What’s top of mind for retail CIOs right now?

Moderating day one of Retail CIO Connect 2021 this week, I quickly realised that the vendors, media and analysts often miss what retail CIOs are really thinking. Under a constant barrage of advice from the vendors as to what technologies retailers need to implement, to keep pace with the customer and the shift to digital, the real barriers to change are often forgotten.

They are primarily political and cultural, which is a smartarse way of saying that stuff often does not get done because human beings are an odd collection of qualities, usually all at the same time. They are brave, supportive, generous, hard-working and clever but at the same time they are weak, silly, insecure, egotistical and cruel.

When IT is trying to get new technology implemented it is perhaps harder than in any other department to be successful, because there are so many different stakeholders, some of them supportive, some of them indifferent and some of them downright hostile.

Fortunately, during the pandemic, this was suddenly less of a problem. All retailers realised on day one of lockdown that they would have to connect all their staff quickly so they could keep working, because they could see that lost communications actually equated to lost revenue. So, the usual discussions about procurement, governance and other considerations that can take the joy out of life simply got put to one side and everyone scrambled to just get the job done.

Covid spawned a golden age for IT achievement

The happy result has been a golden age of achievement and innovation the like of which retail IT has never seen and the feeling during yesterday’s conference was palpable. Modest to a fault, the CIOs in the conference were not singing their praises so let me do that and say, what got delivered in 2020, almost entirely by teams working from their back bedrooms, is impressive and clearly enabled them to take full advantage of the shift to online.

The worry now, raised by one delegate, is that, as retailers return to the office, everyone will slip back into the old ways, and the dreaded procurement and governance will slow everything to a crawl, which is counter to what retailers are trying to do now – innovate, act with agility and speed, and simply not put up with the limitations of legacy systems. ERP systems came in for particular criticism, as unable to manage the growing breadth of data that retailers need to personalise their offer.

Time for a seat on the board

The buy versus build debate resurfaced and I detected a renewed interest in build, so vendors beware, retailers that are big enough to afford it are recruiting engineers like nobody’s business.

This is not a pop at procurement or governance, both of which have become increasingly mandated anyway, it’s just that retailers now face a paradox – how to be successful in a risk-averse world that tries to stop anyone pressing the button until it is often too late?

So, culture and politics, procurement and governance – all arraigned against the innovative retailer. Is there an answer? There is, but it cannot be left to rest entirely on the shoulders of the IT middle ranks. Get more IT leaders on the main board and then you’ll see the sparks fly.

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