Not many IT bosses can say they’ve spent their whole career at the same business but Co-operative Trading Group IS director Ian Dyson’s enthusiasm for the values his employer represents has kept him motivated for 30 years.

“I’m actually passionate about the business, particularly the co-operative business. That’s why I’ve been around it for 30 years because I just love the style. I love what it stands for. It’s not empty words – what you do see and read about it is factual, it’s true. And it is a great place to work,” Dyson told silicon.com.

The co-operative movement started with the foundation of the Rochdale Pioneers Society in 1844, operating with the principles of sharing profits with members according to their purchases at affiliated shops.

Co-operative societies formed in food, medicine, insurance and banking throughout the following decades and the movement even extended into politics with the foundation of the Co-operative Party in 1917.

The movement coalesced into the Co-operative Group in 2000, when the Co-operative Wholesale Society and Co-operative Retail Services merged to create the largest consumer co-operative in the world, generating £6.9bn in revenues in 2010.

The Co-operative Group is consolidating its technology infrastructure as it prepares to move to a new head office in 2012

The Co-operative Group is consolidating its technology infrastructure as it prepares to move to a new head office in 2012
(Image credit: The Co-operative Group)

Clearly, the Co-operative Group’s ethical trading values are close to Dyson’s heart. His convictions carry over into the way he goes about his job, where he feels the ability to work with other organisations for mutual benefit is key.

Dyson said his role requires the ability to achieve operational efficiencies and boost revenue while also controlling costs: “And I think a lot of that really will be driven through innovation without a doubt and also, to a certain extent, collaboration – so collaboration with partners and key suppliers. More of a co-operative model really.”

The Co-operative Group’s tech challenges

Like the Co-operative Group, which is now headquartered in Manchester, Dyson hails from the North West of England and is a keen Manchester United fan.

And in some ways his job is similar to that of Red Devils manager Alex Ferguson, in that Dyson has to address the ambitions of the entire organisation while also catering to the needs of individuals. In Ferguson’s case, these individuals are players, while for Dyson, they’re the Co-operative Group’s various businesses.

With 120,000 employees and numerous businesses – including asset management, banking, financial services, food, insurance, investments, legal services, pharmacy, smile online bank and travel – the Co-operative Group is a complex organisation providing unusual challenges for the IT department. Dyson has…

…eight direct reports responsible for different corporate functions across the businesses that make up the Co-operative Trading Group. Dyson himself reports directly to CEO Peter Marks.

“Without a doubt, the [biggest challenge] is the fact that the business is so diversified. We have a number of businesses that have such different needs and requirements,” Dyson told silicon.com.

These challenges guide the Co-operative Group’s technology strategy, which is currently focusing on consolidating the disparate systems of the different businesses into a single infrastructure.

“It’s providing common infrastructure and standardisation and consolidation to all those businesses, while providing solutions to their unique requirements and delivering economies of scale and efficiencies. That is a real challenge,” Dyson said.

Revamping the technology infrastructure

Dyson is 18 months into a two-and-a-half-year project to refresh the technology infrastructure across the Trading Group, which will go a long way to achieving the standardisation and consolidation goals needed to create a single infrastructure.

One of the keystones in this work is the recently completed extension of the Group’s datacentre in Rochdale, which has 50 server cabinets, and the building of a new datacentre in Salford with space for 80 server cabinets. “From an overall technology point of view, datacentres are key to that strategy,” Dyson said.

The Co-operative Group is working with Manchester-based IT services company INS Sudlow, which specialises in providing unified infrastructure for businesses, to build the datacentres. The Salford facility is due to go live in May.

Several years ago, most systems were in a single datacentre, something that needed to change according to Dyson: “We’ve got a lot of mission-critical systems these days that require permanent uptime so we’ve gone down the route of having two datacentres by and large so we’ve got resilience and failover.”

Building a private cloud

As part of the datacentre project, the Co-operative Group is actively pursuing the creation of a private cloud capability to provide more flexible IT resources.

