Saji Oommen - Al Batha Group

Friday, 19 November 2010 17:31
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Saji started his career in India working for a cybernetics research company for about three years. Then he joined AGMC (the BMW distributor in the UAE and a member of Al Batha Group) as an IT Manager in 1988. . Between 1988 and 1991 Saji worked with his small IT team to modernize and streamline the IT systems at AGMC. In 1991 he was asked to move to the group head office to establish an enterprise wide IT department spanning the group’s 28 different companies. His primary task was to put all the group companies on one consolidated IT platform. Saji started building his team, deployed a group wide network infrastructure and focused on automating those group companies that were not already automated. In 1998 Al Batha Group made a decision to adopt SAP ERP as its information backbone. The implementation commenced immediately, and the project was completed successfully in 1999.


The Interview

CIO2CIO: Al Batha Group being a conglomerate of 28 companies some large, some small, operating in different industries. Does that make it difficult for the CIO to understand all those different businesses, and to deploy a unified technology platforms?
Saji: Yes but I have been with the group for a long time, 22 years. We have already established the standards and the models though which IT operates and interacts with the different parts of the business. Definitely the requirements of different companies are different, you also deal with different styles of management in terms of experience, maturity and their knowledge of IT. But we have unified everything under SAP, it is our one strategic choice, we streamlined and standardized the process with SAP. Prior to SAP we had different applications running in different places on different hardware as you would imagine.

CIO2CIO: What has been your experience with suite versus best of breed?
Saji: Some time back we had to look for some best of breed applications to cover certain business requirements that we could not meet with SAP but with time we moved those areas of the business to SAP as the functionality became available. We prefer to keep everything integrated and try to avoid islands of information and unnecessary integration expenses.

CIO2CIO: In your review, what is the biggest challenge facing the CIO today? Is  it to deal with all the waves of new technology? Getting the budgets? Retaining talent? Or is it getting to sit at the top table in the organization?
Saji: Budget is definitely a challenge especially that the business expectations from IT are increasing with time, people are becoming more aware of what IT can do and are asking for more. The trick to securing budgets lies in the CIOs ability to show the value realized from previous projects. Recruiting and retaining top talent is also a big challenge although I must say that as a group, Al Batha has been quite successful in retaining talent. We have also noticed that sometimes you achieve better retention by hiring and then developing people with excellent but not necessarily top talent.

CIO2CIO: As a CIO there must be a project that you are so proud of, talk to us about it.
Saji: Definitely the project which is closest to my heart was the group wide SAP implementation and roll out in 1998-1999. That was not simply an IT project it was a huge organizational change and IT was at the center of that. At that time SAP had very light presence in the region. That added some difficulties in terms of technical support. This project represented total culture change, processes being redesigned, a new IT system .. all in one go, that is the project I am passionate about.


CIO2CIO: There must also be a project that you are not very proud of?
Saji: Yes, five or six years ago we deployed a customer facing portal for our pharmaceutical division where customers [pharmacies] can view product information and place orders. The portal was highly functional, stable and technically very sound but customers just did not interact with it, did not use it. I guess we were too early, we learned that technology -no matter how good- only helps the business if people are ready to use it. When it an internal project you can train the users and gauge their readiness, it is much harder when the project is customer facing.

CIO2CIO: The IT industry is characterized by those successive waves of new technologies, some of them make it and some tend to vanish. AS a CIO how do you deal with new technologies, how do you make the decision to adopt a particular technology?
Saji: Surely we would be making mistakes if we tend to jump on every new technology just for the sake of technology. We would also lose credibility with the business. I believe the relatively new IT governance models will help IT organizations with decision making in this regard.  One good example is virtualization, the technology came in the right time to address a specific need that we had.  We validated the capabilities and went ahead with a large deployment in 2005.

CIO2CIO: IT Mergers and acquisitions are accelerating; recently Gartner warned that ‘Super Vendors’ will cause the industry to become less competitive, less innovative and more vertically integrated. As a CIO does that trend worry you?
Saji: Less competition is certainly not a good thing but on the other hand vendors need to have critical mass in order to survive and thrive, in order to be able to afford the massive research and development budgets. It is not always a bad thing, for example Sun is more likely to survive because it has been acquired by Oracle, prior to its acquisition we had doubts about the long term viability of Sun.

CIO2CIO: Consequently, now you have to deal with multiple account managers from the same vendors that have very board product lines. Is that an issue for you?
Saji: We buy different technologies, servers, storage, software, PCs and so on. It is natural that we have different buyers talking to various vendors. No it is not a cause of concern for us especially if those account managers can add true value in their respective areas.

CIO2CIO: Why does business intelligence get less budget allocation than many other projects?
Saji: We have been working with business intelligence for the last 16 years. We started with IRI Express (which was later on acquired by Oracle). But the user adoption has always been somewhat disappointing even though the users are involved in the project from the get go. I can see many reasons for that, sometimes there is not enough leadership from the top when it comes to using BI, the BI products themselves are not intuitive enough so users keep coming back to IT for help and finally, we must not forget the fact that Excel make a very intuitive and easy to use BI tool so users tend to gravitate towards that which in turn reduces the demand for traditional BI tools within the enterprise. But BI will eventually become much more important in every organization, people are starting to realize the value of unlocking the masses of data and converting that into knowledge. That change started becoming more obvious during the economic slowdown, managers began looking for better ways to understand what is going on with their business and started asking for more BI capabilities.

CIO2CIO: What is your advice to new CIOs?
Saji: The landscapes are changing very fast. The role of the CIO role is also changing. New CIOs need to know that the right decision in one organization could be the wrong decision in anther. Organizations are different and hence the decision making process and circumstances can also differ. Two CIOs can make opposite decisions in two organizations and both CIOs can be right. Young CIOs must spend a lot of time listening … listening to their team members, to their fellow managers and business leaders and sometimes to vendors. Working very closely with the business is a must, understand how the business works, how managers make decisions, and what changes are taking place in the competitive horizon. They also must learn to make business sense out of every project and then look back after the project completion and evaluate its impact on the business.


Al Batha Group

Al Batha Group is one of the largest private business groups in the UAE. The Group  consists of more than 20 autonomous companies in the diversified sectors of automobiles, pharmaceuticals, contracting, manufacturing, electronics, FMCG, real estate, education etc... Al Batha group itself has grown from its small beginning to play a substantial role in the modern economy of United Arab Emirates.
Al Batha is the Arabic word for 'valley'. The word conjures up flowing streams green palms and rich fields all sustained by decades of calm and purposeful activity.


Al Batha Group IT Profile

Database: Oracle
Middleware: SAP Netweaver and Microsoft Biztalk
BI: SAP Business Warehouse
Servers: Sun
PC: Mostly HP
Networking: Cisco


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