As Honda’s UK CIO, Gareth Jackson faces the complex balancing act of catering for local needs while addressing the multinational’s global technology strategy.

And it’s a challenge that Jackson thrives on, judging by his 15 years at Honda UK. In his earlier career, he changed jobs every three years, working variously as an analyst at ICI Paint, a project manager at Unilever, a management consultant with Pricewaterhouse and an IT manager at US telecoms provider Bell South – so it’s clear he feels at home at Honda.

Jackson initially headed up the IT function at Honda’s UK car factory in Swindon before taking on the CIO role at the corporate head office about eight years ago.

With its global success and range of high-tech products, it’s easy to understand why Honda is an interesting place to work. Founded in Japan by Soichiro Honda in 1948, the Honda Motor Company started as an engine and motorcycle maker, but more than 60 years later it has become a global company that also produces cars, powered equipment and even robots.

The company is at the cutting edge of car technology, manufacturing a range of hybrid vehicles but also the FCX Clarity, the first commercially produced car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

Honda FCX Clarity: The first commercially produced hydrogen-powered car

Honda UK is part of a global concern whose products include the first commercial hydrogen-powered car, the FCX Clarity
Photo: Honda UK

Speaking to silicon.com, Jackson discussed the challenges of heading up local IT for a global company, working with a franchised dealer network and the skills a CIO needs in 2011.

The CIO skills for 2011

Jackson told silicon.com that an essential and major skill for a CIO in 2011 is to work out what technology will actually be useful to a business and provide leadership in implementing it.

“There is so much hype in IT but it’s working through the hype and trying to find the value. That, to me, is the crucial element a CIO has to have these days – enough technical knowledge to look at what’s out there and work out the value and then once they’ve worked that out, take it to the business and say ‘this is what we should be doing’,” he said.

But despite what his job entails, Jackson says he’s not…

…someone who is hugely interested in technology: “I have enough technical nous so I can pick my way though things and the technical guys don’t easily pull the wool over my eyes, but I’m definitely not a techie and the last thing I want to do at home is play with a PC.”

“My job is about the relationship with the business and being able to speak in a normal language and not speak about TCP IP or VoIP or anything like that,” he added.

Standardising technology in the UK and around the world

The general IT priorities for Honda UK are to simplify and standardise infrastructure while continuing to serve the needs of the business, according to Jackson.

Jackson is currently looking at how to reduce the number of elements that form the IT infrastructure, including antivirus, desktop operating systems, PCs and printers.

That process fits the strategy Honda is looking to follow globally: “In the past, Honda has absolutely valued the level of autonomy it allowed its companies around the world. So it allowed its companies to do whatever they liked in terms of IT, in terms of finance, in terms of HR. Where Honda has got to in the world, in the size of the company, it’s got there by allowing autonomy, allowing local decision-making. But with the economy over the past two or three years, Honda has realised that actually we do need to make even more changes to be more efficient and therefore there is a very large objective to standardise across our region and later on, globally,” Jackson told silicon.com.

As Honda UK is part of Honda Motor Europe, Jackson reports to European CIO Hironobu Tsuji, whose department is based in the same office in Langley near Slough. As part of his role, Jackson also oversees the general desktop infrastructure and applications for Honda Motor Europe. Honda’s car factory in Swindon operates its IT independently.

Working closely with Tsuji, Jackson is starting to look at how to standardise technology across Europe. An indication of the scale of the challenge that lies ahead is that the 30 European countries in which Honda has a presence run a similar number of antivirus technologies.

“There are several projects at the moment looking at what we are going to do with antivirus, what we are going to do with printers, what we are going to do with PC suppliers, what we are going to do with operating systems because some of us are on Windows Vista, some on XP, some on Citrix. The projects haven’t come to fruition at the moment but they’re all starting to look to see how we standardise across Europe,” he said.

As well as the cost savings and efficiency benefits that simplifying the technology infrastructure will bring, it also…

…reduces the pressure on inhouse IT skills, according to Jackson.

“Someone has really got to convince me before we buy extra bits of stuff, whether it’s software or hardware, because the more complex you make it, the more you get into a skill problem. If you reduce the number of languages you use, the number of extra add-ons you use, then it’s a lot simpler to look for people with the right skills,” he said.

Meeting the needs of a national dealer network

The dealership network is a key part of Honda UK’s business, as it represents the main channel through which its products are sold.

