Unilever CIO: Innovation and Mobility are Empowering
Whether CIOs worry about enabling company growth in emerging markets or improving speed to market and cycle times, Rod Hefford has advice to share. Hefford is CIO for global customer development and supply chain at Unilever, the British-Dutch consumer products company. Unilever’s 400-plus products are used daily by some 2 billion consumers in nearly 200 countries. Hefford joined me recently to talk about about how IT is driving innovation globally as well as helping to improve execution in local markets. We also discussed the ways mobility is empowering “feet on the street” to respond to changing market conditions and customer needs.
Aggressive Goals Demand Innovation
Unilever’s corporate strategy, dubbed “Compass,” calls for the company to double in size by 2020, while reducing its environmental impact. And IT has a central role in two areas that are closely linked: innovation and service delivery.
Innovation focuses on developing new technologies that serve four areas: brands and the consumer relationship; go to market capability; the value chain and work processes. “There’s a very heavy emphasis there on external-facing capability delivery,” Hefford said. IT services, meanwhile, is charged with improving the speed, scale and quality. The business “has a focus on shoppers who rely on value from our products and they’re not willing to pay a cent, or for that matter, a rupee, more than is absolutely necessary. That forces us to look to new models for IT-enabled capability and to drive the ones we have to new levels of effectiveness.”
Unilever is transitioning from a regionally-focused application strategy to a global application portfolio. A global project and portfolio management office “helps us really understand which innovations are going to land in which geography in which sequence,” Hefford said. “It helps us to look at overlaps and potentially competing priorities, and helps us understand the portfolio of business benefits that we’re trying to deliver into individual countries.”
Mobility is Powerful
“In the customer development area, we had more than 50,000 feet on the street,” Hefford said. And they should have the best possible tools. Device like Apple’s iPad, connected to Unilever’s core ERP infrastructure as well as external information sources “can make a fantastically powerful tool for people who need to execute in the market.”
In other words, the value of mobility derives from more than just handing employees devices. “It’s about making sure that we also have the information flows so that we can communicate efficiently and effectively with our people in the market, and they can communicate well with operations back in the center, so that we create a really strong feedback loop which allows us to execute and learn day in, day out,” he said.
IT Roles Must Evolve
“I don’t think that my job as it is now will remain the same into the future,” Hefford said. And that’s just as true throughout the IT ranks. “The rate at which technology is moving and the rate at which technology is being exploited … a lot of jobs are going to evolve rapidly over time. The roles that I had when I was a junior IT person in Unilever, most of those don’t exist anymore. They’ve been replaced by new roles, which young people can cut their teeth on.”
IT professionals need to “be proactive and open to opportunities” to learn new skills, he said. At Unilever, new roles evolve with business needs. “For example, e-commerce is an absolute powerhouse development in the world at the moment, and it’s a huge opportunity for consumer goods companies.” So Hefford needs staff who understand business-to-business and business-to-consumer online relationships. Elsewhere at the company, “there are huge opportunities in the marketing area, as Unilever starts to really understand how to exploit digital assets.”