Top 10 IT manager of the year: Part 2

In the second part of ACN's top 10 IT managers of the year, we reveal five other regional IT managers that have grabbed the spotlight in the last year.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  January 10, 2002

Cyber Services|~||~||~|Jumeirah International (JI) is growing at breakneck speed. Since opening the doors on such properties as Dubai’s Burj Al Arab and Emirates Towers during 2000, the hotel chain has rapidly expanded, incorporating additional properties both in Dubai and in the UK during 2001.

In a stark contrast to an industry that until recently had rarely used IT beyond the front desk, JI has woven IT into just about every aspect of customer service. Depending on which property a guest stays in, they can enjoy a wide range of technology enabled services — from the high-speed video-on-demand system in the Burj Al Arab to the electronic purse that operates within the group’s Wild Wadi water park. “[Information technology] has a very big role to play in the service aspect of a hotel,” says Thomas Huber, IT director, Jumeirah International.

Dominating JI’s IT agenda for much of the year was the design and deployment of the IT environment for the recently opened Emirates Academy of Hospitality. The academy offers a range of Professional Development Programmes (PDPs) and in October 2001 it welcomed the initial wave of full-time BSc students.

The curriculum, teaching methods, tools and the campus environment are indicative of JI’s approach to the use of IT within the hospitality industry. From day one, BSc students are issued with HP Omnibooks, which they will use throughout the four years of study including a six-month work placement and one year of studies at the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland.

JI has also deployed a wireless network that covers much of the campus. Working closely with local Avaya partner, Telematics, it rolled out the wireless local area network (WLAN) to the auditorium, classrooms, instruction kitchens and common areas of the campus. The WLAN is supplemented by a 100 M/bit Gigabit Ethernet hardwire network, which enable the downloading of bandwidth intensive files. “Our aim is that students will use their Omnibooks as their primary study tool, the only way to accomplish this is with a flexible network. Wireless was the perfect solution to achieve this goal,” says the academy’s IT manager, Floor Bleeker.

Through the development of an education portal for both students and teachers at the academy, JI has moved the vast majority of administrative work and courseware to the intranet. Based on Microsoft’s SharePoint Server, the portal will be the student’s primary point of contact with the academy.

Although being an early adopter of Microsoft’s fledgling portal technology was “painful,” due largely to a lack of local resources, it has been worth it, says Huber. JI is even planning to deploy an employee portal for the group based on SharePoint.

“[SharePoint] is going to be a foundation for the JI knowledge base,” says Huber.

Project work to incorporate the additional UK-based properties — two hotels and one private club — has also taken up considerable resources during 2001. Building on experience with Microsoft’s Terminal Server from its two long running pilots within the group, Huber and the project team, were able to link the property management systems of the two hotels into the group’s IT environment, without a massive capital outlay. “One of the hotels we took over [had] proprietary systems and legacy hardware that we had to replace. We had to move them to Windows 2000, but that would have meant replacing 90% of the computers. Instead we have put them all on Windows Terminal Server. Now we can connect from Dubai to the property management system in London over the 2 M/bit [virtual private network],” explains Huber.

With the UK sites proving the effectiveness of Microsoft Terminal Server there are already moves afoot to convert a large part of the group to the platform.

||**||Online Profits|~||~||~| What started life just over a year ago as proof-of-concept experiment for MMI is already delivering significant business returns, racking up approximately US$2 million in online sales and streamlining its supply chain with various partners.

Over the past 12 months the Dubai-based trading house built an e-procurement business model around three business-to-business (B2B) web sites — mmigrocer.com, mmihotelsandclubs.com and mmidiplomatic .com — automating trade between itself and several key customers. “Originally this just started out as an experiment. Our philosophy was that we would be left behind if we didn’t do anything… it seemed like the logical step forward to focus on the B2B space,” says information systems manager, MMI, Ajay Mathur.

MMI’s third party logistics business supplied additional impetus to investigate potential B2B opportunities. “We have some big brands that rely on us to handle their logistics… they are familiar with these sorts of technologies, therefore there was a pressure to look forward,” comments Mathur.

