- 21 April, 2010 08:10
Brett Hibbert has been working for Loyalty NZ, which runs the FlyBuys loyalty scheme, for five years, and as its head of IT and operations for the past 12 months.
Before he moved into his present role, Hibbert's experience was in mainstream business, with an emphasis on merchandising. His knowledge and involvement in ICT evolved as he worked across Loyalty NZ.
"I started with the company as planning and development manager, essentially writing business cases and generating new revenues," he says.Four years later, the CIO of Loyalty NZ moved on.
"While considering what we should do with the position, I was asked to look after the team."So I did that for a period and I enjoyed it," he says. "Then I said to Andy Symons, the CEO: 'This is really cool, can I do this for good'? We had a chat about it and three or four months later I got appointed to the role."I've always been somewhat interested in technology, but it was the people who attracted me," says Hibbert. "They're a bunch of great people who can do great work," says Hibbert.
"It's about pulling a team together and encouraging them to do great stuff."The IT team has four sections: a data warehouse team; a systems engineer, who liaises with suppliers of equipment and software; an applications development team and an operations team.
When skills range from data warehouse building to day-to-day operations, a conventional CIO can't keep up with all the technology first-hand, he says.Clearly he needs to keep abreast of technical terminology and innovation at a level to communicate with the teams and understand the ideas they're putting up, but that is where he draws the line.
"We have got people heading those units who are all technical, so that translation from technical to business, rather than occurring at a higher level [between CIO and business management, as is typical], now occurs within IT between the technical leads and myself.
"Hibbert's awareness of Loyalty NZ's current business needs and his ability to steer them, is facilitated by his close involvement with the company's leadership team.
Loyalty NZ's business consists chiefly of managing relationships with the stores that provide FlyBuys points with their purchases -- called "participants" -- and with the "member" -- the shopper who has a FlyBuys card.Outside FlyBuys, the company provides marketing advice and analysis services.
The leadership team includes the CEO, the head of the FlyBuys operation, who manages relationships with the participant stores, the head of marketing, who looks after the members, the head of finance and Hibbert supervising IT."So there are five of us on the leadership team and as IT, we have a strong voice at the table."
As far as Hibbert is concerned, that's the only way for it to be.
"I've attended get-togethers of technology people who lead IT for a lot of organisations, including government agencies."At one event in particular, some of the IT heads were discussing the difficulties of their roles.
"They were complaining they don't have access to the business strategies, to the CEOs; they don't know what is going on, they are in the dark; they were saying, 'We can't get budget, we can't get a voice; we don't know what [top management] is doing'. "To be honest, I was a lone voice around a table of 15 or so people. As far as I'm concerned, I have got exactly the opposite situation. I know exactly what Andy and the business are trying to do and IT has a voice around that table," says Hibbert.
"Perhaps because it is recognised that for Loyalty NZ, IT underpins the whole programme; if technology stops, the programme stops. "A lot of our interactions with the participants are to do with getting their transactions and files onto the Loyalty system or into the database, and one of the key interactions with our members is via the web.
"So we work continuously with the business to do web development and therefore to engage the members and get the members doing things," most crucially shopping at participants' stores.
"There is no cold gap between business and IT, it is very much an integrated talking-all-the-time relationship." One of the key elements of leading a technically skilled team, Hibbert believes, is to give them the freedom, the "headspace", to employ their skills as they see fit, within the parameters of the business challenges.
"I'm not dictating to them that they must use Microsoft or whatever; I bring a business problem to them and they need to solve the business problem with technology.
"Hibbert is keen to see people on the IT teams suggest ideas on their own initiative. "I want all the people within those teams, not just the technical heads, to be thinking of answering business problems," he says.
"What I'm doing to encourage that is to bring in the internal clients of IT -- the marketing people, the business intelligence people -- and have them run sessions with our people, telling them this is what we're trying to do, these are the business problems. I think IT is a far more motivated group if they can see that what they're doing has an impact on the programme out in the marketplace. That's one of the things I try to do all the time; keep the other divisions, the marketing and the sales team, talking with them."
Numbers and patterns
The Loyalty NZ system is built around standard business elements.
"We have got two specific systems. One is what we call our loyalty host system, which is a CardLink proprietary system. There's probably about nine or 10 programmes around the globe using it. That's a member administration application. It's where we hold all the names, addresses, details and balances. We replicate that information through into a data warehouse.
"The other specialist system is for points processing.
"We receive points files from companies that are participating in the programme and they either do a calculation themselves, taking the raw transaction data and work out how many FlyBuys points that transaction has earned for the member. Or we have our own processing engine that will do that for them."The data warehouse has been one of the major developments during Hibbert's time heading IT.
"We've got 13 years of transactional data in there and we supplement that with other data sets; participating companies will send us their stock data.
"This is correlated with datasets from other sources such as Statistics NZ's mesh block data, showing where members live and allowing customer behaviour to be mapped geographically.
"We also take in death register data, for example. Sending mail to dead people is not appreciated."
The combination of datasets in the warehouse enables Loyalty NZ to predict spending patterns and supply this information to their participant stores. This way, he says, "Members get relevant offers and the participants can target their spending, they don't waste money.
"The data warehouse runs on Oracle 11g. In the past, the company had implemented what was called a data warehouse, but Hibbert says the technical team described it as just an ordinary database. The new data warehouse is less tied to individual transactions and better structured for analysis, says Hibbert.
"In terms of infrastructure, we're like anyone else; we've gone through a programme of virtualising a lot of our servers. We started last year with about 80 physical servers and through virtualisation we're down to about 40 now.
"The cutting edge of innovation really lies with the potential of the web and online selection and processing of rewards, says Hibbert.The mechanism has traditionally involved the member telling Loyalty NZ they would like to redeem a reward.
"You could text us, phone us, do it on the web, or send us a paper form. We would process that and send you back a voucher about 10 days later. You'd take that voucher into, say Noel Leeming (a retail chain in New Zealand).
"Now, with better use of the technology it works instantly. You would be standing in Noel Leeming, phone our service centre, choose your camera or whatever it is, we'd send the data, then you could walk up to the counter, swipe your card and take the item.
"The company has also relaunched its business programme, persuading small-to-medium businesses to get their supplies at a FlyBuys participant.Another major task of the past 12 months has been around infrastructure, says Hibbert.
He says systems engineer Fergus O'Reilly had done a great "tidying up" of the infrastructure and deploying virtualisation technology.
"We have tidied up a lot of IP schemes and got rid of a lot of servers that were not required any more."
Tools have been put in place so the systems engineer can monitor the situation and prevent needless virtual-server growth.
"We've got a bit of disaster recovery work to complete," says Hibbert.
The company runs two datacentres, one in Auckland and one in Wellington; both handle some of the production workload and each is providing backup for the other.
"We need to ensure it is appropriate, that it is best of class."
Loyalty NZ's desktops are also due for an operating system refresh.
"We are grateful that Microsoft has brought out Windows 7," says Hibbert.
"We stayed on XP as much as we possibly could. Now we can upgrade and perhaps we will avoid having to install Vista at all.
"Loyalty NZ has recently dipped a toe into the ocean of Web 2.0, with the debut of an online member community forum on its website. Here members can converse with one another and company personnel on common interests associated with their FlyBuys interactions and purchases.This is central to one of the FlyBuys programme's main priorities "to engage the member [shopper] and to keep them engaged with the programme", says Hibbert.
The first community is centred on automobile interests and includes car reviews, discussions on road rules and driving skills, member polls and a blog.
Loyalty NZ has just started its second online community, catering to members interested in entertainment-related products and topics.