CIO interview: Michael Foster, European vice-president of IT, FedEx Express

What role should IT play in business? This is the question Michael Foster, vice-president of IT at Fedex Europe, tackles at the global courier. Cliff Saran reports.

What role should IT play in business? This is the question Michael Foster, vice-president of IT at FedEx Europe, tackles at the global courier. Cliff Saran reports

Michael Foster is vice-president of IT for the EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Africa]  region at FedEx Express, which covers 123 countries across Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Africa. Foster, who has worked at FedEx for 15 years, had a supply chain background before moving into a full IT role 10 years ago. He realised early on the benefits of matching technology with business needs: "In the supply chain, you quickly learn that developing technology improves performance."

So how is technology used at the global logistics firm? "FedEx has global physical capabilities and we use technology to manage those capabilities," says Foster. For instance, FedEx has developed IT solutions to manage its fleet of 680 aircraft, and has developed software internally that optimally schedules the route for a pilot.

Intertwined technology and business

Over the past decade, a constant question facing IT has been what role it should play in the business. Foster believes that the more closely IT is aligned to the business, the more likely the business is to succeed.

The role of IT in business is an interesting question for FedEx, as IT is integral to its operation. In 1978, founder and CEO Frederick Smith stated that the information about the package was as important as the package itself. Based on this premise, FedEx started developing its package management systems.

The idea that business and technology are intertwined is evident in the management structure at FedEx - the global CIO, Robert Carter, is a member of the executive board and co-CEO of FedEx Services, which provides IT, customer services and sales and marketing support to the company.

Web services automate and simplify processes

The company now offers a suite of web services, electronic trade documents and international shipping software, all building on the information FedEx knows about the packages being shipped. The web services enable its customers to automate aspects of their logistics business processes.

Through its Developers Resource Center website, developers can access documentation, sample codes and WSDL downloads. FedEx also provides a hosted test environment to enable developers to test their applications and a certification process for authenticating applications.

Package shipping, in particular international package shipping, can be complex. FedEx has built IT systems to enable its customers to manage and simplify their shipping experience. From internet-based shipping on through to shipping servers that can be integrated with a customer's individual fulfilment needs, FedEx offers applications it says meet the needs of both simple and complex customer situations. For international shippers, FedEx has deployed an Electronic Trade Documents service, which allows customers to submit customs documents to FedEx prior to the shipment being collected.

Foster says the process of developing software at FedEx is intricately linked to the business. "We have a standard internal software development methodology to tie IT in with the business so that the outcomes are what we expect," he says. It is a process that the company has been using for the past decade, and any outsourcer wishing to do business with FedEx must adhere to the company's methodology for software development and delivery. "When we engage with outsourcers we are clear how we wish to work," Foster adds.

Mobile technology in the workplace

IT has clearly driven the company forward, and FedEx was an early pioneer of mobile technology in the workplace. In 2002, it developed and deployed a device called the PowerPad to its 40,000 couriers. The devices communicated with a back-end FedEx system using a GPRS network.

Since the smartphone revolution, such technology has become readily available to customers. Foster says FedEx supports the trend for employees to use their own devices, but maintains that "the company's primary concern is data security".


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