Interview: Five tech talking points from Specsavers' transformation

Specsavers' global CIO, Phil Pavitt, jokes that it is at the halfway point of major tech transformation programmes within organisations when most IT leaders get sacked. After two years leading the IT function at the glasses retailer, during a time of significant core infrastructure change, Pavitt is fully aware his own project is entering the "hard yards" as some of the business and tech change strategies enter a critical stage.

As the retailer continues to battle in a competitive global market, it is undergoing some serious changes including the implementation of a new retail platform across all territories, an ERP revamp and a data management project that it hopes will result in the creation of a single customer relationship management (CRM) and business intelligence machine.

The last couple of decades have seen huge technological change impact the wider business landscape, but it was not until a couple of years ago that the family-owned operation, which is made up of partners running their own stores across the globe, decided to make some "big choices" to aid what the next period of growth for Specsavers.

The tech side of the transformation involves whittling down vast numbers of systems and vendor partnerships to a few key providers, as well as keeping an eye on what is new and how customer-facing technologies may improve service in the store. The digitisation of the pre-store, in-store and post-store experience is also high on the agenda.

"We started out with those about 12 months ago on a two-and-half-year plan," Pavitt explained to Essential Retail.

"We're halfway through. This is the hard yards. Most CIOs do very well at projecting a plan, saying 'the past was rubbish and the future will be great'. Most CIOs lose their jobs in the middle of a transition because that's when it gets more expensive than you originally thought, it takes longer than you thought and businesses have to pause longer than they want to. We're right at that stage."

Based on an in-depth discussion with Pavitt, at such a critical point in Specsavers' transition to a more technologically-enabled operation, Essential Retail has picked out five key tech taking points.

1. Tech partner shake-up

Pavitt, who has held 18 CIO roles during a diverse career that has seen him lead major IT projects and run tech teams at the likes of HMRC, Transport for London (TfL) and Centrica, said he inherited a plethora of small, medium and large tech suppliers across a number of countries, arguing "we wanted to partner with them all and none at the same time".

"Our in-store infrastructure was supported by Ricoh and Fujitsu and that was very confusing for the people receiving it and the people managing it," he noted.

"What I tried to do, not over aggressively or in a big bang way, but over the last couple of years is say who out of the hundreds of suppliers makes up the handful we want to end up with. Who are subject matter experts in their space?"

The CIO questions the role of generalists, saying that he believes most of the IT industry is pretty tired of them. Over the course of his time at Specsavers he says the team has been reducing the number of suppliers the company works with "line by line, team by team".

"The IBMs and HPs of this world; it's kind of like – you're good at everything, really?" Pavitt said.

For the Specsavers Genesis retail programme, Fujitsu will be providing the new store infrastructure after recently winning that contract. The partnership starts in January 2017 and will operate on three levels: the infrastructure in store, to the store and around store, the latter being a push towards cloud services.

The retailer has opted to completely revamp ERP, which includes supply chain and logistics, and it will be working with Oracle Retail on this not insignificant core systems transformation.

"We signed a deal with Oracle quite a few years ago and we attempted to roll out the ERP system and we're on public record saying we found it quite hard and to a degree it we largely left if for a few years saying 'it was bit hard'," Pavitt acknowledged.

"The Oracle software and functionality is absolutely amazing but the Oracle relationship has been patchier. I've been an Oracle customer at TfL, HMRC and Aviva. You have some good days and you have some sales days. Now Oracle has joined our side of the fence, we actually have some better partnership work. Oracle was going to be everything but it's now narrower. We're now working without that transactional hat and we'll have our first huge implementation go live in February next year and we're excited about it after five or six years of having the licenses – it's been an evolutionary relationship."

Adobe is used for CRM and the information it manages includes details on customers' eye and ear tests as well as their shopping history, which all brings huge challenges with exploiting the data for business gain. Accenture has been recruited to move data from the company's heritage systems onto new platforms, while Genesis and the company's practice management system are all going to be run on the cloud, too.

"We're down to double digit figures for our core engines and as we begin to expand our services and territories, which I believe we will soon, we won't re-tender these things; we'll take these partners with us. That's our commitment to them."

2. 'Heritage' not legacy systems

You'll notice that Pavitt describes as "heritage" what many retailers describe as "legacy systems" – and that is an intentional move.

"I get offended by the term 'legacy' because we built a hugely successful company [with these systems] and it has negative connotations so I prefer heritage."

