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CIO interview: Ian Fisher, CIO, DHL UK&I

The logistics giant’s CIO talks about bridging the gender gap, emerging technologies and driving innovation

DHL is leading a series of IT-based initiatives in the UK and Ireland to improve operations and customer service, while developing and maintaining the required skills to grow the business into new markets, sectors and products.

To deliver the firm’s business strategy, dubbed Focus, Connect & Grow which runs until 2020, UK and Ireland CIO Ian Fisher is managing a range of projects he hopes will help differentiate the company, both in terms of IT and logistics.

“At DHL, our IT strategy is driven by the business strategy. We’re a significant player in the logistics business. In terms of supply chain, we’re the largest company in the logistics sector and we want to be seen by our customers as the best,” Fisher tells Computer Weekly.

The company’s core business is warehousing and transportation and the inbound to manufacturing supply chains. The main technology suppliers supporting that activity are JDA, Manhattan, Oracle and HP, as well as and HCL and CSC for IT services. 

According to Fisher, the main area of focus for the IT team is the JDA warehouse management system in the UK and Ireland, which is also used in other parts of the world. It is the company’s core business application, as is Manhattan’s Warehouse Management System in Asia-Pacific and the US. 

DHL is now working with JDA on bringing additional functionality to enable customers to manage their inventories more efficiently and ensuring they’ve got the right products available for their customers, which should be delivered by the end of 2016.

Optimising the fleet 

The company is also rolling out Oracle’s Transport System suite across 10,000 vehicles in the UK and Ireland. One of the two elements of the platform, Connected Freight Exchange, has already been introduced to 800 users. It enables fleet visibility and ensures orders moving around the country are matched with available vehicle capacity. 

“This optimises vehicle fill and also reduces the number of vehicles on the roads. It improves our green footprint and also ensures maximum efficiency for our customers,” says Fisher. “We’re managing millions of euros of freight through just that element.”

The second element of the Oracle suite is a transport application that employs the in-cab technology and comprises route optimisation and planning features. This implementation, which will continue into the second quarter of 2017, allows the automation of allocation of vehicle delivery loads and trips, as well as the allocation of vehicles to trips.

“This will enable us to automatically update the drivers with their deliveries and collections for that day. Then we will track them through those routes and give us positive confirmation as they move through that delivery and collection cycle,” says Fisher. 

“This also means we’ve got real-time information to feed to our customers, and ensures they have full visibility through the supply chain managed by DHL,” he adds. 

Enhancing in-cab technology 

DHL is also working on improvements around in-cab technology. The technology provided by Microlise is aimed at better managing fuel efficiency, as well as the location of vehicles and orders they are carrying. Customers also get real-time updates of their collections and deliveries. 

In addition, the platform manages driver behaviour to ensure fuel efficiency and road safety, in aspects such as breaking and acceleration patterns, as well as whether they use cruise control and how fast they go around corners. Forward-facing cameras have also been fitted into part of the fleet as an additional road security measure. 

Another aspect of the technology also includes proof of delivery functionality, through a mobile app, as well as tracking vehicles around the country. It also has temperature control features and door-opening sensors to ensure security and quality management of sensitive products. 

“We’re hoping the technology will prove valuable and become mainstream in the organisation”

Ian Fisher, DHL

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The platform already covers a number of items regarding vehicle usage and maintenance, but Fisher says DHL wants to take it further within the coming year and introduce features that will help it predict vehicle issues in a more proactive fashion. 

“The future of this technology linked to the internet of things will be the ability to manage component parts of the vehicle with a view to proactively maintaining our lorries prior to a failure,” says Fisher.

“So what we’ll start to see over the coming months is real-time indications of any engine warning systems or any errors with the vehicles that we can then look to pass on to our engineering teams to resolve,” he adds. 

“We’re trying to keep our fleet running on the roads as consistently and as often as possible. To do that, we’re looking at using the data in the vehicle to proactively manage any maintenance activity that would be required. We’re looking to introduce that over the next 12 months.” 

Mobile evolution 

DHL has a portfolio of about 40 mobile apps that are being used by customers worldwide, such as the estimated time of arrival (ETA) app launched this year, which enables some clients getting items such as food to obtain advanced notifications of delivery times.

DHL is also working on an internal warehouse space sharing app, which is on trial in mainland Europe and will soon be tested in the UK.

The tool gives real-time information about space available in the company’s warehouses, which allows DHL to optimise and position ad-hoc, temporary needs of customers, particularly within retail during the Christmas peak. 

“[The tool] enables us to offer the best locations for our customers and their inventory before it goes on to their stores or customers,” says Fisher.  

