CIO interview, Filippo Catalano - Reckitt reveals a product focus is the healthiest approach

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth March 4, 2024
Automation and product management enable a new and continuously improving way to deliver Reckitt’s technology

An image of Filippo Catalano
(Image sourced via Reckitt)

Airwick, Calgon, Cillit Bang, Dettol, Durex, Finish, Gaviscon and Harpic, consumer goods firm Reckitt is defined by these products which it makes and sells. Technology at the international business is now also defined by products; Chief Information and Digitization Officer Filippo Catalano sat down with diginomica to explain how the product approach is cleaner than projects and delivers business benefits. 

Reckitt operates in 68 nations and produces consumer goods for health, hygiene, and nutrition, and at least one of its products will be in a cupboard in your home. Catalano joined the business in April 2021 and began the transition of technology from being project-oriented to the increasingly popular product management focus. Product management typically treats a business outcome as a product with a team and leader responsible for that product, be it a financial transaction type or digital customer and data service. The team owns the product and the technology used to deliver the business outcome. Product teams are typically cross-functional and include technologists from the CIO’s team as well as those in supply, for example. Catalano says of the reasons for the switch: 

Product management is a great way to look long term and measure the total cost of ownership (TCO) as we challenge ourselves to do more in the most efficient way possible. 

It has been an important part of our journey, and we will continue to do it because technology changes so quickly, which means you have new opportunities to do things, so you need to constantly evaluate new technology and what needs to stay in place.

He adds that the product method benefits recruitment and ensures that cross-functional teams really do gel and unify: 

If talent moved from technology to sales and marketing, for example, it is much easier for them to find the ways of working, as the governance, frameworks, and pace are compatible. It also helps with external hiring. If you want to bring people in from start-up and scale-up firms, they are likely to be more used to the product model, so they can find a better landing ground.

Catalano finds the method enables organizations to adapt to a constant flow of technology change and not become fatigued by large digital transformations.

Some organizations talk about three-year programmes, and they do this because they need to for funding or communications reasons, but as soon as you put an end date on something, it is human nature for people to see their role as a mission to deliver what was promised in that three-year programme, rather than continually adapting. 

Inevitably, there will be changes in technology, so as a technology leader, the worst thing you can do is stick to your plan when the plan doesn’t make sense any more. A lot of fatigue I have seen in other companies is because people are dead set on an approach or plan.

Whereas with a product management approach the CIO finds: 

In good product management, you need to continuously improve your offer according to your key metrics; these are measurable KPIs such as adoption or the size of the addressable market.

Moving to product management is one ingredient in how Reckitt changed its processes and working methods using technology. Across the business, technology is used to automate, discover process inefficiency and develop an enterprise architecture that responds to business demands. 

Catalano takes an analytical approach to automation: 

Enterprise automation is important. But, the best automation is the one you don’t need because processes actually work. Automation is often used to fix issues when you have systems that don’t talk to each other because there are no standards. If you build automation on top of this, you are already losing.

We do automation by design and architecture principles. 

To prevent unnecessary automation, Catalano advocates and uses process mining to identify poor master data or process design. If these are inefficient, he says this creates waste, and all too often, organizations use automation as a work-around. It is not surprising then to discover that Catalano is a keen proponent of enterprise architectural design: 

We use enterprise architecture as a strategy, which means architecture is not issuing stamps of approval, but architecture is the function that sets the destination for technology change and continually revises the journey through product roadmaps.

Fresh Infrastructure 

Reckitt is at this point, thanks to the modernization of its infrastructure, to be cloud first. Catalano says: 

We have a strong presence in the cloud and moved out of our data centers a couple of years back, so most compute and storage is with the major hyperscalers. There is some on-premise technology that needs to be within a factory, for example. 

Like all CPGs, not all of the migrations have been about a cloud transformation. Using the product management and architecture lenses, we are looking at where we go to Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), or move the entire stack to be cloud native. 

It is important that cloud levels the stack. If you don’t use what the cloud is really good at, such as variable load, containerization and sometimes cost arbitrage, then you are not getting a good deal. So, cloud migration is driven by the same forces of TCO and simplification. 

The difficulty is that true interoperability between hyperscalers is not there. So unless you have simple workloads and no legacy, it is not easy to switch workloads in real time to get cost arbitrage.

As a result, Catalano is one of the growing number of CIOs using Cloud FinOps to extract the maximum advantage from the cloud; he says: 

The cloud comes with tooling components, ways of working, and commercial commitments that we are building competency into our FinOps team to get better control of the cloud and a competitive advantage.

Mediterranean influence

Nestle was one of the first CPG companies to identify and invest in the technology capabilities of Barcelona and as Group CIO and Chief Digital Operations Officer for six years, Catalano was involved that move and is once again implementing a captive hub strategy for Reckitt. Discussing the value of these hubs, he says: 

In the mid-2000s, the pendulum was swinging too wide towards outsourcing. I have been a big partner to all of the big outsourcing providers, and we continue to need them, but companies did lose internal, sustainable capabilities in technology and data. 

At Nestle, we were asking how do I create a critical mass of technology skills in key locations. Because in some business areas, following sound architecture principles, it is much better to build your own product team with a higher proportion of internal resources to ensure there is continuous improvement. So at Nestle, we built tech hubs in Barcelona and Milan.

At Reckitt, Catalano is scaling up two existing internal tech hubs in Warsaw, Poland and Hyderabad, India to meet the rising technology demand of the business. He says these locations are ideal for hubs, as the cities are home to a diverse community of people with experience in start-ups or have been entrepreneurs and can bring their skills and experience to large corporates. These cities also recognize their unique position and invest in ensuring the city has skills and a good living experience on offer, something Catalano calls a technology substrate. 

None of this is by accident; he says the public institutions invest time and effort into being a home for tech hubs: 

The public sector and universities are very important. I find the best hubs are often based where the universities have modernized the type of technology courses that they do, so they are much closer to the skills needed by industry. 

The public sector in these locations is working really well to ensure that you have the best conditions. The level of collaboration and support from both public and private institutions to help with the legal set-up and talent search is impressive.

Reckitt is Catalano’s third CPG company, having been with Nestle between 2015 and 2020 and Procter and Gamble for 16 years between 1998 and 2014, he says of his career: 

All three are great companies, and they are different from each other. P&G was formative when I started my career, and at Nestle, I had the advantage to experience and be trusted with scale. Now, at Reckitt, there is a culture of speed, entrepreneurship and brand power, so CPG is a big industry, but each business has its own soul.

My Take

CPG firms were some of the trailblazers of data-led decision making, and now, as organizations move to continuous improvement and, therefore, continual digitization, the CIOs in this sector are once again leading the change. 

A grey colored placeholder image