Staples' CIO warns IT about innovation 'frenzy'

In sharp contrast to the uninhibited hawking of cutting-edge technology on the Comdex show floor, Staples Inc. CIO Brian Light cautioned IT users here to "get back to basics" when considering future technology purchases.

The top IT executive at the US$11 billion Framingham, Mass.-based office supply retailer said in a keynote speech Tuesday that companies should "resist the frenzy of innovation" because it can frustrate strategic IT goals such as usability and return on investment.

Light pointed specifically to Windows XP, one of the most visible new technologies at the conference. He said companies should critically evaluate the costs and timing of upgrading to Microsoft Corp.'s new operating system before making the jump. He noted that Microsoft's own recommendations call for PCs that require 128MB of memory and 1.5GB of free disk space; whereas Windows 98, the most common corporate PC client, only needs 24MB of RAM and 205MB of available disk capacity.

Light told Computerworld that Staples is planning to upgrade to Windows XP in 2003, skipping the Windows 2000 client. But waiting two years to make the switch, he said, will still cost Staples "tens of millions of dollars" when it upgrades to XP.

He said the company's strategy is to link the operating system upgrade to the availability of a key supply chain application, which won't be ready with its XP client until 2003.

"We want to be a fast follower," he said. "You don't need to be a leader in a new back-end management system."

The one exception to Light's warning on innovation is Web applications. Because the pace of change is so quick in online technology, choosing best-of-breed software is important, he said.

For example, Staples uses outbound e-mail software from Kana Communications Inc. However, Light said, it's wise "not to make the software cancerous by having it reach too deep into your back-end application." By using a messaging architecture that lets Web-based software interact on a transaction basis with other applications, he said you can easily swap the online software out for other software as it becomes necessary.

Staples.com is a rapidly growing business for the company since it began taking orders online in 1999. The business is on target to double its growth this year from $500 million in 2000 to $1 billion in 2001.

Staples' in-store kiosks have contributed to the success of its Web business, Light said. And it's a good example of integrating advanced Web technology with established point-of-sale systems, helping expand sales while holding down back-end system management costs. Staples has been able to use a standard point-of-sale application in the U.S. and in future rollouts in Canada and Europe.

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