Honda UK has three franchised dealer networks selling cars, motorcycles and powered equipment – which includes all-terrain vehicles, generators, lawnmowers and marine engines.

One of the most challenging aspects of working for Honda UK is balancing the technology needs of the corporate business with those of the franchised dealers.

Honda dealership: Honda has a network of franchised dealers in the UK which are allowed a degree of freedom with their IT

Honda has a network of franchised car and motorcycle dealers in the UK, which are allowed a degree of freedom with their IT
Photo: Honda UK

About eight years ago, Honda UK took the decision to put as little constraint as possible on the IT used by dealerships. Previously, Honda UK specified that dealers should use Honda-approved PCs and proprietary networks to connect to the Honda infrastructure. But the company now uses web-based systems that dealers can access in any way they choose.

“So the dealer networks need an internet connection to us and they can access Honda systems; whether that’s ordering a car, ordering parts, getting prices down from us, or getting leads from us, all those systems are internet-based,” Jackson said.

“We don’t want to be specifying – this is the PC you must buy, this is the sort of network you must have. All we specify to them is the level of browser we’re supporting and we recommend an internet connection speed,” he added.

If dealers have problems with the Honda systems, they contact the service desk at Honda UK’s HQ to solve them.

The Honda UK systems have also been made as simple to use as possible so that franchised dealers are able to interact with the company with the minimum of fuss.

One of the simple ways in which this goal has been achieved has been to allow dealers to use the car’s registration number rather than the standard 18-digit vehicle identification number when registering cars and their new owners with the DVLA. This reduces both the time to register vehicles and the potential for errors when entering search terms.

In keeping with the aim to make it easy for dealers to work with Honda, the company also makes an effort to…

…tailor its technology to the needs of the different types of dealerships it serves.

The car and motorcycle dealerships generally just sell Honda products but businesses selling power equipment often sell Honda products alongside those of other manufacturers, so they have slightly different requirements.

“We can’t just say, ‘We’re a big corporate – you’re dealing with Honda so you can use the same ordering system that cars use and bikes use’. It needs to be different – their entire business isn’t Honda and therefore how do we make it simple for them to run their business and want to deal with Honda so there’s no inconvenience to them?”

Focusing on technology for customers

Another important consideration for Honda UK’s IT department is serving the needs of customers in the best way. This requirement includes the services provided to dealers but also the way the company engages with customers using technology.

“Our big focus as an automotive and motorcycle and power equipment company is to be different in terms of the customer experience. People have a certain view of the car industry and how we deal with customers. Honda has a good reputation within that, but we’re looking to be great outside the industry as well. So we’re really looking at how we can make our systems do what the customer wants and not what is efficient for us,” Jackson said.

One of the innovations on the Honda UK car website is a facility for interested customers to book test drives at a dealership of their choice. The system makes sure cars are available at the relevant time and location and prompts dealers to call the customer to confirm the arrangements.

This functionality has been live for about 18 months but the company is looking to make it available for motorcycle dealerships as well. “What we’re now looking to do is to think how we use some of the applications and services we’ve got in cars and move it through into bikes and power equipment,” Jackson said.

Jackson oversees the Honda UK team of Java developers behind the new motorcycle website launched in late January to showcase Honda’s 2011 line of bikes.

Part of this project was to make the website user-friendly for iPads and other tablet PCs, and the new website allows iPad users to scroll through the range of Honda bikes by swiping across the screen. “We’re making sure the experience for an iPad user is what they would expect and not a clunky web-based experience that doesn’t fit with the iPad,” Jackson said.

He added that the needs of people buying cars differ from those buying bikes or powered equipment, so the functionality for each website should also reflect that difference. Car customers are generally looking for a vehicle to get them from A to B whereas motorcyclists are generally much more passionate and knowledgeable about the products they want to buy.

Processes such as managing leads when customers have shown an interest in buying a Honda product, either through the website or by visiting dealers, should therefore be handled in different ways depending on the product.

This issue means that when potential customers make enquires about the availability of a certain car or about getting a quote from Honda Finance, the requests need to go to the right people at Honda or in the dealerships so they can be followed up effectively.

Making sure this happens is an ongoing process and Jackson and his team are always…

…looking at how IT can help improve this.

One of the areas being looked at is how existing customers can provide feedback about their interaction with Honda, the dealer and how they are finding the car, bike or lawnmower they’ve bought.

