Woolworths preaches suits, insourcing for IT

Woolworths has gone public with its preference for suit-wearing IT people with leadership and management skills over those from a technical background, according to CIO Steve Bradley.

Delivering his take on Computerworld's recent debate "Who controls IT, the suits or cardigans?", the CIO of the retail behemoth emphasized the benefits of having "the right people in place" for IT project and service delivery work.

"If the people are not right, everything will be difficult," Bradley said. "Emphasize leadership management skills over technical skills. Great leaders first, great technicians second."

Part of Bradley's explanation for preferring leadership and management skills is that technical skills are "easier" to bring in when required, preferably on a contract basis.

Surprised at how little attention is paid to IT recruitment at some organizations which often turn over 15 to 20 percent of staff every year, Bradley warned to "never compromise when it comes to leadership skills".

"Set clear behavioural expectations, address poor performance and remove the blockers," he said.

Speaking at EMC's Inform event in Sydney, Bradley described Woolworth's IT shop as 'fairly big' with 2000 supported sites, some 30,000 devices, over 1000 wireless networks, and systems that process 20 million items every night. All with 600 IT staff.

"IT is not just a service provider, we can have a lot of influence on the business strategy," he said, adding that there are about 40 projects going at any one time ranging in value from $1 million to $1 billion, with about 300 people working on IT projects.

"Projects should always be geared towards business outcomes," Bradley said. "Use IT to improve overall organizational skills and use IT to help change the nature of the business."

Bradley spoke of the "Mercury Project" to overhaul Woolworths' supply chain systems to the tune of $1 billion which began in 2001 by looking at retailers around the world, like Wal-Mart, which demonstrated "best practice".

Mercury aims to deliver consistent process across the network, and more use of "flow through", or just-in-time supply chain for lower levels of inventory.

This includes building larger distribution centres to decrease numbers from 34 to 11.

"It's a change about how we deploy IT within Woolworths; our IT organization has changed two or three times in the last few years," he said.

On outsourcing, Bradley said IT is one of the most tangible forms of intellectual property, and, as such, should be closely guarded.

"All major work is led by Woolworths [and] you want to run in-house the parts that most benefit the business," he said. "In-source the parts that provide the most competitive advantage." Bradley recommends selectively outsourcing to organizations that have the ability to add knowledge to your organization, have a cultural and organizational alignment, and a strong customer focus.

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