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CIO interview: Nitin Chaturvedi, chief digital and technology officer, KFC Global

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the digital element of KFC’s business becoming increasingly important, says the fast food retailer’s chief digital and technology officer

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How KFC put digital on the menu

It’s been a busy year or so for Nitin Chaturvedi, chief digital and technology officer at KFC Global. He joined the fast-food giant in September 2019 and was just getting stuck into a global digital transformation programme when the Covid-19 pandemic hit at the start of last year and some of those digital-led projects became even more important. 

“As much as 2020 was the year of the pandemic, for us it was the year when we delivered rapid digital growth – and more important than the ‘what’ was the ‘how’ of it,” says Chaturvedi, who spoke to Computer Weekly in a video call following his recent virtual presentation at The Economist’s [email protected] event

Dealing with the impact of the pandemic has been “the tale of two cities” for KFC, says Chaturvedi. On the one hand, the restaurant sector – the traditional core of the firm’s business – was hit pretty hard in 2020. He says a lot of the firm’s markets around the globe were hurting when it came to sales, especially if they were mall-heavy or dine-in-heavy. 

But on the flipside, the digital element of KFC’s business really exploded. “As consumers shifted to off-premise, our restaurant teams and our franchisees fundamentally pivoted the ways of working and our business model to capture the Covid tailwind,” he says. “And we saw multiple years of progress in less than nine months.”

KFC’s year of digital growth was centred on three core areas, says Chaturvedi. First, the company diversified its approach. Where dine-in was not possible, KFC went to what Chaturvedi calls “full aggregator penetration” around the globe, using big-name specialists such as Uber Eats and Just Eat, and other local providers. 

Second, the company built scale very rapidly. Traffic to KFC’s web app increased significantly and it rolled out new mechanisms to help serve customers safely and effectively, such as kerbside and click-and-collect across the globe. KFC used these methods so that its staff could pass food to customers outside the store in a safe, socially distanced manner. 

“We have gone from digital being a part of the business to being one of our biggest bets in the market”

Nitin Chaturvedi, KFC Global

Third, KFC innovated much more rapidly than it had historically, says Chaturvedi. Like most incumbents, the firm sometimes struggles to bring new ideas to market quickly. But 2020 was a year when creativity became the norm, with lots of new-to-market innovations, such as using the internet of things (IoT) and sensors to help improve operational efficiency in the back office, and testing robotics in the drive-through to provide contactless serving.

“When we think about digital metrics, pretty much every element was accelerated – sales grew by multiple billions,” he says. “We diversified our digital channels to make our business stronger for the future. We built scale very rapidly. And we innovated at much faster rates. So, all in all, there has been a very rapid pace of progress over the past nine months.

“Our digital business has exploded. We have gone from digital being a part of the business to being one of our biggest bets in the market. We have up-levelled its visibility. I think elevating it, and then driving growth from it, has been probably the business impact of my time here. And that’s not just about me, that’s been the work of everyone.”

Taking on a fresh challenge 

Formerly with tech giant Google and consultant McKinsey, Chaturvedi joined KFC to take on an IT leadership role in a blue-chip business. He recognises that his move to KFC in 2019 was a radical shift in career direction, yet it also adds to his breadth of experience.

“If I step back and look at my career, it’s been in four chunks,” he says. “I’ve been a technologist, a strategist, an operator running a business, and now a digital and technology leader. For me, this position at KFC was pretty left field from what I was doing and what I should have done logically. 

“The reason I took this role is I saw this massive potential to modernise mainstream companies after working in Silicon Valley. I saw the gap. I thought it would be a good opportunity to start modernising the mainstream from the inside.” 

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to start modernising the mainstream from the inside”
Nitin Chaturvedi, KFC Global

Chaturvedi leads KFC’s digital transformation in 150 countries. He is in charge of a range of key business areas, including product and engineering, e-commerce, automation, data and analytics, digital marketing and digital partnerships. He is also a member of the firm’s executive committee and reports to KFC CEO Tony Lowings. 

