State of retail report: putting tech talent at the heart of business

Recent moves by some of the UK's largest retailers to put multichannel skills at the heart of their boardrooms are indicative of the wider industry's need to adopt a technology-driven approach to business strategy, but there is arguably still some way to go before it is the norm.

Marks & Spencer (M&S) CEO Marc Bolland has spoken of amending his company's leadership infrastructure to be "fit for the future of retail" and – as part of a recent senior staff reshuffle – he handed multichannel executive director, Laura Wade-Gery, responsibility for the company's UK retail operations as a whole.

M&S said the move was to ensure one view of the customer, and Bolland supported this notion at the company's AGM by reiterating the importance of fostering a technological attitude at the top of his organisation. Wade-Gery's elevation comes after supermarket group Sainsbury's appointed Jon Rudoe to its operating board as digital & technology director, in March, following his 12 months leading the grocer's digital strategy.

There are a growing number of examples of these shifts in the make-up of retail boardrooms, but senior industry representatives who gathered at Planet Retail's head office in London for European retail show RBTE's 2015 steering committee meeting, on 2 July, were clear that it is no easy task to manage.

"Knowledge, leadership and getting technology in the boardroom is a significant challenge," argued Stephen Robertson, non-executive director at Timpson Group and former director-general of the British Retail Consortium.

In discussions with senior figures from the likes of Asda, Dixons Retail and Waitrose, Robertson added: "Sometimes retailers can get too excited by the kit, and not the business function."

Ian Woosey (pictured below), senior director at professional services firm Alvarez & Marsal and ex-Carpetright IT director, acknowledged that traditional retailers can learn from the pure-plays, in terms of developing the right leadership strategies for today's fast-paced, technology-driven business world.

"Often, multichannel retailers make decisions too slowly and are too bureaucratic," he noted, before adding that there are wider trends going on at the top level of retail organisations that could have far-reaching negative consequences for traditional IT departments.

"Many IT leaders actually stifle innovation by focusing too heavily on the constraints of the systems they have today, they are however starting in totally the wrong place," Woosey explained.

"They need to really think about what the customer wants and then challenge their teams to come up with a way of delivering it quickly. Six-month delivery cycles are history. Many IT directors are in fact forcing commercial teams to bypass them and go directly to the IT vendors simply because it is easier and quicker – they have to start to think differently."

As Woosey alluded to, online pure-plays can move quickly when it comes to innovation and new technology – and, in some cases, they operate with a less linear workforce structure, compared to more established multichannel retail businesses.

Gift and lifestyle products e-tailer is one example of an online retailer that empowers its whole team to play a part in the company's technical development. The combination of its core 18 to 30-year-old staff demographic, and those with broader eCommerce experience, helps create "a dynamic and innovative" development team, according to the retailer's commercial director and RBTE steering committee member Kerry Okikiade (pictured below).

"The needs of the business, both operational and creative, have a stronger technical focus than ever before – growth marketing campaigns, own-brand product development and operational improvement all rely on technical resource," she remarked.

"The development team sit at the core of our business and if they bring fresh ideas and new methodology, it benefits us all. The challenge for the wider management team is balancing the operational needs of the business with the more exciting development aspects of product design, website innovation and marketing."

Ultimately, now that shoppers interact with retailers through so many different platforms – and expect instant responses and solutions to their purchase queries or customer service concerns, whichever member of staff they talk to – it seems crucial to ensure that all divisions of a company are tuned into the wider business strategy.

Results from a survey of global retail CIOs by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), published at the start of 2014, found that the potential for CIOs to embrace disruptive technologies that can drive their organisations forward is too often hampered by a lack of key resources and divisional alignment.

Recognition of these alleged industry problems were raised during the RBTE meeting, with one retail representative saying: "IT decisions need to be led by the business, and technology implemented by a retailer must be designed around the overall business strategy – companies are not working in silos any more."

In support of that point and highlighting how important it is for retailers to adopt this new way of working, Stephen Robertson (pictured below, right) commented: "That word 'silo' is perhaps the most toxic thing.

"We as big retailers need to break them down."

When announcing the recent senior staff changes at M&S, CEO Bolland said the amendments to structures and internal processes that he has overseen over the past three years have been conducted to let the M&S of the future "move with pace, simplicity and speed".

With mixed results reported in M&S's recent first-quarter sales update, it remains to be seen whether Bolland will be successful in achieving this goal in the long run. However, it is safe to say he is not the only retail exec battling to establish an organisation that can suit the modern customers' increasingly complex requirements.

RBTE 2015 will aim to highlight these key challenges and provide best-practice examples of how to solve them during its two-day educational conference programme, which takes place at London Olympia next March.

Legend Exhibitions, the company behind RBTE, which is set to run from 10-11 March 2015, is developing a conference programme that will cover the most relevant issues affecting today's European retail industry, focused on five key streams: Omnichannel Strategy; Retail Leadership, HR & Skills Development; Technology, Innovation & Data Strategy; Marketing & The Customer; and Payments.

RBTE would like to extend a huge thank you to the members of its 2015 steering committee members for their forward-thinking approach and for offering their precious time and integral feedback. Their enthusiastic contribution showed that retailers are hungry for an event rich in fresh content, ideas and innovation, to help inspire them in an increasingly challenging business world.

A second article based on discussions at RBTE's steering committee meeting will be published on Essential Retail, next week.

RBTE Steering Committee members are, as follows: Ian Woosey, Senior Director, Alvarez & Marsal; Geri Gray, Senior Innovations Manager, Asda; Aumit Bagchi, Projects & Innovation Manager, Burberry; David Grant, Global IT director, Clarks; Laura Philips, Programme Manager, David Lloyd Leisure; Kash Ghedia, Technology Manager, Dixons Retail; Kerry Okikiade, Commercial Director,; Sarah Pavlou, President, International Women in Business; Richard Mader, President, Mader International Consulting; Richard Jenkins, Head of RFID Programme, Marks & Spencer; Neil Sansom, eCommerce Director, Moss Bros; Helen Slaven, Managing Director, Planet Retail; Mark McMurtrie, Director, Payments Consultancy; Rob Abington, Senior Director IT EU, Ralph Lauren; Chris Hughes, Consultant, Retail Automation Consultancy; Jevern Partridge, Professional eCommerce Leader, Ridge Solutions; Jonathan Wall, Group eCommerce Director, Shop Direct; Gavin Sullivan, Group Buying Manager, Tesco; Charles De Clerck, Customer Relationship Manager, Waitrose; Robin Phillips, Director eCommerce, Waitrose; Julie Price, IT Director, White Stuff; Stephen Robertson, Non-Executive Director, Timpson Group, and former British Retail Consortium Director-General.

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