Senior Writer

Walgreens Boots Alliance gets personal with AI

Feb 11, 2022
Artificial IntelligenceDigital Transformation

The pharmacy chain is leveraging its cloud-first digital transformation to better serve its customers, thanks to a data foundation retooled for speedier analytics and the latest machine learning technologies.

walgreens storefront
Credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

If the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be an accelerant for digital transformations, Walgreens Boots Alliance was at the vanguard of that trend.

The Deerfield, Ill. -based company, which counts nearly 9,000 retail Walgreens pharmacies in the US and nearly 2,300 Boots retailers in the UK, had no option to shut down or slow down when the pandemic hit globally in March 2019. 

Instead, Global CIO and Senior Vice President Francesco Tinto, who joined WBA six months prior, pushed the company’s cloud-first business transformation into overdrive to ensure the pharmacy chain could better serve its customers digitally, as the need for COVID-19 scheduling, testing, and vaccinations spurred the company to build digital solutions faster than planned. 

“COVID really pushed us to make sure that we could really have service to customers during the lockdown,” Tinto says.

To date, WBA has administered 56 million COVID-19 vaccines and 22.9 million tests in the US, thanks in some measure to a digital transformation largely based on Microsoft’s Azure cloud and a dizzying array of bleeding-edge technologies, including MongoDB databases, Snowflake data warehousing, and Databricks’ Spark-based AI platform.

Now the Walgreens Boots IT chief is leveraging this potent cocktail of advanced cloud, data analytics, and artificial intelligence technologies to deliver mass personalization services and to enhance WBA’s online relationship with consumers. 

Data is a core ingredient

WBA’s modernization of its IT stack has entailed migrating the back-end processes that drive its online retail business, such as accounts payable, the general ledger, and inventory management, to Microsoft’s cloud. As part of this, WBA rebuilt its business application stack by moving to SAP S/4HANA and migrating to ServiceNow’s cloud-based automated operational services.

Francesco Tinto, global CIO and senior vice president, Walgreens Boots Alliance

Francesco Tinto, global CIO and SVP, Walgreens Boots Alliance 

Walgreens Boots Alliance

The company also started consolidating its numerous data assets into a Microsoft Azure data lake, a shift that has proved pivotal to making analytics and AI magic happen, Tinto says. As part of this transformation, WBA migrated from legacy databases to advanced cloud databases and analytics, deploying Azure Synapse for relational data, Azure Cosmos for unstructured and semi-structured data, and MongoDB for document-oriented models.

The retail chain is also migrating on-premises data stored in Teradata, Netezza, and Hadoop appliances to the cloud, leveraging Snowflake for data warehousing and Databricks for AI, Tinto says.

That data foundation has proved key to establishing WBA’s next-generation services, enabling developers and data scientists in WBA’s 2,000-member IT staff, along with thousands of its partners’ programmers, to build about 100 in-house AI products to date, Tinto says.

In addition to Databricks’ platform, WBA uses Python tools, Spark Clusters, Jupyter Notebooks, and open-source NLP (natural language processing) capabilities to write machine learning models for inventory optimization and pricing optimization, and to create customer profiles — the core of WBA’s next-generation personalization services, Tinto says.

“AI for us is really the technology that we’re pushing a lot,” he says. “A big push is building an operating model where we can really leverage the data and the data scientists increase their knowledge and utilization of AI. We want to make sure that AI and machine learning is embedded in everything we do.”

Next frontier: Mass personalization

In the third year of its transformation, WBA’s top focus is now to build out customer profiles and offer mass personalization to its customers, advancing its online dispensing system and giving consumers more management of prescriptions online, according to Tinto.

“It’s really the consolidation and curation of all of our data is how we start building the customer profiles and personalization capabilities,” Tinto says, adding that the company is implementing cloud services in a manner that enables the company to “harmonize between global capability and local adaptation.”

Tinto and CEO Rosalind Brewer both believe WBA’s cloud infrastructure is essential to the company’s strategy for delivering more customized, personalized services to the bulk of its consumers in the US and UK, as well as an increasing number of WBA pharmacies in Mexico, Thailand, and Ireland.

“We have the set the foundation. We are no longer moving to the cloud. We are in the cloud,” Tinto says, noting that the company is finalizing its online dispensing system and moving more aggressively into data analytics that are “much more prescriptive and predictive.”

While the company is still leveraging some applications in its data center, the next-generation data analytics and AI platform will enable WBA to get very close to its consumers — one customer at a time.

The intention is for customers to manage their prescriptions online from their Walgreens’ or Boots’ accounts and receive personal recommendations for products and solutions that address each consumer’s unique health issues.

“AI is very important to understanding the profile of the customer. Now we can serve the best promotion, the best content, personalized offerings,” says Tinto, adding that the plan also includes making the personalized services interactive using chatbots.

WBA, for instance, signed a partnership with Microsoft and Adobe 18 months ago to offer one-to-one communications with consumers and to deliver tailored prescription experiences online. Adobe’s Customer Experience Management (CXM) solutions, another aspect of the partnership, will offer analytics, content management, personalization, and campaign orchestration services online.

“For example, we are launching a new experience for a patient who has been diagnosed with a chronic condition so we can help the customer through the journey and offer advice and suggestions that help the person minimize the impact of the disease,” Tinto says.

The global CIO is pleased with the progress to date and excited about the prospects for the future.

“I’m on a journey that doesn’t stop with a move to the cloud,” he says of his effort to create a data-driven organization that can offer mass personalization. “With all of the complications of the pandemic, I’m in the middle of rebuilding an organization shifting from being extremely operational into an organization that is transformational.”