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CIO interview: Claire Dickson, group CIO, DS Smith

Settling into her new role, Claire Dickson is working with the business to make strategic progress, smart, data-led changes and create a five-year digital strategy

Claire Dickson, group CIO at multinational packaging business DS Smith, is only a few months into her new role, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t eager to make changes. An experienced transformation leader, Dickson is keen to work with her executive peers to create a long-term strategy for technology-enabled transformation. 

“I’m working with the business at the moment so we can make some strategic progress,” she says. “I want to make sure we know where we are today and what the starting point is so we can demonstrate measurable progress across our key areas.”

The long-term aim is to create tech-led improvements in key business areas, such as supply chain activities and customer experiences. But that doesn’t mean Dickson won’t be making other smart, data-led changes as she goes along. “Part of that work is getting after some quick wins and making sure we’re always making progress,” she says.

Dickson started her career in sales with United Biscuits, later moving into IT as she took responsibility for an SAP programme. She then worked for a small company specialising in transformation before joining Accenture and later moving on to BP, where she headed up big digital change projects, becoming CIO of BP’s downstream operation in June 2016.

“That was across all our businesses from crude to customer – so 18,000 retail sites, refineries and pipelines,” she says. “And then, happily, I got the call to join DS Smith.” 

Dickson says the role attracted her for two key reasons: environmental aims and transformational opportunities. “The concept that we’re a company that is trying to replace plastics and packaging with fibre appealed – we recycle more packaging than we produce, and we are taking some responsibility for the packaging that we’re making,” she says.

“I thought, ‘that’s a company that has a purpose that I want to be part of’. Matching that purpose with the digital journey, which presented so many opportunities in a company like this, is why I thought it was a good time to make the move.”

In many ways, Dickson is an experienced hand when it comes to embracing environmentalism and business transformation. Her previous employer, BP, is on its own transition, shifting from being an organisation that generates and delivers energy to one that creates and develops integrated and renewable energy solutions.

“Both are big, old manufacturing companies,” she says. “Any manufacturing company that’s over 30 years old has a burden of some legacy that it’s trying to modernise. So some of that is similar. Both have big data opportunities. On the low-carbon side at BP, I was very involved in the electrification agenda – and I’m obviously going to be bringing some of that low-carbon sustainability experience to DS Smith.”

Finding opportunities for change 

When it comes to roles and responsibilities in her new role, Dickson will lead the delivery of the company’s next-generation technology agenda, which is focused on the transformation of data and digital technology capability to deliver efficiency improvements and enhancements to the customer experience.

So, a little while into the role, how is everything going? Very well, says Dickson. Despite not being able to get out and meet people in offices or at manufacturing plants because of the coronavirus pandemic, she has managed to use video-conferencing technology to meet and greet people from across DS Smith. 

“What I’m trying to do is pull the business into next-generation systems and services”

Claire Dickson, DS Smith

“They’re a very welcoming group of people who have all been very generous with their time,” she says. “There’s definitely an ambition in the leadership of the company to use digital technology to help progress the business, so they’re definitely all-in on that and they’re looking forward to seeing what opportunities we can access.” 

Dickson acknowledges that it’s “an interesting time” to join a new company, with social distancing requirements limiting face-to-face interaction. But she is more thankful than ever for access to collaborative technology. What’s more, she says there’s still lots to do, with or without meeting people in-person.

“I’m just going through the numbers – understanding what working capital we’ve got how we could use technology to access it, and understanding what the big problems are that we’re facing as a company and how we can potentially use technology to help with that,” she says. “I think that, irrespective of where you are, you can still do that. It’s actually been a much smoother transition than I thought it would be.”

Making the most of data

Dickson already has her eyes set on a range of transformation opportunities. One key area of change will involve using a combination of big data and digital technologies to drive business change.

“A good example of that would be, ‘how can I use machine learning to improve our forecasting capability?’ And ‘how can I use data to better optimise our working capital?’ These are the big questions that we want to answer through technology and help DS Smith access better margins and customer experiences, or make more money through efficiencies,” she says.

“That’s really what I want to drive and lead, which is in addition to the usual CIO-type role, which covers things like the cyber security side and operations. What I’m trying to do is pull the business into next-generation systems and services, which is looking at how we can deploy some of these new technologies to move the business forward.”

When it comes to thinking about potential value creation through the use of machine learning and big data, Dickson says one of the things she still has to assess is the technology platform the company uses. DS Smith is using the Microsoft Azure stack. In her role as CIO of BP’s downstream operation, her team used the Amazon Web Services (AWS) stack. 

“We are doing some work to decide whether we’re going to go all-in AWS or all-in Azure stack,” she says. “The proofs of concept that we’ve got running are using Azure, but we haven’t made that final decision at DS Smith yet. That’s a piece of work we will be running in the next couple of months. To be clear, I want us to use an end-to-end stack, so that’s what we’ll be doing, rather than multicloud or hybrid.”

Creating a transformation strategy 

One of Dickson’s main priorities right now is to create a five-year digital transformation strategy for the future direction of the business. She aims to deliver the strategy to the board in late July or early August.

“I think the digital strategy is going to have a number of elements to it,” she says. “There’s going to be the business outcomes – whether that’s focusing on areas like the digital supply chain or digital customer experience – so I’ll have some pillars around that, leaning into how we look strategically at our business.

“There’s also a lot of work around capability and mindset and ways of working, which needs to be considered, so I’m looking at putting a digital academy in place to upskill our people. And there’s a big core piece around architecture and technologies. That’s back to what we were talking about before and using AWS or Azure for our cloud data foundations.”

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Although Dickson is building a new strategy, she says it is important to note that her team is not building on a greenfield site. There is already some great work around digital being undertaken at DS Smith, she says, giving mention to the firm’s innovation function, led by chief strategy officer Alex Manisty. 

“I want to make sure we’re looking at the bigger picture data and opportunities,” she says. “So my team will be working closely with Alex and his team to leverage some of that innovation capability.”

Dickson says the good work that has already been implemented at the firm includes the ePack web shop, an e-commerce platform aimed at small and medium-sized businesses that launched in 2018 and which has demonstrated the potential opportunities of digital-led change to the board at DS Smith. The aim now is to do more, she adds.

“That platform provides packaging for specialist items such as vinyl or bottles of wine. There’s been a big uptake for its services during Covid-19. But that is the beginnings of a customer platform that we could expand for other channels of trade, so there’s definitely some good stuff going on.” 

Delivering business benefits 

Dickson might be new to her role, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t already established a strong vision of how technology might help the business to work more effectively over the next couple of years. 

One of the things she expects to see is a very strong partnering with the rest of the business – and she envisages progress in a number of areas. “I would love to see some data labs in some of our plants, where engineers can bring in problems and we can spin up some of the ideas that they’ve got in days,” she says. 

Another priority is the development of Dickson’s own IT team. As well as honing some of the company’s core infrastructure expertise, she talks about the importance of “next-generation” talent, referring to the development of internal capability in key areas such as cloud and data engineering.

Two years from now, Dickson would also like to see the organisation become what she refers to as “a data-enabled business”, where employees have access to detailed dashboards for the supply chain, which they can use to optimise the firm’s operational activities.

“I’d love to see the customer experience continually optimised for our major customers,” she says. “We are excellent in supply chain – that’s one of our winning capabilities, but could we be even better? And would a B2B marketplace support that, for example? There’s some really good opportunities for us to go after.”

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