Nordic CIO interview: Juha Penttilä, Valio

CIO at Finnish dairy company is trying to make its IT department proactive rather than just fixing problems

It is time for IT to stop fire-fighting and adopt a more proactive approach, says Juha Penttilä, CIO at Finnish dairy company Valio.

Such an approach will frame the next phase of Valio’s business-oriented IT overhaul. “In the last three years, we have completely rewired our IT operational model,” Penttilä told Computer Weekly. “We have rebuilt our collaboration with the business and gone through the entire [production] chain.”

The first step in the process was taken back in 2014 when Penttilä took over as head of Valio’s IT department. He began by reorganising it into teams and clarifying each team member’s role, particularly in relation to the company’s business units. Today one team is focused entirely on business collaboration and application development, while all production services are centralised in a new service management office.

Penttilä has also introduced a “gate-based” project management model that puts everyone on the same page and makes it clear what is needed to pass each project checkpoint (or gate). This method is shared by Valio’s IT and business units as well as its external IT partners.

Such systematic thinking has made Valio’s IT team highly efficient. Only 25 people support the company’s 3,400 employees in Finland and 800 staff spread across five international subsidiaries.

Penttilä’s focus on bridging the gap between IT and business stems from more than 20 years spent at Valio. He started in the company as a dairy technician and has risen through the ranks, holding various positions, including plant manager and development director. And when he was offered the role of CIO, he did not hesitate.

“Being outside my comfort zone suits me,” he says. “I was curious why, from a business point of view, IT projects seemed so difficult and took so long.”

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What Penttilä brings to the table is a deep insight into how Valio operates and what goes into handling 1.9 billion litres of milk a year. He trusts the technical intricacies to his team and focuses on building better understanding of how end-users think and what they expect and need from IT.

He says the main benefit of the close collaboration between the business units and IT is that the company can identify demands earlier, prioritise resources better and plan future projects accordingly.

“We get a lot of information about what is happening around the organisation,” says Penttilä. “This means we can spread information around the company and see if an IT project that is meant for one area could be beneficial elsewhere. That way, we can speed up project deployment and reap the benefits faster.”

Suppliers not ready

For Penttilä, the role of IT is to make the life of end-users easier and free up their time to ensure that Valio’s products, of which there are more than 1,000, find their way to store shelves.

“The big picture we are driving is how IT – both our internal IT and service providers – could shift from a reactive to a proactive world,” he says. “Unfortunately, the IT world often waits for a ‘ticket’. The end-user spots a problem, opens a ticket and only then can we start to do something about it.

“We need to move, bit by bit, to an approach where we proactively examine our environment, spot the end-user problems in the background and fix them without the user needing to do anything.”

Valio is still in the early stages of achieving this vision, but for Penttilä, the crucial first step is setting it out as a common goal for the company and its partners. The biggest challenge is not introducing new ways of doing things, but shifting staff to a truly preventative mindset.

Proactive support

This is not yet a reality among its IT providers. During the spring, Penttilä assessed the company’s suppliers, both national and international, and discovered that few have internalised proactive end-user support.

“They operate on the ITIL framework and don’t really think about being proactive,” he says. “The processes for how to react when someone opens a ticket are well described, but they aren’t considering what could be done to eliminate the need for the ticket in the first place.”

To change this mindset, Valio is implementing its own IT service management tool to be used in-house and with partners, instead of relying on off-the-shelf tools. It is part of the company’s push to take more control over its own data.

Penttilä wants the IT team to be able to see how all the organisation’s services and systems are working, and he says the importance of easy access to data and data collection will only increase.

One example is the software that Valio uses to monitor the performance of different end-user devices, which enables the IT team to quickly spot any inefficiencies and the need for action.

But Penttilä emphasises that technology is an enabler, not the cure when it comes to being proactive. “It is relatively easy to deploy technology, but the more challenging side is to really use it to collect and analyse the data for remedial measures,” he says.

Trend watching

Valio’s proactive IT ambitions are being supported by a major infrastructural change. The company has just signed a new outsourcing agreement with Finnish telco Elisa for end-user, capacity and telecommunications services. This signals a shift from Valio’s own datacentres to buying capacity as a service and embracing cloud services.

This ties in closely with the company’s need to keep up with technological change. Valio does not aspire to be the first to embrace the latest IT trends, but it wants to be able to identify quickly those most relevant to its business.

This is all part of Penttilä’s belief that success for future CIOs will boil down to building a strong bridge between IT and the rest of the business – or risk IT’s role being reduced to datacentre management.

“The future is about being ever closer to business processes and people and understanding what is happening there,” he says. “Not only listening [to the business], but providing them with ideas on how their operations can be improved.

“It’s the same thing as with the tickets – you need to be proactive and find the angles that bring added value instead of waiting for somebody to call and ask for help.”

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