CIO100 2018 #23:Timothy Kasbe, The Warehouse Group
“The nirvana of IT for any good CIO is to get out of the business’ way,” says Timothy Kasbe, chief information and digital officer at The Warehouse Group.
Kasbe believes that the IT and digital business functions exist to delight people with the beauty of technology.
This doesn’t just apply to our customers, but also to our internal colleagues and stakeholders, he says.
“When tech becomes invisible, it is useful. It’s about providing frictionless interactions. We want to make tech that is so completely invisible, that all you need to do is press a button to get what you need. This is not just about our customers, we also have 12,000 team members and we need to serve them so they have things ready at the right place, at the right time.”
Earlier this year, People Support at The Warehouse Group decided to change their operating model to improve efficiency, reduce duplication and save costs.
The Ask People Support project involved moving from a business partner model to a self-service model, which made access to information more equitable, and utilised the data to inform decisions.
The previous model meant that when people had an HR query or a problem, they had to call their business partner to get the information, or make an appointment. It could be time-consuming and frustrating, he says.
The first step was to collect data on the number and types of enquiries received, and improve the quality of information held about team members. Using agile methodology, key personnel from IS and People Support rapidly developed an elementary tool to begin the process in-house, which was highly cost effective.
The quick trials helped the team to understand what was needed, and informed the creation of a Knowledge Base Portal, which is continually being updated and improved. The early trials allowed the team to identify the 200 most commonly-asked questions which then became searchable items on the Portal.
In parallel, existing systems were streamlined, removing the need for paper-based forms and duplication. New team members can now register themselves online instantly, rather than requiring a People Support representative to process their information, says Kasbe.
The Portal also provides a predictive, personalised service to the user. For example, if a team member is employed with the Noel Leeming business, the portal will instinctively bring up results relevant to Noel Leeming.
The technology also enables People Support to continually improve its systems and processes by identifying pain points that can then be resolved. For example, if there were many questions about a policy, the system would trigger a review to see how the policy could be better explained. It also provides new visibility of the time to resolve, so business issues and response can be measured.
The HR Self Service portal has freed up the People Support specialists to focus on more complex and demanding requests, providing increased value to the business, he says.
While the project couldn’t have been completed without the support of the technology team, Kasbe emphasises how it was ‘owned’ by People Support.
“We wanted to create a beautiful platform to support our HR colleagues that didn’t require a lot of admin, and could be implemented quickly without significant involvement from IT,” says Kasbe.
“Our job is to take care of the technology – the database, infrastructure, the cloud, the machines that no-one knows exist, and create a simple layer that makes everyone’s lives easier,” he says.
“Then we get out of the way.”
“If we are doing our job well enough, IS should have a reduced role in things like training,” he adds. “If a system requires a lot of hand-holding, training and marketing then we need to go back to the drawing board and redo UX, design and application of AI. Voluntary systems adoption is the new ROI for the enterprise.”
Clean data is the key to being able to personalise customer experience
The ‘secret sauce’
Kasbe is on the Group Executive Committee (GET) and is accountable to the Group CEO, Nick Grayston, and the Board. He also leads the IS and digital teams, and Supply Chain and Logistics Internal Board and sits on the The Warehouse and Warehouse Stationery, Noel Leeming, Group Sourcing Support and Customer Internal Boards.
The Warehouse Group chief executive Nick Grayston says Kasbe’s focus is transforming The Warehouse into an information driven-AI powered organisation that is managing analytics generated actions.
“We do this with a maniacal focus on creating a customer-facing ecosystem that will help make Kiwi lives easier,” says Grayston. “These insights are not only helping us manage ‘business as usual’ but also contribute to our future business model innovation.”
Indeed, Kasbe points out good, clean data is a company’s ‘secret sauce’.
“Clean data is the key to being able to personalise customer experience.”
With four well-known retail brands and 2.9 million customer records, The Warehouse Group’s customer database holds a wealth of information about shoppers that could be used to serve them better, he says.
“At the moment you might receive an email with deals from Noel Leeming, and you might get another one from Warehouse Stationery. But if we know who we are talking to and their preferences and interests, we can send customers one communication that is relevant and applicable to their life.
“We want to personalise our communication, so that if you are into badminton for example, we don’t send you information about golf.”
However, the benefits from this type of big data cannot be realised if the records are full of errors and duplications. This was the initial challenge he and his team faced.
“We have close to three million records in our customer database and some individuals are duplicated many, many times. It is simply not possible for a human to go through and manually identify the errors.”
So, Kasbe and the team, with support from Boston-based Tamr Consulting, created a human-assisted AI machine to work through the records and clean up the data, creating a master customer database.
“The machine tells us within seconds if the records are real, false, or duplicates, and learns and gets better with every second.”
“The machine assistance means we can be more productive, freeing up marketing staff time to produce better campaigns for our customers, and reduces costs as we can be more targeted and look to eliminate poor-performing communications.
“There are tremendous benefits to know who we are actually talking to, instead of sending out bulk emails.”
‘Anything is possible’
Each month Kasbe participates in an organisation-wide strategy update meeting where he shares key information from his department, as well as reporting on trends and developments from overseas.
Kasbe says the Group has been very transparent about the dramatic changes they are making across the business, and that transformation is not just about digital and technology, it is also about mindset.
“We want to create the kind of culture where anything is possible. We’re empowering the team to try new things, to fail fast, to attempt the impossible - and magic is happening. We are giving people permission to succeed and it’s creating unbelievable energy.”
A recent example is the introduction of self-service checkouts at a Warehouse branch in West Auckland.
Kasbe challenged the team to create a self-service checkout trial in store in four weeks. “It was a tight, but doable deadline,” he thought.
He then went overseas on business and on his return found that the technology had already been created and due to be installed that week. The system was developed in 10 days, and the team was understandably very excited.
The project has already been a success with customers, with over 50 per cent of shoppers opting for the self-service checkouts. The feedback from customers is that it is much easier to use than other retailers’ versions, he says.
Kasbe acknowledges that diversity in tech is something that everyone needs to work on.
He recently appointed three senior female leaders in his team: Sarah Kearney (formerly with Alibaba) as head of online trading; Isabel Campbell as head of digital commerce; and Shanley Compton as executive strategist. He selected tech product manager Staci Scott as digital and IS team Member of the Year.
He is looking at programmes that will help increase participation of minority groups in STEM.
Kasbe reflects on how today’s business technology leaders can navigate through an ever shifting market.
He led online and digital transformation programmes across the globe, including clothing retailer Gloria Jeans in Russia where he was chief operating officer, and also at Fortune 50 companies such as Intrexon Corporation and Sears Holdings; Reliance Industries in India; and IBM in the US.
The biggest lesson he can share as a CIO is, to “ask irrelevant and illogical questions because you never know what may appear.”
He recalls his experience living and working in Russia, where his employer then needed to build an active data centre. They chose the town of Novoshakhtinsk, a tech and space exploration hub on the border of the Ukraine.
“I asked every question under the sun, where to put the data centre, was there a good power supply, was there a risk of earthquakes, what was the proximity and so on,” says Kasbe.
“But there was one question I didn’t ask, and that was: Will there be a war? It seemed so unlikely and ridiculous. But that’s what happened. The whole region was covered with buried missiles.”
These days, Kasbe encourages everyone to ask seemingly irrelevant and illogical questions.
And to this, he adds: “Believe in the impossible, and surround yourself with people who believe the same.”