Overseeing the technology infrastructure of a company operating in one country is challenging enough but when that organisation begins to expand around the world, the task becomes much more complex.

Specsavers is one company that has undergone that kind of expansion. With its optician branches a common sight on Britain’s high streets, the company has also become a multinational concern during the past decade, and it is that legacy that European IT director Karl de Bruijn is currently dealing with.

“I think [the main challenge is] taking that transition from being a multi-domestic-type organisation to having this global footprint and ensuring we maintain a level of service to our customers and retail partners while we grow through this transition,” de Bruijn told silicon.com.

Established in 1984 by Doug and Mary Perkins in Guernsey, the Specsavers business model is about providing customers with the level of service they would expect from a local independent business while taking advantage of the buying power of a large company to offer value-for-money products and services.

To achieve that balance, the company employs a joint-venture model in which branches are operated by local opticians and Specsavers.

Specsavers has 750 branches in the UK but with a similar number across Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the chain is looking to create a global IT footprint

Specsavers has 750 branches in the UK but with a similar number across Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the chain is looking to create a global IT footprint
(Photo credit: Specsavers)

The company now has 1,500 stores and 26,000 staff around the world. In addition to its 750 UK stores, the company has branches across Europe in Denmark, Finland, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden as well as in Australia and New Zealand.

As a result of its growth outside the UK, Specsavers’ technology set-up has developed into a regional structure in which different back-office and corporate systems are used for the same processes.

To tackle the issue of regional IT, Specsavers is undergoing a major technology refresh programme aimed at putting a global technology footprint in place so the same technology platforms are used across the entire group.

“Specsavers over the past few years has become quite large globally and it’s growing our IT capability on a global basis where we had a very regional IT structure previously. We’re currently going through a technology refresh to put us on a more global footing from a technology perspective,” de Bruijn said.

De Bruijn joined the organisation 15 months ago as interim director of applications to help with the company’s technology refresh. He soon realised there were…

…numerous opportunities for the technology organisation to improve the business and assumed his current role in February 2010.

After working in similar roles for Bank of Ireland, Legal & General, Merrill Lynch, Nationwide Building Society and Virgin Mobile, de Bruijn has experience in dealing with large-scale IT operations so is well prepared for the demands the tech refresh will put on his team.

Going global with Google

According to de Bruijn, one of the key areas for Specsavers to address as part of this project is the communications and collaboration technology being used across the business.

About six months ago, Specsavers started to work with IT services provider Ancoris to determine the best approach for modernising this part of the technology infrastructure.

The company decided to pilot Google Apps including email, Google Docs and the Google Sites project-management technology with the expansion of the company as one of the main reasons for choosing cloud-based email.

Following a pilot at the company’s factory in Hungary, Specsavers decided to roll out the technology region by region, to make sure staff were available to deal with the change management and training involved with the move to the new platform.

“So we’re doing a lot of staff communications, workshops, training sessions and really working through that at a pace that suits the organisation really rather than just migrating everything [at the same time],” de Bruijn said.

The rollout has been completed in Australia, New Zealand and Hungary and the company will implement the technology across Europe in the spring, aiming to complete the work by the middle of the year.

The newer markets were chosen for the rollout first, partly due to the more extensive legacy infrastructure in the UK: “We picked to roll out in Australia – it’s one of our newer markets – where in the UK we have 20 years of data. So each step in the process is assessing people’s take on of the product. What do we need to migrate? What’s usable? It’s a continually improving process really,” de Bruijn said.

Australia in particular was seen as a good place to start, with 300 stores established just three years after Specsavers started to operate there.

“Australia has been a great success story for us – it’s grown very rapidly. And with the growth there, rather than ongoing investment in other platforms and scaling those platforms up, it’s an opportune time to replace that with Google and it’s very cost-effective to do that at this point in time,” de Bruijn said.

The company has set up an innovation team for Google Apps to work out what…

…other technology in the Google Apps Marketplace Specsavers could make use of in the near future.

De Bruijn said the idea is to get people comfortable with using the initial functionality of Google Apps before introducing more options.

Project management and change management are two areas the innovation team is considering in the short term with customer management a possibility in the longer term.

“It’s very early days and I think we’ll look at that as we go on,” de Bruijn told silicon.com.

Making the move to more cloud-based services

The work with Google Apps is seen as a stepping stone for Specsavers to get a better understanding of cloud computing and explore the possibility of doing more with Google App Engine to host and develop applications.

“It was about aligning ourselves with the whole Google approach to cloud-based computing where it’s not necessarily just email and collaboration you’re getting but you’re actually investing in cloud infrastructure that you can use in a number of different ways, which we see as quite a core strategy in terms of using that capability to service our organisation on a global basis,” de Bruijn said.

