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Supporting Sustainability – Unilever’s CIO Talks about Aligning Strategy and Technology

Lipton tea, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Dove soap, VO5 shampoo . . . the list goes on and on. These are just a few of the Unilever products that are part of our everyday life./wp-content/uploads/2014/05/273094_l_srgb_s_gl_462323.jpg

With more than 400 brands and sales around the globe, Unilever is one the world’s largest consumer products companies. And company leaders are committed to continued sustainable growth.

Note the word “sustainable” here. That’s a concept that means a lot to Unilever.

Back in November 2010, Unilever launched its Sustainable Living Plan – a formal blueprint for the company’s future growth. The plan’s goals are both straightforward and broad: to improve people’s health and well-being, reduce the environmental footprint of the company’s products, and enhance the livelihoods of millions around the globe.

Recently, Unilever’s CIO Willem Eelman talked about the role of technology in helping drive a company’s strategy forward.

Aligning Strategy and Technology

“IT has to transform,” says Eelman, who was appointed global CIO in April 2010. “It has to move away from being the traditional back-office service function, engage more with the business, and develop solutions that support the business strategy.”

The CIO is quick with a concrete example.

Unilever’s products are sold in over 190 countries, and the company brings quality brands to some of the world’ poorest consumers. In several markets, its products are available in single-use sizes at a very low cost. As a result, many more people can afford basic necessities such as shampoo or detergent.

As Eelman points out, ensuring product availability is relatively easy in more developed countries that have sophisticated supply chains. But in many emerging markets, Unilever operates directly with a wide network of distributors that in turn serve millions of individual shops.

“At Unilever we have an initiative we call the Perfect Store,” Eelman explains, “and it’s underpinned by a next-generation distribution management system.”

Using this solution, Unilever reps can meet with distributors on a weekly basis if necessary to help them ensure that shopkeepers always have the right products, in the right quantities, available in their stores.

“It’s a win-win for us,” Eelman says, “we serve our customers better and we sell more.”

The Real Challenge of Growth

Eelman recognizes the impact of continued growth on his organization – larger amounts of data, bigger networks, and more points to connect. “But the real growth challenge in IT is finding ways to use technology to create competitive advantage and bring new solutions to the business,” he says.

Unilever continues to meet that challenge. For example, Unilever was an early adopter of the SAP HANA platform, and it has already used the in-memory computing technology to significantly accelerate and simplify existing processes such as goods receipt reconciliation and financial closings. And the CIO sees real value in transforming areas such as demand and production planning. As Eelman notes, “the true value of technology is when it works as part of the business to identify opportunities that drive benefits for the consumer.”

For Unilever, the stakes are high. By 2020, the company is committed to helping more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being.

“We have an audacious goal,” says Eelman, “to help transform our world and make it a more sustainable place to live in.”

You can hear more from Willem Eelman at this year’s SAPPHIRE NOW, and check out these new videos: Unilever Customer Showcase, Unilever LoB Finance, and Unilever Runs SAP HANA.

And follow me on Twitter @JohnGWard3.

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