CIOs: speed to market is the only remaining competitive advantage

High time to anoint the CIO as 'Chief Innovation Officer'? Wal-Mart, Best Buy and McDonald's CIOs weigh in on moving beyond technology as a competitive weapon
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Is it high time to anoint the CIO as "Chief Innovation Officer"?

Wal-Mart, Best Buy and McDonald's CIOs: technology no longer a competitive weapon

I had the opportunity to observe a panel at this week's National Retail Federation show in New York, in which the CIOs of Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and Best Buy discussed their roles as change agents within their organizations.

The keyword coming out of this CIO summit was "innovation."  The challenge was knowing where the obstacles to innovation are, and working more closely with the business to unleash the creative forces of the business, the CIOs agreed.

Not such an easy task, of course. First of all, there aren't many technologies particularly unique that give one company an edge over another. With information widely available across the Web, and IT offerings fairly standardized, a company's secret sauce -- be it processes or technology -- cannot stay that way for long. "There are very few secrets out there anymore," said Rollin Ford, CIO of Wal-Mart. "The only competitive advantage becomes the speed aspect. Organizations need to keep embracing innovation and new technology models. At the end of the day, it's about getting from point A to point B quicker than everybody else."

Neville Roberts, enterprise CIO of Best Buy, said he especially feels the pressure in the fast-moving electronics retailing businesses. "A lot of our revenues come from innovation, but it gets copied quickly," he said. "We have to get innovation out there quickly. We have to bring things to fruition quicker than everyone else."

It's key to tie all technology initiatives to support the business, Rollin also said. Many IT managers have spent years of work integrating their systems, he pointed out. That's all well and good for IT efficiency. But without that business focus, "you can integrate systems until the cows come home, but it's just like pushing a noodle," he said.

For global chains such as McDonald's the challenge is blending and leveraging existing assets with new initiatives. David Grooms, CIO of McDonald's, said his company's challenge is to focus on and engage customers at all levels. This presents challenges for environments with legacy systems. "McDonald's is more of a 'fast-follower' of technology. You don't get rid of all those legacy systems overnight. It's an evolutionary move forward."

For large organizations, the key is having a consistent, well-thought-out enterprise architecture that ensures information and common services are shared across the enterprise, from corporate offices to individual stores. "We need to be as SOA-compliant as we can possibly be," said Best Buy's Roberts.

However, no matter how elegant an IT infrastructure gets, CIOs and IT managers can't sit back and rest on their accomplishments, Rollin said. "You have to wake up every day and say, 'What are we missing?' Every day you have to get up and run faster than the next guy."  This "healthy paranoia" wouldn't necessarily be a hardship on IT staff either, he added. "People don't want to do the same thing everyday. They want different challenges."

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