Starting with a limited investment and very little ‘Internet’ experience, MMI’s IS department began investigating the local market B2B possibilities. After signing with a US-based hosting partner, MMI hired local web consultancy firm, Gulf Test Factory Services (GTFS) to design and develop the web sites and the product catalogues. GTFS also ‘outsourced’ an e-commerce project manager to MMI.

According to Mathur, it became increasingly evident that the company’s consumer and beverage divisions were the ‘natural’ choices to go online. “We focused predominantly on the sale of beverages to hotels, clubs and diplomats and the consumer products division selling to [supermarket chains],” says Mathur.

Through constant discussions with its customer base MMI, with GTFS, was able to develop a web-based ordering screen and shopping cart for beverage and consumer customers. By ordering online MMI’s customers are able to reduce standing stock, while streamlining the ordering process. “We had to work very closely with our customers,” says Mathur. “The web site evolved and so did we — the whole [project] was a learning process,” he adds.

Running in parallel to MMI’s web development, the trading house’s logistics business was also upgrading its warehouse management system. The implementation of Exceed — from EXE Technologies — has provided the vital fulfilment element to MMI’s online strategy. With Exceed in place, MMI Logistics is capable of fulfilling orders placed on the Web to anywhere in Dubai in four hours.

According to Mathur, many of Dubai’s hotels and clubs were used to holding anything between 30-and-15 days beverage stock at any one time. “With this site they don’t have to hold this kind of inventory — they only hold around one and a half day’s [stock],” says Mathur. “They now order more regularly but in smaller amounts. Now they have more working capital,” he adds.

Further efficiencies have been achieved through development work based around Microsoft’s BizTalk Server. Again working closely with GTFS, and Microsoft consultants, MMI has acted on customer feedback from hotels that wanted to order using their own systems. Consequently, using BizTalk Server, MMI began work to automate the sales order function between the customer’s own system to MMI’s Sage CS/3 enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications.

“Customers didn’t want to enter data on to our screen and then have to repeat the process with their own ordering application… we had to make it as easy as possible for [our customers] to do business with us,” comments Mathur.

By using BizTalk Server and working with its customer base, MMI was able to agree code schemas to enable the transfer of data from a hotel’s ordering application and map it to its own ERP. For some of the hotels and clubs, which were running more conventional ERPs, MMI was able to develop a set of XML schemas.

The integration task was complicated by the widespread use of Fidelio — the de-facto standard property management system for the hospitality industry. The old style Clipper database, which Fidelio runs on “made it difficult to develop XML schemas, so we got ASCII code out of the system and formed schemas,” explains Mathur.

After working closely with Key Information Technologies (KIT), the local partner for Fidelio, MMI’s development team was able to overcome initial working difficulties.

“The important thing is to get the information in a pre-agreed format and then BizTalk takes over,” says Mathur. “It takes the file, and translates the code, zeros the measures into to output and it is pushed down to our ERP product,” he adds.

With approximately 25% of the monthly beverage business being ordered online, MMI is already looking to further web-enable its business. Although the consumer element of the current B2B strategy has really to take off, MMI’s management believe it is going to be just a matter of time before the cost saving benefits become obvious to all parties. In the meantime project work is currently focusing on adding more people to the trading community, the establishment of a dedicated web site for the logistics business, which lists incoming products, dispatches and inventory levels and the development of a wireless solution to support the current move towards the Internet.

||**||Customer Centric|~||~||~| The region’s telecommunications service providers have been making massive investments to enhance customer services. Whether being driven by the pending introduction of competition, the need to maximise return on network infrastructure investments, or simply to justify the monopoly position held by these organisations, there has been a strong move to customer-centric thinking in the last 18-months.

The official opening of the Dhs 80 million call centre business unit, illustrated Etisalat’s shift to a proactive marketing and customer care. “We’re going to be proactive,” predicts Mohammed Bamakhrama, general manager at the Contact Centre.

“For the first time the Contact Centre will enable Etisalat to reach the customer and provide a service, or take a customer survey. We’re going to the customer and utilising the data by targeting certain services [at the customer],” explains Bamakhrama.

