Big interview: M&M Direct CIO Graham Benson

Innovation and technological advancement are undoubtedly fundamental requirements in the modern business world; they create jobs and help find solutions to problems, while the individuals blazing a trail in this field are driving a new digital economy.

But are we moving too fast? In the retail industry, small, agile companies have been able to ride the digital wave and make a success of their investments in the latest mobile and eCommerce platforms, while some larger corporates with huge store portfolios have found themselves all at sea as they look to go multichannel.

With new social, video and various other digital platforms emerging, there’s a danger that some retail players will be looking to solve future problems before they’ve got to grips with the present. CIO of discount fashion e-tailer M&M Direct Graham Benson tells Essential Retail that it is crucial for businesses to address the fundamentals first and foremost.

“There is so much that’s new,” he states. “Everyone’s talking about the next big thing; yet so few people have mastered the current thing. I think you should always build a house on solid foundations.

“What concerns me about the retail world at the moment is that so few people have built firm foundations in terms of emerging technologies like website systems and mobile platforms. If their foundations are too shaky and they try to build the next generation on that, then they’ll collapse.”

Benson, who is a member of the 2014 Steering Committee for the UK and Europe’s leading retail technology exhibition RBTE, has been M&M Direct CIO for five years. Previously a CIO at other dotcoms, Screwfix, Ebuyer and, he has been the “change agent” who has helped these companies shift from large-small firms to small-large organisations.

When cutting his eCommerce teeth in the mid-1990s, there was an online retail mantra of “three clicks and you are out”, but he argues that this message is often lost today. The more stages in the buying process, the greater opportunity retailers give customers to log out.

Figures released by e-tail trade association IMRG and consultancy group Capgemini at the start of July indicated that UK online shopping basket abandonment was at 37% in the first quarter of 2013 – the highest it has been since the two companies started tracking trends in 2010. Data shows that the rate of annual basket abandonment is coming down, but the research proves there is still a lot retailers can do to improve the digital purchase journey.

In terms of focusing on eCommerce development, Benson advises retailers to be pragmatic and not get “seduced by the sexy component”.

“The IT industry is very good at reinventing existing solutions; it’s also good at finding a solution first, then trying to find a problem that it fits,” he states. “As the custodians of technology in retail, we need to be smart enough to see the difference between the two and champion the right things, rather than the wrong things.”

It is this kind of thinking that retailers need to be integrating into their business operations, and there is an argument that in today’s digital landscape the tech team has more of a responsibility to lead this change of thought and direction.

One problem though, according to Benson, is that the IT department often finds itself marginalised from the commercial side of a business often due to communication gaps between tech-focused staff and other business divisions, such as marketing and buying.

The M&M Direct CIO attributes this breakdown in communication partly to technology staff being “left-brain analytical” and focused on solving issues and managing tasks. In IT departments, he says, there is a danger of promoting people because of their technical expertise, rather than their leadership ability – and this is a key reason they become disconnected from the commercial aspects of the business as the move up the career ladder.

“On a  number of occasions I have seen people walk out of IT-led meetings nodding sagely in agreement about the proposed changes, but when the logic has worn off and they are standing by the water cooler, their attitude changes to ‘it’ll never work’.

“Those running the meeting won the mind but not the heart – and true change and influence only comes from winning both.”

So how do technology leaders win hearts and minds – and at the same time show they are contributing to the commercial success of the overall retail operation? According to Benson, it comes down to tailored training and mentoring.

“I’m a firm believer that if one size fits all then you just half train everybody, rather than fully train anybody,” argues Benson.

“Additionally, if we start to express IT metrics in commercial terms we can bridge the communications gap. For example, talking about ‘three hours downtime’ means nothing to anybody, but discussing how ‘the three hours downtime we have calculated lost us 1,400 sales at an average order value of x and profit of y’ does mean something to people.”

Benson also suggests that mentoring in IT is underrated and businesses are too focused on rewarding techies for executing a task, rather than pushing them into becoming potential leaders. You regularly hear about the rising stars in marketing and buying, but this seemingly doesn’t happen so frequently in technology circles.

Many of these observations are very in-keeping with the conclusions drawn from a recent thought-leadership event, run by the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. CIOs attending the meeting were in agreement that now is the right time to contribute further to business strategy and play a more prominent role in leading change.

This will mean evolving the way IT departments are treated within their individual organisations, but it is important that the right balance is found.

“The last thing IT staff want is some fluffy psychologist leading the group, so you have to be careful,” notes Benson. “They actually want someone who can emphasise and demonstrate understanding of the issues faced. The syntax may change but the philosophy of the technology remains the same – it’s important to build an appropriate level of empathy with the team.”

Following the BCS meeting in the spring, the group’s CEO David Clarke said that it is time for the CIO’s relationship with their organisation’s leadership team to evolve because their role now extends beyond technology management. He went as far as suggesting that in a digital economy the CIO is ideally placed to become the CEO of a business.

Benson has driven change at the various dotcom businesses he has represented, and he can offer plenty of ideas about energising IT departments to become more commercially aware. It is a matter of personal opinion as to whether or not you agree with his observations, but they are in keeping with the wider industry rhetoric and certainly lend support to the possibility that an e-tail CEO job may well be awaiting this particular CIO in the future.