Cereal innovation: John Hobson, CIO, Kellogg’s Europe
John Hobson has worked at the European division of the Kellogg’s Company for over 15 years now – mainly in IT roles and mainly as an accountant in IT: “It doesn’t get any more rock&roll than that!” he joked with his fellow panellists on the stage.
As the Quaker-founded US cereal producer gears up for its centenary anniversary in the UK this year, we talked with Hobson about innovation, the relationship between OT and IT, improving data pipelines, and delivering value through technology.
Tell us more about your segue from accountancy into IT…
I’ve never had any formal IT training. I started as an accountant and stumbled into a group finance role where my job was to implement a finance consolidation reporting system. From there I started working with SAP, and one thing led to another…
I’ve learned through doing, rather than through formal training but when I look at my organisation now, I can see that’s been a deliberate evolution – when I look at our business relationship manager group many of these – if not all of them now – are people who have a background outside of IT.
People come from the supply chain, marketing, sales, R&D pretty much across all of our business [into IT] because I think to succeed in these roles having that experience and knowledge of what it actually means to work in different roles and understand the potential for digital and technology to make a difference.
What you have sitting behind this is also a group of extremely experienced technical people plus newer people coming through who bring a technical knowledge. That’s the blend in my opinion that you need to have.
How does your team interface with the operational side of the business?
OT is owned by the engineers on the supply chain side, but we have to work very closely with them because the IT teams have a better understanding of keeping things up to date with cyber security – so when it comes to cyber, we work closely with the supply chain team.
We’ve also done a lot of work around digitalising factories – that’s an important focus and one of the things we do that unites the IT, OT and the plant teams – each one has a key role to play to get the benefits of digitalisation of operations.
At one time you had IT on one side and OT on the other and they only ever talked to each other to complain and argue about finance But I’d say now, the situation is dramatically different – we have a real sense of partnership about what we do, an understanding of the differences. We look at each other’s challenges and how we can utilise each other’s skills and understand each other’s priorities so that we come to the same place.
During the DTX session you talked about Kellogg’s future global IT strategy and how one of the key pillars will be innovation. Can you talk more on how you plan to innovate?
I can’t talk about the global IT strategy as it’s not actually been released yet or shared even within our IT team – but we are working on one and innovation is central to that.
The reality in today’s world is that we are not just an IT function anymore. We are responsible for making sure everyone across the organisation understands the potential of digital to transform, drive and the business going forward and that’s got to be a foundational thing.
All businesses now have a digital component to them and within that having a culture of innovation where you have that level of creativity and you are able to think differently about the role that digital plays to solve problems and to create a future for your organisation – it has to be a critical part of what our function is all about.
The challenge you can get yourself into with innovation is thinking everyone is very busy doing their day-to-day roles – it can become the thing you leave and don’t a get around to and that cannot be the answer.
Cost of living crisis and supply chain issues have led to stark rises in the cost of food – are there ways you think you’ll innovate to create efficiencies and pass those savings on to the consumer?
What I would say is that for us nothing has changed in that part of what we do from a supply chain point of view is we’re always looking at what we can do more efficiently and more effectively.
That was the case and always continues to be the case. Notwithstanding the way things are in terms of the cost of living and so on, the beauty of where we are at today is that technology has a big role to play for us to be able to do that. Not just around using the Internet of Things to automate it’s also about planning more effectively, how can we understand demand more effectively.
That’s something we’re working on as a supply chain. And in terms of sustainability if you can minimise the amount of waste you have across the process, then firstly it’s good from a sustainability perspective and good for the planet in terms of what you are consuming, and it’s also cost efficient.
What key technologies do you think will deliver value for Kellogg’s?
Within Europe there are two big streams I see. One is everything around how do we get closer to our consumers and customers. How do we unlock the power of all the data that is around the place and use it to generate value for our company?
From a tech point of view that involves having good foundational capabilities around data where you have your data warehouse, your data lake, and to be able to really visualise and access the data in nice intuitive way. What sits on top of that is being able to apply AI to that ML techniques or other types of data science interrogation techniques.
