve efficiency when compared to a small business where the owner or manager can see everything end to end.”

From his experience, he says a great way to get ahead of the curve is to identify and enable those who are curious and have access to operational data.

“Typically, this is often a developer or database administrator who can see patterns in electronic data or correlations between separate systems and databases and asks questions about what this means in the ‘real world’,” says Davidson.

“The more data you have, the more correlations and integrations between systems and more curiosity you enable about this within your team often leads to a steady stream of business insight and value add from IT,” he states.

Davidson used this approach over the past three years at VTNZ.

“We have successfully moved the perception of IT from ‘phones and laptops’ to business savvy sources of competitive advantage,” he says.

“Being able to visualise the data in an accessible way helps a lot too,” he says.

“Having our regional EVP whip out his phone and show a live dashboard of VTNZ inspections across New Zealand to our parent company CEO in Germany does work wonders during the annual budgeting process.”

Scaling digital initiatives

The team has also implemented an ‘Integration as a Service’ platform and a cloud-based data warehouse, allowing disparate legacy and new systems and databases to work together.

The consolidation of data from previously isolated systems has provided new operational insights, including renegotiation of business terms and operations with customers and partners for improved profitability, says Davidson.

Off the back of this project, the team trialled the use of machine learning tools to identify operational scenarios and highlight these for attention of managers and vehicle inspectors. Early results have been impressive, with in some cases ability to predict likely vehicle inspection faults sight unseen with up to 90 per cent accuracy.

He says the same low cost ‘pay per use’ integration and data as a service/cloud-based approach is also now being extended to include other lines of business and operations in South Africa and Australia enabling a regional view of business performance.

The business also appreciated the ability to scale these resources and costs up or down depending on the business activity, he says. There was no requirement for upfront purchase of expensive ETL or integration platforms.

The integration of systems is also providing competitive advantage as off the shelf systems can be strung together quickly in ways that are unique to VTNZ, or provide data to customers in digital format, he says.

Today, he says, a lean operations team in Wellington is now able to monitor over 120 locations nationwide from one centralised platform in the cloud.

In the pipeline is the development of chatbot to respond promptly to customer queries.

The road ahead

Davidson says the CIO role at VTNZ has been influential in the ongoing shift towards a more data-driven business within New Zealand and use of regionalised technology teams and resources have delivered a more unified and lower cost approach to IT within the parent DEKRA group.

His role has expanded from being part of the senior NZ VTNZ leadership team, to being included in the regional leadership team covering Southern Africa and Oceania.

His reporting lines reflect this, as he reports to both the Southern Africa and Oceania executive vice president and the global DEKRA CIO based in Stuttgart.

The impact of this has been wide reaching, with senior leadership in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa involved with the prioritisation and development of a shared strategic project roadmap.

A key driver for this is that most modern projects include information technology in some form, with several large IT infrastructure and application development projects successfully delivered, allowing the IT team to demonstrate a strong project management capability.

They have also done significant work around consolidating systems and databases. In this respect, the role has become quite key in balancing traditional functions like finance and marketing and ensuring there is a better ‘big picture’ alignment to the CEO and the board’s business objectives.

Davidson says the information technology team also supports an internship programme.

Up to three students work part-time in their office in Wellington. Their work is balanced between “keeping the lights on” tasks such as supporting the help desk, and more strategic tasks that gives them an opportunity to learn something new particularly in the cloud technology space where things are changing rapidly.

“Everybody is learning, not just the interns,” says Davidson. “We think this is a ‘win/win’ formula for VTNZ.

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