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Rentokil Initial: Lessons from a cloud ‘veteran’

Kenny MacIver Profile picture for user kmaciver July 7, 2013
A three-year SaaS roll out – covering office, HR, IT service and procurement – has not been without its challenges at the business services giant.

Sometimes it takes a bold leap in the dark to transform the way an organization thinks about IT.

In the three years since it took the plunge into the cloud with a 25,000-seat, company-wide Google Apps deployment, Rentokil Initial has seen a tide of technology and process innovation – coming both from its highly-dispersed workforce and its technology teams – while gaining confidence in the cloud model’s ability to delivery business agility across other areas of its complex operations.

The £2.61 billion ($4bn) company – whose business services range from pest control and work-wear laundering to crime scene clean-up and office plant care – now also uses Workday SaaS as its HR system of record for 66,000 employees worldwide, ServiceNow cloud-based services for automating IT operations, and SAP’s Ariba Procure-to-Pay app service as its core purchasing system. And that cloud line-up has addressed some major business issues – primarily the need to create consistent structures across its diverse units, spread in over 60 countries. But it has been the changing attitude to technology (in a workforce that has historically seen little of cutting-edge IT) that has surprised Pete Shorney, Rentokil Initial’s global IT operations director.

“We now have huge levels of collaboration going on between out teams,” he says – and, as a result, demonstrable business payback. Aside from Gmail, Calendar and other standard office apps, Rentokil makes extensive use of:

  • Google Hangouts for face-to-face communications and to run training sessions, with a view to keeping sales teams out in the field and senior management away from airports (it claims it's already saving over 2,000 senior management hours a year as a result)
  • Google+ to support the posting and sharing of information within its many communities of technicians
  • Google Sites to run a company-wide intranet (a function previously handled by 20-30 different platforms); and, showing the IT group is happy to ‘eat its own dog food’, Sites is also used as the core repository for IT project documentation.

Lords of the flies

But the introduction of such technology is more than just a functional gain – it has informed and changed attitudes to innovation, claims Shorney.

“That openness of communication has really driven innovation throughout the company,” he says. “It’s created a buzz of innovation.” A case in point is how Rentokil has tied Google Apps directly into its business workflows. It now uses Google Maps and Calendar in combination with one of its main cross-selling applications to provide a single view of the locations of each of its business unit’s customers and a street-level view of individual premises. That means sales teams are pre-armed with relevant information that can make their customer visits more efficient and effective.

That’s not Shorney’s favorite example currently, though. “We recently rolled out 600 smartphones to our pest technician community in the UK,” he says. While in other industries that might not seem hugely significant, by Rentokil standards (with its field operatives dealing with more immediate priorities such as a cockroach or mouse infestation) that represents a bold and sizeable investment – and one with highly positive impact. “Those guys are out there innovating with those devices already: they’re using an app that counts and categories the types of fly that they are capturing at an infestation at a customer’s site, or they're using other apps that measure the height of rooms to help with site surveys – fantastic stuff that gets detailed information to the customer quickly and makes us look really professional,” he says.

From tech laggard to agile tech

That change in attitude towards IT (in a company that has been, by its own admission, something of a technology laggard) can be put down to the initial cloud adoption, Shorney contends. “I don’t think we would ever have really envisaged just how much came from that one brave decision,” he says.

That decision, however, was not so much a vote for cloud as a realization that it was perhaps the only practical means of solving an acute business problem. “Back in 2009 we were simply looking for a global, consistent email system. We had 47 messaging platforms around the world and no single directory.” The frustration with that went right to top: the CEO couldn’t email different teams, let along all staff worldwide, and employees in one country were often in the dark as to how to get in touch with their counterparts elsewhere. “Only a few years back, I couldn’t even find the telephone number of a colleague in the IT organization in Australia. Today that colleague is on a Hangout with me at three in the morning – forgetting what time zone I’m in,” Shorney says.

The obvious business benefits and cost-savings of the Google Apps adoption were enough to push through that initial cloud decision, but the experience with Google Apps has enabled the senior IT team to “move way past the messaging conversation” on cloud with both users and Rentokil management. “I really don’t think we would have entertained the possibilities of cloud HR or a cloud purchasing system without the organization becoming comfortable with cloud through the use of Google Apps,” he says.

