Pieter Schoehuijs has been chief information officer for two years at global chemicals and coatings company AkzoNobel, whose brands include Dulux and Hammerite in the UK.
Schoehuijs is managing the IT strategy as the company makes the transition from a holding firm to managing company. IT is playing a major part in that transition and "there is hardly any project that does not have strong IT involvement".
The IT environment at AkzoNobel is complex and makes use of onshore and offshore outsourcing services, as well as cloud-based software. "We rely on external partners for our infrastructure, to manage datacentres and provide desktop support for example," Schoehuijs says. The company also uses software-as-a-service products such as Salesforce.com and Concur.
He says AkzoNobel is implementing shared services to improve efficiency, and continues to use more standard processes such as data warehouses and master data management. "It is possible to examine raw materials across all business units, for instance to check if there are environmental issues," he adds.
Complexities of master data management
The idea of a common view of business information across the whole company is tempting for many companies because it allows the management team to make more informed business decisions. But such business insight is not easy to achieve because of the way information systems are deployed organically and cultural and political differences within organisations.
Schoehuijs admits that creating a single version of the truth, through master data management, is a very large undertaking at AkzoNobel due to the way the company used to be organised.
Over the past few years, Schoehuijs' predecessors have "moved mountains" to consolidate datacentres and wide area networks, he says. "We are now doing the same thing with systems. Two years ago we had 200 ERP systems, we are now down to 120. But it is like sprinting a marathon - we are looking to get the number down to 10 over five years."
Some companies, such as chemical firms Dow and BASF, have tackled the problem of ERP consolidation by running a single version of SAP across the whole of their organisation. But such a strategy does not fit well at AkzoNobel, says Schoehuijs. The challenges are not technical, but relate to the way individual businesses within AkzoNobel operate. "We treasure agility in our business units. Our strategy is determined by our desire to harmonise certain processes across the business, while giving a level of independence at the business unit level," he says.
This is why AkzoNobel will end up with 10 systems, rather than a single instance of SAP. The centralised systems will include human resources, procurement, treasury and a data warehouse.
New ways of working
Consolidating the number of IT systems will support new ways of working. "Imagine trying to connect an iPhone or iPad to the enterprise when there are hundreds of systems. The challenge is completely non-linear. Even with 120 systems, you need 120 interfaces, and you need to test and validate all of them. This leads to spaghetti consolidation," says Schoehuijs. In other words, while a company may be able to lower complexity by reducing the number of IT systems, each one that remains will introduce its own complexities.
As for iPhones, iPads and other consumer technology, Schoehuijs says consumerisation is becoming more visible. "People are flocking to social media sites and demanding iPhones and iPads. The key is to have an open mind and explore how to make [these things] work."
Blogging is one of the areas the company has begun to explore. "There are sites that allow people to connect together. We found that a couple of thousand people were using one of these sites. We are now running a pilot to see if an alternative platform can provide a more controlled environment. We are also engaging with some social media sites to see if we can regain control of user data, and have issued conduct guidelines."
IT plays a key role at AkzoNobel, which means Schoehuijs gets involved in steering committees for the bigger projects at the early stages of planning, when the business is first deciding what it wants to achieve. There is also a growing hunger for information, as information drives efficiency. "We are trying to improve efficiency to respond quicker either to changes in the supply chain or political challenges."
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