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Like all IT leaders, Richard Gifford, CIO at logistics giant Wincanton, has had a busy few months. He’s had to use technology to help the business work remotely due to the spread of Covid-19 and he’s also had to keep one eye on the future, especially in terms of how digital services can help the business grow in the longer term.
Computer Weekly last spoke with Gifford in June 2018. Back then, he expected the tech-enabled propositions the firm offered to its clients would be significantly enhanced by mid-2020. So has that aim been realised? In most cases, Gifford believes it has.
“I think we’ve made significant progress,” he says, reflected by the fact that he recently joined the executive board of the FTSE-listed company. “There’s all manner of technology-enabled propositions that we continue to introduce to our customers.”
Gifford says making further progress on this journey is about ensuring customers have confidence in Wincanton as an innovator. He says many of its customers’ enquiries, whether concerning the use of robotics in the warehouse or robotic process automation in the office, will be considered carefully and the business will look to provide solutions.
The work that Gifford and his team have undertaken in the past two years will be crucial to fulfilling these aims – but there is still much to do.
“We’ve made a lot of progress – there have been a few twists and turns, and sometimes things take longer to implement than you might have anticipated – but we’re always looking to innovate,” he says.
One of the main developments that Gifford discussed back in 2018 was a modernisation strategy that involved the consolidation of existing enterprise platforms and the implementation of a cloud-based transport management system (TMS) across the business. This system, which helps the company break away from some of its legacy applications, will be delivered this summer.
“Cloud has always been key to the business”
Richard Gifford, Wincanton
“That’s been a longer and more complicated journey,” says Gifford, reflecting on the route to this point over the past 24 months. “When you lift the hood on your back-end systems and find out the extent of the legacy, it can be more complicated than anybody might ever have imagined. But I’m pleased to say that we’ve cracked it.”
Although internal systems have been transformed, there are still pockets of legacy around. Many of these platforms are related to customer deployments in multi-client warehouses, where legacy technology still does a job and the finer details of customer contracts mean that an update in technology would not create a suitable return on investment.
However, the introduction of TMS – and the move away from legacy technology more generally – has helped to prove the benefits of digital transformation to those at the top of the business. Now, any new systems or services across Wincanton, whether related to warehouse technology or e-commerce platforms, will be cloud-based.
“Cloud has always been key to the business,” he says. “The board is seeing the benefits of on-demand IT services. Our ERP [enterprise resource planning] and HR systems are going to go to the cloud, and the platforms we’re doing around e-commerce are going to the cloud. We’re a big user of Microsoft Teams, too. Any new systems that we deploy from now will be in the cloud.”
Building a connected network
Two years ago, Gifford also talked in detail about the importance of digitising the supply chain and creating what he referred to as an “internet of transport”, which would use a range of emerging technologies to boost operational efficiencies. The aim was to use technology to help ensure goods arrive at customers’ premises in the right condition – and considerable progress has been made.
“We’ve delivered telematics now to all our vehicles, which was primarily done for health and safety reasons, so we can get figures on things like harsh braking and acceleration, but also we get figures on fuel usage,” he says. “We’ve also seen that accidents are down, which is good for insurance, so implementing technology here really is a win/win.”
Gifford says Wincanton is also tying data from this telematics system into its TMS, which will allow the firm to monitor vehicles’ progress during journeys.
“If you can see where the vehicle is, you can provide your customers with live updates and when they can expect the vehicle to arrive, so that’s all tied in quite nicely,” he says.
Wincanton’s internet of transport also includes developments in what Gifford calls the “paperless cap”. Rather than having reams of paper in their lorries, drivers can use mobile technology to create a digital proof of delivery. The firm has created an app, known as Winsight, that allows drivers to manage their movements through an Android device.
“That app becomes the digital execution partner for the drivers – they can see what load they’re getting, they can see where they’ve got to get to, and they can say when it’s delivered,” he says. “So, TMS, telematics and Winsight are all becoming one system – and I’m quite proud of the developments we’ve made in that area.”
