CIO50 2020: #2 Brian Northern, Fulton Hogan
Brian Northern aptly sums up the critical role his team plays in the success of the company.
“We use technology for competitive advantage in a traditional industry sector,” says Northern, group CIO at Fulton Hogan.
Fulton Hogan is a New Zealand infrastructure construction and roadworks firm that has operations across Australasia.
For Northern, his remit is about continuous transformation of the business using digital and other emerging technologies, with a focus on building smart collaborative teams.
This year, a significant focus has been on business process optimisation, which includes digitalising inefficient paper-based manual processes, he says.
Before that, the technology team deployed virtual reality training and depth sensing cameras to improve safety, and then robotic process automation for efficiencies.
A key part of Fulton Hogan’s strategy is to drive operational efficiency, and reduce overheads, explains Northern.
Before moving to a digital platform, many of the processes were disconnected, very manual, time consuming and prone to errors.
“Our digital business process optimisation has enabled us to think differently about some of the key tasks that are completed on site, and look at how we can do that same process more efficiently,” he says.
“Our apps connect via Salesforce into our back end core systems (ERP, Payroll etc), resulting in making it easier and quicker for our workforce to capture data and the standard platform ensures future apps have the same look and feel.”
A global forum
Fulton Hogan leveraged its investment in the Salesforce platform and standardised on Apple devices. It is now in the top 10 companies worldwide leveraging the Salesforce to iOS SDK.
Thus, two of his team members - Chris Strydom and Amanda Lawrey - spoke at the 2019 Dreamforce Conference on how they are using the two platforms to deliver a suite of apps through their large distributed field staff. He says the deployment has seen over $3 million savings a year, and covers over 7,800 IoS devices.
The presentation included two digital apps - Daily Job Record app and the individual workers timesheet app.
These are unique in that they are separate applications but are architected in a way that data flows between the two to ensure integrity of the data and eliminate rekeying of information.
“Our digital application strategy is ‘one app one task’ to ensure they are easy to use to aid in deploying to our over 250 locations throughout Australia and New Zealand,” says Northern. He notes that individual site training sessions were not practical or cost-efficient.
They need to be easy to use and self-explanatory so the design was created in consultation with our frontline workers, the main users of the apps, he explains.
In addition to the savings in efficiencies we get benefits of more accurate time finishing entered to avoid time ‘creep’, and pull through on those jobs that are directly charged back to our clients, he states.
“These are obviously then interfaced back to our core ERP system and have the capability to work offline,” says Northern. This is necessary as a number of their sites lack mobile coverage.
Fulton Hogan has also digitised the previously paper based Plant Prestart Checklist process.
Northern says recreating this process in a digital format enables Fulton Hogan to create plant specific checklists with a much greater pool of questions asked over the course of a week.
Operators are asked different questions each time they complete a checklist, with questions asked on rotation, with more important questions getting asked more frequently.
Being able to record both comments and photos against any faults found provides valuable information for our workshop staff, he states.
The biggest benefit, however, is how the app connects the field staff, completes the checklist and logs any faults, with the workshop that repairs the gear, avoiding critical information not making it to the workshops.
“It ensures that any safety critical faults logged via the mobile app are visible to the workshop in real time, ensuring that faults are resolved quickly.”
Discussions with executive peers
Northern regularly meets with and presents before the four business stream executives, three in Australia and one in New Zealand.
Last year, he formed an ICT advisory board - made of the country CEOs, four line of business execs, the managing director and Group CFO - that meet every month to review business priorities.
“I spend a lot of time educating the senior leaders of the organisation, including the board, with regular sessions on IT trends not just those focused on our industry but more importantly trends and initiatives in other industries that could be applied in our context.”
Being a geographically dispersed business across Australia and New Zealand, he says the ICT team members spend a lot of time on communication.
Northern has appointed a senior person in the team who is responsible for getting communication out to the wider business through emails, internal social media, recorded information sessions as well as getting presentations ready for tailored interest groups within Fulton Hogan.
Northern says he attends events, both ICT and adjacent industries.
“I am now finding that there is value in attending other industry events that may have similar challenges,” he explains.
Agriculture is one example, he cites. “The environment is similar to the one a construction company works in and so the issues around ruggedising devices and facing the challenges of limited mobile coverage are similar.”
Diversity is crucial in the ICT team, and he ensures they have women in senior IT roles. He has also ramped up programmes to recruit graduates and provide internships.
“Our focus this year has been on hiring and providing mentoring for a younger demographic. We have record numbers of students working throughout the holidays for work experience and those having completed their studies are now joining our IT team,” he says.
This meant they had to implement a more structured mentoring system. “This had a spin off benefit also improving the management capability of those doing the mentoring.”
Smart people with a team attitude
“The biggest lesson I have learnt in my career is that communication needs to be tailored to all levels of the organisation,” he states, “it needs to be reinforced multiple times... not just given once and assumed everyone is well informed and the message is well understood.”
It is about pitching the communication in plain language, in a format that’s appropriate for the audience, he adds.
“At the board level the message needs to focus on risk and governance and needs to be delivered succinctly, short and to the point.”
The executive team needs a bit more explanation. Again, this should be focused on risk, but with a view on the impact on operations and the business.
Across the organisation, the most effective delivery is to address “what’s in it for me?”
He notes that although technology has advanced with videoconferencing and it is a good medium to reinforce a message, “face to face needs to be in the mix to truly get the point across.”
He believes in the importance of building a diverse team, with diverse thinking, and to empower them to make decisions, “to give everyone the opportunity to try and not be worried about failing”.
“Our no fear culture reaps the rewards of this type of thinking with some great innovative ideas being tried as well as saving us time when things go wrong,” he relates.
Recently, someone in the team changed a technical setting and caused an outage. Instead of hiding away, the junior staff member spoke up and suggested what they may have done that caused it, which it did.
“This helped with a resolution in minutes instead of hours locating the issue first, before correcting the problem.”
For Northern, this incident also highlights another leadership lesson: “Smart people with a team attitude looking out for everyone is a simple recipe for success.”