CIOs can be Frontrunners to Head Digital Business Units: CTO, Olam International

Thiagaraja Manikandan, CTO of Olam International, shares his thoughts on how CIOs can emerge as frontrunners to head this new digital business unit.

As a global enterprise technology leader, what are the top challenges that confront you?
As a leading global agri-business company, Olam operates from seed to shelf in 65 countries, supplying food and industrial raw materials to over 13,800 customers worldwide.

There are many challenges that need to be carefully considered and tackled. Some of these include simplifying the enterprise technology landscape, process standardization, integrated future proof IT architecture, allocating more resources for new initiatives rather than routine maintenance, M&A integration, continuous engagement with the businesses, digital opportunities, IT security, and capability building.

How are you overcoming some of these challenges at Olam?
At Olam, four years back, we built our differentiated global IT strategy with the key objective of having an IT architecture that was simple, standardized, integrated and connected. We selected SAP as one of the major global platforms to enable these objectives. In order to ensure process standardization, we decided to implement SAP on the Global Template (GT) architecture, despite having a diversified portfolio of 44 products across 16 platforms. Today SAP is already implemented in top 25 countries and other smaller operations are in progress. In the next two years, we will be completing the implementations and integrating the entire value chain across upstream, origin sourcing, mid-stream and downstream. Further, our technology stack is also standardized and simplified with SAP related technologies. We leverage SAP’s Data Warehousing & Business Intelligence solutions, their EAI tools, SAP BPC for budgeting and financial consolidation etc.

Therefore with this IT strategy, on the one hand we are enabling our businesses to operate more efficiently and on the other hand we also effectively addressed the technology challenges associated with IT complexity, disparate systems, information silos, process standardization etc. With this, we could also effectively overcome the challenges associated with M&A integration. Another challenge that is unique to Olam is that of connectivity in Africa. Olam has a large operation in Africa spread across more than 20 countries. The key is to connect these far flung operations with low-cost alternatives to build a real-time enterprise. We are developing and implementing digital technologies such as Mobility, smart card etc to overcome these difficulties.

How are you ensuring security of your digital assets?
Cyber security is a challenge that confronts all CIOs today. We keep a constant vigil and try to tackle this through a four-pronged ‘Defence in Depth’ strategy involving technology, people, processes and standardization. Firstly, we continue to improve our IT security architecture and deploy advanced technologies such as digital signatures, IRM, DLP etc. Secondly, we consistently run an organization-wide awareness campaign with the end-users, who are the biggest target. Thirdly, we continue to tighten our IT and business processes, especially around financial processes, and fourthly, we continue to standardize on the security technologies in order ensure we have consistent policies across the global enterprise. In my view, cyber security threats cannot be bullet proofed, at least as things stand today. The only way is to keep a constant vigil and take a holistic organizational approach.

How do you tackle the challenge of innovation management? Give us an example of such innovation in your company?
Interestingly, in Olam we don’t have that problem due to its entrepreneurial culture that is embedded throughout the organization including IT. For example, more than a decade back we innovated solutions based on Oracle’s grid computing technology to circumvent infrastructure challenges in Africa. We have also started making forays into digital initiatives such as Farmer Information System to connect our upstream and farming community using mobile and smart card technologies; e-commerce solutions in US to sell our specialty coffee; and mobile transaction processing systems, to name a few. Going forward our focus will be more on digital technologies including SMAC and IoT which have huge scope for agri-businesses. In a nutshell, we spend more money on projects and initiatives than for keeping the lights on.

How important are technologies such as Enterprise Mobility, Big Data and in-memory databases?
These technologies are important for Olam, and we will be focusing on them for the next few years. For example, mobility can be leveraged to interconnect Olam’s extended enterprise including the farmers, employees and the customers. We can maximize sensory IoT for upstream farming and plantations while Big Data technologies can be harnessed to study the global Supply & Demand (S&D) co-relations and macro-economic factors such as climate, environment etc.

The adoption of cloud-based, on-demand models for application delivery are gaining traction in enterprises. How are you looking at this phenomenon?
Olam has a private cloud ready infrastructure. In line with our global IT strategic roadmap, over the next year or two, we will be fully operating and utilizing the potential of private cloud. However, there are certain issues also, such as security and standards, which are associated with cloud. Till these concerns are addressed, we will continue to see cherry picking of public cloud services for enterprise solutions where it makes sense and the data sensitivity is relatively low. For instance, there are cloud services from SAP such as SuccessFactors and Concur that offer specific solutions. We are migrating to SuccessFactors this year and are also actively evaluating Concur for travel management solutions. These also fit into our integrated enterprise technology architecture.

How do you see the role of the CIO evolving in the future?
CIOs have a big role to lead the digital innovation by combining the power of digital technologies with the physical world and create new business opportunities, operational insights and effectiveness. In the long run, CIOs can potentially head the digital business units (BU). We are already seeing the emergence of digital marketing and sales channels, digital campaigns, m-Commerce, Social CRMs etc. In the future, as the enterprises start connecting these dots, I believe new digital profit center BU will start evolving within the enterprises in some form or manner. And I think CIOs are in a better position to grab these leadership opportunities.


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