The Contract Centre, which is the result of four years worth of planning, has required a change of mindset within the PTT, not only in how it approaches customers, but also in how it shares information internally and how it markets those services externally.

The centre currently operates a range of services for its sister Etisalat business units, including transaction processing, technical support, information management, response campaigns, subscriber fault management, market research, telesales & marketing broadcast announcements and support for online sales.

The Ajman-based Contact Centre, which replaces the chain of smaller disparate call centres through the Emirates, better enables the PTT to up-sell and cross-sell over its product range and separate business units via the phone or the Internet. “We have had to change a lot of the business rules to make [the centre] possible,” says Bamakhrama.

Underlying the Contact Centre’s customer commitment is the 18-month implementation of a call centre solution. The technical team within the centre drew up the project specifications and appointed Avaya as the prime contractor to bring the multi-vendor solution together.

“[Avaya was] the only [vendor] that was offering a complete solution,” comments S. Meahesha, technical manager, Contact Centre.

“We have a voice recording facility, we have outbound campaigns, we have an Internet contact centre, we have a workforce system, the call management system, [interactive voice recognition] processing unit, along with [computer telephony integration] and [customer contact management system] CCMS. All these solutions came from different vendors and Avaya has the responsibility of putting it together,” he adds.

However, critical to the whole project has been the development of the universal graphical interface (GUI), which fronts the extensive integration work based around BEA’s Tuxedo translation engine. The BEA translation engine enables agents to send quiries to foreign databases. When the quiries return, the Tuxedo engine ‘translates’ the answers into a form that the Oracle-based Quintus CCMS can understand.

The GUI, which was developed internally to meet the PTTs own requirements, also offers Arabic support to the users.

“Once the agent logs on they access a screen… depending on the type of call, [the agent] selects certain programs that will enable them to find the relevant information. [For example,] E-vision has its own database and many other customers have their own database. But the front end will remain the same and present it [the data] to the agent,” explains Bamakhrama.

The call centre’s customer relationship management (CRM) technology stems from its Quintus CCMS, which enables the centre to catch information from its callers and establish a user profile. CCMS also manages the outbound marking campaigns.

“Quintus is business specific to each customer we contact, [it shows] how many times [customers] have been contacted, whether or not they showed any interest in new products & services and other such business offerings,” explains Meahesha.

With the call centre implementation going through its final assessment phase, the Contact Centre is gearing up to offer outsource services to organisations within the region. “We have made provisions for other organisations. [Instead] of organisations investing in similar technology it makes sense to outsource the business to us,” says Bamakhrama.

Going forward, the data that the Contact Centre collects either through in-bound calls of out-bound marketing initiatives will be shared throughout the group. Separate business units have access to view the data remotely, however, there are plans for closer integration.

“[The management] can view the information providing we give them the access from the remote location. However, they want that information to be integrated… [Currently] we have to log into two separate systems,” says Meahesha.

“There is a project to see how the information that we collect can be integrated with [Etisalat’s] billing system. So when [an operator] looks at the customer number [they] should be able to see [the entire relationship] with the Contact Centre, and what business [they] have with the other units of Etisalat all in one screen,” Meahesha explains.

||**||Service Provider|~||~||~| A s business attention focuses on the deployment of IT, the question of how best to plan, manage and control escalating costs and the expansion of the IT infrastructure has moved to the top of the agenda. Although IT departments must increasingly conform to the usual business metrics of profit and loss, many organisations haven’t yet addressed the long-term relationship between IT and the rest of the business.

Some organisations have attempted to turn IT departments into a profit centres by selling internal IT expertise, normally only with limited success. But few organisations have embraced the service provider model as fully as the SAVOLA Group.

Approximately a year ago, the group spun off its centralised IT department to form a separate business unit that would be capable of delivering IT services to the group and external customers. Royah Company has arranged all its business relationships along customer/supplier lines and manages them through strictly adhered to service level agreements (SLAs). Consequently, Royah Company is able to “mould, model and cut services — just as a tailor cuts cloth — to the requirements of a particular company,” says Mohammed Shah, vice president, Royah Company.

