Unilever CIO Jane Moran says the organisation has moved from a "project-oriented to a platform-based culture" using Agile and DevOps to balance growth, innovation, disruption and legacy at the 88-year-old consumer goods company.
Moran, who joined the British-Dutch multinational in June 2014, has been in CIO roles since 2001 - most recently at Thomson Reuters - and told CIO UK that "there has never been as much change in the technology industry as there is today. Consumer packaged goods is a fast-moving industry, which is ever-changing with lots of disruption - including a lot of technology disruption," she said.
"This can be challenging, but this also makes it a great time to be a CIO.
"More often than not, in a big organisation such as Unilever, the challenge for a CIO is to find the right balance between building the new technology required to support the evolving needs of the business, whilst at the same time managing legacy systems that still perform a valuable function. Balancing costs, service efficiency, as well as growth and disruption is challenging but also presents huge opportunities, which is part of what makes this role so interesting and rewarding."
Insourcing, Agile and DevOps
One of the biggest steps Moran has taken at Unilever to initiate change across the business has been in insourcing its technology capability, and shifting to a DevOps and Agile methodology.
The CIO said that the function had been "significantly outsourced" through SI partners, independent contractors and smaller firms when she joined the organisation. By shifting the needle – roughly one third of Unilever's IT function is now in-house – Moran has helped to foster a platform-based rather than project-focused unit.
"We've introduced new roles such as enterprise architecture and solutions architecture experts, and senior software engineers. This has enabled us to be more responsive to the needs of the business, and quicker at designing new solutions.
"We've also had a fundamental shift in how we work, from simultaneously running a large portfolio of projects, to focusing on about 30 key strategic technology platforms."
These platforms are oriented around business capabilities such as supply-chain, digital marketing, HR and the technologies which support Unilever, she said.
With the newer setup, Moran said that she has seen a real shift in how the IT function is perceived by the rest of the business.
"Our technology organisation is an exciting place to work. " she said. " The IT team are at the cutting edge of how we solve challenges and grow our business.”
In some instances Moran explained that Unilever had adopted the Agile squads model as used by the likes of Netflix and Spotify, with combinations of her IT team with business partners and third parties all working together in pods, which has inspired those in her function to "think differently about technology, and their role in technology".
The more measurable benefits include significant efficiencies and cost savings, with Moran adding the organisation had taken out about one-third of the overall costs over the last three and a half years, with the function doing significantly more with less oriented around platform teams and moving to continuous development and continuous integration.
Some of the lower case 'agile' concepts in IT other parts of the organisation have been exposed to have also been introduced to the rest of Unilever, Moran said, adding that the idea of iterative development has translated well across units.
By moving the IT function from one of supplier engagement "to being a true engineering organisation and making it cool to be in IT", one of Moran's challenges is trying to foster a learning culture and helping the group keep up with the latest technologies.
Moran, a non-executive director at JP Morgan Securities PLC, said that as such she had been spending more time with Unilever's strategic partners, including SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce, AWS and increasingly Google.
"I've found that a close collaboration with our key partners is mutually beneficial, as we can help trial new systems, approaches and technologies at scale," she said.
"We work with our software vendors to develop solutions that work for us. We innovate together, and that’s exciting for both parties."
Unilever's partnership with SAP is particularly significant. The Unilever environment of over 100,000 people in 200 countries and a massive manufacturing operation of more than 350 industrial sites which Moran supports is one of the largest SAP implementations in the world with tens of thousands of users on the platform.
Unilever was re-evaluating its ERP options and decided to implement SAP's S4/HANA suite, Moran said.
"Working with SAP, they helped us put together the internal business case to move forward with S4/HANA," she said. "We've found that having HANA on our databases has increased performance five to 10 times when we have HANA side cars."
Unilever has also been on a big cloud shift, with Moran explaining that until the last couple of years there had been little usage of Software-as-a-Service and with 99% of its infrastructure and applications on-premise.
"Over the last few years we have moved more proactively to cloud services, whether its software as a service, infrastructure as a service, platform as a service or data as a service," she said.
"We primarily use Amazon Web Services for our business applications and IaaS, and Microsoft Azure as a Platform-as-a-Service for Unilever's data and analytics applications.
The organisation has also fully moved its estate of more than 100,000 office-based employees to Office 365 and Skype for Business, showing an ability to shift to cloud services at scale. The added benefit is that it has enabled the organisation to remove much of its hardware, and operate in a more environmentally sustainable way.
Security and innovation
Moran is confident that Unilever will be GDPR compliant by May 2018, and has tried to instill a security-conscious ethos in her organisation. After all, with the numerous technology innovations at Unilever she acknowledges that this needs to take place on a secure platform and in a secure environment.
"We're working on all kinds of new technology innovation. But at the same time, we need to have a resilient technology backbone, " she said. "We work hard to ensure our estate is cyber-safe by patching every day."
Moran said that moving to an Agile and DevOps approach had helped trial new innovative technologies at Unilever, but that navigating the overwhelming startup innovation ecosystem had become increasingly hard for CIOs to keep up with the sheer number of aspirational disruptors entering the market.
While the organisation's venture company, the Unilever Foundry, collaborates with startups and innovators, Moran also leans on the big software vendors and Gartner to funnel, evaluate and triage smaller organisations who might be able to help improve Unilever's operations.
DevOps offers the freedom for Moran's platform teams to experiment and trial new technology, she said, developing low-cost working pilots in six to 10 weeks.
The CIO noted how robotics and robotic process automation "is really taking off", having started looking internally at IT and now at global processes in HR, sales and business finance.
The Internet of Things represents a huge opportunity in Unilever's factory estate, with Moran emphasising that "IoT is really the analytics that sits on top" of the sensors which have been in factories for years. Working with Microsoft Azure, IBM and Salesforce, Moran said that a number of pilots had gone into production that were helping with smarter logistics and factories.
Moran also said that there were obvious business cases relevant to Unilever around blockchain, particularly the idea of "food-to-fork traceability", while payment automation using the distributed ledger technology also represented a big opportunity for the global business.
With a 2018 focus to deliver innovation at scale, continue to provide secure and high-performing IT, and evolve the technology function through more flexible working and a stronger partner ecosystem, Moran says that this all comes back to the strategic role IT plays at Unilever.