Martha Heller

3 IT initiatives fueling business transformation at Zebra Technologies

Feb 16, 2022
Analytics Cloud Computing Digital Transformation

Who says a zebra can’t change its stripes? CIO Deepak Kaul explains how a hub and spoke data model, along with cloud-based ERP and infrastructure, are at the heart of Zebra’s changing business model.

Deepak Kaul, CIO, Zebra Technologies
Credit: Zebra Technologies

Deepak Kaul first joined Zebra Technologies in 2007 as director of change management and process improvement, and he became CIO of the $5.5 billion workflow digitization and automation solutions company in 2016. Today, Kaul and Zebra are in the midst of a company-wide transformation that goes far beyond digitization: it is a transformation of their marketplace offering and their very business model. I recently asked Kaul to explain the major components of Zebra’s transformation. What follows is an edited version of our interview.

What is the business transformation currently underway at Zebra Technologies?

Zebra is growing rapidly—both organically and through acquisition activity where we continue to add software and solutions to our hardware portfolio. This expansion is enabling us to reimagine our operations, digitize platforms, redesign end-to-end workflows, and generate analytical insights. Our acquisition growth is also enabling us to offer as-a-service business models. At the same time, we are mindful of investing in our community of changemakers, innovators, and doers, helping our talent build fulfilling careers while making a positive impact on their communities.

What is IT doing to drive this transformation?

Zebra IT is leading three major initiatives. First, we’re implementing a completely new cloud-based ERP system to power new digital workflows.

Second, we are migrating our infrastructure journey to the cloud. This will shorten our time to market, increase our speed of delivery, create even more robust security and resiliency, allow more flexibility in utilization, and ultimately enable more rapid innovation.

The third initiative is building an enterprise-wide Delta Lake using a machine learning (ML) platform. This platform will provide a single source of truth and give various business functions the capability to intermix data with external sources to experiment and validate hypotheses.

Let’s talk more about your cloud-based ERP implementation.

ERP is the central nervous system of our company; it touches all our customers, suppliers, and employees. Previously, we patched exception-based workflows with robotic process automation and other tools. With this new cloud-based platform, we will digitize manual workflows while providing a better user experience and real-time analytics. 

It is noteworthy that we are not approaching it as a technology initiative. We aren’t lifting and shifting our existing process into the cloud, which would be like pouring old wine into a new bottle. 

Instead, our strategy involves each functional leader owning a piece of the unified transformation roadmap that reinvents end-to-end processes across the company. As a result, the ERP implementation becomes a transformation opportunity rather than a technology project.

How did you generate business ownership over the ERP?

To orchestrate this transformation, we have appointed a business acceleration executive, who is working with a cross-functional team of leaders to create our IT transformation roadmap. This leader hosts brainstorming and strategic workshops with representatives of each business unit. Together, they have identified more than 40 opportunities for process innovation. We now have transformation use cases ranging from product lifecycle management and intelligent pricing guides to supply chain resiliency. These efforts will culminate in better support for our newer as-a-service business models.

What insights can you share about your second big area of transformation, moving infrastructure to the cloud?

Our belief is that critical assets are moving to the cloud, which dilutes the business case for two large data centers. In building a workforce of the future, we believe it is in our best interest to move our assets to cloud infrastructure as a service (IaaS). Utilizing the cloud helps teams spend more of their time on more meaningful work and less on administration. Our cloud strategy says to the team, “Zebra is the place to learn the skills of the future.”

Let’s talk about your third big area of transformation: data.

While we already have data-rich platforms at Zebra, we still have an opportunity to generate even greater insights. In IT, we have traditionally focused on protecting the single source of truth. At the same time, business functions want to experiment with data for a wide range of business needs and they desire autonomy for insight generation. So, we have created a hub-and-spoke model, where the hub is data engineering and the spokes are the business functions. The functions have ML experts who experiment with IT’s “single source of truth” to create relevant insights.

We kept the data warehouse but have augmented it with a cloud-based enterprise Delta Lake and an ML platform. The core customer data, for example, must be pristine in the data warehouse to serve as a single source of truth. Once that data goes into the lake though, the business functions can experiment. They can merge customer data with Dun & Bradstreet data, for example, to segment it into large and small accounts without impacting the core. This enables functions to generate insights in new ways.

The hub-and-spoke model supplements our functional leaders’ capability of single source of truth data rigidity with multiple versions of truth experimental capability. We are pivoting from a data defensive (controlled) to a data offensive (flexible) position.

How did the business functions learn to do this experimentation?

Our functional leaders participated in a cross-functional heat mapping exercise led by expert consultants to identify use cases and learn how to use machine learning. Next, we shortlisted relevant use cases like forecasting, returns, next best move, alerts to partner, and contract renewals, which enabled the functions to see the capabilities of machine learning experimentation.

We have formed a cross-functional analytics council to ensure we are sharing our learnings, talent needs and role profiles, maturity models, and training assets on a monthly basis. This group includes a senior enterprise leader who acts as a data librarian, cataloging data sets and ensuring there are standards in how we define the data.

What are the challenges in achieving true democratization of data?

The first challenge is talent because the market for data engineers and data scientists is very competitive. You must recruit them and ensure they have a defined career path. The second is expectations management. People read about predictive analytics, and they want it done yesterday. However, delivering those tools and learning how to use them takes time and patience. The third challenge is quality — we must maintain the ability to clean and curate data so that it remains a meaningful source of insights.

How do you attract and develop the IT talent you need to drive the transformation?

Our culture plays a major part in our ability to attract talent. Being a part of Zebra means being a part of an inclusive and diverse community that helps shape the future of work. We value integrity, teamwork, innovation, accountability, and agility as we strive to empower employees to be successful within and outside of the workplace. As a result, we’ve been named by Computerworld as one of the best places to work in IT for three years.

We also invest heavily in professional and technical training, including Agile methodology training for the entire IT department. By next month, 98 percent of our staff will be fully trained in Agile. Once training is completed, we pair employees with a coach to ensure the new Agile methods stick.

We also invite Zebra employees at all levels to participate in leadership programs and collaborate with colleges for internships. Last year, we hired five full-time members of our team through college intern programs. This allows us to bring in people who have a next-gen mindset and approach situations in diverse ways.

Finally, we are in the process of rolling out a rotation program for new hires so that we can expose them to different areas of IT. Our plan is to move them every 18 months.

With the democratization of data, what is the evolution of the CIO role?

For the next several years, I believe CIOs will be focused in three areas: data, end-to-end user experiences, and digital workflow enablement.

The challenge with data is how to keep it secure, accessible, meaningful, and valuable to the business. User experience will also be top of mind to ensure a positive, intuitive, and brand-enhancing journey for our customers. Across business functions, digital workflows will increase productivity by linking end-to-end processes, enhanced collaboration, and real time task visibility. Digital transformation is not a one-time event; we are implementing just one wave. By the time we are finished, there will be a new wave, and CIOs must stay ahead of the trends. We will evolve from a technologist and strategist role to that of a catalyst. Future CIOs will be evangelists of digital dexterity.

Martha Heller

Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.

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