“We’re actually provisioning the hardware and technology in these datacentres that gives the businesses what we call a capacity grid, for want of better words. So it becomes easier to provision new services and new solutions because you’ve got very scalable, very flexible infrastructure in place. So we will have capacity grids in place for all the core businesses – so creating very much a private cloud in effect,” Dyson said.

One of the key elements in a private cloud is server virtualisation, something the Co-operative Group adopted several years ago when consolidating several hundred physical servers using VMware technology.

Green and ethical tech

In line with the Co-operative Group’s ethical approach, energy use and environmental considerations influenced the building of the datacentre, with the organisation looking…

…at how the facilities could be more efficient and less power-hungry than in the past.

“So we’re adopting things like cool-aisle containment. We’ve got water-cooled racks being utilised at the Rochdale site and we’re also considering looking at flywheel technology now for the UPS solution for the new datacentre.”

The organisation also aims to have a power usage efficiency (PUE) rating of 1.2 in its new datacentre. This is an ambitious figure, as the most efficient datacentre in the world has a PUE – which is the amount of energy needed to run the whole facility divided by the energy to run the IT – of slightly less than 1.1. “That’s the aim. We’re quite keen to try and achieve that,” Dyson said.

The Co-operative Group has also been pursuing energy-saving technology in its PC and Epos estate for some time.

“One of the other things that we’ve done is within the food and pharmacy estate, we’ve got somewhere in the region of 14,000 Epos till lines, which is huge. It’s the biggest in the UK. Normally those devices remain on overnight so what we’ve done is we’ve introduced, perhaps 18 months ago now, wake-up-on-LAN technology into the Epos estate, so that overnight these devices actually power down and don’t consume the electricity.”

One of the major challenges for Co-operative Group IS director Ian Dyson is balancing the needs of the Group with those of individual businesses, such as Co-operative Food

A major challenge for Dyson is balancing the needs of the Co-op Group and individual businesses, such as Co-operative Food
(Image credit: The Co-operative Group)

The organisation has been using a similar approach on the PCs in its head office in Manchester, with forced shut-down of computers and screens in the evening, controlled through active directory.

Consolidation and replacing legacy tech

Another part of the technology refresh centres on the Group’s communications network, which it recently migrated to BT’s IP-based 21st Century Network, providing additional bandwidth to offices and retail outlets.

The telephony systems of the Group are also due for modernisation: “At the moment we’ve got a huge legacy estate in the Co-operative Group, a variety of solutions, PBXs down to branch level and all kinds of makes and models. So one of the strategic aims that we have is [to implement] a single telephony solution for the whole of the Trading Group, which will involve utilising Avaya as the core telephony platform. It’s a huge programme that takes several years to conclude,” Dyson said.

The legal services business and some parts of the travel business already use the IP-based telephony network and other businesses will make the move when existing technology needs to be replaced.

But with more than 5,000 retail and financial branches across the UK, the move onto the Avaya platform will take time. “To replace anything in an estate of that size takes a lot of time – that’ll be a longer burn,” Dyson said.

One of the major implementations of the platform will be in the new head office in Manchester, which will use the platform when it opens in late 2012.

The legacy of different businesses and acquisitions has…

…also led to the development of numerous technology infrastructure domains and platforms that the organisation is now working to consolidate by the middle of 2011.

This single technology infrastructure will run on Microsoft Server 2008 R2 and will involve 12,000 head-office users, who were previously using six email platforms, moving to a single system based on Microsoft Exchange 2007.

Although Dyson’s team looked at using cloud-based email, it decided it was best to stick with an inhouse system as a foundation for the rollout of Office Communications Server in 2011, providing a unified communications system for email, messaging, text and voice.

“That kind of technology is possible at the moment but not as readily available on a cloud-type basis,” Dyson said.

The needs of the Co-operative Group businesses

As well as the work to converge the technology of the Group, the individual businesses also have their own needs.