By governing its IT/business relationships through service level agreements, Shah believes SAVOLA Group has obtained a greater degree of control over its planning and IT expenditure. The heads of SAVOLA’s business units now plan for their IT requirements on a yearly-scale.

“This stops the [knee-jerk] reaction of ‘we must have this system now,’ which is the more classical fire fighting mentality of IT service provision. Now [business heads] understand that during the budgeting cycle, the service level agreement will be sketched out,” explains Shah.

SLAs also help Royah to plan more accurately in terms of delivering IT services to the separate business units. “With everybody planning better we are able to avoid ‘spikes’ in IT expenditure that come from the mismanagement of expectations,” adds Shah.

Before SAVOLA embraced the service provider model the group had to learn the basics of the supplier/customer relationship. “We have matured over time, [and] became used to the customer/supplier relationship with the individual business units,” says Shah.

Prior to the creation of the separate IT business unit, the centralised IT department embarked on a rapid implementation of CA’s Unicenter, in particular the Advanced HelpDesk module. The helpdesk provides Royah with a structure for interacting with its clients.

“We use helpdesk to manage all the relationships with our clients,” says Shah. “Every call is logged, recoded and routed to the relevant person for them to manage. Unicenter is like a suite of applications for the IT person,” says Shah.

The supplier/customer relationship is characterised by much of the IT infrastructure that has been constructed within the last three years.

At the core of the group’s infrastructure is the Jeddah-based, high availability data centre, running a collection of HP 9000 V Class servers. The centre hosts the suite of shared Oracle 11i applications that the whole group has standardised on.

||**||Java Developer|~||~||~| Sometimes no matter how hard a company looks it can’t find the application to suit its business requirements. When faced with such a situation the alternatives are two fold — compromise on functionality or customise the solution. The combination of low local development resources, the strengthening vendor presence and maturing ‘integrated’ software packages has given many organisations reason enough to avoid in-house development. However, going forward into the Internet space some organisations are going find that the only way to address their specific business needs is through internal development.

“Companies should never start with a technical decision,” says Osama Tyoan, IT manager with Kuwait-based Gulf Insurance Company (GIC). “When I sat down to make the decision, it was about the needs of the business,” adds Tyoan.

For GIC the decision to pursue the internal development route wasn’t taken lightly. Just after the year 2000 rollover, Tyoan began studying the IT systems and processes from a business perspective. The initial study revealed the need to ‘clean house’ and consolidate GIC’s information resources, enhance processes and set in place the IT foundations that could support the company’s planned expansion.

By creating a ‘level playing field’ the IT department would be in a better position to improve decision support for senior executives and add value to the business. “We did a lot of manual work, we did a lot of batch processing, and our modules where separate — these were problems that wasted time, cost us money and had an impacton the business,” says Tyoan.

Consequently, 18-months ago GIC began searching for a solution that offered the right mixture of functionality, services & support and flexibility. After taking into account the need for Internet capabilities, full data migration and a fully customisable solution, GIC couldn't find a single product to suit its needs. “By this virtue we thought why didn’t we just try and accomplish [these aims] by creating a new application with the latest technology,” says Tyoan.

GIC’s in-house development route took the organisation away from its eight-year-old character-based application, towards a Java-based n-tier architecture. The objective was to create a streamlined and efficient IT environment capable of supporting the business as it expands beyond its home market in Kuwait. By using thin clients to access the business information held in the backend, GIC achieved a new degree of business flexibility. “By moving to an n-tier environment we are going back to a thin client model, which is what the Internet is all about — having nothing on the client,” Tyoan adds.

A core element of the project was the data migration from the old Informix database to Oracle 9i RDBMS. GIC took the opportunity to consolidate data that had been previously held in “one or two user” Access databases or “scattered” Excel sheets. “We wanted a centralised database that everybody can assess regardless of what their requirement is,” he adds.

When creating the central database the development team, working with local partner Insyst Technologies, struck some Arabic language support issues. The old Informix system was using 7-bit Al-Arabi code, which had to be converted to the 8-bit Windows code set. This was achieved by "dumping all the relevant data in the form of text files with delimiters and control characters for Arabic data. Arabic data conversion was done using As Sabil Software," says Tyoan.
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