Relinquish control and embrace new concepts: Coca-Cola CIO

CIOs who want to continue managing IT as a kingdom in today’s tech-savvy, fast-paced corporate world will be managing an ever-diminishing realm, according to Coca-Cola Amatil's (CCA) group CIO, Barry Simpson.

It’s a belief that might frighten more than a few IT chiefs, but something Simpson clearly finds invigorating. As CIO of one of Australia’s largest organisations for the past five years, he has led a transformation project, spearheaded an early shift of productivity tools to the cloud, embraced apps to improve customer and internal facing systems, and is now throwing the door open to new ways of interpreting data.

“As technology is evolving more quickly and moving into more parts of the business, your role in IT is to manage that ecosystem not control it,” Simpson tells CIO Australia. “If all you do is control, you’ll be too slow, expensive and make yourself irrelevant.

“Yes you need governance, but you also need to make services easy to consume. For CIOs, there are competing service providers who will deal directly with the business unless you find a way to allow the business to move faster with confidence.

“If you are holding on to what was successful in the past, you’re not a business enabler and you will become irrelevant.”

Given his IT management credentials, Simpson could well be on to something. After majoring in computer science during an engineering degree, he took his first professional step as an IT graduate at Colgate Australia. The position gave him a solid grounding in programming as well as operations, and led to a four-year stint working on a large transformation project in the US. Colgate then sent Simpson to Asia, after which he held various internationally focused roles.

“By the time I left Colgate, I’d been exposed to all parts of the business – I’d been in global and regional shared services, large-scale transformation programs, and sat on a number of different division teams doing business reviews based on understanding the local market,” Simpson recalls. “It was good background for a CIO.”

Re-engineering business

Upon his return to Australia, Simpson looked for a public Australian company with international exposure that would allow him to work alongside the executive team. The opportunity to join Coca-Cola Amatil came up and initially entailed a major re-engineering of systems.

CCA operates across Asia-Pacific and is one of the world’s top five Coca-Cola bottlers. The manufacturing, distribution and sales organisation has a range of non-alcoholic beverages including soft drinks, bottled water, fruit juices and energy drinks, and employs more than 15,000 people.

Simpson says his priorities have gradually shifted from being internal to externally focused. “When you’re running a large transformation program, it’s all about getting your IT structures, organisations and people right, and building a program that will deliver the required change in the required timeframe and at the required budget,” he says.

“In my first few years, it was about building that credibility and track record of delivery. Today, it’s about working across different business units to leverage what we’ve put in place, or to help them move through technology trends by tailoring solutions.”

One of the big shifts Simpson cites is the consumerization of IT, a trend he claims makes it easier for people to understand what’s possible with IT and is raising the level of technology literacy. But despite such pervasiveness, he claims CIOs and their teams are in a unique position to identify opportunities others may not see.

“People have ideas about what they want to do with technology, it just means a broader set of people you have to help navigate through that,” Simpson claims.

“If you expect to command and influence the business, you have to be commercially literate, understand the technology and also understand how you can help people achieve their goals. It’s always been the role of a CIO, but the price points of technology are making it more acceptable, allowing parts of the organisation to move faster than they would have before.”

Accessibility over control

If there has been an adjustment in what the CIO role entails, Simpson believes it’s the transition from owner of company data, structure and governance, to business conduit, driving accessibility. While the historic focus on control has helped CIOs deliver predictable outcomes, it comes at the cost of agility and speed, he says.

“You don’t necessarily have control over how your IT services are consumed because consumer devices are changing that very quickly,” Simpson says. “As long as you architect and abstract in a way that allows you to embrace that technology, you have an environment where you can innovate. You should have an ecosystem of internal developers and outside companies, be they big or small, which allows you to try things very quickly in an agile way.”

One advance helping ease-of-use is app-based solutions, Simpson says. The other trend CCA jumped on early is cloud.

Simpson spearheaded CCA’s migration in 2010 from Lotus to Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite, and has since pushed call centre and performance management systems to the cloud. The company is in the process of moving traditional SAP platforms to a hosted model, and Simpson sees document storage, processing and intranet shifting next.

The need to enable corporate access from anywhere and on any platform, means businesses must embrace cloud and work through whatever issues it presents, Simpson claims, be they security or financial.

“CCA was fairly early to build app-based solutions for our customers, and what you learn is that if you get that ease of use right, the services are easy to consume,” he says. “So why would I make it any more difficult for our own people?

