My Way - IT at Butcher's Pet Care
Pet food manufacturer Butcher's Pet Care relies on IT that can co-ordinate its ERP systems with its manufacturing base, as the business expands. Its IT manager Malcolm Burrows tells E&T how user-power informs his vision of effective husbandry of computing resources.
Engineering & Technology: So how did this project come about?
Malcolm Burrows: Originally we had a very old system that was a finance and distribution application, based on a group need - as we were part of a larger group at that stage. Now Butcher's is independent, we needed to have a system relevant to the business's key - its manufacturing side, and to be able to relate what you're purchasing against what you're supplying. That's how it came about; we wanted a better accountability of what we're producing.
E&T: So did you have goals set in place or was it simply that you heard of IFS Applications at the right time?
Burrows: There were specific goals that needed to be achieved, as the legacy systems created long processes, and it was an issue to find out what was in the warehouse, etc.
A lot of manual planning tasks took place outside of the system, whereas now the planning, the enterprise resource planning (ERP), and the scheduling material coming in is a lot better.
E&T: Could you explain the benefits of the new system?
Burrows: Well, it's the same system; we're not using sub-systems galore to obtain the manufacturing information we need anymore, so essentially it's saving time. We're definitely getting a better view of what stock we're holding, and a much quicker response in being able to change product fore-ordering.
E&T: Why is quicker response important for a manufacturer of pet food?
Burrows: As you can probably guess, within an environment whereby we are supplying to supermarkets and supply chains, there are regularly promotions that affect the manufacturing we produce to, and it's a fairly quick turnaround. So from that point of view, the system does have a core value in that we can respond and meet requirements much quicker and easier.
E&T: Were there challenges during and after implementation?
Burrows: There were interesting challenges, and there still are in some ways. It was a very big cultural change for the staff. The old system was Unix-based - text screens etc; now the system is GUI-based, [with] multiple screens, views within windows, etc - things they needed to get their heads around.
E&T: What did the upgrade tell you about the processes Butcher's was using?
Burrows: It was an opportunity to have a look at how the business actually operates. As with any ERP system, business and process mapping is crucial. The interesting challenges were working-out how we needed to change to get the best out of the system, and that we had agreed a timeline for its implementation. This coincided with end-of-life of the old system, so it was almost that we had to go live on that date, regardless.
E&T: It still takes time for a new system to bed in.
Burrows: There are certain areas that we're still reviewing. Sometimes you can put a system in, you have the birth pain of that going in, and people will eventually make the system go back to how they wanted it to behave in their 'old-fashioned life'; whereas here there are certain things we need to revisit.
We need to tweak how we do things to get the best out of the system; but for now it's a case that we can take a deep breath, because it's in and working.
One of the next goals is to get more from the system; however, it will be a delayed process, as we are planning to move to a single site factory, and that takes precedence over any system changes. However, we are stuck in limbo at the moment, as the builders are not currently able to get the cash to build the factory.
E&T: How are tasks delegated in the IT department?
Burrows: System-wise Butcher's Pet Care has around 250 employees, who were working five days a week, 24 hours per day, with short shifts on Saturdays and Sundays. The recession has actually seen Butcher's increase its overall turnover this year, so we've grown rather than shrunk. That simply means we're working 24-7, rather than six-and-a-half days a week now. So, we have a fair amount of responsibility to keep everything going.
IFS running the way it has been after its initial teething, speaks volumes for the system and the people using it, as we are not getting many out of hours calls [to deal with problems].
E&T: So the IT team must be all-rounders in respect to the technology you manage?
Burrows: Yes. We take very minimal outside support. We will look at network, hardware, database issues, then assign jobs as we need to, and work from there. We have the daily monitoring of IFS, for example.
E&T: What about the communications systems?
Burrows: Within my IT role I look out for all the telecommunications-related technology, as well as the 24 servers we have running here. I have an overview and a hands-on role, and within that we are just planning small changes that will make systems easier to use.
E&T: Is it one small project at a time, then?
Burrows: Essentially, we have large projects. This year it's a system refresh on hardware. We are already in the planning stages to come away from standard server installation and into virtualisation. When IFS was installed we had already decided to put thin client Citrix technology in place. We currently have a mixture of thin clients, and standard desktop PCs.
The next phase is to go up a level with Citrix which will be happening in the next 12 months, and then go into the VMware environment, cutting our carbon footprint, running costs, making the most out of the power and processing that is available on the servers.
E&T: That's a tall order for a small IT team. How hectic does it get?
Burrows: Actually, the way the systems are set up mean we often do have long quiet periods. Then we have periods of time where we will have a project going on. We're very fortunate in that the users we have here are a good mix of people who're able to use the system without issue.
E&T: How did you train staff to use the system?
Burrows: We had a core project team, and they were the 'champions' who had to go out and then work within their areas. From an IT perspective our major role is simply to maintain the database, and to make sure the services staff requirements from IFS are available. We really were not interested in how they operate on a day-to-day basis - IT really cannot dictate that; [users] need to be able to have that autonomy to say 'this is how we want to operate it'. We will get involved if there are technical queries, but otherwise the 'champions' [are in charge].
E&T: Is this an example of the famous 'user-power' that we hear about?
Burrows: If we force IT upon the company, and we put lots of it out there, staff will use 5 per cent of it, and it will get rejected because people do not want it. We have the view that we'll show them what is out there, the potential of doing things differently, but we will then try and get the 'champions' [to decide whether it's for them or not]. It's more of a background encouragement than anything else.
E&T: What do you think of IT buzzwords like Web 2.0, Cloud Computing, SOA, mashups, etc? Do they have any resonance to what you do at Butcher's?
Burrows: Until recently they had absolutely no resonance at all to what we do. We do not sell directly to the public so tend not to look into those areas - yet. Our marketplace is fairly straightforward and our website is fairly static; there is no online trading taking place. All our trading is essentially back office, it comes in, goes through IFS - and off it goes.
However, the company has moved into this area now with marketing in so much that the marketing department is using social networking sites both to gain information, advertise, and use blogs to discuss products and marketing techniques, for example. It's not so much about selling at the moment; it is focused on information gathering and testing ideas.
E&T: So at some future point the buzzwords will have resonance?
Burrows: I would probably guess in another two-to-three years we will begin to look at those areas more seriously, when they are more established. For now, we'll watch these technologies and observe what is going on. If they becomes relevant we'll act upon them, but until then we'll observe.
E&T: There's much talk about an IT skills shortage: what do you make of this? And what skills do you feel will be most in demand in the future?
Burrows: There is a problem in the marketplace. There is a void gap between, roughly, the people in their late-20s and the people in their mid-30s, who have got into IT from the ground up, and have not really grasped that it is not just about fixing PCs.
The key shortages that we have looked at are those involving independent thinking. Having a language base behind the IT is very important, and people often tend to neglect that factor. Anybody with GUI can get by; but when you need to [actually create or build something yourself], the scripting skills will probably be a key area people are forgetting about.
E&T: Do you find more job satisfaction being so hands-on with the company?
Burrows: Yes, but there has to be a balance. Because of the nature of the company - it is family run - it has family values throughout; but with that there has been an influx of new people within management, bringing with them ideas on new ways to do things.
For us within IT, it's a good and a bad thing. We can actually get isolated from some of the contacts that we would have in a large corporate environment. Fortunately we have a group of friends that are IT-related, so we are able to still feed off others, and keep fresh and up-to-date.