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Relinquish control and embrace new concepts: Coca-Cola CIO

Coca-Cola Amatil’s CIO, Barry Simpson, discusses why technology chiefs need to let go of control and embrace new concepts if they’re to remain valuable to the business
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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