Platform Experience Counts

FRAMINGHAM (03/03/2000) - I have always viewed the IT department as an important element of any successful business strategy, not just a support service for the rest of the company. So much of what IT does plays a direct role in our ability to add customer value and execute plans efficiently. And when IT transitions into the external technology role, it is clear that it can become a critical component in the design of businesses built for speed and reliability.

When I came to Alliant Food Service Inc. in August, the IT department was typical of what you might find at any large company. The people in it were largely competent, but they were out of the corporate mainstream, and they tended to focus on technology rather than on how to use technology to make the company more successful. We delivered systems that worked, but we didn't work to integrate those systems into the corporate strategy. But our CEO, Earl Mason, had constructed a new strategy for the company that made the single most critical element of our success our ability to move information among suppliers, our warehouses and our customers. We weren't going to simply use technology. We were going to integrate advanced technological solutions into every aspect of our business relationships.

With a catalog of 180,000 products and 200,000 customers, that wasn't an easy job. But we clearly understood that business-to-business electronic commerce didn't mean building just another pretty website. We knew that the back end of our process--our ability to manage the supply chain and keep it current with a continual flow of customer and supplier data--was of equal importance. We already had in place the third critical element for a profitable B-to-B e-commerce business, and that's the warehouse and distribution infrastructure.

In other words, we had the bricks and we were now adding the clicks.

That meant a number of things for our department. We brought in a few key people from outside the company who had specialized experience and skills to help guide our progress. We also told our staff that this would be their chance to show what they could do. And we learned that people who live and breathe technology are eager to do that. Once we freed them from thinking only about how to keep our internal networks going, it was all I could do to hold them back. I hear about those internet startups where people virtually camp out in the office. Well, that kind of thing suddenly started happening at Alliant. It was amazing and exciting, and it's proof that you don't have to be a Silicon Valley startup to be part of the e-commerce wave.

As proud as I am of our people, I also recognize that it was the vision of what this company could be that energized us all. We don't see ourselves constrained by the limits of the food service industry. We've got great physical assets, and we're building strong, collaborative relationships with suppliers of all kinds. We're building a system that can become the Amazon.com of the B-to-B world--only ours will make money.

I firmly believe that e-commerce is not just another way to take orders. This is where business is going. It's an external technology initiative that involves the entire company. One of our most important jobs in this new environment is education. I don't think that everyone needs to know every technical detail that makes an e-commerce system work. But I think that everyone in management at an e-commerce company needs to grasp the theory of what this kind of change means so that all their decisions are based on today's business design, not yesterday's.

Barbara Moss is CIO of Alliant Foodservice in Deerfield, Ill., the nation's second-largest broadline foodservice distributor. Send column ideas to platform@cio.com.

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