“I’m enjoying it a lot,” he says. “We have a pretty decentralised structure, and that gives you speed to market, which is amazing, but it also means you have to rally an entire organisation before you get something done.”

About 85% of KFC’s business is based outside the US. Chaturvedi says the business is also “highly local” – brand, food, people and operations are run autonomously in different regions and nations. That split creates an interesting dynamic, he says.

“I think that’s also been one of the challenges – how do you move at pace in a very decentralised and complex environment?” says Chaturvedi, who adds that the scale of the challenge becomes even bigger when thinking about transformation: “That’s thinking about how do you stay ahead of the market, because everybody’s moving faster in digital.” 

Leading cultural change

The past 12 months have clearly provided some crucial lessons for how KFC will use digitisation to drive business growth in the post-Covid age. Yet Chaturvedi is quick to point out that the boom in online channels has not been his only impact since joining the firm. He has also driven crucial change on the people side of the business. 

“We’ve managed to transform the culture of the organisation to much more of an agile culture,” he says. “And that is a massive task to do across 150 countries. So I think that’s been a very broad transformation on the people side.”

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Chaturvedi says the importance of these cultural change programmes has been clear in the past 12 months. In many ways, the move towards iteration has helped the business and its IT team to cope with the rapid pace of change. 

“Like many companies, we are organised functionally, and often the greatest breakdowns and leakages happen at the intersections of these functions,” he says. “But we fundamentally changed our ways of working over the global crisis.

“We worked in cross-functional ways, we were much more iterative – progress over perfection, progress over credit. So, those kinds of things really helped move our teams much faster because there were none of the historical leakages that we used to see.”

Rather than making digital growth the mandate of one team, KFC made digitisation the mandate of every function, whether it was operations or marketing or real estate. Chaturvedi refers to this approach as democratising digital: “And as a result, we could open up multiple battle fronts at the same time, and make progress a lot faster.”

Providing heart-led leadership 

Chaturvedi says the past 12 months have also seen a “top-to-bottom transformation” of KFC’s strategy and operating model, and one of the keys to success was maintaining the company’s culture and values, which the c-suite team refers to as “heart-led leadership”.

“This really came to the forefront during the crisis, when instead of taking control and trying to drive in a more central way, we ceded control down to the restaurant teams, and our franchisees,” he says. “They could make progress much faster because we weren’t bottlenecking any decisions and they had a lot more autonomy.

“In a time of crisis, there is often this groundswell to do more. As a management team, we were very disciplined and focused on two or three big things that captured most of the Covid tailwind, and that helped our teams get more focused and move faster.”

“In a time of crisis, there is often this groundswell to do more”
Nitin Chaturvedi, KFC Global

Like all business leaders, Chaturvedi recognises that making those choices was far from straightforward. He says what might have been perceived to be the direction of travel was changing all the time, whether in terms of disease patterns, lockdown rules or government mandates.

“We couldn’t really prepare and plan for any given future,” he says. “So we just increased the optionality in our business model to be able to react to whatever future came our way, whether that was things like payment choices or ordering choices or fulfilment choices. We just expanded all of them, so that we could react to whichever way the wind blew.”

Across all these reactive approaches, one thing remained constant – the need to support customers. Chaturvedi says the pandemic has been a time when consumers have fled to brands they trust. KFC ensured it dialled up the trust factor across the board, from the use of contactless technologies through to marketing communications and on to configuring food pick-up at its stores, so consumers would feel safer.

Looking forward with confidence 

Chaturvedi says the coping strategy KFC has adopted during the pandemic has important lessons for the future of the company. As he looks beyond Covid and towards the direction of travel for the business during the next couple of years, he says there are a few key areas where he and his c-suite colleagues will be directing their attention.

“We need to better utilise our scale across markets to find the right balance between global scale and local responsiveness,” he says. “I think the second big thing that I want to focus on is picking a few bets to go really big on in terms of innovations.

“I think there are a lot of things you can do. There are a lot of technologies out there, but there are only two or three that are going to allow us to start outpacing the market. And then the third big priority I have is the people side and to make sure we have an organisation and talent pool that is future-ready.”

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