CTO Sessions: Andy Bell, Edenhouse Solutions

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? "Modernising core business systems."

Name: Andy Bell

Company: Edenhouse Solutions

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: January 2017

Location: Birmingham, UK

As CTO at Edenhouse Solutions, Andy Bell's role is to keep abreast of the latest developments across the SAP portfolio and the wider technology market and use that to develop and maintain Edenhouse's products and services accordingly. After starting his career in engineering, Bell has over 20 years' SAP experience across a wide range of roles covering analysis, development, architecture and management, within both end-user and consulting environments.

What was your first job? A Manufacturing Systems Engineer for a manufacturing business in the consumer products industry.

Did you always want to work in IT? Pretty much, yes - I've always had a natural interest in IT, although not necessarily purely technical. I was also interested in looking at how it can be used to enable business improvement.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have an Engineering degree from the University of Warwick, I am a member of the IET (Institute of Engineering & Technology) and have also collected several SAP software certifications over the years.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After graduating from university, I started as a Manufacturing Engineer focusing on production - both in terms of process improvement as well as managing the production planning and execution systems. Our business then embarked on a major transformation project which involved bringing a number of businesses together and implementing a new SAP solution across the group. I took the opportunity to work full-time on that project team. It was a fantastic learning curve and gave me great exposure to different aspects of the business. 

Following that, a central shared services function was established, and I moved into the IT function where I continued to develop and expand the new SAP solutions as a Business Analyst. Later, the business was divested of and acquired by multiple businesses, and I subsequently became involved in managing the IT systems element of that activity before moving into an IT Management role within one of the resultant businesses - managing a team of Analysts and Developers across EMEA and supporting and developing the core ERP and business systems within the group.

A couple of years later, I wanted to pass on the experience I'd gained across different businesses, and so moved into consultancy - firstly, with a supply chain consultancy before joining Edenhouse as a Solutions Architect in 2012. Since then, we have experienced significant growth at Edenhouse and, to support that, I established and managed our Pre-Sales function, before progressing into my current role as CTO.

What type of CTO are you? Hopefully a modern and relevant one! I'm no longer a hands-on techie, but an external-facing technologist who advocates modern business software solutions - crucially, my focus is to help customers create business value through intelligent use of appropriate technology.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Machine Learning is an exciting emerging technology. A central promise of IT solutions has always been to improve the efficiency of business processes, particularly those at the more repetitive and mundane end of the scale, but for various reasons they haven't always consistently achieved that.

With technology maturing and being increasingly embedded into core business solutions, we're now seeing the potential of Machine Learning to deliver on those promises. While the potential benefits are already being realised, I think we've only scratched the surface in terms of what Machine Learning could ultimately enable, with new use cases emerging all the time.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? The obvious one would be Blockchain - not because it doesn't have the potential as a technology, but because it's one of the least understood when looking at ‘new breed' technologies and there's a danger that it's perceived as the solution to lots of things, which it probably isn't.

However, whilst still relatively immature, it's becoming apparent that Blockchain has a lot of potential beyond its roots in cryptocurrency. Applications in other areas are now coming to the fore, including supply chains in industries such as food, pharmaceuticals and aerospace, where it can provide the necessary trust to support collaboration between multiple parties in the value chain and streamline end-to-end processes and transactions spanning those boundaries. It will be interesting to see how quickly this starts to gain traction and adoption.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? Improving our capabilities, broadening our offerings and leveraging strategic partnerships - this has been pivotal in helping us compete for and win new business on a larger scale than we were previously able to.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? As well as helping customers on their own digital transformation journeys, we are also undertaking one ourselves to ensure we remain relevant and effective in supporting their needs. In today's environment of heightened expectations, the experience aspect is crucial and we are looking at the user experience from the customer's perspective with the aim of making sure we are as easy as possible to engage with across all touchpoints, that our services are easy to understand and that we deliver value.

As well as the customer focus, we are looking at the user experience for our employees. This helps demonstrate to our customers that we practice what we preach, but also helps drive internal operational efficiencies and support knowledge sharing and collaboration within the business. 

