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Be Technically and Tactically Proficient: Embrace the 'And'

By Steve Weiskircher, CIO, ThinkGeek Inc

Steve Weiskircher, CIO, ThinkGeek Inc

Omni-channel integration. Big Data. Mobile. Cloud. It seems every day there is a new technology being hyped and the pace continues to accelerate. When you throw in the rapid adoption of new infrastructure and application service delivery models, the question of ‘How is the role of the CIO changing?’ starts circulating again. Beginning with the supposition that change is the only constant in technology, one could argue that the role of the CIO is simply put: to lead and champion change. This can be unsettling for some. For many years, CIOs focused on the stability, performance, and security of their systems. These can inherently be at odds with the retail business requirements that rapidly-evolving business models dictate. Agility, flexibility, and speed to market rule the day. The successful CIO not only understands this but embraces it. To borrow from Jim Collins as he put so eloquently: we must embrace ‘the genius of the and’.

"Investing time to really learn the business operations will give you a much better sense of your fellow C-suite peers’ goals and challenges"

Technically astute or business focused embrace the ‘AND’ 

Much of the CIO role discussion has stemmed from this underlying question: Does a CIO need to be technically skilled or would a ‘business’ focused CIO be more successful? It is imperative that we bring both technical competence and business acumen to the table. In the Army we referred to this as being ‘technically and tactically proficient’.

Being technically proficient is having the skills required to perform your job and a commitment to actively hone and expand those skills. Being tactically proficient means you know when and how to employ them to accomplish the mission.

Notice there are two parts to technical proficiency: existing skills and a commitment to continuous learning. To clarify further, being technically proficient as a CIO does not mean that you can perform every job in the technology organization. That is not a practical or particularly useful goal. However you do need a fundamental understanding of the technology in use by your organization AND technology that may be of use. Demonstrating technical competence is also a great way to help establish credibility with your team. From a practical standpoint, it saves time, which is something your engineers typically have little to spare. If your organization is trying to move fast and you do not have a handle on the basics, you are merely an impediment to progress. This same comment also applies to the business operations.

A CIO’s role is to present the right technology, at the right time, at the right cost, with the right risk level, to achieve the business’ goals. It sounds like a tall order because it is. Technical skill is not sufficient; you must also have business context. I am not talking about traditional MBA skills related to reading financial statements, preparing a SWOT analysis, budget prep, or even project management. Those are learned skills and fall under ‘technical proficiency’. What I am referring to is developing a fundamental understanding of your business’ operations. This insight only comes from investing time with your business partners not just those in the C-suite, but with those down in the bowels of the business as well.

If you are a brick and mortar retailer, periodically go work a day in one of your stores. Talk to the store manager as well as the associates. Depending on the size of your organization, you may be able to do this incognito without much effort. At a previous organization I gained tremendous insight at one of our stores by simply introducing myself as ‘Steve from IT’ and seeing what questions and issues the associates had at the time. When the associates heard ‘IT’ they immediately opened up with a list of issues. It was an interesting mix of system, training, and policy challenges facing them. What I uncovered in a few hours is that we had many opportunities to improve the store’s performance— some of them technology related, while many others were not.

If you run your own warehouse, go out on the floor and spend a few hours picking customer orders. Aside from getting a little exercise, it should provide a healthy dose of context to those lovely business process/activity diagrams that your team produces. If you want to see the impacts of poor data quality in a very tangible way, spend some time with your warehouse staff. You will quickly get a handle on what those systems do for and to your warehouse team.

Investing time to really learn the business operations will give you a much better sense of your fellow C-suite peers’ goals and challenges. You will learn to anticipate your business partners’ needs and can come to the table prepared with potential solutions. Notice I did not say technology solutions. To help the organization achieve its strategic goals we must deliver comprehensive solutions. Technology is a great enabler, but without the business context it is just a solution looking for a problem.

At the end of the day your actions will ultimately define the role of the CIO in your organization. If you make the commitment to be both technically and tactically proficient, new opportunities will emerge. The technology organization often has a unique vantage point in that our systems glue each business unit’s processes together. As such you have great opportunity to see what is and is not working. Take advantage of this view. Presenting an idea or process change to your colleagues becomes much easier when they have seen your demonstrated commitment to their organizations’ success. It is easy to define your success by declaring the technology supported projects ‘delivered the requirements’ or ‘met the SLA’. Those are table stakes.

If we want that long-sought after ‘seat at the table’ and recognition of technology as a strategic partner, then it is time to act like one. So dig deep, learn the operations, remain technically proficient, and be that agent of change that is focused on delivering value.