Asos CIO: Tech teams must be central to retail business strategy

It is crucial for retailers that their individual departments do not operate in silos and their IT teams are at the heart of any strategic thinking, the Asos CIO said this week.

Speaking at the SDL Innovate event in west London on Wednesday, Peter Mardsen suggested that the roles of the technology and marketing teams within organisations are now closely entwined – and that technologists should now be embedded in the wider business structure.

Marsden argued that the fast pace at which consumers' needs now change, combined with innovations in technology, mean that business plans evolve so much more frequently than they did years ago. It is therefore vital, he said, that the wider business understands the capabilities of the tech department and the IT teams know the direction in which the company is heading.

"I have to make sure that technology can change. It needs to be flexible and change on a regular basis – this is hard," he explained.

"We have to have IT folk that can talk about business and think about what is next [...] I make sure the tech team is embedded inside the business."

Marsden's comments do not necessarily represent a new argument, with a number of prominent UK CIOs having recently spoken out about the changing role of technology teams in the corporate world, but they are indicative of the direction the retail industry is moving.

Graham Benson, CIO of online value fashion retailer MandM Direct, recently told Essential Retail that more time needs to be spent training and mentoring IT staff on the more strategic parts of running a business, as their roles grow in importance. The BCS – the Chartered Institute for IT – has also been calling for CIOs to play a greater role in driving organisational change.

Although retailers are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of placing technology at the heart of their business, there is evidently room for improvement with recent research from Accenture showing a real disconnect between CMO and CIO. The survey based on 400 senior marketing and 250 information technology executives in ten countries, showed that just 10% believed collaboration between CMOs and CIOs is currently at the right level.

At Asos, it seems, marketing strategy and technology development are closely linked. Projects currently underway include shifting much of the e-tailer's data to cloud-based storage, tailoring its websites to a growing number of international visitors and improving the overall personalisation of its online customer service.

According to Marsden, customers who use its search button on the website are 30% more likely to make a purchase than those who scroll the individual category pages, so the company is using SDL Fredhopper to help create more personalised search results that it hopes can boost sales further in the years ahead.

The CIO also indicated that social media is fast becoming the normal platform for customer complaints and comments, and Asos has a team dedicated to engaging with shoppers on the various sites, including Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. This kind of interaction is required because it is where the fashion retailer's target customers reportedly spend their time.

Marsden commented: "The world changes quickly and, as an IT person I need to understand that."