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Onyeka Nchege, CIO of Coca Cola Bottling Company Consolidated

Onyeka Nchege, CIO of Coca Cola Bottling Company Consolidated

In recent years, North America’s largest Coca Cola bottling company has increased the number of cloud services it uses. And along with three other large US-based bottlers most recently began an ambitious project to migrate its on premise ERP application‑its crown jewels‑to the cloud. But Onyeka Nchege, chief information officer of Coca Cola Bottling Company Consolidated explained to Business Cloud News that despite working as separately owned organisations, Coca Cola is a collaborative effort, making the individual companies ideal candidates to leverage the economies of scale cloud services deliver.

CCBCC has shifted its focus in recent years to cloud services primarily because of the perceived benefits associated with flexibility and time-to-market.

The firm now uses ServiceNow for IT service management, which has helped the company streamline its internal helpdesk processes, and it’s also using a range of cloud-based services for human resources. The company is using Cornerstone OnDemand for talent management and Coupa for expenses management, all fairly light-weight software as a service applications.

Nchege says that the company, which was founded in North Carolina in 1902, is like most large, well-established firms with a large estate of legacy IT infrastructure: it had to do a lot of things in order to prepare for its move to the cloud.

“We had to wrap our heads around this culturally. We shied away from moving to the cloud for so long and the business being as old as it is, a big part of moving bits and pieces out to the cloud first was to get our organisation comfortable with this new paradigm,” he says.

“The biggest risks of moving to the cloud have less to do with technology and more to do with lack of education. It’s about trying to understand what you don’t really know, which is why we started with non-business critical applications.”

He explains that so far, the benefits of shifting these systems into the cloud have dramatically outweighed the costs.

The firm no longer has to worry about capital expenditure restructuring every two to three years, and saves on personnel that would have previously had to manage those on-premise systems. It refocuses internal IT resources on supporting the day to day needs of staff. And, critically, these platforms bring into focus the shifting distinction between what IT systems and platforms the company would typically devote resources to customising, and what it would buy off the shelf. For a sector that relies so heavily on the seamless interconnection between a large number of cogs, time-to-market is everything.

“Credibility from our business partners has been a big piece of this, which often goes unmentioned. In the past some of our services have taken a little bit longer because they require more manual customisation, but when you move out to the cloud, what you see is what you get,” he says.

The commodity approach to applications isn’t necessarily a strategy embraced by most firms, especially those large enough to house an application development, but Nchege says that for most applications it all comes back to taking the focus off the technology itself and looking at the wider business.

“From an application perspective this is not necessarily how we’ve always done things, but it can really improve how quickly we move on strategic initiatives. Our view is that if these cloud platforms are powerful and reliable enough for the largest companies in the world, it’s good enough for us too,” he says.

Moving to the cloud requires a lot of bottle

Swapping on-premise human resources applications or email services for cloud-based replacements has its benefits and thankfully, because these often come in the form of lightweight applications and require little in the way of technical integration with other services, few challenges with moving these services into the cloud exist aside from the slight tweaks that may need to be applied to the associated business processes.

But what about a SAP ERP platform that handles tracks and analyses nearly every element of the Coca Cola bottling business – from the procurement and manufacturing to final sale of the product? Comparatively speaking, placing that in the cloud carries with it great risks.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Nchege’s firm along with the three other largest North American Coca Cola bottlers are in the process of doing. The companies are building out a customised SAP platform, dubbed ‘Coke1’ internally, that is specific to the beverage industry and tailored to the unique attributes of Coca Cola’s business.

The platform is based on a system developed by Coca Cola bottlers in Asia and Europe and currently in the process of being tailored to the North American market’s requirements. Coca Cola Bottling Company Consolidated is helping to lead the effort.

“This absolutely makes sense when you think about how a company like ours can leverage economies of scale,” Nchege says. “We operate as a collective in a highly connected system of separately owned legal entities, and a lot of the systems we use are the same, including Coca Cola corporate. From a procurement perspective it’s better to leverage that when it comes to the scale of deployments.”

The platform isn’t built out completely yet and the companies assessed a variety of different deployment options. The companies opted to host the infrastructure in a single private cloud instance, consolidating all of the ERP systems of all four bottlers into one platform.

It’s going to be a single, multi-tenanted cloud instance hosted in IBM datacentres, he says, and it’s a very ambitious project. The companies expect to pilot a version in the middle of this summer as they look to scale out sometime early next year.

But despite the fact that Nchege’s organisation is now on board with the project there was initially some resistance to this. Imagine, he says, asking your leadership to approve a project that would see not just your own company’s crown jewels – but those of three other large, separately owned companies – combined into one cloud-based platform hosted in an external datacentre. It would require rock solid uptime, security and latency guarantees (SAP isn’t exactly lightweight) and a solid disaster recovery strategy, to mention a few.

“We had to wrap our heads around that, culturally it’s a huge change, but from a genuine risk perspective I don’t think the challenges are insurmountable,” he says. “Even when that server is in your company’s basement, and you can go downstairs to ask your datacentre administrator for access – when something really goes wrong, you may not have any better of an idea about what happened to your data or your systems.”

Ultimately, he explains, the benefits of placing the ERP platform in the cloud outweigh the costs, with the companies banding together to leverage their collective scope, streamline their business processes and eliminate IT systems redundancy. And rather than focusing on things like email or collaboration tools, vendors could be doing a much better job about hammering these benefits home, according to Nchege.

“In reality the biggest differences come when you move your core business applications to the cloud. Effective communication of that, to me, seems to be lacking on the vendor side. How do you get a traditional brick and mortar organisation like ours to truly consider moving business critical, core business services out to the cloud? I think cloud providers can do a much better job in terms of educating, and helping to sell the story.”

Turning consumer data into a secret ingredient

Coca Cola is like most high-volume B2B and B2C companies in that it collects a lot of data about its clients; the central brand organisation itself has billions of customers. The central organisation’s data is collected by a group called customer business solutions, which collects and manipulates the data in order to produce reporting and help guide leadership on its marketing strategy.

But Nchege’s organisation also collects a lot of data itself, primarily in the form of surveys it administers to retail outlets that sell Coca Cola products. It consolidates all of that data in a fairly sizeable Microsoft-based data warehouse which is then shared to account managers and the sales division through Sharepoint.

That data is intended to get a better sense of its customers’ needs and how the company could improve; it’s also geared towards the account manager and helping them improve how to sell. To narrow the time gap between collecting the data and deriving these insights the company is currently assessing the recently-launched SAP HANA in-memory cloud computing platform.

“We’re recognising that across the Coke systems there is a lot of data we can leverage from a customer perspective, in terms of the people the bottlers sell to – grocery stores, convenience stores – but also data on the end consumer. But there is so much data on both segments coming out of the Coke system that you need something like HANA or Hadoop to actually crunch and make sense of the data,” Nchege explains.

But, with the technology piece once again coming into clear focus, he stresses that having the right data-crunching platform is only half the battle; humans remain a key part of the process.

“What you can’t underestimate is the human intelligence required to make sense of what you need to do after you crunch the numbers. When you’re building out your big data platform it’s critical to take this into account,” he says.

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