Controlling the beast

How do you deal with a function like IT when the company you work for has eight separate divisions spread across a wide range of verticals from cars to computers? It’s a question that Saji Oommen, CIO of Al Batha Group, has to answer every day.

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Controlling the beast
By  Ben Furfie Published  September 23, 2010

How do you deal with a function like IT when the company you work for has eight separate divisions spread across a wide range of verticals from cars to computers? It’s a question that Saji Oommen, CIO of Al Batha Group, has to answer every day.

Saji Oommen’s desk is covered in paper. “I don’t ever think we’ll see the day when paper is no longer needed,” he quietly jokes, leaning back in his chair. For someone who is in charge of the IT infrastructure for one of the largest independently-owned companies in the UAE, Oommen is surprisingly softly spoken. “We have a slightly diversified group,” he says when asked to describe the company he has worked for for most of his career.

Slightly diversified might be being a bit modest. With eight divisions spread across varied industries, ranging from the FMCG to real estate, and pharmaceuticals to electronics retail, nobody can accuse the Sharjah-based company of being afraid to diversify.

But while it might make the CEO’s job a little easier knowing that the company can fall back on other sectors should one see a decline in demand, the sheer range of challenges posed by wildly different verticals is conceivably a nightmare for a CIO, regardless of experience. “There’s a lot to think about,” admits Oommen. “But when you’ve been here as long as I have, you manage to get your head around most things.”

The company, which is based on the top two floors of its gleaming 23-floor skyscraper next to Sharjah Corniche, has always looked forward when it comes to adopting new technology, explains Oommen. “We’ve never said we don’t want to implement that technology because it would be too much work. We’ve always evaluated its worth based on factors such as need, cost and ROI. Because of the size of the group, certain technologies are financially within reach for us, when for smaller companies they simply aren’t economical.”

One example of this is the company’s implementation of business intelligence. Despite analysts and vendors proclaiming that 2010 is the year of business intelligence, Al Batha has been using it for the past eight years reveals Oommen.

“We began rolling the technology out to our automotive division. The first impact it had was on the van sales teams. Before we introduced business intelligence, they would go out in the morning, visiting customers with stock, and then either at the end of the day, or when they ran out of stock. They’d come back to the office, deposit the cash they’d made and then head back out.

“After we introduced business intelligence, it had the immediate impact of allowing the sales teams to see what was selling and what wasn’t at different times of the year far more effectively than their experience and memory allowed — because it was contrasting not just their own sales, but the sales of the all their colleagues. It also allowed them to see who was buying what and how much they were spending; it meant that they could target people far more efficiently and increase the number of businesses they could see during any one day.”

However, the automotive division is just one part of the overall company. So how does he ensure that any solution that is implemented isn’t just benefiting one department, but all. “The fact is you can’t. You can try, but there will always be one department that will need more assistance than another. There are synergies among the group’s companies, but for the most part IT solutions only come together when they’re providing an overview of the whole company for the benefit of the board and executives.”

But are there benefits in having such a large company if each department has its own IT needs? Yes, says Oommen.

“While each department may use a technology in a different way to another, the fact is that if we forced them to all use a solution in one way, it wouldn’t be effective. We do gain synergies from the size of the company when it comes to rolling out things like BI. For example, we were able to roll that technology out a long time ago when it was expensive because of the size of the group.”

Another area where technology is having a positive impact on the company’s overall operation is in market research. “It’s not something that we set out to achieve through adopting the technology, but by having all these sales people out — not just in the automotive division, but also in the pharmaceutical business for example — we can leverage that penetration with the customer to get feedback and conduct surveys on the fly.”

BI isn’t the only area that the company is investing in. Oommen says it was around five years ago that Al Batha virtualised its IT infrastructure, when asked what his opinion is on the ongoing claims that virtualisation is going to revolutionise IT departments.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s drastically changed the way that we operate, but what virtualising our IT infrastructure has done is provided us with peace of mind — both in terms of the reduction in complexity through removing compatibility issues, as well as confidence that routing maintenance and hardware failures won’t knock us out like they might have in the past.

“If worst comes to worst and we need to replace a server, it’s not a huge problem for us. We have enough redundancy built into our IT infrastructure so that if we did lose such a vital piece of hardware, we can shift the load on to our other servers and replace it quickly. It means we minimise the downtime, and in turn, ensure that the employees using our IT systems don’t find themselves without services they rely on.”

When it comes to cloud services, the company is still investigating the benefits and the negatives, but Oommen is positive about the technology. “It’s an enabler rather than a solution. That’s what people get wrong about it. I think it will bring with it a democratisation of IT infrastructure. Smaller companies will find they’re no longer at a disadvantage when it comes to the IT systems that they can afford to integrate into their operations. It’s going to create some very interesting challenges for larger companies like us, but I think it will also force us to be more creative with our resources.”

Oommen, however, is less enamoured with public cloud services, which in his words, he “doesn’t see the point of”, especially when it comes to enterprises. “It’s crucial for an enterprise to be able to control their data in house. Why a company that has vital data and a need to ensure that they’re adhering to good governance principles would think it’s a good idea to handle data outside of the company’s own IT infrastructure is confusing. It’s an enormous risk, regardless of the potential saving.”

One constant, irrespective of what the future holds, is Oommen’s passion for SAP’s solutions: “We run our systems on SAP. We have a very close working relationship with the company. Our CRM system runs on SAP, our retail systems run on it and I’m a director of the SAP users group in the region.”

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