Sparkling strategy

In the cut-throat and fast-moving soft-drinks sector, agility and insight is all important. ACN talks to GV Rao, IT manager at Dubai Refreshments, about his strategies for keeping business and IT aligned, and how to avoid common project pitfalls.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  July 2, 2007

In the cut-throat and fast-moving soft-drinks sector, agility and insight is all important. ACN talks to GV Rao, IT manager at Dubai Refreshments, about his strategies for keeping business and IT aligned, and how to avoid common project pitfalls.

What's your overall objective for information technology, and how do you integrate it with the business?

GV Rao: We have a company vision which is very clear - the business has to be built up with very solid systems in place. The firm is very strong, and it knows exactly what it wants to achieve.

The company knows the importance of IT, the relevance of IT - and the benefits IT can bring to the firm. I'm fortunate to work with a very flexible management that understands the goals - they give me enough money to buy the right equipment and systems to implement in the company. They believe IT plays a very important role in the company's growth - it makes my live rather easy in terms of convincing the management.

They understand that a focus on IT strategy is important, as well as the business strategy.

Every year we focus on a few strategies, from our five-year plan. From these, I pick up on what is relevant to the IT department, and also on what I can contribute to the rest of the strategies. The two major functions in the company are sales and operations - we manufacture and bottle the products, then we sell them as well. We have a great network as far as distribution is concerned - the management realises that unless you invest money in IT in this area, you cannot achieve strong results.

You can reach the customer, but you need to capture the data accurately as well.

What are the company's current strategic aims? How does IT fit into or contribute to these aims?

GVR: One key strategy is aligning the business and IT solutions. For this, I have the green light to implement ERP - obviously this is a long project, involving a lot of planning and manpower, so we have been taking this as a major strategy for the past two years. We completely focused on that one - we've come out with flying colours, and we've implemented 18 or 19 modules from Oracle E-Business Suite. All of them are working perfectly.

Another strategy which is closely aligned with the business is the introduction of handheld terminals. We have around 160 trucks which go to the market in Dubai, Sharjah and the northern emirates. Everyone goes out with the handheld systems - it used to be completely manual, but now it is entirely automated, even with printers in the trucks. This is part of our strategy - to automate our sales force.

The first major benefit is accurate data, the second is that we know what we are selling. Before we introduced handheld systems, although we knew we were selling a certain number of cases - a truck holds 800 cases, so we knew the driver had sold 800 cases as he had to pay for them - we didn't have a clear-cut breakdown as to how much was Pepsi, how much Miranda, how much water. At the end of the day, the salesman came back with only vague information.

It's a cascade effect - since we don't know what we're selling, we don't know what to produce. It's a chain of all the problems.

Today, we know exactly how much has been loaded in the truck, a breakdown of each flavour that has been loaded - and what has been sold to a particular customer in the market. The salesman cannot play around with the figures, because the system doesn't allow more to be recorded than was loaded onto the truck. This is one of the biggest achievements.

When you're planning a new IT project, how do you set down clear, achievable goals for your team and the business?

GVR: There's a process we've developed - if there's a project which needs to be implemented, by IT or any other department, first we have to make sure it's sold to the management. The ownership needs to come from the management, so no-one can say they didn't want to implement the project. We make sure this is done first.

Two, we make sure we have the right plan.

Three, we bring the end users in and make sure they understand the focus of the project. We tell them what the benefits are for them - this helps them accept the project. There's always resistance, whenever there's change - people say they're happy with the old system, they don't want to learn. This is very normal in any implementation. So we bring them and tell them about the benefits they're going to get out of it - don't worry about your jobs, don't worry about anything.

Risk calculations are also very important - what are the problem areas, what could happen, what precautions can we take.

Last but not least, we need to make sure we give the business short-term gains. You don't want to wait for two years and say ‘this is what you're getting'. We'll show them some gains immediately, and people are then very happy that results are coming - this will drive their motivation.

What happens if you do come across a problem during a project?

GVR: We've been fortunate with our two big projects - handhelds and ERP - to have very good suppliers. They came out with a very strong plan, examining what could happen. They gave us a schedule we needed to meet, and explained what would happen if the deadlines were not met - the ripple effect. At every stage, we sat down and looked at the plan in case things went wrong - the back-up plan. So, what if we don't get the inventory right in the opening balances - we had a back-up plan around a manual count, along with various other factors.

When we implemented our handheld devices, we trained our customer representatives (CRs) - it took a long time, as we had a lot of people who had been working with us for more than 20 years, and were very used to the old system. We really had to interview each CR, and find out which were good, which were reasonable, and which could not cope with the new system. This was a risk we had identified - we had informed HR that there was likely to be this number of people would leave the company, and they needed to be prepared to get the new guys in to replace them.

One common statistic is that around 70% of IT projects fail; why does this happen in your view, and how can it be reduced?

GVR: If you ask me with my experience, it's more than 70% - this is what I've seen. ERPs especially - I think more than 80% of these projects fail. This is because there is pressure from the board of directors, say, for a new system - but no buy-in from lower-level management. Whenever there's an ERP implementation, everyone thinks it's an IT project - it's not, it's everyone's project. Everybody has to become involved - in the day to day decisions on the project.

Two, you need to prepare for a change - sometimes you need to recruit more people, incur extra cost. Three, you need to select the right partner - I've seen many companies where the partner says ‘I can't do this project', and runs away. Four, during the implementation you'll discover a lot of new things to be done - this requires additional budget, which you won't get in many cases. You have to compromise in quality - you don't go up to a particular standard - and then you have to live with that.

Another problem is when people leave - if a project takes a long time, you can't hold onto staff for that period, unless you have some particular bond. Especially in Dubai people are always moving on - every day you see resignations.

Get to know

GV Rao:

At Dubai Refreshments since 2002, Rao has implemented a number of critical projects, including ERP and hand-held terminal systems.

He also implemented a major infrastructure project, which won the Best Fixed Network Implementation category at the Network Middle East Innovation Awards 2007.

Before moving to Dubai Refreshments, Rao worked as MIS manager at Pepsi affiliate AQS in Abha, Saudi Arabia.

Prior to this, he spent three years at Lucent Technologies in KSA.

Rao holds a number of degrees, his most recent being an MBA from the University of Wollongong in Dubai, awarded this year. He also has qualifications in systems analysis and computer programming, as well as a BSc from Nagarjuna University in his native India.

Rao is a keen sportsman, and has a number of trophies proudly on display in his office.

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