When it comes to mobile hardware advancements, Fisher says his sector is seeing the rise of the rugged mobile phone. Zebra supplies the devices to DHL, which are essentially mobiles with additional protection to make them more robust in an industrial and operating environment. 

“In the warehouse, we have rugged scanners and originally had them in our vehicles too. With the new technology and introduction of apps, we’re moving to mobile phones, to very low-cost devices,” he adds. 

“Now we’re seeing that mobile phones, while they are effective, also still have the tendency to be broken fairly easily.” 

Driving innovation

In terms of emerging technologies, Fisher and his team are looking into a number of options in addition to the work carried out in partnership with suppliers. Deutsche Post DHL also has a global innovation team with innovation centres in Germany and Singapore, where new technologies in the logistics and supply chain industry are demonstrated and researched.

DHL has just gone live with an augmented reality trial for picking operations in its Doncaster warehouse for a consumer customer. The technology entails warehouse operatives wearing glasses, that create an augmented view of where they’re supposed to go to pick products, combined with a voice confirmation feature which tells operatives where to go. The operative then confirms the picking by voice, while the glasses can read barcodes on products and scan them back into the system.

“That creates a very hands-free environment with ‘vision picking’, as we call it, to improve safety and efficiency in the warehouse. We’re hoping the technology will prove valuable and become mainstream in the organisation,” says Fisher.

As a group, DHL is also piloting drones to improve security and inventory management across its warehouses, and when it comes to data, Fisher is interested in the potential of predictive analytics.  

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“We’re starting to look at trends of previous movements of products and how we believe that will impact our plans for future ones. We’re in the very early stages of this and are just trying to find the right technologies,” says Fisher, adding that DHL is trialling a number of big data tools. 

“It’s early days to name partners, but these tools will really help us mine this significant amount of data we have in the organisation,” he says. 

Fisher adds that DHL is always looking to sources of innovation externally and looking at what the wider logistics industry and other industries are doing. 

“Our own [customers] are actually probably a bigger influence on us because we work with so many sectors that just watching how their industry uses technology is a great influencing force on us and how we can apply that to our own business model.” 

Ensuring development and diversity 

Some 360 people work in IT at DHL in the UK, and according to Fisher, developing the team is an essential component of the success of his strategy. To that end, a training programme is being delivered to help people understand their role within the wider organisation, facilitated by professional trainers and senior management. 

“We are providing staff with a training course that helps them understand our strategy, our objectives, our customers’ objectives, and how it’s important we maintain three essentials. Those essentials are being right first time, having a can-do attitude and passion,” says Fisher. 

“Certainly from an IT point of view, we are looking to be a lot more customer-focused, and therefore are becoming the interpreters of business requirements to IT value. IT staff are now able to communicate that effectively to our customers and operations teams to ensure we get the best out of the IT systems we use,” he adds. 

“They are complicated systems, which support some very complex business models. This approach is aimed at empowering them to deliver through the value of IT.” 

When it comes to skills shortages, Fisher says this isn’t just a UK issue, but a global problem. In his sector, this is worsened by the fact DHL’s core platforms are specialist, industry-specific applications, so finding the right level of skill and capability is a challenge. 

“We’ve worked hard to ensure we’re training and bringing the best people in the company on-board, because that gives us a real commitment and strength to deliver this successfully,” says Fisher. 

“We’ve taken on the responsibility to ensure we’re skilling up the people in those strategic tools to deliver the best that we can get out of these products,” he adds.

Another big challenge when it comes to people in IT at DHL is gender balance, a problem that Fisher is very focused on tackling.  

“IT is not the easiest area to attract females into, and the IT within logistics can make it even trickier. We are driving on a big programme to ensure we are appealing to the right [female] talent out there to come and work for DHL, particularly to come and work for DHL IT,” says the CIO. 

According to Fisher, DHL has slowly increased the percentage of females in IT up from 17% to 19% since 2014, but the aspiration is to get that up to 30% for 2020. 

To achieve this, the firm has taken actions such as completely rewriting all the role profiles for every function in IT to ensure that the descriptions attract everyone equally. 

“We’re then going to start recruitment manager training, to ensure all of the people responsible for recruiting within the IT function are trained in the role profiles, and that they understand the importance of a balanced team,” says Fisher. 

“We are also sending some targets to our internal resourcing centre and the external agencies they use. The quality of the candidates they provide must enable us to shortlist at least one female for every role,” he adds.

“This is about the right talent for the right role. This is not about being discriminatory to anybody. It’s about ensuring we’ve got the right people on the shortlist.” 

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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