IT's a Wrap

IT's a Wrap

In a dramatic turnaround, ACI Packaging's CIO Ged Doyle led his department from a state of irrelevance to one of influence.

Ged Doyle's father once said "God gave you two ears and just one mouth to remind you that you should listen twice as much as you speak". It's advice Doyle has never forgotten and that has never stood him in better stead than during his early days as CIO at ACI Packaging. At the time, he was taking the first steps towards bringing the organisation out of its own version of the technological Stone Age.

ACI, three and a half years ago, had no networks, no e-mail and no technical or information architecture. Doyle's grand plan was to change all that with a total restructure of the IT systems. In fact, under his guidance the company threw out every single system it had and started again from scratch. Since joining the company, Doyle has moved it forward something like 20 years in about a three-and-a-half year time frame. Today it can hold its head high with the best of them.

You might think educating a non-IT-literate executive and moving wary and fractious business units towards ACI Packaging's own version of IT nirvana would require much more talking than listening. Far from it, Doyle says. In fact weeding out the true business requirements from the phantom ones required open ears and relatively small doses of spiel. Only after carefully hearing what the business units had to say did Doyle find he could go about convincing them of the best ways to move forward. Even then, speech was the last weapon in his devastatingly effective armoury.

Moving forward was exactly what the organisation desperately needed to do. When Doyle joined ACI Packaging in 1996, it seems fair to say that not only was IT not returning value to the business, it was actively working to its detriment.

"IT had no credibility with the business. While the people working in IT were extremely nice, conscientious and hard-working, they simply did not have the skills required to move the business forward," Doyle says. "We pretty much had one copy of every single version of hardware and software that was ever made, so there were no standards. Nor was there a vision or any goals, and the business system was primarily a bureau system running out of what was then called Ferntree Computing."

Both Y2K and competitive threats from foreign imports were looming as significant problems, yet the company's ability to harness IT to counter the threats was limited. That was partly because of that earlier ill-advised decision to sell the IT department - deemed a non-core component to the business - to a private company called ACI Computing which later became Ferntree Computing. As a result, in 1996, ACI Packaging had a total of 200 users running applications from Ferntree on dumb terminals which did little to support the business, and a range of others using stand-alone PCs. There was no local area network, no wide area network, no PABXs connected into any form of network, no videoconferencing and no electronic mail.

"We were faced with situations where I might download something from the bureau onto my PC. I would then put it into a spreadsheet and save it onto a disk and go to give it to you; but the disk I had on my machine was 3.5in, the one on yours was 5.25in. We had all these sorts of incompatibilities."

Captain Courageous.

It would be bad enough as a newly-appointed CIO to find your new IT organisation was not returning value to the business. Doyle also found himself taking the helm of a body that had, until then, been unintentionally working to the detriment to the business. Not only was IT not moving the business forward, it was frustrating the business because it was costing the business money but giving minimal return on that investment. Worse, there were no IT people with the skills to realise how much further IT could move the business given half a chance.

"And it wasn't just the IT people's problem either. I think that back then ACI's management had a view that IT had no credibility. Any capital funds required for IT were extraordinarily difficult to get, so although the IT guys certainly tried to enhance the environment, they had no support from the then management."

Now all that has dramatically changed. In the five years since he started as CIO, Doyle has transformed the IT department into a vibrant, effective, self-assured organisation that has credibility and is returning real value to the business. IT is recognised as an integral, value-adding area of the organisation. Doyle and his team have rolled out an enterprise information system across the Asia-Pacific region and established effective technical and information architectures. In addition, the business has the tools it needs to help it focus on improvement programs and strategic issues. IT is considered at least as - if not considerably more - strategic than any part of the business.

There is an absolutely non-negotiable standardised technical architecture in place right across the Asia-Pacific and a complete information architecture based on the Informix database and relying on object-relational information. The organisation is an extensive user of SAP, as its ERP system, and also Lotus Notes. Its full range of data applications are fully integrated, all sharing common master data.

The new IT environment now supports 8000 users for less than it used to cost to support 200 connected users five years ago. CEO Peter Robinson recently told the IT department the decision to pursue the current IT strategy was one of the best he had made in his entire career. Doyle's work was recognised with the awarding of a Computerworld Fellows Award in March this year.

Through the Glass Darkly.

Based in Melbourne, ACI Packaging is an international container packaging company operating in Australia (where it has 95 per cent of the market) and six Asia-Pacific countries. It is an affiliate of the US-based leading glass-forming equipment manufacturer Owens-Illinois (O-I), is one of the world's largest manufacturers of glass containers, and has a significant presence in plastics packaging.

