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CIO podcast: RB’s Amitabh Apte uses APIs for hybrid integration

CTO of FMCG giants RB Amitabh Apte

“Do you want to play the game or change it?” the fast paced video from consumer goods producers RB states. “RB has been looking after the human race since 1824,” and is the company behind a myriad health and home care products every CIO will have in their bathrooms and kitchens at home. RB has never made the mistake of thinking its company is more important than the brands and the relationship the consumer has with those brands, whether it be Durex or curing the annoyance of heartburn with Gaviscon. 

Amitabh Apte is IS Director for the Enterprise Architecture and Technology at the FTSE 100 business and worked alongside Darrell Stein, CIO at RB and who spoke on the Horizon CIO podcast last year.  Apte told delegates at this podcast’s CIO Summit, the Innovation Leadership Summit, how a massive integration project was not going to wash with makers of Dettol. Apte and his technology team instead have devised a strategy of hybrid integration using application programming interface (API) as the way to give RB a clean, safe and fast way to achieve its results.  

“The RB culture is about speed and innovation. Innovation both at Global level driven by HQ and the local level driven by local market based leadership,” Apte tells the Horizon CIO podcast. “As a Global CIO or CTO you have a dozen brands and multiple markets all going and innovating in products, campaigns and sales as both global and local level. If you are simply sitting in the centre hoping to coordinate that you will probably struggle to keep up with the speed of change and innovation, let along lead it,” he says of life in consumer goods. As a result of such fast paced innovation plus organic and M&A led growth, RB IT Integration architecture has grown through, what Apte calls as “accidental integration architecture”. 

“To support such growth, both local and global markets have built, bought IT systems over a period of time which needs data from multiple back office and ERP systems. To support these data requirements multiple integration links have been built over a period of time, probably in the absence of a cohesive, Enterprise Integration Strategy which offers standard technologies and patterns across this global company. He demonstrates the scenario with a map literally covered in boxes and a large number of lines crossing one another, probably connecting every front office application with a back office application as the requirements have evolved over a period of time.

“It leaves me and the Global Operations Director with a problem. To support such a complex integration infrastructure you need multiple vendor contracts, support and operational efforts, specialist skilled teams and reliance on a large number of system integrators and operator at a global scale,” he says of the diagram. 

“That point to point integration is not that bad if it meeting the business demands, fulfilling requirements and delivering project integration on time on budget. Who are we to complain? he says of IT. However the run, operate, monitoring and change management cost is going to increase all the time.

Apte says the complexity is only going to increase as the market changes as result of technology led culture and marketplace change, led by online retailers like Amazon.  “Amazon has forced us to think about how we do things,” he says of the expectations changing in the marketplace with innovation such as Amazon Alexa, Prime Delivery service of same day in certain markets and IoT based innovation such as the Amazon Dash Button. The business technology leader says this is forcing us to think about changing the production, supply chain, marketing and product development processes in the CPG industry and Retail industry alike.

“This is also changing the Order, Inventory, Cost and Pricing decisions, we simply can not think about business like established EDI B2B transactions with our traditional warehouse driven customers and partners,” he says of how the relationship with the retailers has changed.

Architectural view

“With this changing industry backdrop, you as a CIO or CTO cannot say, I am going to resist the change coming in through markets and competitors because the portfolio and the markets are empowered to respond to this changing dynamic in the CPG industry,” Apte says of the need for consumer goods companies to be federal in nature and able to respond locally. That localism is a strength in the RB business, this comes across clearly from Apte, but it is also a major challenge for a technology leader. Apte and the technology leadership team have therefore moved away from a “traditional homogenous architecture”.

“The hybrid integration is the model for me as it combines best of both worlds; Traditional On-premise integration coupled with modern Cloud integration, but the problem is that the traditional tools and technologies often don’t support such hybrid model easily. For big data, APIs and social campaigns the traditional integration doesn’t work as it requires elaborate, process-driven, Waterfall governance, but often the new innovative new SaaS based applications demand an Agile way of working. Also finding a common business case for large global integration projects becomes a problem,” he says of how RB had to find a model that enabled all parts of the business to work at pace. 

“You have to move quickly, with traditional ESB and data warehouse approach, it takes too long, shared resources to deliver large integration programs across global and local was a problem for us too and the business case for this is pretty tough.  SIs, are good partners and we love them, but they come with their own preferences for tools, technologies and processes, it is often a slow moving waterfall culture in that space,” he says with typical honesty about systems integrators. 

Amitabh Apte at the 2017 Innovation Leadership Summit.

RB has used APIs along with the traditional enterprise service bus (ESB) or data warehouse strategy. Whilst many CIOs and organisations use APIs to enable outside organisations to connect into the data and services an organisation has, Apte is using the technology as an internal service bus for various divisions of RB to connect to and use. Apte says this enables local, regional and global projects to take off quickly with rapid support from IT. 

“We activate the network of applications for a local market or a portfolio or a campaign and we have kept the toolset as simple as possible and use the cloud based services like Mulesoft. We started introducing local integrations for local sales systems, Salesforce or CRM in some markets, we have introduced the APIs project by project. It is a much smaller investment case, backed by the project, so not a large million pound investment, instead investment of a few thousands.

“More importantly, from an organisational point of view, we passed on the ownership to local markets and projects, so rather than CIO or CTO centrally, we said to the market leadership in Asia, Middle East, you can deploy it in cloud and take ownership. APIs help us integrate bit by bit, rather than worrying about having a single large database. It doesn’t matter what technology you bring, as long as you activate the APIs.

“A Global CIO or CTO can not always enforce a standard technology stack for regional projects in such a large business, so we are working with the likes of MuleSoft, SAP, Salesforce, IBM and Microsoft,” Apte says of how he and the IT team have become brokers

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