Christmas just isn’t the same without IT

21 Dec 2004

North Pole Enterprises (NPE), a non-profit organisation based in Lapland, 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 every company has to move with the times and IT is now centre stage in making this happen,” explains Rudolph Litmanen, chief information officer (CIO).

During our interview, Rudolph is very forthcoming about many of the infrastructure details, but he refuses to divulge exactly how much NPE has invested in technology 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.”

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. Much as 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. We’d have to drastically re-engineer our business model and our customers wouldn’t go for it.”

The IT department also maintains a massive clustered database that is the beating heart of the company’s business intelligence system, technology of which the CIO is justifiably proud. “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.”

The database is updated regularly as there is a large degree of customer turnover. “Our average customer lifecycle would be about 10 years. There’s a certain amount of churn as customers naturally stop using our service, but we’re always adding new ones,” Rudolph observes.

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).

As a result, many of the workforce 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. “I can see a time when we’re getting a lot more Christmas lists via text message and email so this is a very useful way of piloting mobile technology ourselves,” Rudolph explains. “We’re using wireless internet protocol because mobile coverage at the North Pole can be patchy as you can imagine. We might revisit this when 3G becomes more widely adopted.”

The CEO continues to deliver all goods personally. His transportation, known in the industry as the ‘sleigh’, is equipped with the latest gadgets and technology to ensure that the CEO is 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.

This Christmas will see a new innovation: the sleigh’s loading bays will be loaded with ChimneySoft 1.0: a new data compression technology that the CEO thinks could solve a lot of headaches when it comes to getting a lot of presents down a narrow pipe.

Sometimes the technology has capabilities that the IT department chooses not to exploit, Rudolph admits. “If we wanted, we could set up a webpage 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 back-office 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.”

Pictured: Rudolph Litmanen, chief information officer, North Pole Enterprises

By Gordon Smith