Christmas just isn’t the same without IT

22 Dec 2005

For many businesses, Christmas is a slow time of the year but for others it’s their busiest season. For one firm in particular, it’s not too wide of the mark to say that Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without it.

A case in point is North Pole Enterprises (NPE), a non-profit organisation based in Lapland. The group is a heavy user of IT, which it says is critical to its mission of communicating with and delivering services to a global customer base. “A lot of people think we make all this happen with bits of wood and some reindeer, but we have to move with the times and technology is now centre stage in making this happen,” explains Rudolph Hyypia, chief information officer.

During our interview, Rudolph is very forthcoming about many of the infrastructure details, but he refuses to divulge exactly how much North Pole Enterprises has invested in IT over the years. “Don’t be silly — you’re not supposed to ask how much it costs,” he scolds. There’s a mix of old and new technology running the extensive operation. “The mainframe’s a bit like our chairman and CEO, it’s been going for years and years but it does the job,” he quips.

The organisation is at its busiest in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The yearly spike in demand creates a huge burden on IT, so the Customer Led Administration Unit Servers (CLAUS) have lots of extra capacity that lies idle when it’s not required. For that reason, NPE was an early adopter of on-demand computing, Rudolph says. “We have a deadline of 24 December and we have to meet that. Ideally we’d like demand to be more evenly spread throughout the year, the nature of what we do means that just isn’t going to happen — our customers wouldn’t go for it!”

The IT department also maintains a massive clustered database which is the beating heart of the company’s business intelligence system. “We call it the Sleep/Awake Naughty/Nice Technology Application (SANNTA). It’s updated in real time, allowing our senior management to see our customers when they’re sleeping, to know if they’re awake and to know if they’ve been bad or good. This has a direct impact on the service we ultimately deliver on 24 December.”

Running in parallel with the SANNTA system is a large manufacturing, procurement and shipping facility which relies heavily on stock control systems. The organisation operates a just-in-time delivery model so here too, IT is crucial. Many of the packing and assembly processes have been automated over the years and are now handled by an in-house IT tool called Electronic Loading and Vector Engineering System (ELVES).

Much of the staff have reskilled and now work in more knowledge-intensive areas of the business. Each employee has been issued with a PDA or smart phone and now receives internal and external communications directly to their handset. “We’re using wireless broadband because mobile coverage at the North Pole can be patchy as you can imagine,” says Rudolph.

The CEO continues to deliver all goods personally. His transportation, known in the industry as the ‘sleigh’, is equipped with the latest technology to ensure that he’s in constant communication with headquarters. It’s fitted with a global positioning system and satellite navigation technology to make sure that the goods are always delivered to the correct location. Through a middleware package called Extensible Markup Allocation Sender (XMAS) technology, the location system also interfaces with the supply chain management module to ensure that the right package is delivered to the proper address in each case.

Sometimes the technology has capabilities that the IT department chooses not to exploit, Rudolph admits. “If we wanted, we could set up a web page that would allow customers to track their goods through the supply chain. We got as far as developing a test system for this but on balance we prefer to keep the element of surprise.”

Asked how current IT trends affect his thinking for the operation, he refers to a current hot-button issue as a case in point. “Outsourcing hasn’t been a consideration for us. Lapland is a low-cost location with a skilled, highly educated workforce and generous tax incentives. We’re approached by development authorities all the time to locate some of our backoffice functions overseas but I could never see us offshoring to the Far East. Sure, it can be a little cold here but the whole snow thing is central to our brand.”

By Gordon Smith