The company's six container-manufacturing plants report annual sales approaching $1 billion. It is also responsible for all 13 O-I glass container plants across Australia, New Zealand and India, and joint venture operations in China and Indonesia. It has plants for manufacturing metal moulds used in the formation of glass containers. In addition, it undertakes the mining of raw materials used in glass production at numerous locations.

With innovation now at the heart of its business strategy, the company says it strives to work in close partnership with customers to create an array of new products across many markets. It says the collaborative approach has been the prime catalyst for the extraordinary success in new product development, driving sustainable growth in an increasingly competitive world market.

However, little of that vision was evident when Doyle joined the company from Woodside Petroleum in Melbourne in February 1996. With Woodside about to move its head office to Perth, Doyle - then information resources manager - had made up his mind not to move with the company. Before his seven years at Woodside Offshore Petroleum in Perth and then Woodside Petroleum in Melbourne, he had worked as central computer services manager with the Australian Tax Office in Canberra. He felt he and his family had moved around enough.

"We had young children. We had already moved around considerably. Both my wife and I are from Melbourne originally, [and] we decided that we didn't particularly want to go back to Perth and move the children through schools again. So we decided that we wouldn't move," Doyle says.

"And after there was an announcement in the Financial Review about Woodside possibly moving to Perth, I got phoned up by a guy and asked if I would be interested in considering a position that later turned out to be with ACI."

There were some unpleasant surprises in store for Doyle on his first day with his new company. He was already aware that ACI Packaging's IT was primitive and that transforming it would be difficult. He also knew that with limited funds he could move the company forward quickly because he had done such work before. However, only after he began moving around the business and talking to business managers did the true position become clear and the extent of the IT problems besetting the organisation fully apparent.

At the same time he was learning that, with ACI Packaging under the control of then parent company British Tyre & Rubber (BTR), his battles were only just beginning.

"I differed on just about every technical matter there was with BTR. While that was a bit of an arm-wrestle, I did end up having some considerable wins. In fact, the videoconferencing was the biggest win we had. Then BTR adopted our technology as well and rolled out the same technology through their own company."

Long before that could occur, Doyle was spending his first months with the company out on the shop floor, learning the business inside out. He worked in four of the five glass plants in Australia, getting a handle on the real business problems. "The first six months I actually didn't do anything, but I went out and watched and learned and listened and tried to become educated myself."

You don't understand business problems just by holding interviews with people, Doyle says. He needed to talk to the people on the shop floor and, more importantly, he needed to observe them, to learn what their real problems were. "I don't think you can be successful otherwise," he says, "because often business managers will have a view of what goes on in a plant which is very different to what actually goes on in the plant."

The extended familiarisation did indeed prove extremely useful, giving him a first-hand insight into the real problems and letting him see that there were some simple things he could do to remove a lot of those frustrations.

Information Management.

Once he had a fuller understanding of the business needs, he began translating those into an IT strategic plan. However, even while he was learning the ACI ropes, he was also putting extensive time and effort into recruiting the right IT specialists to join his team. When Doyle joined the company, there were seven full-time IT people working there. Of those seven, just three remain with Doyle today.

"ACI had had a view that they would recruit IT people internally so they probably had the best ACI IT people. But when you benchmarked those people against the outside world, they were pretty illiterate. So I got approval to go and recruit eight senior IT managers," he says. "These people had to be seasoned experts. They had to have been there, done it before because we were only going to get one crack at this: we had to do it once, and we had to do it properly. I wasn't going to jeopardise the quality of the work we were going to do simply because I didn't have the right people, so I was extremely selective in who I was going to take."

With the determination to recruit the best possible staff in the forefront of his mind, Doyle did all his own interviewing and eventually ended up choosing people with a mixture of skills. Some were detailed technical people, some were broader business managers, but all were highly experienced. Indeed, on average, each of the managers now reporting to Doyle have some 18 years experience in IT.

Next he set about transforming those IT people into business information managers. Designated to remain on the IT headcount but live and work within the business, the business information managers were to become the interface between the business and IT.

"I had a business information manager looking after finance, for example. When the finance guys had some problems, they would go to their representative, almost like their elected Member of Parliament, and put the problem to that person. He would translate their business needs back into IT-speak, which we would consider, and we would then take the results back to them. That worked extremely well," Doyle says.

Under that structure, Doyle himself effectively became the business information manager for ACI's executive. But to both the business managers and the members of the board he had only one consistent message: IT is not about technology, IT is about the management of information.

