Mike Gibbons, CIO of building materials company Aggregate Industries, talks to Computer Weekly about why regulatory intervention made the company realise the importance of its data assets, and the reason investment in IT is more important now than ever.
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Aggregate Industries has many prestigious projects to its name, such as supplying various materials for the construction of Blackfriars Bridge, The Shard and Wembley Stadium, to name just a few.
But CIO Mike Gibbons says one of its weaknesses as a company has been a failure to capitalise on the huge amount of data it generates.
“It’s the one thing we are not short of. But I don’t think we have necessarily had a good culture of seeing that as an asset,” he says.
It was not until the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) launched an investigation into the industry, following a merger between two of the company’s competitors, that Aggregate Industries realised the importance of having a modern, usable tool to handle its reservoir of data.
“Suddenly we had to gather information on every shipment received across 360 sites over the past seven years,” he says.
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Realising the value of business intelligence
The company had a business intelligence (BI) legacy platform from IBM Cognos, but the growing amount of information meant the data was becoming unmanageable.
“We had more than one version of the truth, so people were seeing different versions of the data, which was resulting in conflict and mistrust,” he says.
But it had also recently bought some licences to trial Qlikview’s data analysis tool.
“We were finding that we couldn’t hit the deadlines, and the only way we could was with Qlikview. Rather than taking us six weeks with Cognos, it was taking us two or three days.”
Qlikview’s in-memory capability allows a large amount of data to be handled in a manageable state, which then enables the information to be presented in the appropriate form, says Gibbons.
That experience helped the business to better value the importance of BI, having previously found it hard to make a case for further investment when it had an existing platform.
Suddenly we had to gather information on every shipment received across 360 sites over the past seven years
Mike Gibbons, CIO, Aggregate Industries
“And on top of that [OFT] review, we are now into a two-year general review of our sector by the Competition Commission,” says Gibbons.
Qlikview is intended to replace the Cognos platform with a range of business apps. “We have already rolled out the financial performance app. The commercial app alone will probably retire 50% of the Cognos platform,” he says.
The company is also pulling together its non-transactional enterprise resource planning (ERP) services to create mash-ups of data. “We are also looking to deploy a management app encompassing health and safety and human resources.”
But the presence of business intelligence applications is creating some discussion as to who in the company should have access to these tools. “Some of the directors are saying, 'I don’t want my team playing with this all day long'. But that’s obviously a management issue rather than a technology one," says Gibbons.
Technology as an enabler
Gibbons' IT team comprises 70 people, with the company operating a multi-sourced model. He says around 70% of the IT is managed in-house.
His team are also looking to improve other areas across the business through targeted investment in IT.
“We recognise that in the current economic climate we have to get better with our commercial performance. That means an investment in electronic trading, it means investment in CRM [customer relationship management]. We have deployed CRM, but not quite got it right. At the moment we are using Oracle in the cloud,” he says.
You can’t just cost cut for the sake of it – you have to invest and move forward
Mike Gibbons, CIO, Aggregate Industries
“Whenever we go through any software renewal, we are always looking for the potential for cloud. I hadn’t been in our datacentre for quite a while, and when I went in recently there was hardly anything there – because we have replaced the storage area network and virtualised the Citrix farm. And that is spawning things like bring-your-own-device. We’re starting to put together policies so people can bring their own tablets, laptops, mobile devices.”
Internal cost efficiencies are another key driver. “We have a big project that is looking at the £270m spent on logistics and the time it takes to get products to market. So we are looking at taking 10% out of that using vehicle route optimisation, putting telemetry software on vehicles.
“But there is still a way to go. A lot of automation needs to be done, and we want to roll out handheld terminals for the vehicles. When our product gets to site we need confirmation with a proof of delivery note, and we are looking to make all of that electronic.
“There is probably more on now since the inception of the company. You can’t just cost cut for the sake of it – you have to invest and move forward,” he says.