“One of the biggest focuses is the food division, and that’s purely because it’s the biggest part of our business,” Dyson said.

The major project in the food business is the introduction of a new replenishment and stock system, which is a huge technical task that also represents a significant cultural and operational shift for the business.

But with all the technology work going on, Dyson keeps a close eye on the business case for each project: “So we don’t go away and introduce new technology just because we think it’s going to look good or sound good. It has to be for a sound business reason – and nine times out of 10 that business reason will be because we’re expanding; we need to refresh the infrastructure or it’s not going to add value to the business.”

Moving into the future with a new head office

As well as the general tech refresh work, Dyson is also working hard to provide the technology for the new head office, which presents an opportunity to introduce other innovations.

“From an innovation point of view we’re going to move towards smart cards for employee access. The card will also look after things like retrieval of prints from print devices, network logon for authentication and also cashless vending,” Dyson said.

There will also be an emphasis on flexible working in the new office, which will actually have fewer desks than employees to make the most of the space and to encourage more flexible work practices.

The Co-operative Group currently has seven offices in Manchester with an average occupancy rate of 44 per cent, as people are often in meetings, working from home or off site for other reasons, so the lower number of desks shouldn’t present a problem. “It certainly seems the right thing to do,” Dyson said.

There is currently a pilot programme for…

…this more flexible approach: “We’ve got about 450 users at the moment but the idea is to ramp that up and push flexible working, so that when we hit the head office then we’re actually utilising that building in the most efficient manner,” Dyson said.

One of the technologies that will enable this flexibility will be desktop virtualisation, which is currently being rolled out across the business using Citrix XenApp and XenDesktop.

Using tech to drive membership

The technology team is playing a pivotal role in Co-operative Group CEO Peter Marks’ aim to have 20 million members by 2020. The membership currently stands at about 5.5 million.

The main way in which Dyson’s team is assisting with this aim is by revamping the membership system and bringing it back inhouse.

This system is used for new members to register but also holds member transaction data that determines the dividend members receive. The system calculates the dividend for each member and makes the payments to members every six months. “It’s a key tool,” Dyson said.

The current hosted system has been used for more than four years and runs on an Oracle platform but the new system will run on Microsoft SQL and other Microsoft technologies.

“It’s going to help us [increase membership] without a doubt. Once we have that solution back inhouse, it’ll allow us ultimately to integrate that membership solution system with our Epos solution that’s out there in our food and healthcare business,” Dyson said.

In conjunction with the Co-operative Group-developed In Control Epos system, the new membership tech should improve the way in which members interact with the Group and positively affect their shopping habits.

“What we can do then is create links between the point-of-sale system and the membership system to give the member a more rich experience and interface, and relationship to membership and dividend,” Dyson said.

“So you’ll be able to get access to more personalised, customised offers. You’ll be able to transact some of your dividend at the till and things of that nature. Strategically, that’s where we want to go and that’ll help with the membership growth leading up to 2020,” he added.

Because the system will be inhouse, the Group will also have better access to the customer data, which could inform new strategies to improve customer experience and attract new members.

The businesses in the organisation use various business-intelligence tools such as IBM Cognos, SAP Business Objects and SAS, and greater access to data will provide even more opportunity to get value from the information in the membership system.

Developing IT skills now and in the future

One of the perennial challenges of CIOs concerns IT skills but Dyson believes that, despite concerns, the Co-operative Group is doing the right things to minimise these issues.

“It’s always a challenge, that side of things. We’ve got a great team here with a fantastic can-do attitude. We invest a considerable amount on an annual basis on training and personal development. And that training will be technical, yes, so it will be in support and implementation and development of new technologies, but it’s also leadership, management development as well. We’re very focused on the individual and investing in those individuals.”

And with the nature of technology skills changing all the time, with the introduction of technologies such as virtualisation, for example, Dyson strives to “bring the team along with the technology” and make sure it can provide the right level of service now and in the future.