Mars CIO Vittorio Cretella on digital transformation, e-commerce, data architecture, scale

ZDNet caught up with Mars CIO Vittorio Cretella to talk about scaling a consumer product goods company and the technology and data behind the scenes.

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Just a sampling of brands under the Mars umbrella.

Mars Inc. is best known for its candy, but has expanded into pet care and now has plans to buy veterinarian chain VCA Antech. The sprawling company is also undergoing a digital transformation as it aims to use data to better connect to customers.

The technology team and infrastructure behind Mars' grand plans falls under Vittorio Cretella, CIO. Cretella's information systems group, which has 1,200 IT pros, serves more than 70,000 users in 60 countries. Cretella recently launched Mars' digital transformation strategy and created a new digital business team. Next up: An e-commerce and digital marketing platform.

"Every company is facing major disruption with digitization," said Cretella, referring to a common theme among CIOs. "We see that disruption as an opportunity to enable Mars to create more value to consumers."

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Vittorio Cretella, CIO of Mars Inc.

I caught up with Cretella to talk digital transformation. Here's a look at the highlights of my chat with Cretella.

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Digital transformation has to start from within. Cretella noted that one of his key priorities for 2017 is to provide effective and timely access to data. Another is to use technologies to better connect the workplace so employees can share visualizations and collaborate. The two initiatives blend together in many ways.

Data architecture is critical. Mars is developing its "digital backbone for analytics" on an ongoing basis. "We're investing in scalable architecture that goes beyond ERP," said Cretella. "Having a data integration model and analytics architecture allows you to plug and play applications." A successful data architecture will have an integration engine, embrace standards and have a financial framework that will have one version of the truth. "Companies will rely more on data than IT," said Cretella.

There is no one-throat-to-choke vendor model. Oracle CEO Mark Hurd said last week that the suite will win in the cloud and the software as a service industry will boil down to two key players. Cretella doesn't buy it. "The one vendor model is obsolete," he said. "There has been a lot of consolidation, but you have to manage the landscape and ecosystem." Mars has integration between SAP, Salesforce, Oracle and Accenture to name a few.

E-commerce for a consumer product goods company. The third leg of Mars' 2017 initiatives revolves around building demand platforms for e-commerce and digital marketing. "There's a real opportunity to bring more value to the customer," he said. Traditionally, Mars primarily reached customers through partners and retailers. Today, Mars needs to market and sell through multiple channels, sites, search engines and traditional media such as TV. "The first moment of truth with the consumer isn't when he sees a product on a shelf," said Cretella. "We're building content and commerce platforms to bring data and the customer together."

Doesn't the digital commerce game make Mars' business more complicated? Cretella said Mars' relationship with consumers, partners and customers is more complicated. "But I'd also say the relationship gets richer provided you embrace it at the right moment and on different occasions," said Cretella.

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The role of the cloud. Cretella said cloud computing is "a transversal enabler" that makes it easier to integrate acquisitions, manage internal operations and infrastructure and enable big data applications. "We are more cloud first and the long-term plan is to move to more cloud providers," said Cretella, who noted Mars has already consolidated its data centers down to two. Cretella said for SaaS Mars can use more than one supplier. On infrastructure as a service, Mars will probably use one.

Internet of things. Cretella said IoT for Mars has the potential to make goods more fresh and be more proactive. One example is that Mars' drinks business can connect coffee machines to the cloud to collect and analyze data on what people drink by time of day. "IoT also has the potential to allow us to provide fresher products and eliminate out of stock situations," said Cretella. "IoT will also provide us with closer collaboration with our customers and partners."

Automation. For Mars there are opportunities to use artificial intelligence to automate processes as well as augment humans. "How can we use augmented intelligence to derive insights and get access to them faster than we ever would with human data science?" asked Cretella. "With all of this data we need an army of data scientists unless we enroll technologies we may not be able to scale in our lifetime."