Microsoft New Zealand partner Lexel Systems has taken the Alliance Group cooperative out of legacy hell to deliver new workplace tools and cloud-based infrastructure.
The 4000 shareholder cooperative's IT systems and hardware were past their use by date and not just on the desktop.
At the same time, Alliance was also in the midst of a $57 million enterprise software transformation as it shifted from mainframe-based systems to modern cloud based ones with Infor and SAP.
The old workplace systems were prone to crashes and also created significant security gaps.
Cyber security was another key area of concern because staff would log in on a morning shift and leaving their computers open all day.
A red flag was when one individual had logged into eight different devices because he had shared his personal credentials with colleagues.
Alliance was also not on the latest version of Windows, so it didn’t get the latest security patches.
"This could have led to all sorts of business ramifications and frankly it was just bad form," said chief information officer James Dring.
With $1.7 billion in revenue in 2019, 800 full-time staff across eight processing plants from Dannevirke to the deep south, and corporate offices in Invercargill and Christchurch, Alliance Group delivers lamb, venison and beef to tables in 65 countries.
During busy seasons, its workforce can increase to 5000.
“Our overall operating system was not well integrated at all," said Dring. "Employees were unable to easily work remotely, as they had no way of logging into the system."
Communication was fragmented and getting accurate data was impossible.
"We had various Excel spreadsheets containing data, and each one had different figures from the next," Dring said. "We needed one single source of truth.”
Further, international offices in London and Singapore were running independent IT infrastructure. The group ran in silos and lacked collaboration tools, making communication challenging and adding cost and complexity.
Recognising Microsoft 365 as the solution, Alliance looked for a partner to deliver what it needed.
Lexel Systems understood a lack of operational integration was the core issue. Solving that would also resolve issues around remote collaboration and communication, data accuracy and cybersecurity.
At the end of 2019, Lexel set out to design and implement an integrated cloud platform based on Microsoft 365, complete with a suite of mission-critical tools and hardware to set Alliance Group up for the future.
“Shifting the focus to the cloud was key to success for us, to provide Alliance Group with the ultimate flexibility," said Leon Davis, principal consultant at Lexel.
"We designed and integrated a Microsoft 365 platform in only four weeks, transforming Alliance from an aged environment to a totally new environment.”
All of Alliance Group’s infrastructure was on-premises, carrying a steep price tag to upgrade and maintain.
All key systems were migrated to the cloud to enable the Microsoft 365 platform to scale up and down during seasonal peaks and removing the need for costly ongoing maintenance.
The shift also enabled all mission-critical files to be stored and shared in one place.
“We knew that too much change done at once could potentially cause too much disruption and create confusion and resistance, so we advised Alliance on effective communication to bring their people along on the journey,” said Davis.
To support this, Lexel introduced Microsoft Teams, bringing the videoconferencing and file sharing app in early so Lexel could manage processes remotely and Alliance Group people could talk and share information easily, especially with a split head office in Invercargill and Christchurch.
Even before COVID-19, Alliance knew how valuable the ability to work remotely was to recruiting and retaining workers.
Less than a decade on from two major earthquakes in the South Island, the company also had first-hand knowledge of how New Zealand’s natural disasters could suddenly disrupt business.
Lexel worked with Alliance to implement Microsoft Endpoint Manager to help deliver a modern workplace and modern management to keep their devices and data secure, in the cloud and on-premise.
This provided Alliance with the platform to roll out Windows 10 to the environment, offering a more stable and secure platform and providing capability to deploy devices to support teams and manage them remotely.
Migrating systems to the cloud meant Alliance would benefit automatically from Microsoft’s regular security updates, and new, more secure devices would also help.
Lexel took things a step further by installing two-factor authentication to combat the login sharing issue.
Less than three months after implementation the first COVID-19 lockdown hit, meaning the team had to adapt to remote working almost instantly.
“The benefit of the digital transformation was obvious as soon as we had to go into lockdown," said Dring.
"Prior to the deployment of the Microsoft 365 solution, we would not have been in a position to operate efficiently from remote locations. This would have severely impacted our ability to continue to operate as an essential service so this process has been invaluable for our company”
By consolidating the global offices and New Zealand into one Alliance tenant, productivity has skyrocketed and communication and collaboration were now "seamless”, Dring said.
Alliance also had a major enterprise resource planning (ERP) project going on through lockdown and was able to manage that on Teams too.
The four-year, $57 million ERP project, one of the cooperative's largest investments in its history, including the replacement of legacy 1980s mainframe systems, was highlighted as one of the company's key strategic initiatives in its 2019 annual report.
"An organisation as large and complex as Alliance Group needs people to be able to do their jobs as effectively as possible," chair Murray Taggart and CEO David Surveyor said in their business review.
"The ERP project will change the way we work across the business from the sales desk, through to the slaughterboard, production and shipping."
It is understood the new ERP platform is based on Infor's M3 cloud suite for global manufacturers and distributors with complex supply chains and SAP's payroll and human capital management systems.
That combination will replace a system built over many years on a Unisys mainframe.
Alliance is now bent on finding more ways to build on its Microsoft investment.
“We are now looking to retire our old voice services infrastructure and fully integrate voice IP through Microsoft Teams," Dring said.
"Also, as there’s a greater demand for traceability from consumers, we are looking to implement QR codes so that they can track product from pasture to plate. Being cloud-based really sets us up well to do this.”