The CIO's role in the retail business

I got on to the 'net on Monday to Google something, and it turned out that Google was honouring Grace Hopper, the “Mother of COBOL,” on her 107th birthday. Being reminded of Hopper’s contribution to the world is serendipitous, since I was thinking of flogging the issue of IT/Business alignment yet again, if perhaps from a new angle (more on that later).

But first, let’s examine what Grace Hopper really wanted to do. To put it plainly, she wanted more people to use computers more.

For those who haven’t heard of her, Grace Hopper was a US naval officer (retiring in the mid-1980’s as an Admiral), a computer scientist who was credited with the development of “3rd generation” computer language compilers. She had a mission to make computer programs, first, machine independent, and secondly, understandable by normal (i.e. non-programmer) business people. Hopper’s magnum opus was the COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language) programming language. COBOL was arguably the first, and certainly the most influential language that enabled non-computer-scientists to develop programs for businesses. That in turn enabled companies to lower the cost of computer programs, and also increased their flexibility on the hardware choices (meaning, the computer hardware vendor now had competition too). That opened the doors for before-unthought-of uses for the new technology. And as it’s said, the rest is history.

So why would Google celebrate a story that dates back to the 1950’s? It’s because Hopper’s work resonates today – even though today’s requirements for the transportability, cost-effectiveness, and accessibility of computer code are several orders of magnitude greater than in Hopper’s day, and the sheer amount of business logic (represented by lines of computer code) in the world today defies easy understanding.

But Hopper’s real issue was how to get more people to use computers to do more things. Back in the day, there was very little interaction between the geeks in the white coats and business people; the computer programming group was usually locked into a secured area! But today, consumers themselves download “drivers”, “patches”, and “apps” – all pieces of computer code, without so much as a thought. So in a lot of ways, the technology pioneer’s dream has come true.

The serendipity moment

This brings me to the serendipity moment. Nowadays its commonplace for business people to make sweeping and potentially expensive technology-oriented decisions (for example, choosing one business solution over another) with little or no thought at all to how a solution was constructed, what technology it takes to run it, or how it will be maintained or managed going forward. The example du jour is the news that retail CMOs’ technology budgets are growing faster than CIOs’ budgets.

While that may seem like the logical extension of the vision that Grace Hopper made her life’s work, sooner or later technical issues have to be considered, because computer applications don’t run themselves, don’t integrate with other applications by themselves, and don’t fix themselves when something breaks. In other words, sooner or later someone technical has to write some code! And so (quoting the song), “You’d better take care of business, Mr. Businessman, what’s your plan?” Here’s a start: meet your CIO.

But the CIO needs to stop playing hard-to-get

Here’s the new angle on the old “alignment” debate. As many are aware, RSR works closely with technology companies to help them align their messaging (and sometimes their product roadmaps) to those things that retailers tell us that are important through our benchmark surveys. Our goal is simple: the objective is to help those who need solutions and those that have solutions to understand and communicate with each other better. Sometimes that objective leads us into discussions about whether the solution provider should sell TO the CIO, AROUND the CIO, or THROUGH the CIO.

For virtually every technology company we talk to, selling directly TO the CIO and hoping that he/she can make a unilateral decision doesn’t work, even for seemingly purely technical purchases (an example: expanding usable bandwidth to the stores). The reason is simple but important: all IT costs are carefully scrutinised nowadays by the business.

Selling AROUND the CIO is a dangerous game. Although the CIO may not have the power of the purse as in the past, he/she can still be very difficult if put on the defensive. And just like any line-of-business exec, CIOs don’t like nasty surprises.

The answer seems simple: involve the CIO early in the game, even to the point of asking the CIO (the tech company’s traditional point-of-contact to the retailer’s executive team) to arrange a meeting with the business executive that you’re trying to get to. RSR even has gone so far as to promote the strategy between retail executives themselves:

“Since IT is responsible for the information (ie. digital) asset, it follows then that the CMO cannot succeed without the active support of the CIO. But it goes both ways: the CIO, an executive forever fretting about alignment and ‘having a place at the executive table’, has a big opportunity to be impactful by supporting the CMO. The relationship between the CMO and the CIO could form the power duo of next generation retailing – but only if those two executives join as true partners.” (Marketing in Retail: Making the Case for the CMO, Benchmark Report 2012, September 2012).

Here’s the problem: it doesn’t seem to work. It turns out that often, the CIO is locked in his or her office and doesn’t want to come out. One business application sales exec said (and this is an almost-direct quote), “that sounds fine, but the CIO is SO defensive that they actually tell us that they don’t want us anywhere near their business peers, and that ‘it will go badly’ if we try. But, the CIO is the wrong person! We need to talk about delivering business value to the business leaders.”

Another network technology company marketing manager recently told me: “we’ve spent a tremendous amount of time to define the value-add that working with us brings. We have case studies and real ROIs showing how the business can accelerate value to their customers if they let us manage the infrastructure! But if we get lucky and do get in touch with a business exec, they say, ‘oh, you’re tech – go talk to the CIO.’ And then the CIO says, ‘what the hell are you trying to do to me – make me look bad?’ What are we supposed to do?”

In both cases and many more, the technology vendors describe the CIO with words like, “defensive”, “embattled”, “risk averse”, and (here’s the capper) “vengeful”.

This is NOT what Admiral Hopper had in mind. There is no easy answer for this dilemma other than the obvious: retail CIOs need to promote the dialogue, not prevent it. While that doesn’t mean becoming a welcome-mat for every tech firm that comes a’callin’, it should be how successful IT executives position themselves. Sure, vet the tech representative, and make sure you get invited to the meeting! But the CIO must know that if there’s real value to be had, the line-of-business executive will hear about it sooner or later. So it’s much better to promote the use of technology rather than stand in the way.

And for the tech vendors? Keep pushing! Try for a top-to-top meeting. Find a way -but don’t get involved in the internal politics of the client, i.e. don’t undermine the CIO (even if that person is being difficult). Keep promoting the value proposition in business terms – all you want is for one of the client executives to demand, “prove it!” Then you’re in, and it’s your turn to show what you can do.

Grace Hopper would have wanted it that way.

This article originally appeared on the RSR Research website under the headline 'What Would Grace Hopper Want You To Do?' at It is reproduced with the organisation's permission.