The five minute CIO: Tom Neill

4 Oct 2013

Tom Neill, IS/IT director at Bio-Medical Research

Bio-Medical Research (BMR) designs and manufactures medical-grade products for muscle strengthening and pain relief. From its Galway head office, BMR exports to 27 countries, using various channels to interact with customers, fulfilment centres and vendors. As the group IS/IT director, Tom Neill explains the focus of the IT strategy is about helping the business operate in all channels as efficiently as possible, and providing its five overseas offices with application and infrastructure support.

Would you say IT is a source of competitive advantage in your business, or is it a case of having to invest just to keep up with developments?

A bit of both. I see IT as a source of competitive advantage in some areas. For example, we can have a product shipped to a customer within a few minutes of them purchasing online because of the automation we’ve put in place around order management.

Similarly, our business intelligence platform allows us to analyse our performance and make decisions in a timely manner to benefit the business. On the other hand, you need to invest in infrastructure to keep the lights on and a company like ours will always need a solid ERP platform.

What’s your estimate of the ratio you spend on innovation vs keeping the lights on, and how close is this to your ideal state?

The difference being that the infrastructure stuff to keep the lights on tends to be more of a one-off capex spend – a big hit every few years, as opposed to the functional changes or the innovative stuff which is tactical and on-going.

I would have a lot of recurring costs in the department: telecoms, maintenance, warranties and licence renewals. That would still be the biggest chunk of the budget: somewhere in the region of 75pc and the other 25pc would be new development.

I’m not aware of an industry standard in terms of the percentage split between recurring and development costs but obviously the more innovation you do, the more value you are adding to the business.

What are the main elements of your technology infrastructure?

Our infrastructure is virtualised, which makes it easy to manage and has the built in failover we need. All of our infrastructure is in the Galway head office with the exception of our websites, which are hosted remotely. All of our overseas offices come back to HQ for their application services via VPN. We also have a DR [disaster recovery] site in Dublin.

Have you any plans to upgrade over the coming months, and if so, what are you planning to improve or change?

We went through an extensive upgrade of our infrastructure a few years ago which has put us in a good position for the next few years, so any changes will be to individual elements of the infrastructure.

We make regular functional changes to our ERP and e-commerce platforms. We will be upgrading our CRM platform soon, as well. On the infrastructure side, we will be looking at our backup solution in the short term and PBX and Exchange upgrades.

What technology which has had the biggest effect on your job, and the business as a whole?

I was hired to implement a new ERP system [Dynamics NAV] for the business a few years ago. It was a significant project in that it made us re-evaluate all of the processes we had in place and as a result allowed us to introduce a large number of efficiencies.

Prior to its implementation, we had a legacy ERP system with limited functionality alongside a number of in-house applications built on a variety of technical platforms.

It’s pretty basic but introducing the system meant that for the first time we had one integrated system to service the entire business. It meant that we could move to a single technology stack and significantly reduce the number of applications we use. We now have a platform, and an ERP partner that we trust, which has given us a solid basis from which to introduce more process improvements for the business.

How is that technology letting BMR do things it couldn’t do before?

The ERP system has given us a scalable platform. We were limited in the volume of business we could take on before its introduction because so many of our processes were manual or only semi-automated. Now we can process large volumes of orders with little human intervention.

How do you measure the success of any IT-related change in the business?

It’s a difficult thing to do but the most basic test you can apply is to ask the business if they would prefer to go back to what was there before the change was introduced.

Do you use metrics to measure IT performance, and to help you make the case for extra IT investment that might be needed?

To a limited extent – we tend to do a cost-benefit analysis on each investment proposal as a means of deciding what to implement.

Have you ever looked at systems like the IT-CMF, or ITIL, and thought about bringing them into the business?

I’ve looked at ITIL, more for my own curiosity. We’re quite a small company with 200 people between all of our sites. In an ideal world, I’d love to do a lot more analysis of returns on investment but in practice it’s difficult to do everything.

It’s a dilemma, because you want to make sure what you’re implementing is giving the business value for money but sometimes you have to go on gut feeling. I’d love to have the time to apply more science to this element of the business.

Having said that, there are some basic metrics we look at: we have an internal ticket system so we know if our call incidence rates are up or down. We have high-level indicators to tell us what’s working properly.

How much do you look to use outside expertise for IT projects and how much remains in-house?

We mostly work with partners. We have a small in-house team, an ERP/BI partner – Prostrategy Colman – an infrastructure partner, Brandon Consulting, and a web development partner, Redbox Digital. I think focus is an important thing in business and our core business is not software or hardware, which is why I prefer to work with partners as much as possible.

When you’re looking to work with an external IT provider, what informs your decision making?

A strong track record, cost, good references and customer focus.

What are the big trends in your sector right now and how are they affecting your business?

A lot of our products are sold through the health systems of the various countries we do business in. This means we operate in quite a complicated ecosystem of doctors, pharmacies and insurance companies, so being able to integrate operational applications with all of these is quite a significant challenge.

Much of your products are sold online: do you take advantage of that to build up a more accurate picture of your customers, to be able to sell to them?

Yes, and that’s where the importance of a good BI platform comes into play. Being able to incorporate transactional and analytical data into one database gives the business a rich source for consumer analysis.

What’s been the biggest IT challenge since you took on your current role, and with the benefit of hindsight is there anything you would have done to tackle it differently?

User engagement. I think this is quite a prevalent issue for anyone working in IT. Small areas of the business did not engage in the initial ERP implementation, which resulted in them continuing to use inefficient manual processes.

In hindsight, I should have spent a lot more time working with those areas to convince them that they would benefit a lot from engaging in the change process.

Some people think IT needs to take on more of a marketing role, to highlight the services it provides. What’s your view?

I don’t think it’s a marketing thing from an IT perspective. The big learning I’ve had is that most successful projects are led by the business as opposed to IT. IT can help in making sure there’s a process there and that milestones are hit and that deliverables are reached and things are on time, but the big finding I’ve had is that when the business is immersed in the project it is more likely to have a good outcome.

I’ve been trying to change the philosophy so that projects are not seen merely as IT projects, they’re business projects with an IT element. I come on board as the delivery partner. This approach has always resulted in the best projects, for me.

What IT trends have you seen that you think could have an important role to play in BMR in the near future?

You can’t get away from mobile, cloud and big data in any business. We are introducing elements of mobile and cloud in our new products, which will allow us to have a much more direct conversation with our customers. I’m particularly interested in what benefits cloud services can provide to a company of our size. There’s a lot of marketing hype around cloud, which is why I’m taking a course in cloud computing at present so that I can figure it out for myself.

Where would you see something like big data playing a role?

I think that will come further down the lines for us. At the moment, our database is reasonably small because our [sales] channels are fairly traditional: we sell through the web, people can call to our call centre and we sell to large retailers. Where I think big data will come in, is in our new product lines where the EMS [electrical-muscle stimulator] will be controlled via an app on the person’s phone instead of a built-in controller on the belt.

We’ll also have more consumer functionality sitting on the app, giving people programs to follow. It’ll be much more interactive: we’ll be able to monitor someone’s usage of a product and send them tailored information about how to get the best use out of it. We’ll have a lot more non-structured data, and that information will be held in a cloud database. Big data will allow us to interrogate that data and continue the dialogue with the customer.

When it comes to big data, we’re also looking at Facebook and Twitter: we want to be able to monitor what people are saying about our products and take that data and figure out what’s relevant for our business.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic