There are not that many IT heads who can say that, among their responsibilities, they manage a top-level domain. Midcounties' Sheridan Hindle can.
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Midcounties Co-op manages the worldwide registry for the .coop top-level domain (TLD) on behalf of the founding sponsor (DotCoop LLC) , which means Hindle's team is ultimately responsible for ensuring .coop email addresses and websites can be found on the internet.
The opportunity to take over .coop came along 10 years ago, when Midcounties Co-op acquired the company that supported it, and so the domain became part of its central IT.
Midcounties Co-op is a large organisation, with a £1.2bn turnover. With 10,000 staff and operations across several diverse businesses, Midcounties is the second largest co-operative in the UK.
As such, Hindle manages the IT across business operations ranging from a consumer retail business with food stores, to pharmacies, childcare nurseries, travel agencies, funeral services and its latest offering, the Co-operative Energy division.
He says: "We also do a little bit of external IT services." This came about due to Midcounties’ loyalty system, which has a small number of external customers, Hindle explains. "We built our membership system ourselves, 10 years ago. Many organisations need loyalty systems so we sold it to them." A handful of co-operatives, a local health authority and a few other organisations, such as the Financial Conduct Authority, are among his customers.
But the core function of IT is to supporting the Midcounties Co-operative business.
Switching to iterative development
When Midcounties Co-operative decided to upgrade its payroll system, it took the opportunity to move from a waterfall to an agile methodology. "From an IT perspective, we wanted the new system to be tested by the payroll team," said head of IT Sheridan Hindle.
The organisation used testing automation software from Original Software to help it drive down costs on quality assurance and was able to test 50% more software than before.
Hindle said Midcounties now has a way to manage and document test scripts, allowing the team to check who had tested what bits of the application and supporting testing in iterations "We have a properly documented testing process so we can go back and run annual tests each year, looking through what’s changed and ticking off what we did before."
Central service with specialisation
Rather than make each business autonomous from an IT perspective, Hindle's focus has been to operate IT as one central service, supporting the whole business.
He says: "Everything comes into one service desk where we break out the calls. Second- and third-line support are specialised."
As the business has grown, Hindle says there has been a need to operate more specialised IT functions. "We created a tiered support model. Some businesses, such as funeral services, may only have one PC and IT is not a differentiator. But our food business has 234 stores." Food and the new energy business are big users of IT, and require a greater level of IT expertise.
Tier 1 support operates 7am-10pm seven days a week, while Tier 3 runs during business hours.
Hindle has organised the higher level of support for these businesses, with two to three IT experts in energy and four people on the food side. He says they are all domain experts for the IT systems they support in these businesses.
Due to the diversity of the business, Hindle says Midcounties Co-op runs best-of-breed software. "Our finance is separate to our HR, which is separate to our payroll systems."
All of these are being refreshed and Hindle is steering a major transformation of IT. "We are changing our core infrastructure and making a significant investment to support increased online business especially online energy," he says. "By April 2015, we will have changed every system at Midcounties."
The organisation deployed a new electronic point of sale (epos) in its food retail business last year and is two-thirds of the way through implementing an Oracle Energy system.
This was Midcounties' first Oracle system. However, Hindle says Oracle is now being used in other areas of the business. "Oracle will be the core finance system, providing a simple interface across the businesses."
In the pharmaceutical business he says: "We built the system ourselves with back-end software from a third party."
Most of the systems used by Midcounties Co-op are co-located with a service provider the organisation has used for the last 14 years, with Midcounties looking after its own infrastructure at the facility. Hindle says: "The mechanism we have works pretty well and we have not found a need for outsourcing our IT functions."
"The challenge, as we grow, is to continue to support the business in an effective way."
Collaboration in IT is part of being a co-operative. In fact, Midcounties’ epos system came from another co-op group. "Although we are independent, we collectively buy food and we also collectively look at IT," he adds. This goes over and beyond bulk buying and economies of scale, which would be the case in food procurement. Hindle says: “If we are doing something well, it can be replicated at another co-operative. We genuinely co-operate.”
There is a user group of the 10 largest co-operative, where the IT directors meet once a quarter. “We agree on roadmaps, and see the benefits of working collectively to save costs and add value,” says Hindle.
Clearly there are also opportunities to negotiate better terms and conditions on IT contracts, Hindle adds. “We are looking at the contracts with certain third parties to save money and improve delivery.” In the past there has been collective buying groups for buying IT equipment and services from Dell, O2 and BT.