The retail and logistics sector is evolving and so is the role of Chief Information Officer (CIO). We delve into these changes and consider how tech leaders can build the right teams to support them.

Consumer demands and buying behaviours are fuelling many of the changes to roles in tech leadership across the retail and logistics sector. With shoppers increasingly switching to online, companies need to cater to the instant gratification customers now have. This massively affects logistics demands, with the way businesses run their warehouse and transport management systems needing to pivot in response. 

Companies must now focus on how to distribute a product across the country or a region, rather than having to get it to one large store in a city centre. This, in turn, has impacted what areas of digital transformation need particular focus, explains Faith Doherty, Senior Business Manager at SThree. She says: “It is all about online platforms and how people can have that dual experience; how a business can intersect the experience of when a customer is in store versus when they’re on a company’s app or website, or collecting from a petrol station locker,” she says. “How do all those different routes to buying and then receiving products interact with each other?”

 Traditional high street retailers are investing heavily in their digital customer and in-app experiences, so they can compete with the online-only disrupters that will appeal to certain consumers. The challenges are huge for businesses and their CIOs, particularly for bricks and mortar companies – with the legacy tech they must look at replacing a daunting task. Doherty adds: “They may also be building new national distribution centres, for example, to cater for that online customer. This then means they have separate distribution centres and head offices on different systems – so bringing that together and integrating it all comes with other challenges.”

The evolving role of a CIO

While CIOs play a significant role in a company’s digital transformation, their job is no longer simply about tech needs. It now includes the need for a deep, holistic understanding about how their company operates and what the priorities are.

Rich Corbridge, CIO at Boots, has seen the CIO role evolve into one that is increasingly enabled as a business role, and less of a tech role. “I think this is really important for new CIOs to grasp; that actually you are now about helping the business transform and deliver different value to customers,” he says. “For many years, the IT department has talked about ‘its’ users and ‘the’ business as this sort of thing that exists over there, rather than the thing you're a part of and responsible for.”

Many CIOs now have as much responsibility as the digital or marketing director for considering how their business serves its customers and drives trade – so it’s vital for CIOs to know what the three-year plan is or what their colleagues are struggling with, for example.

“This makes the role way more interesting, exciting and rewarding because you can see our organisation changing and what we're doing to facilitate business change,” says Corbridge.  

Today’s CIOs need to ensure they are communicating with colleagues across the business about what IT can do for them, he says, adding: “The concept of making IT happen isn’t only about the IT program, it’s about getting in front of everyone who works there, asking: “What can we do for you to make it easier for you to be better, more efficient, quicker and safer at your job?”

Back in March, the entire IT function of Boots was deployed into stores across the UK and Ireland and asked to visit three or four locations in one day to find out what their stores need IT to do. This feedback was then used to swiftly create a store-centric IT strategy. For Corbridge, this is a repeatable process where IT isn’t limited to sitting in its own silo, concentrating only on transformation projects, running IT service desks and delivering IT support.

Creating the best teams

The big questions CIOs must tackle also include how to identify where the expenditure should be to move the business’s tech offering forward in order to meet customer demand and need, and improve experience. With an emerging focus on people and skills in the retail and logistics sector, how you build the right teams has become crucial, according to Doherty.

This has been strongly influenced by the flexibility that comes with hybrid working, for instance, and the different types of people CIOs can attract into their tech teams at various points of their career, in different locations across the country. By being open-minded about how they can operate in this new hybrid environment, CIOs can create more diverse teams because developers no longer need to be within commuting distance.

The strategy of who to bring in to get projects fulfilled has therefore changed. But for many companies this has meant a mindset shift – CIOs in retail and logistics have had to accept that teams need to be a mix of permanent and flexible resources, particularly when they involve niche and hard-to-find skills. “The utilisation of flexible resources to get the job done, to get projects over the line, and bringing in specialist skills – in particular newer and evolving skills – is important,” notes Doherty.

Historically, there has been an attitude among CIOs and their companies to aim for as few contractors as possible,” she says. But Doherty is seeing this change: “By drawing down on contractors to positively impact projects, you’re going to see a return on investment. It actually allows you to hire more permanent employees because you're driving the growth of the business through successfully executing those projects.”

Whether it’s permanent or contract talent you are looking to attract, Corbridge urges CIOs to give a lot of thought to making the value proposition attractive of working within their company’s IT team – one that shows how a candidate can develop their skills to get to the next career move or project they want. For permanent roles, ensure you offer a career path for joiners that allows them to go from business analyst to product owner and then delivery director. “It’s important not to make a role pigeonholed from the beginning, particularly in the [digital] transformation arena,” he says.

But Corbridge also acknowledges that companies must accept that tenure in roles has changed. More traditional job-for-life-type organisations may need to turn to younger or new talent that has just learnt a particular skill. “And we have to accept they may only stay for a short time, learn lots and then move on to the next organisation. That shouldn't be seen as a bad thing because we've helped to create more talent out there, and we just need to keep that cycle moving.”

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