“Across all fronts of our traditional systems we are working to implement app-based access. That is what the next generation of workers will expect. We can see a world in the not-to-distant future where there will be lots of thin clients, not many laptops, and a whole lot of tablets with consumers, customers and our people all using the same kind of technology.”

In this sense, BYOD is inevitable because people expect to be able to work wherever and on anything. Moving to a cloud environment makes provision simpler and quicker because IT doesn’t have to manage any image, Simpson says.

“The key to dealing with risk is to understand it and then mitigate it. Moving some of those services early on to the cloud, learning from it and understanding how to manage that environment, has given us the confidence to go faster and adopt other cloud-based platforms,” he adds.

Next page: Needle in the haystack

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Needle in the haystack

Like many of his peers, Simpson is also coming to grips with big data and how to generate more intelligence from growing data sets. He claims big data in terms of volume is not a new phenomenon for CCA, which has captured everything from point-of-sale customer information to transactional records for years. Traditionally this data has been structured but Simpson believes this approach is no longer feasible – or even desirable – and is looking for new ways to meet customer expectations.

“It’s like the history of IT – we have been about standardising things,” he says. “In a world where insight will give you the basis for your next question, the standard reporting and analytics piece is changing dramatically.

“Big data to me is more around dealing with unstructured data, and that’s about technology sets that allow you to find patterns people can’t, and draw conclusions from data sets you wouldn’t have the time, effort or staff to be able to do.

“If that’s where the world goes – and it’s very early days with that kind of data – the data analysts can help navigate, rather than provide structure to data. That’s where they’ll make the biggest impact.”

Simpson points out many data management products today concentrate on capturing, storing, indexing, cleansing data and doing that across tiers of storage you don’t necessarily need to own. While this is helpful, it doesn’t generate fresh insight.

“None of this really tells me things I don’t already know, and that’s where the real value is: It’s the game-changing technology that finds the patterns I can’t find myself,” Simpson claims. “If the modern data analyst role is around providing rigour and doing more of what I can do today but on bigger data sets, I’m not convinced that’s the long-term answer or that it’s enough.”

One way CCA is employing new data analytics methods that embrace an unstructured approach is on its vendor machines. The company has 30,000 machines across the country, which have transmitted data to its head office for many years, but Simpson says it is important to keep challenging beliefs and derive new consumer insights.

“We’re not sure where this is going to take us, but if I start with the viewpoint that I don’t know the question to ask, I’m sure I’ll get a different outcome and a broader view of opportunities than I would have from structuring and containing data upfront,” he points out. “If I already know the issue, it’s a question of pragmatism around how to manage the data – do I clean it myself and store it, or get someone else to do it? What’s the cost versus benefit?

The modern CIO:

“You need to have a compelling business model for it; most importantly, if you’re going to work with senior leaders across their various functions, you need to have a view. And it has to be your view, because you’re in a unique position to see all parts of the business and understand relationships across parts of the business that others might not see. By its very nature, that brings fresh opportunity to the company.”

“If I have a view of the problem already that I’m trying to solve, I have a view of the size of the prize. To me, that’s a far more traditional way of approaching what may be a more unconventional issue.

“If I turn it the other way and say ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’, and I have technology that is able to read patterns of data and understand relationships of data, then I provide some insight to confirm or validate those as we go through, that has potential to bring a great deal more insight.”

Continual delivery

CCA has plenty of other technology projects in progress too, including expanding its Oasis core processing platform to its Indonesian operations to meet the high growth rates expected in that country. The original Oasis project was completed in Australia and New Zealand last year and included replacing 170 legacy systems ranging from call centre systems to production planning.

Apps are another major investment area and Simpson highlights expanding the footprint of its flagship MyCCA customer ordering portal as a continued focus. His team works to release three to four packages each year with new features and functions.

“Rather than have traditional projects that run multiple years before you see things, we are getting much more nimble,” Simpson says. “There are hundreds of things being implemented and these cover more parts of our business.”

Whatever the project, what’s critical as a CIO is to build a track record of delivery that gives the CEO and rest of the executive team the confidence to keep investing in technology, Simpson says.

“To engage with the business in a meaningful way, you need to use the same terms and speak the language of the business,” he adds.

“We have our own categories of services we provide and we segment those in ways that have a natural connection with people in the business. In the same way, we expect marketers to put brand plans together, and our sales people put channel strategies together. As a team we are advising the business, understanding where the market is moving and how to adapt.

“The closer you align your own planning cycle to those of the business, the more natural it is to partner with you.

“It’s really thinking of IT as a business model itself. You’d like some repeat business.”

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