Yodel CIO Adam Gerrard has been leading an infrastructure transformation at the delivery business which will act as a platform for Yodel to focus on its consumer product offerings, improve its data capabilities and build new cognitive intelligence tools.
The former Avis, Thomas Cook and LateRooms technology chief, Gerrard joined privately-owned Yodel in June 2014 to help foster a new 'digitally focused' way of working at the company which makes 150 million deliveries a year. First, however, the CIO said that an underlying technology infrastructure consolidation, integration and refresh was required at the company formed when Home Delivery Network acquired DHL Express UK in 2010 and was subsequently rebranded as Yodel.
Gerrard said that Yodel had been working in parallel between the two legacy systems since the two companies were stitched together.
"One side of the business had a 37-year-old system, and the other side of the business a 28-year-old system - and they were never integrated when the two businesses were put together," he said.
"We've gone on a journey from having these two big legacy systems that don't really talk to each other.
"What we're trying to do now is that integration piece so that we become a single Yodel in terms of the systems, the processes and the way we work. That in itself should drive lots of efficiencies across the business."
Gerrard said that Yodel has gone down the private cloud route for the time being while working on building the integration into a public cloud environment.
"We are already building links to two or three different cloud vendors, and we're looking at broker services and how we can best be able to expand out as and when we need to," Gerrard said.
Cloud and Windows 10
The results have been very positive for Yodel and Gerrard. The CIO noted a number of logistics and distribution companies "got burnt a few years back when the retailers pushed so much more volume through than they had forecast", and that Yodel realised it would need to have the right controls in place to essentially manage a doubling in volumes if necessary.
Gerrard said that from a systems perspective, Christmas 2016 had been a success and Yodel's technology processing rock solid. It was just over a year earlier on Black Friday in November 2015, Gerrard explained, when Yodel experienced a 25-hour data lag in its processing. Fast forward a year, on the Tuesday following Black Friday which Gerrard said was Yodel's busiest day of 2016, that end-to-end process was down to a maximum of 45 seconds and an average lag of just over five seconds.
Parallel to fixing the underlying technology infrastructure at Yodel was a front-end computing refresh, Gerrard explained, since any transformation is more than just adopting cloud services and consolidating data centres.
"We are Windows 10 everywhere; Surface Pro 4 wherever possible," he said.
With new systems in place and a more agile approach, Gerrard said that the team was able to make changes happen more quickly and created a new mindset where "everybody wants to deliver value fast".
"The buzz around the IT department's been fantastic," the CIO said now that the team is in a position to more obviously drive business value - and get recognised outside of the department for delivering those benefits. Indeed, the Yodel IT team won an award at the industry body BCS awards in 2016.
The changes in team dynamics have seen the emergence of hybrid roles - similar to product owners or older business relationship management positions - within the IT and change function which will ultimately end up as line of business posts. Gerrard said that across Yodel there has been buy-in from other departments about the new structures.
"They've embraced the change, shall we say," Gerrard said. "They're working as part of the team. They get to see how we approach things."
With the team undergoing a small transition, Gerrard said that he was "moving towards a DevOps function" where the service infrastructure and development responsibilities are combined under one role. The CIO's other direct reports are a portfolio and programme director where architecture, product and innovation also currently sits - as well as a CISO with responsibility for security and governance, data protection, risk and compliance.
When Gerrard sat down with CIO UK earlier in the year Yodel was in the process of an audit regarding the incoming enforcement of the EU's General Data Protection Regulations.
The CIO was confident Yodel was taking the right governance steps in showing its willingness to be fully compliant with the changes.
"My data protection specialist is already trained up," Gerrard said. "I have a great IT cyber specialist who is fully up to speed with it and understands the concerns in that space as well. So the two of them are going through with a fine-tooth comb; all our data sources, all our applications - what does this mean for us?
"I think we've got the right kind of rigour, and I think we understand the process we need to get through. There are a lot of areas of working, and that's just on the technology side. A lot of people forget that data protection isn't just about what's stored on the systems.
"Fortunately my team are smart enough to know this and are out there, looking at all the different processes that could potentially have personal information written down as well as stored."
Gerrard admitted that benchmarking Yodel's progress against other CIOs the delivery company was significantly further ahead than his peers.
Security in the boardroom
"They think I'm getting ahead of myself," he said. "But I want to make sure we are completely ahead of the game because the regulations aren't going away. It'll be 2019 before we leave the EU, and even then, why would you want to change a regulation that protects the consumer? We just need to make sure we adhere to it."
The worst case scenario of a fine of 4% of global revenue is too severe to comprehend for Gerrard.
"I wouldn't be surprised if very quickly, once the regulations are formally enforced, the ICO go after somebody," he said. "I absolutely do not want that to be my organisation, so we will be compliant in time."
Gerrard reports to the Yodel CEO, with whom the CIO meets multiple times a week. Combined with a recent spate of high-profile security breaches and cyber attacks, Gerrard has had an increased proximity to the organisation's executive leadership on the challenges facing the organisation.
"I've already briefed the exec team," Gerrard said. "If there is a spend required to deliver this then that's the debate we're going to have to have - that's why I've brought them up to speed quite quickly.
"When there's a cyber breach I think every chief executive in the country is suddenly aware and will ask their CIO 'are we covered?' But when it's quiet for a while, that doesn't help because it tends to fall to the back of people's minds, so it's one of the things I make a point of making sure I'm advising where we stand."
Disruptive threats and opportunities
As well as the cyber challenges, the CIO has been briefing the organisation's most senior leadership and backers about emerging technologies and disrupting threats which are having an impact on the sector.
"I run sessions, and not just with the executive team, even with the shareholders," he said. "Recently we had a conversation around what is the art of the possible with technology today?
"If you are horizon scanning, what are the things that are out there that are five to 10 years away, that really you should be thinking about doing something now.
"We've had a conversation about self-driving cars, about self-driving HGVs. We've had conversations about cognitive intelligence, and that's a here and now - so there's lots of areas where we can see an opportunity to do things really differently compared to the way the market currently operates in terms of parcel delivery."
Gerrard believes the possibilities around augmented reality are "very interesting" and that a product closer to the discontinued Google Glass, rather than the larger VR headsets, could be ideal enterprise products for drivers with an augmented heads-up display making deliveries in rural locations.
Suggesting that the term artificial intelligence has become an overused phrase - in part due to the 'AI washing' that goes on to describe "a lot of algorithms being run very quickly" - Gerrard is working hard in the machine learning and bots sphere, including with IBM Watson and its cognitive capabilities.
In the vendor space Yodel has distilled its suppliers down to "a core of five or six partners" who are on board with working together in order to help Yodel drive its agenda forward.
IT vendors and CIO role
Gerrard reserves praise for the technology and IT vendors willing to collaborate, form partnerships and help add value to their customers, and notes a number of the incumbents might be feeling threatened by startups but should in fact be willing to work in multi-vendor formats embracing smaller organisations.
Finding startups with a proposition applicable to an organisation or CIO's specific industry is a tough balance though for Gerrard, as well as trying to sell to his peers on Yodel's executive leaderships that "you should allow people to fail, and continuously fail, because they might actually come up with an absolute gem".
A perennial CIO 100 member and indeed a former judge on the 2014 CIO 100 panel, Gerrard has an in-depth knowledge of the CIO role and its unique view across a whole organisation.
"It's one of those few roles where you do get to see across the whole business," Gerrard said. "I don't doubt at all the rest of the exec look across the whole business, but there's probably the only role that would have that same kind of perspective - and the same depth in terms of their perspective across the business - and that is probably the chief executive."