Panel: Business, not technology, should be IT focus

A CIO's work should spread far beyond a corporate IT department, suggested a panel of IT leaders from the retail industry at the Retail Systems 2006 conference in Chicago last week.

Top IT executives must work with colleagues in operational posts and then make sure their departments support corporate business processes now and into the future, they said.

The CIOs on the panel all emphasized the need to make technology subservient to business processes. Following that rule, they said, should ensure that IT departments contribute to the corporate bottom line.

"We [in IT] think every year of revenue enhancement and cost-saving opportunities," said panelist Joshua Jewett, CIO at Family Dollar Stores, a retail chain.

"There is a danger for a CIO to be seen as being too much associated with just technology," Jewett said. "Technology rarely delivers a return on investment on its own. Technology facilitates a business vision. It doesn't provide that vision and doesn't make it happen."

Jewett said he works with the business side of Family Dollar to formulate a business vision and to create cross-functional teams of IT and business personnel to find solutions that meet that vision.

In general, he said, major IT projects at Family Dollar include a dedicated business sponsor charged with deriving a return from the project.

Business departments at the retailer also collaborate with IT staffers to formulate multiyear technology road maps that ensure alignment with IT. As part of these processes, Jewett said, he often has to help filter out bad proposals from the viable ones.

Mike Jones, CIO at Michael's Stores, a retailer of arts and crafts supplies, said he doesn't simply propose technology systems for his firm but rather offers technology solutions that can solve business problems.

Added Ken Brame, CIO at AutoZone, an auto parts retailer, "If I haven't delivered the business benefit, I haven't achieved success."

He noted that part of his role is to work with senior executives in other areas of the company, such as merchandising and supply chain operations, to devise practical IT systems.

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

CIOs must also keep an eye toward future needs and plan for possible problems before they turn up, Brame said. "If we wait for a problem to appear to find a solution, we're dead," he said.

The CIO's role also involves learning how to embrace business change, said Janet Sherlock, CIO at Calico Corners, a fabric retailer.

"The CIO's role is not just chief information officer but the chief process officer," she said. The job of IT personnel "is 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," Sherlock said, "and the business users forget what it was like before implementing that system or enhancement."

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