Unilever, the fast-moving consumer goods manufacturer, whose brands include Dove soaps, Vaseline and Slim-Fast, has had a long-standing relationship with enterprise software provider SAP. So long, in fact, that its CIO, Willem Eelman, can't give an exact date as to when the relationship began.
"I can't tell you when, because Unilever was a highly fragmented organisation with very independent operating companies right through the 50s, 60s and 70s. It was only in the 80s and 90s that we started consolidating," he told the media at a roundtable discussion that took place at SAP's Sapphire user conference in Orlando, Florida.
Hence, Unilever is probably one of SAP's first major clients.
The scale of a company such as Unilever, with half-a-billion invoice lines to its customers on an annual basis, 400 million sales order lines and 100 million purchase order lines, means that it needs extremely reliable business software and partners to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
"Internally, we use the metric of ‘compulsive uptime'; we demand 99.8 or 99.9 per cent uptime all of the time, and for that, SAP is critical because if the systems are down, factory lines stop and we can't invoice, we can't ship, business comes to a standstill, that's why SAP is so important," said Eelman.
He claimed that Unilever had undergone another consolidation programme over the past five to 10 years, and that its business is now divided into four main territories, or "landscapes": Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, and the Indian subcontinent.
Eelman, who has been global CIO of the company for more than four years and is set to be replaced by Thomson Reuters CIO Jane Moran this month but remain at Unilever, said that the company is focusing on three areas: cloud, mobility and digital.
He added that mobility wasn't just about the company's own employees but also about providing mobility solutions to its own distributors.
"For example, in India we operate to 2,500 distributors who serve roughly four million shops on a bi-weekly basis. Over there, we have 65,000 people with mobility solutions that we provide - and these are not Unilever employees," he said.
The solutions incorporate functions such as stock taking and inventory control, and are also used by distributors in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Ensuring SAP won't let you down
SAP is one of Unilever's "key partners" in the mobility space, said Eelman, who had said that there was an "Achilles' heel" with SAP when he started his role as CIO.
"It was a fantastically engineered product but its user interface hadn't kept up with modern trends and the demands that younger people were putting on the UI," he said.
He said that he was very vocal about this to SAP, urging the firm to embrace "design thinking", and improve the UI of its core products.
"We wanted to expand usage and adoption of SAP within the company, but we felt at times that it was an inhibitor of usage and adoption and this resulted in high costs for training and retraining because we had employee churn.
"The argument [from SAP] was that users love those screens, and perhaps this was true of someone who had worked five to 10 years with the same application and knew how and where to find everything," Eelman said.
Unilever has since worked with SAP to improve its UI in design workshops, being one of the first brands to trial SAP tools such as Fiori and UI5.
"We have significantly overhauled the UI together with SAP to make the product much more appealing and make it easier for our users, particularly in R&D and customer management," said Eelman.
And he is keen to ensure that Unilever has a similar impact to Apple, which also used SAP's technology to underpin its App Store.
"Apple has fused the SAP product with a significantly improved UI, and if you can do that then you're in the sweet spot of driving adoption in your business," he said.
"Apple has done a brilliant job and I hope we can get to that level as well. We strive to create really appealing apps that people would like to use for three reasons: because they work, make them more efficient and because they're easy to use," he added.
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