Coles chief information and digital officer Roger Sniezek told CIO Australia the long-standing relationship with Microsoft just got even more intense.
The shopping behemoth just struck a deal with Microsoft to make Azure its cloud platform of choice across the entire business.
“This isn’t something that’s going to run for three or four years before we see anything. This is a multi-horizon: There will be things that are delivered week by week, and month by month,” Sniezek told CIO Australia.
Sniezek said the goal is to build an enterprise data platform that will power advanced analytics across Coles and enable the rapid deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) technology to drive innovation in physical stores and through the supply chain.
“This builds on a long-standing relationship that we had with Microsoft, but really it’s now a wide-ranging and strategic partnership,” Sniezek said.
“This isn’t just something that will run for three or four years before we see anything. This is a multi-horizon: There will be things that are delivered week by week, and month by month.”
“It will be one of the key enablers of our 'smarter selling' strategy over the next few years, where we’ll be taking a billion dollars of cost out of the business over the next four years.”
Sniezek said there are four core planks of the arrangement. First and foremost, Microsoft Azure cloud will become its cloud platform of choice, enabling Coles to migrate applications to the cloud platform today and over the coming years.
“We’ll also be building - and are building with Microsoft - an enterprise data platform in Azure that will allow us to undertake all of the advanced analytics and artificial intelligence that we want to do right across the business at pace.
“We’re also in the process of implementing Microsoft Dynamics 365, which is an enterprise resource planning platform, into a couple of our business units, being Coles Express and our meat manufacturing business,”he said, indicating the meat manufacturing business will go live this month.
“Microsoft 365 Modern Workplace will be deployed to the organisation to underpin the agile ways of working.”
Sniezek said he’s also excited by the fact Microsoft is investing in the Coles innovation lab. “They are bringing their world-class engineering resources to sit side-by-side with ours to figure out the next generation of solutions that we need in retail.”
In going down this extensive path with Microsoft - and while not naming names - he said, over time, some of the technology that Coles used to host things will be moving to Azure.
“The Azure cloud enables us to run all of our current applications as well. Anything else that we’re doing would be a separate choice that we’re making along the way.”
Asked what’s exciting for Sniezek as the chief information and digital officer, he said one of his main “practical” challenges is availability, so the new platform will enable greater business intelligence and advanced decision-making.
“Let’s try taking fruit, as an example. For us to try to forecast fruit, yes we have our historic data and we may take into account the news of the produce manager in store, but what we haven’t got access today is all of the data that we’ve got right across Coles.
“We haven’t got access to all of the historic weather, we haven’t got access to weather forecasts, we haven't got access to any local events, we haven’t got access to school holidays data. So if you imagine putting all of that data into an AI algorithm and allowing that to then come up with your [fruit] forecast per day, this means we’ve got better availability for our customers, but also means the product is going to be fresher.”
Typically, he said Coles has been limited by its lack of processing power. Its core forecast technology was not “learning day by day” compared to the promise of AI technology, which is able to tap into a wide range of data.
“Imagine trying to run a large AI model within our own datacentres. We’re limited by the amount of processing power that we’ve currently got. Even though we might want to run a whole bunch of stuff in an hour, we’d be limited by the processing power that we’ve got.
“With the data platform that we’re building with Azure that will allow us to scale that out and burst, and for a very short period of time, use a huge amount of compute to do the calculations that we want, and then get the results much faster - and also throw into the equation much more data as well.”
He said the company runs a couple of datacentres today, and will “firmly” be with the company for the foreseeable future.
“This is a case of figuring out the best solution as these new technologies have become available.”
Sniezek said other tech projects on the boil include: the ongoing partnership with Witron to automate its distribution centres, its partnership with SAP to implement HR procurement and finance systems, as well as a deal with Optus to implement high-speed fibre broadband to all of its stores, and a partnership with Ocado for ongoing work to implement an e-commerce solution and customer fulfillment centres.
“There’s a couple of things on.”