CIO interview: Fernando Birman, head of the digital office, Solvay

After years of IT work to support major M&A activity, global chemicals company Solvay is focusing on innovation to drive internal efficiency

After years of IT work to support major merger and acquisition (M&A) activity, global chemicals company Solvay is now focusing on innovation to drive more internal efficiency.

The Belgium-based firm, which operates in 55 countries, saw its workforce double from 15,000 to 30,000 in 2011 after it acquired chemicals company Rhodia. As a result, Solvay had to make changes and improvements to its IT set-up.

After the merger, the company’s legacy portfolio was renewed and integrated with new datacentre contracts, a new telecommunications network was put in place and a service desk installed. This meant that newer units of the group, in locations such as China and India, received the new set of standard applications.

“All M&A operations are always followed by huge integration efforts,” says Fernando Birman (pictured), head of the digital office at Solvay. “We couldn’t be different. We delivered many initiatives to integrate, renew and improve our solutions portfolio and  we are now focusing a lot more on innovation.”

Significant changes in IT leadership have also taken place recently. Rhodia’s IS director, Jacques-Benoit Le Bris, replaced Xavier Rambaud, who retired in 2014, as chief information officer. Birman, formerly IS strategy and architecture director based in Brazil, became leader of the digital office, a newly-created global function within the IT department.

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Kick-starting innovation

According to Birman, his dedicated team's mission is to kick-start innovative initiatives in areas such as collaboration tools, as well as investigating how new technologies can improve internal processes and creating a “digital mindset” within the company.

“The innovation cell has the mission of listening to its internal customers and also pushing fresh ideas from the IT world to them,” Birman tells Computer Weekly.

“Imagine we launch a proof of concept with a smartwatch as an interface for some business transactions. If it's a good idea and robust enough to be deployed, then it will join the IT standard offer. The digital office is there to search, experiment and develop business cases.”

As an example of using collaboration tools to foster smarter ways of working, the digital office is deploying a change management initiative, whereby the process of staff application training will go beyond traditional methods to incorporate coaching in how to be more productive, rather than simply how to use software features.

Other initiatives to introduce new tools and technologies to the company include implementing a Salesforce.com customer relationship management platform, as well as mobile device management (MDM) to allow secure use of the company’s smartphones and tablets.

Bleeding-edge technology

Birman says Solvay is identifying opportunities to use “bleeding-edge” technology – a shift from the past and from the previous approach to go for products that were thoroughly tried and tested.

“We are talking about the internet of things, big data, augmented reality, robotics and others,” he says. “Sometimes we have to show the possibilities to our people and advise them on how to exploit those technologies because it might not always be obvious.”

The more people are aware of the benefits new technology can bring, the better

Fernando Birman, Solvay

According to Birman, creating a digital mindset creates many opportunities for tech-based innovation that might not necessarily come from the IT department.

“The more people are aware of the benefits new technology can bring, the better,” he says. “Probably there are very good ideas hidden in the mind of a Korean salesman or an American maintenance worker. We in IT don’t hold a monopoly of good technology-based ideas.

“As we cannot possibly interview or discuss these ideas with everybody, the best thing to do is to make everybody aware of the technology options out there that are viable to us with events, workshops and generally informing people. We hope that, in the near future, people from outside the tech department will start coming to us with some very interesting ideas.”

Moving from a well-established function in Brazil to lead a global innovation function out of Europe has its leadership challenges for Birman.

“It's a very different job,” he says. “Though, after so many years in different IT leadership positions, I must say that I do have the necessary background to achieve my goals.

“Nevertheless, it's a huge challenge. For example, the job requires an intense amount of cross-departmental relationship-building. So far, the main challenge is to sneak in the best tech-enabled opportunities that we can identify and try to deploy them quite fast.”

Birman hopes that in the coming months, the digital office will make an even more significant contribution to the overall IT strategy.

He says: “By 2016, I’d like to see that we did embrace technologies like augmented reality or the internet of things, through the execution of proof of concepts and many discussions about the complete redesign of business processes and models.”

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