Specsavers has had a presence in Australia for three years and chose to roll out Google Apps in the southern hemisphere before its more established markets

Specsavers has had a presence in Australia for three years and chose to roll out Google Apps in the southern hemisphere before its more established markets
(Photo credit: Specsavers)

He added that starting with Google Apps meant the company could modernise its email and collaboration technology while allowing its technology and business teams to get involved in cloud computing with minimal upfront investment.

“I think the areas [to host in App Engine] that really interest us are where we have systems like rules engines and that type of capability that we may want to share across multiple functions and collaboration. Will we look at larger systems and applications [in the future]? Definitely. It’s part of our interest to know more about how that would work,” de Bruijn said.

For now though, the company is on a learning curve with cloud technology: “At the moment we would run those things internally until we understood more about that type of infrastructure.”

As for private cloud, de Bruijn said it wasn’t on the company’s “short-term radar” as it can afford to delay decisions about this kind of technology until the company has a better understanding of “the most appropriate time and places to use cloud-based computing services”.

Going mobile with iPads and Android

The Google Apps project will also provide a boost for Specsavers’ mobile workers who will be able to access the technology via browsers on devices such as…

…the iPad or Android tablet devices, making deployment reasonably straightforward.

The company has a distributed workforce of about 26,000 people across its branches and manufacturing facilities, many of whom are interested in using personal iPads and Android tablet devices to access their work applications.

“I think the Google strategy helps us allow [employees] to use their own equipment to access key email or documents or working environments without being too rigid on a hardware strategy for mobile workers. It gives lots more flexibility and becomes hardware-independent and people can use their preferred devices to be productive when they are mobile.”

De Bruijn also feels this approach could boost security for the businesses: “We’ve always had the problem of people being able to download information and data onto items like USB sticks and CDs. Now with this type of mobile working, the Google environment, it’s all going to be stored up in the cloud so as that device goes off, access to that information is lost,” he said.

Specsavers is already allowing head-office staff to use their personal iPads and Android devices to do their work but has also bought and supplied iPads to employees who tend to be more mobile rather than located in a fixed office.

Any data held on these kinds of devices is also unlikely to get into the wrong hands as the information held on the devices can be remotely wiped.

De Bruijn acknowledged that the browser-based approach creates a different set of security challenges and so the company is working to create strong policies on which data goes into the Google environment and which stays in the company’s own infrastructure.

Open source and Oracle

Other projects taking up de Bruijn’s time include the rollout of new front-end systems for the company’s retail and manufacturing operations, respectively called Specsavers in a Box and Lab in a Box.

Both these applications have been developed inhouse using open-source technology – including Apache Tomcat, Java, Pentaho and Red Hat – and will be rolled out in 2011.

“We have historically been mostly open source. So we do quite a bit of internal innovation looking at the open-source market and we use a lot of those technologies in our retail and Lab in a Box products.”

Also on the agenda are the global implementations of an Oracle ERP system and a warehousing management system from Red Prairie.

The first deployment of these two platforms will take place this year. One of the major challenges of this work is to…

…tailor the platform to the needs of each region in terms of financial and retail regulations, and the organisation will develop a template to deploy the technology effectively in 18 months.

The company aims to complete the rollout of the ERP and warehousing tech within three years, bringing the technology refresh project to its conclusion.

“At the moment, the refresh of these core applications is our key work for the next year and will be our focus,” de Bruijn said.

Recently completed projects have included the opening of a new datacentre in Guernsey, which boosted the companies computing resources considerably.

When developing the datacentre, the company was conscious of environmental considerations: “Looking at the power usage and the greenness of our datacentre was a key aspect of building a new datacentre,” de Bruijn said.

Specsavers tested Google Apps at its manufacturing facility in Hungary, above, before rolling it out more widely

Specsavers tested Google Apps at its manufacturing facility in Hungary, above, before rolling it out more widely
(Photo credit: Specsavers)

The extensive use of virtualisation and other technologies has reduced power consumption and carbon emissions compared with the previous facility.

Tech challenges at Specsavers

De Bruijn said one of the main challenges in the coming year will be to maintain a “business as usual” working environment while carrying out these significant technology changes in the background.

More generally, the pace of technology innovation is something he needs to deal with as IT director: “There’s quite a bit of innovation in the technology market at the moment and a key strategy for us is to work out how we can use that most effectively in our environment.”

Filtering new technology for approaches that will actually benefit the business is something else a good IT director needs to be able to do, according to de Bruijn. Performing this role effectively will mean organisations don’t adopt technology that will offer little or no benefit.

“I think it’s really how to bring a lot of the technology innovation that has come about over the past years and bring that back into an organisation in terms of what is going to benefit the organisation, which is going to drive value and productivity in an organisation and which is bleeding-edge technology that’s maybe not appropriate at this time,” de Bruijn said.