Assessing rapidly advancing technologies
When it comes to emerging areas of technology, progress has been mixed. Like so many of his CIO peers, Gifford expected to see reasonably rapid advancements in key areas such as blockchain and robotic process automation (RPA). In the first of these areas, the results have been disappointing – at least so far.
“We were looking at Maersk and IBM’s blockchain-enabled shipping solution in 2018, and whether we could expand that overland to our customers,” he says. “We concluded that it wasn’t the right time to do it, just because there wasn’t sufficient value. So that’s taken the back burner – it’s not been ruled out completely, it’s just something we’re not looking at now.”
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When it comes to RPA, and the use of automation to fulfil operational activities within the business, there is more optimism. Gifford’s team ran a proof-of-concept study on the technology in its finance team and is investigating how RPA might be implemented in other business areas, such as human resources.
“We’re in the process of standing that up and setting it up at the moment,” he says. “I haven’t got any results to report just yet, but I would mark that one out as an exciting technology that’s going to help us create efficiencies.”
Creating new business models
Gifford’s commitment to innovation hasn’t just been confined to technological developments. As a pioneering CIO, he has always been keen on how his company can use digitisation to change its existing business models.
During the past two years, the tech team has helped to develop Onevastwarehouse.com, a platform that matches buyers with sellers of warehouse space. Companies that need on-demand access to storage space can use the platform to find it quickly, while warehouse owners have the opportunity to advertise under-utilised space.
Gifford believes such technology-enabled twists can help Wincanton expand into new areas and to potentially become a platform business, rather than just a logistics firm that manages trucking and warehousing operations.
The good news, says Gifford, is that Onevastwarehouse is already up and running. What needs to happen now is for tech-enabled use cases to expand. Interestingly, the concept has proven its worth during the coronavirus pandemic, as Wincanton and its customers use the platform to track and trace available warehousing space, especially when businesses, such as retailers, have unsold stock to store.
“We have Onevastwarehouse going and it's doing OK,” he says. “It needs some marketing, it needs some more tech. But we’re building it into propositions and we’re pretty comfortable with where that is right now given that it’s a disruptive technology. It’s not just about Wincanton’s warehouse space – we’re saying our customers can advertise their space, too.”
Solving key organisational challenges
Gifford has longer-term plans to potentially expand some of the ideas behind Onevastwarehouse into other operational areas. The intention is to “elevate” that technology to both transport and people. Wincanton and its customers would then be able to use the cross-resources platform to plot spare capacity across not just warehouses, but also transportation and human resources.
“We’ve got a desire – but it’s not progressed yet,” says Gifford, who continues to seek new ways to help the business expand. That analysis includes looking beyond the enterprise firewall and sourcing creative ideas from the wider technological community, particularly from startups.
The firm launched an innovation programme called W2 Labs in 2017. It is aimed at challenging startups from around the world to develop innovative solutions to industry challenges defined by Wincanton. The project has produced some creative solutions to business challenges, including ZigZag, which helps online retailers manage international returns and provides a link between warehouses and couriers.
Gifford is keen to continue working with startups, although some of his more creative plans have been put on hold because of Covid-19.
“The intention is to continue with that scheme,” he says. “The timing is just not right now – it’s impossible to involve customers in that process currently, and that’s what you’d want do.”
However, when the timing is right, Gifford is keen to once again look beyond the firewall. For now, he’s keen to make sure his broad suite of technology-enabled solutions helps solve business challenges – and another 24 months from now, he has his eye on a list of key achievements.
“I'd like to think we’ve addressed the back-office issues, that we’ve stood up a transport marketplace, and that we’ve linked that marketplace to our Onevastwarehouse, so we’ve got a proposition to run across that platform, and that we’d trialled the people element of that platform, too,” he says. “I’d also like to have robotics live in a number of warehouses and I’d imagine that RPA would be quite significant for our operation.”