Delivering the goods at DHL

How does the CIO of a world-leading logistics company use IT as a competitive advantage? ZDNet Asia fishes out the details from DHL's Asia-Pacific IT chief Nariman Karimi.
Written by Jeanne Lim, Contributor
A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

CIO 1-on-1 As the CIO for DHL Express Asia-Pacific, Nariman Karimi is responsible for the company's enterprise-wide IT activities in the Asia-Pacific region, including re-engineering business processes and aligning the IT strategy to ensure DHL provides superior customer service.

An Iran-born Australian, Karimi has over 20 years of experience under his belt, and an impressive track record in IT strategy planning, implementation and consultancy.

Prior to joining DHL last year, he spent 13 years with Unilever as the company's CIO in various regions. There, he was CIO for the company's Africa, Middle-east and Turkey operations--based in Durban, South Africa--where he was responsible for regional IT strategy, infrastructure and operational support.

ZDNet Asia managed to catch up with the frenetically busy CIO, and nailed down how Karimi makes use of IT to constantly improve customer service levels at DHL.

Q: In your relatively new role at DHL, your main duties include re-engineering business processes and aligning the IT strategy to help the company provide better customer service. What are the challenges you see today in closing gaps between IT and the business?
A: In DHL, there is an appreciation of the role and relevance of IT as a key business function, it's a natural function of the business that we are in. But, generally, the gaps that some CIOs face would include the following:

  • Self-perception and capability of IT: I find that most major companies have resolved the issue of the importance of IT in their business. Increasingly, the major challenge is aligning IT's position in line with business expectations, rather than the other way around. We need to step up to this mindset change--the challenges are in removing the limitations that we put on ourselves in defining our areas of involvement to "just" technology, rather than a wider definition of business results.
  • Internal focus: We need to expand the horizon of IT to reach out to the customer rather than end with satisfying the internal customer. We need to line up our skills, tools and methodologies using ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library), SLAs (service level agreements), balanced score cards, and so on, and objectively analyze whether they are facing the direction of our customers or they have become an end in their own right.
  • Governance: Most people equate this with bureaucracy and slowness. Done right, this could be the source of "agility", which translates to the ability to make fast and wise decisions. In today's high-speed environment, costs--both opportunity costs as well as actual costs--can accumulate much faster than before, and there is not a shortage of good ideas that require investment. The winners are organizations that can decide which projects to and not to, do and set the priorities to achieve the best outcome.
  • Vision: Having a clear and shared vision of what success looks like within the organization is very powerful in getting things moving. Often, creating the vision is easier than communicating it, but a well-communicated vision that has everyone's commitment to it is far more effective than a perfect vision that is kept to oneself.
  • Talent: Attracting and nurturing people who are suited for the organization is fundamental. There is no longer a single universal set of qualifications--those prized qualities such as university degrees and technical skills, are now just entry tickets to a job. The differentiator now is getting the right match between the individual and the organization’s characteristics.

Nariman Karimi
Job title
Chief information officer for DHL Express Asia-Pacific
Geographical responsibility
Asia-Pacific region
Work experience
Prior to joining DHL last year, Karimi spent 13 years with Unilever as the company's CIO in various regions. There, he was CIO for the company's Africa, Middle-east and Turkey operations--based in Durban, South Africa--where he was responsible for regional IT strategy, infrastructure and operational support.

In what ways can IT help companies achieve better customer service?
There are three fundamental ways:

  • Simplicity. The goal is to make it easier and simpler for the customer to interact and do business with the organization. Ironically, this may at times involve sophisticated and complex internal logic.

  • Time. This is manifested in two ways--being faster to get to market, and more importantly, being timely for the customer. In a "just-in-time" world, being too early is just as bad as being too late. For instance, with supermarkets' warehouse schedules, an early delivery will significantly disrupt floor space and resource planning across the supply chain.

  • Reliability and predictability. Fundamentally, our IT systems have to perform as advertised every time.

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that Nariman Karimi was born in Australia, when he was in fact born in Iran and is now an Australian. We apologize for the error.

Previously at Unilever, you handled a wide range of projects, including establishing a shared infrastructure management center in Asia, and implementing SAP systems and supply chain applications. From your wealth of experience, which projects do you see as being most applicable to your projects at DHL, and why?
I think the projects we did in establishing integrated supply chain systems across wide geographies are very relevant to DHL Express. The fundamentals of visibility of goods throughout the supply chain, reliability and performance in line with the brand image "right time-right place", all apply.

"In a 'just-in-time' world, being too early is just as bad as being too late."

There is also the common thread of differentiation through added value. Provision and innovative use of information in both companies continue to be a major source of added value for the customer.

Much of what I have learned over the years in Unilever and from a long line of managers are: thinking globally and acting locally; leveraging the synergies of a large multinational corporation; synchronization of operations across geographies; and tapping the organization's available resources.

At DHL, I find all of the familiar facets but at a much accelerated and exhilarating pace--as the internal saying here goes: "Come on, we're in the Express business!"

What are the most pressing technology challenges you see today in the logistics and supply chain field?
Interoperability. Unlike manufacturing with ERP/MRP (enterprise resource planning/material resource planning) systems and methodologies, in our industry, there are not many tailored or packaged solutions that will handle end-to-end processes.

Much of the source of our competitive edge is in the systems we use. Therefore, we all use a blend of vertical-application packages and in-house developed systems. Given the speed and volumes involved in an express delivery business, interoperability between these solutions becomes increasingly important.

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) is the key concept but once again, this is in its early days and we have to determine how granular we need to be in defining our services. We also need to pinpoint the technology that is universal enough to provide the connectivity between all these applications and packages--something that lives up to our standards of reliability, speed and volume of transactions scale.

As CIO, I'm sure you get a lot of vendors pitching all sorts of technology to you. Which of these do you encounter most? Are there any tech trends that you think are just plain hype?
The IT industry is quite mature now so there is not much hype anymore. I've only come across trends, and they all have their uses in their relevant sectors. The most prevalent are applications packages that are aimed mainly at warehousing and freight logistics.

You're an Australian who was based in South Africa and the Middle East for some time. Today, Asia is your base. How different has the experience been for you so far?
I have been fortunate enough to have lived and worked in the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore (twice), Turkey and South Africa--all of them in regional roles, which gave me the opportunity to experience more than just the country itself. Each of these assignments gave me an insight into the talent pools and specializations that I was not aware of before.

For example, when I was based in Turkey and responsible for North Africa and the Middle East, I discovered Egypt as a low-cost, up-and-coming technical development and support center with huge government-backed technology villages and highly-qualified staff fluent in French and English. In fact, they have one of the largest international networks in the region, larger than South Africa.

In Asia, I learned the power of a "can-do" attitude; in Europe, the importance of preparation and analysis in the face of complexity; in Africa, the pragmatism and simplicity which is needed to overcome technical difficulties; and in Australia, the blend of "cool" and determination to get things done.

Editorial standards