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Knowledge manager

Knowledge manager

Click Clack CIO Nats Subramanian and his team completed a major upgrade entirely in-house, with more technology-aided productivity improvements in the pipeline. They are now building an electronic repository to make sure the knowledge accumulated from these projects will remain, even if staff move on.

For Natarajan (Nats) Subramanian, the constant factors in the management and technical aspects of the CIO position are more significant than variations from one industry sector to another. The past half-dozen years have taken him on a varied and speedy course through telecommunications and software project management, to his current role as CIO of plastics manufacturing company Click Clack.

In the process, he migrated from India to New Zealand, largely because New Zealand simply appealed to him from what he had read and seen in pictures as a place to live. He has not been disappointed.

He has certainly found enough stimulation in updating Click Clack’s systems, to make them more stable.

Subramanian describes himself as “a manager coming from a technical background”. He began his career on the latter front as a network engineer. Six years ago he decided his inclinations pointed towards management, rather than a purely technical career. “I enjoyed leading teams,” he says.

He rose to become IT manager for the Bharti group, a major Indian telecommunications provider. One outstanding achievement in that role, he says, was to supervise the building of a business-continuity centre for the company. Its primary IT facility was in New Delhi, but it needed a backup facility in another centre. The facility was built from the bottom up including fibre communications and a large storage area network.

In 2003, Subramanian moved to the Indian office of international software developer Computer Sciences Corporation, (CSC) where he worked as a full-time project manager with a good deal of remote management of projects for clients outside India.

An important subset of project management skills, he says, is effective communications management. Value can be extracted from a change more quickly, if its benefits are communicated fully to the users within the company and to other parties who deal with it.

He came to New Zealand in 2004, initially as a systems and network administrator of Click Clack, based in

Palmerston North. He was promoted to CIO in April 2005.

His joining Click Clack was not from any particular preference for experience in manufacturing, he says. Whether the business of the company is plastics manufacture or software development, “the core remains the same”, he says. “With CSC I was working as a consultant to external clients; here I deal with internal users. The skills I have to apply are much the same.” An inherent persistence has proved a great asset, he says. “When I start on an issue that needs fixing, I have to see it through to the end.”

However, he did aim deliberately for a small-to-medium enterprise because he thought advancement would be quicker and it would be easier to make a difference.

When Subramanian first looked over Click Clack’s system, he quickly saw that “the infrastructure was falling apart”. The servers the company was using were approaching the end of their support cycle and the SAP ERP that was the basis of the company’s business applications was also an older version. “We were having to pay 10 per cent extra to SAP to maintain support for it.”

Under his charge, Click Clack updated the ageing NT 4.0 operating system on its servers to Windows Server 2003 and the workstations to XP. The Exchange email server was also upgraded from version 5.5 to the 2003 implementation.

Then the Click Clack IT team tackled the upgrade from SAP version 4.6B to 5.0. “This has been a great achievement for my team,” says Subramanian. “We were the first company in Australasia to do this change completely in-house.”

There were two chief reasons for approaching it this way; it was more economical, he says, but also the project helped to build a team with superior IT skills.

The project was approached cautiously by “building a dummy system” and testing the upgrades on that “to see what the problems were”. These could then be solved before carrying through the upgrade to the production system.

“I wanted to challenge the technical team,” he says. As a result he believes he has built a team confident in its ability to see through major projects. Reinforcement and informal as well as formal rewards for achievements are important.

Sending staff on training courses gives them something of value individually, as well as benefiting the company, Subramanian says. “I make sure the team achieves [project] milestones and that when they do this is communicated to senior management. It helps that managing director John Heng has a technical background and will readily understand the significance of such achievements, Subramanian says.

Though he is still conscious of the vulnerability of patiently built and tested skills in a hotly-contested employment market. “We are an SME. If a person leaves us it is likely to create a significant gap before another person can be recruited to replace them.”

He has therefore instituted a project to enshrine accumulated knowledge in something more enduring than “people’s brains and pieces of paper”. Click Clack needs an electronic repository where documents describing business processes can be kept in an organised and easy to retrieve way, as well as training manuals, he says.

This will be accomplished by the use of the RWD Productivity Pak. RWD Technologies, based in Baltimore, US, has a close relationship with SAP. The Productivity Pak aids collaboration in creating documentation and training materials, and provides “real context-sensitive online help” for the SAP user, even the “power user”, Subramanian says. This is not like the often perfunctory and confusing help provided with some widely used package software, he says. It allows material to incorporate screenshots and task simulations.

Again Click Clack is an early adopter of this software and Subramanian is keen to establish a tradition of the company being “first to embrace [appropriate] technical advancements”. Such a role does have its drawbacks in that the company is less able to draw on the knowledge of previous users. On the other hand, he says, “We are able to learn from our mistakes and inform other users, and we are proud of that.”

“Where would Sir Edmund Hillary have been,” he asks, “if he had hesitated to try things that no-one had done before?”

Top priorities at present for development of the mainstream SAP systems at Click Clack include a warehouse management system implemented with radio-frequency identification (RFID) markers. These will be deployed at bin and pallet level, rather than on individual items. Earlier he had concerns about the viability of RFID in a company of Click Clack’s size, but the technology has “stabilised” and become more affordable. “A lot of companies are implementing it now,” he notes.

Expenditure on IT still has to be watched, however. “As everyone knows, the manufacturing industry in New Zealand is at a critical stage, particularly when our dollar is strong.”

Click Clack itself attracted criticism in 2006 for moving more than $3 million of its supplier contracts from New Zealand to Asian companies. These economies naturally affect the IT operation, both directly and indirectly. IT is critical in increasing productivity, but on the other hand, “we have to manage the cost of our solutions”, says Subramanian.

“I have a philosophy of keeping development and maintenance in-house” for speed of response in case of problems as well as building the skills of in-house staff, he states.

Fairfax Business Media

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