The advantages – especially for a globally diverse and acquisitive business – are all too clear. The cloud model is making Rentokil a lot more agile, says Shorney. In recent months, it has bought companies in the US, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and the UAE, with the cloud applications seen as enablers rather than barriers to business integration. “If you think about the starting point for those acquisitions [in terms of on-boarding new employees to the cloud applications], we don’t have any infrastructure to build; it is simply a logical domain transfer and a logical data transfer. Literally, we buy a new businesses, put an order in for licenses and get the users on within days,” he says.

Tough cloud decisions

Such benefits haven’t come without significant challenges, and Shorney readily admits that cloud has been a learning experience for both Rentokil and Google’s Enterprise division (back in 2010 it was, for a while, the largest customer worldwide of Google Apps). One of those challenges for Rentokil was enforcing a no-alternatives-to-cloud policy for email. “We took a very hard decision early on to roll out browser-only email. And we deliberately restricted any access to anything outside of the browser,” he says.

For a highly mobile workforce – often in hostile and remote environments – a communications technology that is dependent on the Internet might present some obvious drawbacks. And Shorney concedes that support for offline communications is something that has only really come to the fore in the later versions of the Google Android environment. “But in a mobile telephony environment that’s no different to any of the previous platforms they’ve said goodbye to,” he adds.

Such factors meant the biggest challenge was not a technical one but to get widespread buy-in from users. Here, novelty helped. “There was quite a buzz created internally that we were doing something new and sexy, not just at the forefront of technology but right at the bleeding edge – for Rentokil, that was very uncharacteristic.”

“But we spent a lot of time and effort in piloting and trialing, on the education program and the support structure, and then moved quickly to deployment en masse within each business unit,” he outlines. (Rentokil initially chose a roll out of 700 seats at a suitable microcosm of its global environment – Ambius, its office plants, flowers and grounds specialist, headquartered near Chicago but with staff in offices and on the road around the world.)

Three big lessons

For senior IT management at other large organizations who might be thinking about going down a similar route, Shorney has some key messages.

“The first thing is you have to get over the trust conversation. In any organization today, 80% plus of your emails are going to transact over the Internet in some shape or form. And the reality is that unless you are going to sink a huge amount of money into it, you would be struggling to make your email systems as compliant or as secure as the Google environment. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of incidents that we have had. In fact, since we went for Google Apps, Rentokil has never had a complete failure of the mail system,” he highlights.

That said, when Rentokil went looking for a cloud-based HR application service it was drawn to the fact that Workday could offer a data center platform located in Europe. “That was more around the class of data,” says Shorney, “and the rules and regulations that meant some of that data had to sit in an EU domain.”

His second piece of advice involves letting go of direct support. “You have to switch off your traditional thinking around support. Anyone coming from a more traditional IT background might be tempted to want to control the release [of new versions of apps], to manage the user experience, to structure support models in a more classic controlled enterprise model. That isn’t going to happen.” Instead, he counsels, invest your time and effort in making sure “your estate is current, your users are suitably educated, and you have a governance framework around how you are actually going to use and deploy the tools.”


With the benefit of hindsight, there are a few things that Shorney might have done differently. “We would have invested more time in the support model [we built] with Google – a case of us needing to understand our required level of participation in the support process.”

For example, when Rentokil introduced a series of ‘soft releases’ of Google Docs and Google+ it did not realize just how rapid and enthusiastic the take up would be. “As a consequence, we’re now having to go back and reengineer some of the design that we have in place for naming conventions and repositories, so no important documents go missing, say, during starter/leaver processes when the wrong mailbox might be deleted simply because it's not been named appropriately.”

But the really big and simple lesson, he says, is be bold and go for single-domain email. “We initially went for a multi-domain set up [for different subsidiaries], largely out of necessity. We were not bold enough to cut ourselves off from our various brand names [Rentokil previously used around 180 different email domains], and as a consequence as people have moved around the organization we’ve run into silly difficulties such as having to get assistants to help them manage mailboxes across two, three or more different domains. That is an area that’s actually fairly limited in the Google world; it’s not designed to run smoothly across multi-domains – or at least not the way we have put it in. To over come that, we are actually migrated into a single domain where we can.”

That drive for consistency – as well as for higher levels of agility and innovation – has made Rentokil something of an industry poster-child for cloud. But it's still a company that feels a little surprised to find itself at the vanguard of IT. As Shorney says, “I’m not sure any of us at Rentokil were entirely sure about what we were getting into when we took on the first major roll out. But it’s been an interesting journey.”

Image: Rentokil Initial (Perumal Subramani, operations manager, Chennai – in action)


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