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Interview: Javed Iqbal, digital and information director, British American Tobacco

British American Tobacco’s director of digital and information, Javed Iqbal, talks to Computer Weekly about breaking with tradition, the importance of cultural mindset and AI ethics

Some might associate a tobacco company founded at the beginning of the last century with old-school values, reluctance to adopt technology, and miles of red tape. 

It takes less than five minutes of a conversation with British American Tobacco’s (BAT) digital leader to figure out the complete opposite is true. During a wide-ranging chat with Computer Weekly, Javed Iqbal, BAT director of digital and information, talks about the importance of regulation, how to solve IT issues in a global company, using technology to improve the nicotine industry and everything in between. 

Iqbal is somewhat of a BAT stalwart. He joined the company in his home country of Pakistan in 1996, after completing his second MBA in finance, having previously graduated with an MBA in management information systems. 

He comes from a family of teachers, growing up in Multan, a conservative town in the Punjab province of Pakistan. This was where his mother, back in the 1970s, broke a glass ceiling. In a place where women stayed home and looked after the house, his mother became the first female in her family to start working outside the house, perhaps instilling in Iqbal from a young age that change is a positive thing. 

As a BAT employee, Iqbal kept delivering and moving up the company. His career has taken him all over the world, including South Korea, Switzerland and London, where he currently resides. 

However, it’s the last four years of his career that has been “more exciting,” Iqbal tells Computer Weekly. 

British American Tobacco was officially founded in 1902 when American and British tobacco counterparts decided to create a joint venture and the company continued to grow globally. 

However, the tobacco industry today is a more challenging market. Iqbal and BAT are working hard on highlighting reduced-risk products such as vapes. Its purpose is to build "a better tomorrow," and to BAT, that means "building a smokeless world," Iqbal says.

The company aims to do so by switching as many smokers as it can to smokeless products such as vapes and nicotine pouches.

“In this journey, myself and my team feel we have a big role to play, and the technology and digital channels will play a much bigger role than they had played in the traditional business,” he says. 

Regulations and red tape

The most challenging part of this is regulation. In a global company, dealing with regulations in many different countries and continents can be difficult, but Iqbal is sure of one thing: “Regulating works. If we can have regulations of licensing of who can and cannot sell alcohol in this country, why can’t we have regulations on who can and cannot sell nicotine in this country? Why can’t we put age verification responsibilities with penalties on nicotine products? That to me is very important,” he says.

Our focus is to use AI to create the right framework and the right environment where people within the organisation can learn about it, understand it and the risks it comes with
Javed Iqbal, BAT

Part of BAT’s role in this is implementing technology into its vaping products. The company recently launched an app, allowing for age verification through a smartphone. Although only available in three countries so far, the UK not being one of them, the app is connected to the vaping device, which will stay locked until you verify your age, leaving you unable to use it unless you can. 

“It’s early days,” Iqbal says, “but going forward we want all our future products to have verification profiles. In the next six to 12 months, we should be able to show regulators that you could have a vaping device which is age verifiable and where you will be able to replace and remove the battery, making it more environmentally friendly. We’re looking at how we as a digital team can put in place technological solutions which can be used by the regulators, by the consumers, or by us as a company to make sure we play our role in this area."

The SAP journey

It’s not just the consumer-facing part of the business that has had a technology overhaul. Over the last 10 to 12 years, the company has had consistent reviews of what is needed in IT to bring it more into the modern world, Iqbal says.  

Originally, according to Iqbal, BAT had “a very disintegrated, disjointed IT function” across its portfolio. To solve this, it created a global IT function, but then had to look at how to develop global platforms and solutions that could be used everywhere.

"We're focused on setting the right guardrails on using any AI solution so we could regulate its usage across the group"

Javed Iqbal, BAT

About a decade ago, BAT partnered with IBM to design and implement a new global SAP template in more than 180 markets worldwide.

“If you asked me if I would do that today, the answer would be no,” Iqbal says. “But I’m very happy it was done. It’s important to note that it was done at the right time and it did deliver the desired results, and it keeps on delivering the right results."

An initial digital business solutions (DBS) focus was aimed at becoming a more efficient and effective function to accelerate the transition of BAT into its multi-category agenda. Subsequently it launched "Program Boost," the next evolution of the transformation programme, now in its second year.

The programme consists of three different strategic levers - refreshing the partner strategy; standardisation of its IT estate; and revising the company's IT operating model.  

BAT entered into a partnership with supplier ITC Infotech in India, rewriting all of its back-office services, which has led to a significant reduction in its standard services cost while providing a unique value proposition to improve its services and on-site services. The hopes are that this partnership will enable the DBS operating model to become more agile and flexible, transitioning from a traditional waterfall methodology to a DevSecOps approach.  

Data analytics and the tech pantry

Iqbal says the traditionally labelled “big tobacco company” is now a “transformational company” and as such needs to leverage better data analytics. To do this, the BAT leadership team will use its partnership with Microsoft - when BAT first met with the software giant, it was about to launch Microsoft Fabric, an open, data lake-centric AI-powered analytics platform.

“I'm very proud to say that we were one of the few strategic partners who went on the Fabric journey before its commercial release,” Iqbal says. 

“Having a belief, and building that strategic relationship, gave my data analytics team that opportunity, and we are on the leading edge. So we were able to leapfrog.”

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Iqbal offers the metaphor of a kitchen pantry, saying that if you want to bake something, you may have to go to the market to buy everything you need. However, if you really like baking, you’d rather have a pantry with all the basic ingredients already in place: "If you have a pantry with the right ingredients in your kitchen, you can make a variety of recipes faster, and don’t have to go to the market.”

Iqbal says that’s how he explained to the senior leadership team that they needed a data pantry. “Now, we can bake as many data analytics solutions as we want and create the reports we want,” he says.

A focus on AI

Like many big businesses, artificial intelligence (AI) is at the forefront of BAT's strategic thinking. However, Iqbal takes a cautious approach: "We're focused on setting the right guardrails on using any AI solution so we could regulate its usage across the group."

Iqbal says that, at the moment, the focus is not about being the latest with the newest, hot AI products, but rather to focus on the ethics.

“The major work which has been done is actually on what does ethical AI mean, and that's where we kept our focus,” he adds

“I understand the hype and the difference it can make. Our focus is to use AI to create the right framework and the right environment where people within the organisation who are really eager, irrespective of the function they come from, can learn about it, understand it and the risks it comes with. We don't need to be at the cutting edge of technology every time, we only bring technology which has the right business case.”

Looking to the future, Iqbal is optimistic. His key point is reiterated again: “We need better regulation”.

Technology can help with that, he believes. The UK has a very unregulated market, particularly when it comes to vapes. All it takes is a walk down London’s Oxford Street, which is littered with shops selling vapes to anyone and everyone. For a company like BAT, this is a minefield. The products it sells need to have the right standards and regulations in place, but it also wants to help the rest of the industry to catch up.

“We want to help the regulators, and have them help us work in this space. When we are building our solutions, we are also giving some of those solutions to our regulatory affairs team to see how we can help recommend solutions with the help of the technologies we create,” Iqbal says.

“At BAT we believe that if it’s the right thing to do, we shouldn’t stop when we get the first 'no'. We should keep going with more data, better arguments and with better solutions to change the regulations for the better.” 

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