​Building the future of retail with the Internet of Transport

How one company is using the IoT and startup innovation to digitise the supply chain.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Richard Gifford, CIO at logistics giant Wincanton, is taking his firm on a journey: his aim is to create a digital supply chain and develop what he calls the 'Internet of Transport'.

Gifford, who became CIO at the firm in April 2017, is already making progress towards that destination, creating a new business strategy through digital transformation.

"Just take some pragmatic steps forward and don't be afraid of failure. Fail fast, learn from the things that don't go as expected, adjust and move on," says Gifford.

Creating a digital supply chain

Gifford says his Internet of Transport initiative is focused on improving delivery practices for Wincanton's major customers, which include many of the UK's high-street retailers. The objective is to guarantee goods arrive at customers' premises in the best possible condition.

Wincanton wants to use sensors to automatically alert its employees to any potential deterioration in products during transportation. As part of this project, Gifford says the firm's technological efforts have produced developments in three key areas so far.

He points first to Winsight, an app that enables a paperless cab, so all the paper lorry drivers normally carry, such as routes and proof of delivery, is wrapped up into a single piece of software on a smart device. The app is available to the firm's own drivers and sub-contractors.

The second key element is telematics. "That's about us plugging into the vehicle's systems and sending information back to the business in a consistent way," says Gifford. Wincanton recently announced it will install MiX telematics in 1,800 of its vehicles as part of an ongoing safety programme, with information used to optimise driver performance.

SEE: Sensor'd enterprise: IoT, ML, and big data (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

The final element is the implementation of a new, cloud-based transport management system (TMS). This TMS will form the basis for the firm's digital supply-chain strategy, with telematics helping to hone operational performance and Winsight helping to ensure business efficiency and effectiveness.

Gifford says these technical elements in combination create a new approach to transportation. "We want to bring all that information together in a Wincanton way so we can access all of that data consistently right across the fleet," he says.

The firm is searching for other potential inputs to its Internet of Transport, including blockchain, big data and analytics. "These technologies are in our plan for later this year," says Gifford. "Our approach provides a pragmatic way of moving bit by bit, but making sure we get the benefit all the time -- not only for our organisation but for our customers as well."

Working with external partners

While Wincanton's IT team will continue to develop technical solutions to business challenges, Gifford recognises that innovation is a team sport that involves a broad ecosystem. "My team won't be doing all of this on their own," he says. "We need to go out and find credible partners who are going to help us create value for our customers."

The firm launched an innovation programme called W² Labs last March. The programme is aimed at challenging start-ups from around the world to develop innovative solutions to industry challenges defined by Wincanton. The programme is run in partnership with corporate innovation specialist and early-stage investor L Marks.

"The aim is we create frequent events," says Gifford. "We put out use cases and we have problems that we want to solve. We use L Marks to go to the market and find organisations that are disruptive and who can help us solve our business challenges."

SEE: Launching and building a startup: A founder's guide (free PDF)

The first event ran last summer, when selected start-ups developed their proposition with Wincanton and received mentoring from the company's senior executives. The startups also engaged in trials with some of Wincanton's key customers, using real business data to refine and streamline their propositions. Gifford says the programme is key to his innovation efforts.

"I can use these startups to put out different business models that we can start to approach from a digital perspective," says Gifford. "So, one area we might explore is using artificial intelligence in the digital supply chain."

Such has been the success of the W² Labs programme that it has been developed further through the creation of the W² Partner Network. Selected partners are chosen to work with Wincanton. One of these partners is ZigZag, whose potential was identified through the W² Labs programme and whose technology helps online retailers manage international returns.

Developing the IT team of the future

While startups help Wincanton develop new ways to serve its customers, Gifford is eager to highlight how internal IT staff still play a key role. "What I need is an IT team that can support opportunities by working with the business," he says, suggesting the long-term focus will be on creating a leaner, more commercial IT team.

"If that's our super-tanker, then we also need the speedboats -- in the form of L Marks and so on -- to help us with the innovation at that level. I'm getting that structure in place and we'll continue to review that approach. We'll think about failing fast, so if that doesn't work, we'll learn from the strategy we adopt."

Gifford recognises that capable IT staff and external partners are not the only keys to operational success -- line-of-business managers in Wincanton are crucial, too. "My work is about educating the executive team and trying to bring them with us," he says.

SEE: Special report: IT jobs in 2020: A leader's guide (free PDF)

The IT team has run several workshops with senior people in the business. Gifford and his colleagues have also used IBM to do "a bit of design thinking". In addition, the company is about to use PA Consulting to develop further ideas in this area.

"We want to try and take a difficult problem, work out what the issues are and then focus on how we're going to approach that business challenge. We want to use that strategy to educate the rest of the business as we go," he says.

"There is a different way of doing things in digital, so trying to create a business case in the traditional way doesn't always work. Therefore, I think you must put some investment at risk. Try something but ensure you learn from it."

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