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Reinventing Bahrain’s Kanoo Group through digital technology

Kanoo Group IT director explains the company's IT transformation, including why implementing Office 365 across the business was his biggest career challenge

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Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) conglomerate Yusuf Bin Ahmed Kanoo Group is amid a company-wide digital transformation that has created some of the biggest challenges its IT head has ever faced.

Group IT director Jameel Al Sharaf is tasked with taking the 125-year-old business forward, while improving efficiency and cutting costs.

Since his appointment in 2013, Al Sharaf has busied himself with transforming nearly every aspect of the firm’s technical operations. With a solid record as former IT director for Bahrain’s sovereign wealth arm Mumtalakat, he is well equipped to take on the role as a transformative agent for one of the region’s oldest businesses.

He told Computer Weekly: “My role is quite challenging because of the change management aspect. How do I convince people to implement new technology within such a long-standing business? How do I explain IT in layman’s terms? That’s very challenging.”

Al Sharaf said Kanoo’s diversified travel, shipping, industrial materials and transport business is steeped in legacy, both in terms of systems and strategies.  

“I was excited to embrace new technology and digitise the company, but I had to work hard to explain change in a simple manner and I faced some scepticism. My role involves a lot of diplomacy and hand-holding.”

The group employs 4,000 people at its head office in Bahrain and satellite offices in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. “With a company this size there is obviously a lot of bureaucracy and approvals are needed. I had to work through those layers and so far we have completed 16 projects, mainly focusing on modernising the company’s infrastructure.”

Into the cloud

Al Sharaf’s first task was to introduce the company to the benefits of cloud computing with the company-wide implementation of Microsoft 365. “It was the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career,” he said. “Kanoo’s culture is very protective in terms of information and the staff were wary of hosting their emails outside the room. I had to explain that things have moved on.”

He eventually reached a compromise with Kanoo’s management team by implementing a hybrid model across the company. The company’s financial systems and business apps will remain on-site while apps with a collaborative nature, such as email and Skype for Business, have been moved to a cloud-computing model for improved accessibility and availability. “All of these were quite new ideas. It took us eight months to migrate all the staff to Office 365,” said Al Sharaf.

“People came to terms with the benefits of the cloud once the business gains were explained. We have now managed to make the company look so small by bridging and connecting people together. We use Skype for Business for meetings, where in the past people used to travel across the region for one-hour meetings.

“We are already enjoying a lot of cost savings. Skype has reduced our communications, telecoms and travel costs tremendously. More savings have been achieved by giving staff access to business communications using F5 Networks technology – by doing this we’ve managed to save time and reduce overtime.”

The company chose F5 Networks to strengthen the performance and security of its cloud-hosted apps. Al Sharaf said the organisation-wide F5 implementation solutions was the company’s largest IT project in 2015.

Through the implementation of new collaborative software, he said Kanoo’s work culture has changed.

“Our sales force is based around the region, so it was a dream for them to be able to access emails from a mobile. Mobility was key to the solution. We convinced people that this is the way forward. Our staff are loving it and it’s changing the dynamics of our workforce.”

Al Sharaf said the company has also invested in new hardware systems. “We have standardised our infrastructure and now have just one vendor, Fujitsu, for our workstations. We have a good relationship with them and have been able to benefit from economy-of-scale savings.”

The group is just three years into the digital transformation process. Over the next two years, Al Sharaf will turn his focus towards the company’s business departments and use enterprise resource planning software to transform finance, HR and supply chain management.

“The next step will be to reach out to the customer and provide them with the best experience possible. We’ve now prepared our office environment, but my vision is one day to be able to make every Kanoo customer happy – in terms of the information they receive, customer service satisfaction, staff professionalism and cross-selling capability,” said Al Shafar.

The company is also in the early stages of looking at a customer relationship management (CRM) platform, with a view to implementing either Microsoft Dynamics or solutions.

Al Shafar said: “In the past, customer relationship management has not been looked at seriously – there is not much shared cross-selling information between verticals. A CRM solution will help create a corporate pipeline of opportunities, leads and prospects.”

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Security concerns 

As he continues to modernise Kanoo’s network, Al Sharaf is focused on securing the company’s information, both internally and externally. The company has faced data leakages in the past and Al Sharaf said he would like to minimise future data spills.

“For a company of this size, with so many retail outlets and showrooms, the security around customer information leakage and social engineering is a big issue.

“We will put in place some measures, not just IT, but also legal and HR policies, to ensure all employees understand the legal implication of data leakage.”

As Kanoo’s IT infrastructure continues to evolve, Al Sharaf said the company’s technology recruitment needs will shift from regular IT support positions to hybrid business/technology management roles, with a particular focus on supply chain management and customer experience.

In the coming years, it will also become clear just how much Kanoo’s digital strategy has transformed the company from a financial and innovation perspective.

Al Sharaf concluded: “Being at the forefront of this transformation is exciting and being able to generate tangible value out of the investment in technology is fulfilling. We’re improving efficiency and reducing costs through technology and it’s just fascinating.”

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