It's a theme Doyle says he's been running with for about five years. It is also the understanding that he says is gradually delivering the strategic advantage to ACI.

There are lots of very good technologies out there, he says. In the sixties and seventies, if you chose IBM, you could never be wrong and so IBM came to dominate. The very fact that there are so many well-established IT companies out there today in competition to IBM is testimony that they all have reasonably good technology. Ergo the technology per se actually doesn't matter. What matters is how well you manage information.

"When I told the executives some of the things it was possible for us to do, it really sparked their imagination. For example, we have a philosophy that we will enable connectivity of any ACI employee to any application from anywhere in the world at any time. Now that's a really easy thing to say, [and] a really hard thing to achieve."

Steering the Right Course.

Next Doyle set up an IT steering committee. The committee includes the senior business managers and IT has no vote. Doyle's position is that business managers should make business decisions and IT projects should be treated no differently from any other business project. If it's important to the business, then business must supply a project manager. If it's important to the business, business must vote to that effect.

On the other hand, the steering committee operates under the strict rule that business is only allowed to tell IT the business problem. It must never to propose a solution. That's IT's role.

"That has worked particularly well," Doyle says.

Nevertheless, getting across the concept of IT's importance to the management of information was easy compared to his next challenge. This was to win acceptance from management that they would not see any return on their initial IT investment for at least 12 months.

Doyle says it proved an extraordinarily difficult concept to get across to a manufacturing company. A lot of persistent hard work and education was required before it was accepted that the most pressing need was to put in place a technical architecture upon which IT could develop applications that would take ACI into the 21st century. Most of that education process went on during one-on-one meetings.

Doyle put just as much store on building some early credibility. "When I started we chose three items that were going to be really easy to do, would not cost much but would gain enormous credibility for the IT group," he says. "The first was to implement electronic mail, the second was to implement videoconferencing and the third was to connect up the various PABXs around Australia so that in essence we would have a virtual private network (VPN).

"That was particularly important in the plants so that the plant people could take their special phones out into the plants, which are extremely noisy. Normally what happens is the plant person gets a telephone call and has to go into a quiet area or into an office that takes them away from their production line. So this technology we introduced meant they could keep their phones out on the manufacturing floor and because the technology we introduced has noise suppression electronics in it they can continue to work plus be contactable. So that was enormously beneficial."

Pragmatism Rules.

ACI's IT group is not about having the most technically elegant solutions, Doyle says. It might try to aim for them, but it recognises the need to be pragmatic in its approach and to accept that it does not have a bottomless pit of money.

So Doyle was very careful during the first 12 months to move the company at a pace it was just uncomfortable with - a necessary shock to a company with a traditional culture where many roles had been rote-learned and in some cases handed down from father to son. It's relatively easy to implement new technologies, Doyle says. The hard part is making sure those new technologies are taken up by the business people.

So what re-engineering that was done was done by stealth.

"The way we went about it was to develop a process that included the workers in the development of lots of these systems. Sometimes they had a very integral input into the development of systems; sometimes it was more token. As long as they felt that they had input and that their views would be heard, they were more likely to use the systems when they eventually went into production. We found that prototyping and inclusiveness in the way that we did our work was extremely valuable."

Also valuable was the "extraordinary support" Doyle gained from CEO Peter Robinson and his top team of IT staff.

"My father once told me that God gave you two ears and one mouth so that you would listen twice as much as you speak and I think that's probably been good advice over the years. I think you just need to understand what are the true business requirements, and you need to be able to weed out what some people's views of what the business requirements are versus what the phantom ones are.

"Most people are basically honest, most people are hard working, and if you can show some value-add, most people will be only too happy to give you all the support they possibly can," Doyle says.

"So I think the hard thing is you personally understanding what the business really needs and then convincing them - and not necessarily through debate and argument and legislation, but often through demonstration and piloting and broadening their own experiences about what's possible and working with them. If you create these win-win situations, you can move forward so much quicker than having to legislate. No one, pretty much, wins out of legislation.

"I'm not sure I know too many secrets about how to win. I think there's no point taking a position that you won't retract from. You must continue to have dialogue with various people. People aren't stupid and people usually take a position for a good reason. So I think part of the onus of responsibility is that you should try to understand what their reasons are. You don't have to agree with it, but you need to understand it and then try to encourage a position that's win-win, one that will move you forward and that will move them forward as well.

"I think it's pretty rare that I've ever found myself in an adversarial position [where] I actually needed to legislate to move forward," he says.

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