CIO interview: Smoothing the transition from decentralised to global IT

Richard Harris, CIO of thread producer Coats, talks about how he balances global scale with local flexibility

Richard Cammish, CIO of Coats, has evolved the threading company's decentralised IT function into a worldwide operation, balancing global scale with local flexibility.

Coats is a 250-year-old business that manufactures and supplies threads to organisations in the global clothing and footwear market. Products that use its threads range from shoes and mattresses to Lipton tea bags.

The company operates at 168 sites in 70 countries, and faces the challenges of many global businesses in remaining relevant at a local level while benefiting from a global reach.

This is one of the many challenges CIO Richard Cammish has taken on in re-engineering an IT department from a traditional organisation to one that operates in the 21st century.

He says: "I get a lot of freedom to operate and I’m putting technology on the map. Technology has so much to offer."

Lync power

Cammish admits he did not really appreciate the power of Lync. Coats is using the Microsoft unified communication platform on-premise, within its own datacentre, along with a global email system using Microsoft Office 365 in the cloud. Cammish says: "We have taken a Microsoft technology stack and brought Lync on-premise, using an MPLS network from BT." 

This provides Coats with voice and email on the same environment and supports video-conferencing. He adds: "The email migration project was the tip of the iceberg. We are operating at a lot lower cost with a higher-quality service."

Cammish sits on Coats' managing board and for the past three years has been reorganising the IT structure. This involves moving away from federated, locally focused IT teams to one that has a global focus, but can retain the agility that comes from being local.

Getting the global message over

Centralisation of IT gives Coats scale and focus, but he says: "People get nervous about globalisation because there is a sense that you lose control." This is something he has had to work through with both management and the IT teams.

"I have had to sell the concept of global to the management board and the rest of the organisation," he says. But if the operating model changes, what do staff get back in return? "It is the ability to develop  talent," he says. "We can give people a career [focused on] technology in manufacturing." 

From a company-wide perspective, a global IT function enables Coats to use programme resource more effectively and there is better knowledge transfer. Globalisation has the added advantage of simplifying the supply base and allows him to leverage scale.

The change management process for globalising IT uses common objectives that are cascaded down through a simple operation framework known as RACI – responsible, accountable, consulted and informed.

For Cammish, this process provides a way to inform people how to behave in a global environment. There are two parts to Coats' operations: the crafts business, targeted at consumers through retailers such as Walmart, and the business-to-business market, in which the company is a supplier in manufacturing. By using RACI, staff can understand who is accountable – IT, HR, supply chain or the finance department.

To apply RACI to IT strategy, Cammish uses short-term objectives within a strategic project.

Global IT showcase

One of the major global projects Cammish has overseen is the migration of a legacy Lotus email system to Office 365.

"Email and collaboration is pervasive technology, particularly for white-collar workers," he says. "Of all the projects we deliver, email is the most visible."

There were three business drivers behind Coats' email migration: profitable sales growth, increased product and positive teamwork.

Although the company has a relationship with IBM for its datacentre and its Lotus Notes email system, Cammish says the time was right to move on.

"When you start to drive change, there is a lot of depth and complexity you can reveal," he says. "There was an appetite to upgrade email because our version of Notes was not the sharpest of tools. Synchronisation and connectivity niggles were among the problems faced by staff who travelled a lot."

Coats could have upgraded to Google or the latest version of Notes, but Cammish says Microsoft made a lot sense commercially. "Having lagged behind previously, Microsoft has approached corporate email in a different way," he says. "Its pricing structure is more transparent and the Microsoft toolkit is richer, such as including Lync [for unified communications]."

Along with the commercial argument and the pervasiveness of Microsoft software, Cammish admits he needed to balance change with the culture at Coats. "Being 18 months in as CIO, I have to sense our appetite for risk," he says. "While we take risks, we are still a traditional company."

For Cammish, Office 365 was a good fit, being both modern and familiar. "We didn’t have to train people," he says. "The product is quite intuitive."

Migration team

A team involving Microsoft, Dell and InfraScience took five months to migrate 7,500 users at 168 sites in more than 70 countries. Coats used Dell’s Notes Migrator for Exchange and Coexistence Manager for Notes to support the move.

Dell’s Notes Migration tool enabled the migration team to move users from multiple countries, some with low bandwidth, simultaneously and without disrupting the business.

Starting with a handful of email in-boxes each night, Coats used a semi-automated process to move Notes users to Office365. The team started slowly, troubleshooting and fixing problems with the migration process and tools. These fixes were then added into the migration process to make it more robust, giving the team the confidence to ramp up the switchover to Office 365.

"We recognise this is a collaborative process," says Cammish. "If things go wrong, there is no retribution. With the right spirit, you are able to work together collaboratively." As a result, when the migration picked up momentum, the team achieved 250-300 per month.

"What is very neat is that we disable users' Notes accounts, and within 30 seconds they can start using Office 365," he says.

For Cammish, the migration to Office 365 has enabled IT to develop its own created case study showcasing best practices in running a global project. "If we hadn’t taken a global view, it would have never got off the drawing board," he says.

Cammish says that in global projects such as the migration to Office 365, everyone has to chip in and align their objectives with common goals. "You shape the project, get people to understand their commitments and be clear about people’s roles and responsibilities," he says.

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