Keeping an eye on security and costs

The main priorities in recent years for Jackson in the UK part of the business have been cost reduction and increasing security.

As part of the cost-saving efforts, Jackson has overseen the implementation of VoIP and SIP trunking – to connect using VoIP internally and externally – which has reduced communications costs.

The business also put in a number of different technologies several years ago, including business-continuity and disaster-recovery capabilities and server virtualisation. “We look at what is absolutely suitable for us and move to that. We’re not bleeding edge but we’re continuing to look at where we can get business value from IT,” Jackson told silicon.com.

Although Honda UK has used virtualisation for its servers, it has no plans to implement desktop virtualisation. The company runs locked-down desktops in its corporate business, so users don’t have administration rights that would allow them to install software themselves.

Honda motorcycle website: Honda UK relaunched its motorcycle website in January 2011

Honda UK relaunched its motorcycle website in January to showcase its 2011 range of bikes
Image: Honda UK

To get new software, users must obtain approval from their manager and request the IT department to push the relevant upgrade or application to their computer.

Jackson said this approach means there is little to gain by using desktop virtualisation, and it would also go against the objective of simplifying infrastructure. “As you add numbers of technologies, your problems go up accordingly, so we don’t see huge benefits to us, from where we are at the moment, in desktop virtualisation,” Jackson said.

Jackson is also keen to make sure legacy infrastructure doesn’t become a problem by aiming to “tidy up” as new technology is brought in. The company removed its last mainframe system about four years ago and the latest area to be tackled is faxes.

“We’ve recently started talking to the business about faxes because if I ask the question of anyone, do you think we’re still going be using faxes in five years’ time?, everyone says no.”

So the IT department is removing fax machines from offices and talking to those suppliers that might send faxes to ask them to switch to other electronic means of sending and sharing documents.

One of the recent projects to improve security was the installation of scan-to-print Canon printers across the UK business. When a Honda employee wants to print a document, they need to present their smart card to the printer for it to produce the document.

This approach means documents aren’t left on printers when people forget to pick them up, which is particularly important when documents containing customer data are concerned.

Honda UK has a finance business for people wanting to pay for Honda products in instalments. Security is particularly important with this part of the business, especially with…

…the increasing regulation of personal data.

The recent VAT changes have also affected the company’s financial systems: “We saw how tricky it was when the government suddenly changed the VAT rate, so we’re trying to make sure it’s easier for us to put through price changes [in our internal systems ] as a result,” Jackson said.

Honda UK is also starting to explore the possibilities of cloud computing, although it has so far only dipped its toe in the water, according to Jackson.

The company has implemented a hosted version of the Sage CRM system for its European corporate sales force. After using an on-premise version of the technology in the UK business, the company decided it would be more efficient to roll it out as a scalable technology so additional users could be easily added across the European business.

“When we looked at it, actually the easiest way to use it – and the cheapest way and the best way, given that they’ve got a lot less requirement in terms of number of people – was to use it externally,” Jackson said.

Talking about cloud computing in general, Jackson said as long as the data is secure and complies with the relevant regulations he isn’t too concerned where it’s held. He added that the due diligence process around the Sage implementation ensured the data would be held in the correct fashion.

Plans for the future

The company is already experimenting with iPads and HP tablets to work out how they can be used by the business. Some members of staff are using them for presentations and in meetings, although the devices aren’t currently connected to the corporate network for security reasons.

“At the moment, we haven’t seen the killer use for them so until we do, will they take off? I’m not absolutely certain,” Jackson said.

Jackson is also exploring options for replacing existing desktop operating systems. Honda UK currently uses Windows XP but Jackson said the company may look at moving away from the traditional desktop OS approach.

“We would certainly bypass Vista but the question is, do we need an operating system long term? I’m half hoping that we can bypass having an operating system and end up being simply browser-based where you’re picking up software from the cloud,” he said.

He added that this approach would be more cost-effective as it would remove the need to upgrade PCs every year, as the software being used would be run by service providers and accessed via a web browser. The company could either look at Google’s Chrome OS or use a Windows-based system combined with a browser.

Email is another area Jackson is keen to look at changing. The company uses Lotus Notes for email and corporate address books but Jackson is interested in pursuing the software as a service route if Honda’s global business buys into the idea.

“Email is an absolute utility that everyone uses the world over, and why should corporates run their own email services? We ought to be able to buy a corporate email service from someone. Longer term, I think the Google model is the way to go,” he said.