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? Modernising core business systems. The majority of our customers, along with the wider SAP ERP customer base, are still running what would now be considered legacy ERP solutions, many of which have been in place for several years or even decades, having historically been heavily customised and often with an array of additional solutions bolted on around the edge to cater for specific needs. The technical debt associated with this type of landscape is becoming a significant barrier to innovation and growth. Converting these solutions to the new generation of modern intelligent ERP to unlock the capabilities of the latest technologies, reverting to standardised and commoditised solutions, and embracing cloud are all critical to enable these businesses to continue to thrive.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? We try to employ Design Thinking methodologies as much as possible to help with this challenge. It's easy to get excited by some of the capabilities offered by various technologies and have a desire to adopt them. However, we've found that, by focusing on the needs of the user across different roles within the business and understanding what is truly needed to get tasks done as efficiently as possible, it maximises the chance of the solutions we deliver being aligned to those needs and fit for purpose.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? We primarily work within the SAP ecosystem which means there is a comprehensive portfolio of solutions we can provide which cover the majority of our customers' needs. These are complemented by our own value-added services. The rate at which technology is changing is relentless, and so the primary challenge in this respect is more about ensuring we are doing all the right things to keep up to date so that we are always well-positioned to give our customers the best possible advice and guidance.

What makes an effective tech strategy? I am a firm believer that the key to this is to never lose sight of alignment to customer needs and a focus on business users, to ensure that any deployment of technology is properly challenged to add value. We have seen many instances of technology being adopted for the wrong reasons - because it looks cool, is seen as cutting edge, because everyone else is doing it, and often this can end up as an expensive exercise with little or no return on investment. A critical element of this is user adoption - even the best, most appropriate tech solutions will fail if people don't want to use it or know how to.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The role of the CTO is arguably one of the least understood in the C-suite and this is partly because it's so varied - from internal-facing highly technical infrastructure, to external-facing technology advocates with greater commercial focus, and everywhere in-between. Similarly, the overlap of the CTO with the traditional CIO role varies significantly too, so I don't think we will necessarily see a consistent pattern.

What is undeniable however is that - across pretty much any industry or business - technology is increasingly important as a key enabler and differentiator. Rather than it being considered somewhat peripheral, it will (if not already) become a central pillar of the overall business strategy. As such, I envisage the CTO role evolving to become more strategic in nature, becoming a key advisor and contributor to the wider business strategy. As technology solutions become increasingly commoditised, it will become more about selecting and rapidly deploying the appropriate standard solutions rather than technically designing and building customised ones - meaning the CTO will have to be as competent operationally and commercially, as they are technically.

What has been your greatest career achievement? There are several, but one thing I'm particularly proud of was an initiative to improve supply chain fulfilment; this was particularly rewarding because there were a number of challenges. Firstly, we had to overcome a lot of initial skepticism as many people didn't recognise or believe there was a problem and so we had to convince them there was and that the current processes were masking the problems. As we dug further, the scope morphed from a more limited initial remit to a root and branch reengineering exercise, so we also had to justify additional expenditure and the associated benefits.

The results were highly successful, which was validated by both internal and external stakeholders, and business results. We had excellent feedback from customers, putting the business on another level in terms of perceptions of our capability and proactivity. The outcome also vindicated the approach we took and reinforced the positive impact than can be achieved when technology is properly considered and deployed well, with a strong focus on the customers' needs.  

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I've always tried to make decisions based on the circumstances and information available and not worry too much about what might've been. From a personal development perspective, I could've possibly made the move to consultancy a bit sooner than I did as that would've broadened my horizons earlier. And from a business perspective, I could have been better at taking a few more risks - there are a few examples when a safer option was taken that maybe didn't turn out to be as good a result as the riskier option. My mindset these days is to be more willing to try things and, if something doesn't work out, to fail early, learn from it and move on.

What are you reading now? I have a couple on the go at the moment - The Participation Revolution, which has some interesting insights around how the innate human need for involvement and engagement within society and groups drives consumer behaviours which is consistent across the ages, and how the most successful businesses or technology solutions are tapping into this. I've also just started Collaborative Intelligence, which I'm hoping will help me understand how to better harness the collective capabilities and strengths of the different people we work with to increase innovation.

Most people don't know that I… Used to do a lot of extreme sports in my younger days, particularly caving.

In my spare time, I like to…Spend time with the family, get outdoors (walking, mountain biking), play the guitar, suffer following my football team…

Ask me to do anything but… Not too early in the morning - I function better later in the day! I'll have a go at most things, though I know by now what I'm good and not so good at so I try to work with people who can make up for my shortcomings.