by Edward Qualtrough

Harvey Nichols Director of Technology and Innovation Fatima Zada Q&A – Innovation and emerging technologies

Mar 23, 2017
IT LeadershipIT StrategyRetail Industry

Director of Technology and Innovation at Harvey Nichols, Fatima Zada, recently discussed her role and the opportunities and challenges for CIOs in the retail sector with CIO UK. Zada, who previously worked for Burberry for eight years before joining Harvey Nichols where she sits on the luxury retailer’s executive management team, also discussed the importance of having business experience outside of IT, emerging disruptive technologies and why AI and robotics will be complementing rather than replacing humans, and fostering a culture of innovation throughout an organisation. [See also: Harvey Nichols Director of Technology and Innovation Fatima Zada on collaboration and transformation agenda]

How important is it for technology and IT executives to have experience outside of IT and sit on an organisation’s executive leadership team? It is definitely beneficial for CIOs to have great insight into other departments or industries to provide a well-rounded view when voicing your experience. One of the key points I make to my team is to go spend time with the business as you will never understand their processes or impact that technology may have sitting behind a desk.

We can often get lost in emails or conference calls, but it is only really when you are amidst the business living and breathing other roles that you get an appreciation of their challenges to be able to provide solutions for them using technology. The same applies to execs; if all you know is one industry or one department then your experience and knowledge may be limited to that exposure. The more exposure you have to marketing, finance, digital commerce, operations, HR, and so on, the better you can be at strategising with them and being an actual partner to them.

Sitting on an organisation’s exec leadership is likewise a great experience as it makes CIOs take accountability for decisions you make on behalf of the company. Being an exec in itself provides a myriad of responsibility and accountability but having a voice at the leadership table – especially for technology – allows the company to drive its growth more successfully. There are still companies out there that see IT as being a support function rather than a growth driver and in today’s day and age that is no longer the correct strategy for any business.

What steps can CIOs and equivalents take to lead, or foster innovation and an innovative culture in their department and across their organisation more broadly? CIOs should be acting as change agents for innovation. Innovation doesn’t necessarily have to be technology led as it could present itself in the form of an offering or business process; however it often is technology led due to the nature of today’s world requiring tech to support and grow a business. Expectations of consumers and employees have grown so much that companies are no longer able to stand on their feet by solely being business led.

Innovation is therefore seen as a way to move forward by growing and laying foundations, allowing you to move in the right direction in the future instead of being left behind. However, innovation is often associated with risk and failure which requires you to help change this perception and start changing the culture by adopting innovation as naturally as you would adopt any standard operation.

Likewise as a CIO you are expected to ensure your employees are kept challenged and engaged by providing new projects and deliverables for them to experiment with and execute. Having away days where you come out of your day job and start brainstorming ideas from different functions, different age groups and different experiences will provide you great insight into what the future may hold for your organisation. Implementing these via a proof-of-concept, a hackathon or fully executing the project especially for the first few times will require a lot of confidence building, change management and communication to all stakeholders. That is your role as a CIO that should come naturally to you.

What emerging or less mature technologies are you excited about as things that will have a big impact on either consumers or in the enterprise space? It is a bit of a cliché but I am excited about the future of artificial intelligence and robotics. As long as AI is used to complement the human workforce and not replace it I am all for the potential it could achieve to help all of our day to day roles out. Likewise predictive analysis tools using AI such as IBM Watson and SAP HANA will provide wonderful insight into the future before events happen allowing all industries and roles to be as proactive as they can be.

Bringing together data, with analytics and any device from your mobile, to your car, to your fridge to your TV will allow the connected world of the future to bring convenience and insight in a world where we are time poor. We are at the start of that journey and the near future will allow us to have everything we need to live life at the touch of our fingertips.

As both a consumer and a retailer, I wish for a world where I am woken up based on the activities I need to complete that day, which in turn is based on my work meetings, the products I need to purchase, the food I need to consume, the personal appointments I need to book, the personal tasks I need to complete, seeing my friends and family – all at the touch of my fingertips.

Imagine a world where your car or mobile will find the shortest route for you to get from A to B. Where you no longer need to remind yourself to buy shampoo, food and a bottle of wine for the dinner you have tomorrow night as they have all already been ordered for you and are on the way to the exact location you need them to be at the time you need them to be. Where your next doctor’s appointment is already booked for you and all your health credentials are already passed to your GP via your phone. Where your TV licence is already renewed and your bank balance is checked based on all the things you need to buy for the month – including a parent’s birthday for which you had not had enough time to think of what gift to purchase.

A world where you do not need to remember every single thing leaving you with no time to relax or read the paper. The connected world connects your life to your work to your family and friends. You are in control of your life – so let technology help you have a less stressful life!