On the other side it’s all about the digital experience that you’re giving. For the internal staff, for consumers, for your customers, and your suppliers.
The stream is, that as we come out of the pandemic, we’re practicing a genuinely hybrid working scenario – we are big into collaboration and so are looking at things like how we make the most out of the Office 365 suit. We are big users of Teams – we have that whole suite but are we really using those tools in an effective way to make every person as productive as they can be, wherever they are working.
I would also extend that to all the other tools in the office SAP, ERP, management tools – people spend a lot of time in those environments – so the more efficient and easier you can make that the more productive you can make people.
What did you learn from that earlier enforced period of remote working?
We learned that we could do it – that’s one thing, which is fantastic, but especially as we’ve come out of that and are coming back to offices, we’ve remembered why having the office there and coming together is so important.
We talk a lot about ‘the 4 Cs’ around hybrid working: Connection – how to maintain it with other people; Collaboration – its importance and how much better it can be when you are physically face to face with people; Creativity – how it’s much easier to innovate and be creative if you’re all together in a room; and Culture – we have a very strong culture in Kellogg, and we are very proud of it. I think that if you are not getting the chance to come into the office, to see the branding, to feel the energy, there’s a danger of drifting off into thinking ‘well, I could be working for anybody…’
So, what we’re consciously doing is talking about how there are times when working at home is perfect but there are other times when you are going to get a lot more value and get the benefit of an office environment.
We’re not thinking in terms of: ‘it’s Tuesday you have to be in the office’, it’s really thinking about those moments, pieces of work or team events during the office that are going to be of value to you.
The other ‘C’ (besides Cornflakes and Coco Pops!) is Cloud: have you had to increase your cloud capacity over the last two years? What kind of tools are you using?
We were already on the journey. The big change we’d already made was around ERP and SAP. Pre-pandemic we’d already moved into the cloud for our European SAP infrastructure and over the period. North America will be the last one to go – so by the end of this year the entire ERP estate will be run out of the cloud.
For Europe, we’ve been in that position for 4-5 years. Back then there weren’t very many companies running their ERP out of the cloud, so we’ve been quite progressive in that sense. We’ve got a long way to go still, I would say, but we’re certainly moving that way.
You mentioned data lakes and warehouses – how far down that process are you in terms of gathering your company’s data into a convenient form?
We’re in the middle of a program where we’re doing exactly that right now. We have lots of pockets where we’re good. In the supply chain side of the business there’s some nice stuff there. We’re also doing good stuff in terms of getting to understand our consumers and so thinking about growth management.
Where we’ve always historically suffered, is sometimes it can be siloed work rather than bringing it to one common platform but that’s what we’re working towards so that you’re able to get that level of scalability to get everything ready.
And what kind of applications are you using to help you processes and analyse the data you gather?
It depends on the use case. When I talk with the business stakeholders it’s clear that AI and ML are buzz words if you like, so when they go to conferences or read the media these are the things they are looking for – but at the end of the day there’s no point in trying to apply AI or ML to data that is wrong or you are not providing the right things for or, even worse, you are not actually doing the right thing to address the problem that the business trying to solve.
One of the roles I see us playing as a technology team is making sure that we have some of those foundational blocks in place – but we will not be applying AI for the sake of it or because the president says he wants it. We want to look at where it’s really going to be applicable.
The cyberattack on KP Snacks put supplies of the UK’s favorite crisps in danger – how are you ensuring that consumers are not deprived of their morning helping of Crunchy Nut cornflakes?
Like most CIOs I’d say this is number one on our list of priorities. We’re very conscious that the risk in this area only gets greater – as people became more skilful, and we are constantly on the alert.
We do everything we can do to keep ourselves safe with our talented experienced cyber sec team, plus the other piece is the people, our first line of defence – we do a lot of awareness training with all our staff. I’m as confident as I will ever be able to be that we are doing all the things we can to ensure that scenario where people’s Cornflakes are on the table and that a supply chain attack doesn’t happen.
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