Nevertheless, during his journey so far at Specsavers, there were some unexpected heritage engine issues that have inevitably contributed to slowing down the pace of change. Describing what many retailers are going though right now, Pavitt commented: "All I've described to you we're doing live – the business has its year end, its campaigns and we have to navigate between all of those. When these are interlocked one change has a knock on effect because they are interrelated."

It has to be emphasised that as Specsavers goes through what is a technological revolution, it does so alongside a great deal of business process change, digital re-engineering and people re-engineering, Pavitt notes.

3. Unexpected paths on the journey

On a digital transformation journey, it is clearly impossible to map out exactly how things will pan out, and Specsavers has taken some unexpected turnings along the way.

The company has traditionally been a Google platform, but Pavitt has now decided "for a number of reasons that, actually, it's the wrong answer" and the organisation is now undergoing "a massive Microsoft roll out in four months".

"At one point we contemplated doing some work in the cloud – now we're going totally cloud. These are ancillary choices that come in the middle of a big change programme."

From a customer-facing tech perspective, one noteworthy change since Pavitt took the CIO hotseat is the introduction of iPads in Specsavers stores, which are used for serving customers in a more mobile manner. Indeed, their introduction has marked a move away from desktop-based IT in the shops and it has also allowed customers to search for items while they are waiting to be served.

This was not on the original roadmap but was, instead, a response to a competitor dabbling in this space – highlighting how business transitions must take place while keeping the lights on and reacting to rival business strategies. You'll often here CIOs use the analogy of fixing the engines while the airplane is in flight.

"One of our competitors in the UK launched, experimentally, a handful of iPads in store; we were live four months later with 10,000 iPads. That wasn't on the plan when I started the two-year conversion," explained Pavitt.

4. How the tech team has changed

Pavitt says with IT infrastructure change there will inevitably be people change within the department.

"You couldn't have drawn an easy line across our organisation saying this side was outsourced and this side was insourced – it was very jagged depending on territory, subject or functionality.

"We've quietly been drawing that line – sometimes we've taken stuff back in and some stuff we've put the other side."

He added: "We want to be the inventors, the commissioners, the designers, the testers and the partners in the business so when it comes to a piece of work that definition helps us decide if we keep it or whether we work with our suppliers."

By the end of 2017 when the tech change journey is planned to have come to an end, Pavitt expects there to be few generalists in the IT department, and instead mainly business partners, designers, thinkers and commissioners. The overall size of the team will be around the same as it was when he took over in 2014.

Commenting on the Accenture deal to move the data from heritage platforms to the new ones, he said it was important to have people who understood the old and new systems, and people who could do the mapping. Pavitt acknowledged it is an unusual deal and that Accenture has now taken the framework to market elsewhere.

"They are managing a terminal contract because the contract will end when the tech is closed off. Part of the deal, is to get the data lined up to be migrated – it's an exciting piece, I don't have to worry about it, someone else is managing it."

From a personal perspective, Pavitt estimates 50% of his time is taken up with the back office and core infrastructure changes at Specsavers, while the other half is split equally between the customer facing in-store work and future technologies.

He spends a lot of time in the likes of California's Silicon Valley, keeping close tabs on how fresh new technology might be able to transform the business.

Phil Pavitt, Specsavers CIO, talking at #oraclecloudday: CIOs need courage to make bets & big decisions. It's a difficult job, he says


5. What's on the horizon?

Pavitt says there will be a number of announcements early in the new year relating to changes in the in-store customer experience at Specsavers, although details are yet to be revealed. In a presentation at Oracle's Cloud Day event in London at the start of November he did suggest Specsavers will be investing in internet-based companies where it can to help the organisation become fit for the future, and he is on record as saying the business has looked at ways 3D printing can be used in the glasses manufacturing process.

One launch that has been confirmed in recent months is the option of booking online optical appointments in the UK. "Specsavers is famous for not being bleeding edge, we take what other people have done and proved, and we industrialise it like you've never seen," Pavitt noted.

The CIO also argued that everything the company is doing has technology at the heart of it, while admitting the organisation is still very store based. Elements of the traditional retailing and medical model Specsavers has offered for years will be digitised, but there is an understanding people want to talk about their eye and ear health face to face with professionals, so the business's shops will continue to retain their relevance.

"Tech in retail is about margins and volume – it's all about the marketing and getting the tech right that will give us the edge just for a few months."