Coca-Cola Enterprises discovers APIs are the real thing
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Coca-Cola Enterprises discovers APIs are the real thing

Jessica Twentyman — December 2013

CTO at Europe’s largest Coke bottler outlines the power of application programming interfaces to connect new mobile apps to enterprise back-ends.

At Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), the affiliate of the soft drinks giant that manufactures, bottles, sells and distributes its products in much of Western Europe, chief technology officer Kevin Flowers is one of the company's designated ‘blue-sky thinkers’ — and that can mean anything from the prosaic (rolling out mobile CRM) to the cutting-edge (building an application programming interface layer or augmenting the intelligence of coke machines.)

Reporting to CIO Esat Sezar, it’s Flowers’ job, he says, to “understand what are the emerging trends in the technology marketplace, what are the needs of our company, and bring the two together.” But with today’s rapid pace of change, both in digital developments and end-user expectations, new services and applications must be delivered in shorter timeframes than ever before.

“Rapid prototyping of new capabilities has become a fundamental part of my role as we seek to put more powerful tools in the hands of our employees, as quickly as possible,” he says. As such, he quips, he can’t afford to take his eye off trends in mobile, social and cloud technologies “for more than a few seconds.”

So how does he balance the need for long-range planning with ever-shrinking delivery cycles — and how does he prioritize one project over another?

“It’s a delicate balance,” Flowers suggests. “We really try and tie everything back to a solid business benefit. So we listen very carefully to stakeholders in each of our different geographies and different business units in order to understand what are their needs, which are the most urgent and identify those we can solve in the short term.”
Mobile cadence

The company’s two-year-old implementation of customer relationship management tools from, for instance, has enabled CCE to feed data to the mobile devices of sales executives selling in the field and to service technicians installing and maintaining the network of around 600,000 display coolers based on retailers’ premises. That has resulted in a 66% reduction in time for a sales exec to on-board a new customer and cut by half the time it takes for a service technician to file a report on faulty equipment.

In such a fast-paced environment, it’s vital that Flowers’ team is able to ‘recycle’ the learnings and code from every digital project it undertakes. In 2012, for example, the team delivered an iPad application, Javelin, for execs selling to concession stands at London 2012 Olympic venues. Javelin was fed information from a number of key back-end systems, enabling sales teams to manage orders, inventory and fulfilment from a single app.

Behind that — and about 30 subsequent apps — has been CEE’s growing passion for APIs (application programming interfaces). “It took a big effort in terms of getting to grips with APIs,” he says, “but since then, we’ve been able to reuse much of what we learnt with that app and use the same technologies in our wider business. We’re maximizing the investment made in that one specific use case, because we’ve created core capabilities there that will serve a number of newer use cases.”

“A solid API strategy gives us the visibility and control we need to govern data and meet the business’s needs at great speed.”

The key to this approach, he says, is being able to view the IT infrastructure in three discrete layers. On the top layer are the digital capabilities that provide new ways to feed data to employees. On the bottom layer are the enterprise systems that CCE uses to run its business — a mix of on-premise systems (many legacy) and cloud technologies. In the middle, sits an API gateway layer that provides what Flowers terms ‘information transparency.’

“Our API strategy has moved forward very dramatically in the last year. We’ve got all our enterprise systems to be API-enabled so that we’re not rebuilding integration links between the bottom and top layers every time we want to launch a new service,” he says. “A solid API strategy is what gives us the visibility and control we need to govern data and keep it secure, but also meet the business’s needs at great speed.”

That was something he emphasized at the recent Business of API Conference in London. “Our entire operations — everything from procurement and customer engagement programs to our supply chain — is now impacted successfully by APIs,” he said. Our business requires us to have a cadence, a new speed of enablement and APIs have enabled our business to do amazing things.”

The value, of course, is not in the APIs themselves, he stressed, but in “being able to transform a business by helping it go to market faster or by opening up information it couldn’t get to easily before.”

That’s not to say, however, that Flowers and his team aren’t constantly looking further down the line. Take, for example, the concept of the Internet of Things: intelligent ‘connected coolers’ that report back to the company when they are running too hot or low on stock has obvious appeal at CCE. “There’s a lot of work-in-progress on that kind of connectivity that we’ll definitely be tapping into it in the future,” he says.

First published December 2013
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