Dateline Nelson: Innovation upstream at NZ King Salmon

Dateline Nelson: Innovation upstream at NZ King Salmon

IT manager Simon Gutschlag takes the perspectives of a biologist, an environmentalist and a technology evangelist at New Zealand King Salmon.

The IT manager at New Zealand King Salmon, Simon Gutschlag, knows how important it is to get on with the job with materials on hand, a much vaunted Kiwi ingenuity. This ‘number eight wire’ philosophy, he says, is one of the things that makes working in a region or in a small town great.

“In the regions it's even more so, I think, because people don't have the resources or the pull of the guys in the big cities,” he says. “And so you get people doing quite innovative things.”

New Zealand King Salmon, based in Nelson, produces over half of the global supply of the rare King Salmon species from their farms in the Marlborough Sounds.

Gutschlag, who has been IT manager for over five-and-a-half years at NZ King Salmon, faces the same business technology concerns of his counterparts in more urban settings – rise of consumerisation of technology, data explosion and keeping abreast of external trends that will impact the industry.

With a mobile workforce, connectivity is a key issue for the company. About three or four years ago, Gutschlag realised the company’s 10-year-old phone system needed replacement. At the same time, he noted staff were having two phones and many of them were diverting their calls to their mobiles.

So he started trialling no desk phones and having calls just going straight to mobile phones. Staff who wanted to buy their own phones also got a subsidy and were allowed to use their personal number for work.

Today, majority of the staff now own the mobile phones they use for work, and the company only has about 10 phone lines.

People don't have the resources or the pull of the guys in the big cities, and so you get people doing quite innovative things.

Simon Gutschlag, New Zealand King Salmon

“That's been a real boom for me because people have really adapted to smart phone technology,” says Gutschlag.

They opted to go with Vodafone, and Gutschlag went to its three stores in Nelson. “I spoke to the people in those stores and told them, ‘When the [King Salmon] people come to see you, I want you to sit down with them and really try and engage them with their handset, whatever it is – an iPhone, an Android or Windows phone. Try and put something on their phone that they will use. Sit down with each user and ask them what they will use the phone for, and what are their interests outside work.’ What I was trying to do was to get them using their phone outside of the box.”

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Gutschlag then actively encouraged staff to have their children tell them how to use the devices.

“It brought our helpdesk volumes down,” he says. People were downloading apps for fishing and shopping. “Within the first six months people were coming to me saying, ‘I am using this app at home and we could really use this here’, and they would explain the business proposition.”

He encouraged staff who travel for work to contact ICT to have apps like Skype, Viber and WhatsApp installed on their smartphones. This way, they can easily communicate with their families when they are away.

“My big vision is, in terms of on boarding staff, you sign a contract with King Salmon to start and there's a Web portal you go to before you even start. You choose your phone and that gets sent out to you before you've even started with us, maybe with some corporate video or corporate information. So when you arrive, you’re all ready to go [to work].”

Gutschlag continues to monitor developments in their BYOD space, “to be able to quantify what the support model might look like in the future”.

Big data is an area that is of interest to him and his team. “There's so much environmental information out there and it impacts what happens with fish,” he says.

He has actively gone out to the different divisions at King Salmon, and asked them to give him all their information sources, ranging from spreadsheets to temperature counters. He points out they also have a number of databases, DB2 and SQL. “We have to bring these structured and non-structured stuff together,” he says, as well as external information including data from monitoring agencies and data from ferries.

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This will enable him to spot a trend. “[If] something happens on the farm around March and April I'm sure they'll be some data trend that says what it is.”

He is also looking at how ICT can work with the sales team, particularly around customer data in the CRM system. Prior to moving to King Salmon's current office two years ago, he purposely positioned IT next to sales, which was then based in another building. Today, the product development team is also close to the ICT department.

ICT staff are encouraged to work in other business units, and vice versa. His staff also get invited to meetings in other departments, including sales and manufacturing.

Photo by Robin Johansen
Photo by Robin Johansen

Light bulb moments

Since 2011, Gutschlag, has been organising an annual ‘ICT day’. He invites senior managers across the company to an offsite meeting where they discuss business technology trends.

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Gutschlag invites the company’s key vendors to talk about their latest projects – local, regional and offshore – and also what is happening in their respective areas. The main topic of discussion, however, is provided by Gutschlag, and these could be around emerging technologies.

A manager could see how 3D printing, for instance, could be of real use in a year. In the most recent ICT day, a couple of senior managers “had a bit of a light bulb moment” while listening to a presentation, he says.

Gutschlag’s “light bulb” moment was while attending an international user conference three years ago. In that conference, he met other CIOs working in the salmon industry.

To put in context, he says, King Salmon produces around 6000 tonnes of fish, and the biggest company in the world produces around 250,000 tonnes.

The group spent one day talking about their strategies and systems they were using. “Lo and behold, we were using the same gear, and the same vendors.” That led to the “global salmon IT group”.

“It is a loose association,” he says, and the members meet once a year, holding it a day before an international conference that they attend together.

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People first, technology second

Peter Darlington believes working in library systems provides a great background for ICT leaders.

Darlington was systems administrator at the Tasman District Libraries before moving to the Tasman District Council as IS manager.

Seventeen years on, he believes this background was critical in building the approach of his team at the council as “people first and systems and technology second.”

“We don’t necessarily look at their hard technical qualification, we look for how they deal with people. Nowadays if you are and IT person and not good with people, people won’t engage with you.”

Darlington observes how major technology trends are impacting the public sector, among these the move towards providing online services, and use of social media.

Nowadays if you are and IT person and not good with people, people won’t engage with you.

Peter Darlington, Tasman District Council

“We have beefed up our social media presence,” he says, and saw the value of this approach during emergencies. Last year, for instance, flash floods hit Richmond and they noted how people went straight to their Twitter and Facebook feeds for updates.

Traditionally these updates came from radio or television news. Radio was airing updates every 15 minutes, but online, we were getting user feed updates every two seconds.

Thus, he says, public information staff is adapting to social media.

An eye for innovation

Having a base in Nelson, meanwhile, proved advantageous when they were upgrading their website, and wanted it to have a multimedia focus.

After checking out cameras from commercial stores, they stumbled upon a local company SnapIT, that provides webcam as a service.

At that time SnapIT had a few cameras around some tourist spots in the country. They were looking for a commitment from a company that will make a bit of an investment and certainty, and be there for the long haul.

Today, SnapIT provides the “eye frame” in the council website, providing current and daily images of sites around the district. They look after the broadband, the device, and power.

“We were pleased to find a local company doing cool stuff, and we got a pretty good deal,” says Darlington.Photos by Robin Johansen

This is part one of a special report on ICT in Nelson that came out in the 2014 leadership issue of CIO New Zealand.

Related: Data science in the forest:Nigel Brabyn drills in on a key asset of Nelson Forests – its data repository, which is set to grow exponentially as digital tools are used in logging production.

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