Keeping the future in focus

We all have a tendency to look only at what we’re doing today, instead of stepping back and asking: What do we need to focus on for the future? Taking that step back is actually a step toward innovation and away from stagnation.

Maybe you don’t need to be on the bleeding edge and maybe you don’t have the resources to invest in multiple areas. Still, you need to ask the question: What do we need to focus on to ensure the future readiness of our own IS/IT organization and to enable the businesses we support to go forward?

Within DAN’IS North America, Groupe Danone’s North America IS team, we have business-solution and infrastructure-technology teams that focus on maintaining, enhancing and running solutions. They handle the daily block and tackling that makes IS and the business successful – and they make sure that we have the right balance of investment. But those of us in leadership positions also have a responsibility to consider how business resources will use technology in the future.

I’m part of the generation that remembers life before the Internet and that chooses not to go back from e-mail to written correspondence. Yet the generation coming out of school and into the workforce today is moving beyond e-mail in favour of online presence (instant and text messaging, chat rooms and wikis). They don’t believe in being held captive by e-mail; instead, they operate by utilizing social networking tools.

They will change the way we do business, and we have to be ready. To do this we will need new skills and tools to help us innovate and remain relevant in the global community.

To prepare for this change, DAN’IS North America has brought in a separate team called I&I, which stands for informing and innovation. It’s a small team, and its charter is to look at emerging tools and technology and find ways to mainstream them into the way the business operates. I&I not only evaluates the ideas emerging in academia or from the research labs, they also look at what is starting to come into the business workplace, at technologies that we haven’t thought of as tools, such as Facebook and Second Life. They examine leading technologies and tools for their ability to enhance market share, create sales and increase internal operational and employee efficiency. It’s hardly rocket science. Improving these areas are goals for every company yet more often than not, the solutions focus on the present. We created I&I to look beyond that.

Rethinking video conferencing

One area in which my team has had a major impact is in improving Groupe Danone’s North American video conferencing solutions to a point where people want to use them.

Most people don’t like traditional video conferencing because it’s hard to set up and the need to go through outside carriers makes it expensive. However, earlier this year the business came to us wondering how it could cut down on travel within the Americas and internationally (to Groupe headquarters in France). So we started with the question “Can we reintroduce the concept of video conferencing?” What we came up with was a video solution that uses the dedicated networks we already have in our facilities, that costs thousands instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that pays for itself after just a couple of four-person meetings. Plus, it supports our sustainability and social responsibility goals.

We also looked at how we could use webcams so video conferencing can be done from one workstation to another, and even from multiple workstations to each other in what we call “The Brady Bunch” effect. The success of that led to employees asking for the capability when they’re remote, whether in a hotel room or out in the field. What we see on the horizon is the idea of mobile Web and mobile vision. The next generation of handheld devices and phones now available in Asia already has the capability to support this. Unified communications also figures into this future, so calls and video conferences can transfer seamlessly from a business phone to a cell phone or to a home landline.

How far to look ahead

It is I&I’s responsibility, enabled by our infrastructure technology team, to keep that eye on the future. They must also partner with the business solutions team, which has the best understanding of business requirements and can help ensure that I&I supports both current investments and Groupe Danone’s North America (and global) initiatives.

How far out to look is a question that every CIO must address, and it depends on the role of IS in the business area you’re in. In the consumer foods industry, you can be at a competitive disadvantage if IS doesn’t stay at the leading edge. However, IS is not going to change the way the company does business overnight. From our point of view, innovation is looking at and understanding what capabilities exist in the marketplace that we’re not taking full advantage of, moving on them and then using them to improve the way we do business today.

It’s also important to realize that not everything you try will be successful. That’s the hard part. People assume that if they’re investing money, everything will work out. When I started at Groupe Danone, we spent a lot of time getting the leadership to understand the change we were going to go through. Now everything from I&I goes through incremental pilots before being expanded out, and we’re trying to take a more agile approach. We try to provide some quick wins, solving some of the initial needs and problems that made us look at a new technology while keeping an end state in mind. But we don’t know what that end state looks like until we work our way through.

Don’t Lose Focus

The realization that you must have and convey to your company’s executives and your IS staff is that investing with new technologies is not enough. The key to innovation is solving business needs. We like technology, and it’s real cool when you get to play with the newest videocam, but your goal is to make the business more efficient. So start small. Convince your executives that starting innovation somewhere can benefit everywhere. Specific initiatives for one business unit can expand to others.

Once we delivered practical solutions, the business offered additional funding because they saw the benefits. They realized what our focus on innovation brings to the table and how it will enable them to continue to grow.

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E. Jeffrey Hutchinson is Groupe Danone’s CIO for North America and a member of the CIO Executive Council.

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