Retail CIOs hammer home IT-business alignment message

Information chiefs say communicating with non-IT executives is the cornerstone of any CIO's role. Marc L Songini reports

A CIO must do more than keep a company’s IT department functioning, according to panellists at the recent Retail Systems 2006 Conference & Expo.

CIOs at the conference emphasised the need to make technology subservient to business processes, not the other way around. That includes making sure that the IT department contributes to the corporate bottom-line, they say.

“We [in IT] think every year of revenue enhancement and cost-savings opportunities,” says Joshua Jewett, CIO at discount retailer Family Dollar. His department plays a key role in those efforts and collaborates with other parts of the company, rather than passively awaiting instruction, he says.

“There is a danger for a CIO to be seen as being too much associated with just technology,” he says. “Technology rarely delivers a return on investment on its own. The ROI is about fundamentally changing the way the business does business. Technology facilitates business vision. It doesn’t provide that vision and doesn’t make it happen.”

Jewett partners closely with the operational parts of Family Dollar to formulate a business vision. These efforts include the creation of cross-functional teams involving both IT and business staff. Every major IT project requires a dedicated business sponsor to oversee it and drive the return from it. Business departments often collaborate with IT staffers to formulate multi-year technology roadmaps that ensure alignment with IT — and make sure a given business unit has the resources it needs. As part of these processes, Jewett often has to help filter out bad proposals and back viable ones.

“There isn’t a shortage of good ideas,” he says. “Sometimes ideas come to you from other business units, and they are not well thought out or not well understood. Another art of being CIO is being able to communicate this without being seen as raining on their parade.”

A CIO doesn’t propose technology, but offers a solution to a business problem, says Mike Jones, CIO of arts and crafts supplies retailer Michael’s Stores. “If you say [to the executives], ‘See, doesn’t this server look great?’ No one cares.” The approach is to explain IT efforts in terms other executives can grasp, such as using technology to better track customer shopping habits.

“I have to build the infrastructure to track the customer data and tie it to the customer,” Jones says. “I didn’t tell them I have to track customer data. I just told them I’d like to know about this [customer information] and this is what I can do.

“If I haven’t delivered the business benefit, I haven’t achieved success,” says Ken Brame, CIO of US car parts retailer AutoZone. He says part of the CIO’s business role is to work with senior executives in the other parts of a company, such as those in merchandising and supply-chain operations.

“We, as CIOs, see the company top to bottom and side to side. It’s a unique opportunity to cross boundaries and provide leadership to use these [technical] innovations to make things happen.”

Part of the job also requires planning several years in advance, he says. “If we wait for a problem to appear ... [and then] find a solution, we’re dead.”

The CIO’s role also involves learning how to embrace business change, says Janet Sherlock, CIO of fabric retailer Calico Corners. “The CIO’s role is not just chief information officer, but the chief process officer. One thing I implore my applications staff to do is [to think] that it’s not just about implementing a system. They’re responsible for the full-service success and not just measured by being on time and on budget.

“Success is the moment after the implementation ... [when] business users forget what it was like before implementing that system or enhancement,” says Sherlock.

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