by Cathy Hotka

Technology Challenges for the Retail CIO

Dec 01, 20006 mins

You’re an I.T. professional, so you know all there is to know about wireless standards, customer care technologies, firewalls, broadband, Linux and outsourcing, right? What do you know about XML, PKI (public key infrastructure) and SSL (secure sockets layer)?

The explosion of technologies and the potential applications for them is a real challenge for IT professionals at retail companies. CIOs and other top-level IS staff are not only the chief technology people at prominent companies, they are also catalysts for business change at all levels. They use a number of methods to keep up with it all, including reading magazines like CIO and attending conferences. But when it comes to getting a reality check on how their peers are actually using technology, they also use opportunities offered by associations like mine. I’m vice president of information technology for the National Retail Federation (NRF), a trade association based in Washington, D.C. Associations like mine are a valuable way for IT executives to keep in touch with others in their industry.

It’s my job to gather information about how retailers of all sizes are using various technologies, and I get them together to exchange ideas and experiences. My longtime associate Don Gilbert and I talk with retailers about technologies they’re implementing and how well their tools and plans are working in their specific situations. We take that information and turn it into compelling peer get-togethers and best practices documents.

We meet twice a year around the country with hours devoted to roundtable discussions. Retail CIOs who invest time in NRF’s committees know that there’s no substitute for exchanging notes in person with peers from other retail companies. In a no-pressure setting, retailers take the time to talk about what they’ve installed, how they plan to beef up infrastructure, their ideas about employee retention and the future of the industry. Tech chiefs speak freely about how well computer telephony integration works in their call centers, and they talk about bugs in new database releases and new connectivity tools and whether they live up to the hype. Angry about software licensing? There’s nothing more empowering than discovering that others are too—and that they might have valuable insights to share.

These off-the-record roundtables are open only to retailers—no vendors allowed. The gloves come off, and members speak out on issues, trade benevolent insults, ask for ideas and assistance, and clarify which technologies they think don’t have a chance. People who haven’t been involved in meetings like this may think that they’re fluffy because the subject matter is only minimally technical. But the challenges that retailers face in using multiple channels like catalog and Internet sales to reach new and existing customers are myriad, and there’s nothing more valuable than talking to peers in the same industry who share similar experiences and similar thoughts.

Our discussions occasionally sound like The McLaughlin Group. One meeting held while we worked for the petroleum industry lasted eight hours without a break—and members were loathe to hit the bathroom, fearing they’d miss a highlight during their short hiatus. When meetings are over, members are still in the room, asking each other questions and hearing each others’ thoughts. After formal sessions conclude for the day, we retire to the restaurant and then to the bar, where some claim the real work gets done.

Industry associations that haven’t instituted committees like these—and companies that haven’t joined them—may mistakenly think that competitors, particularly opponents as 1/2ercely competitive as retailers, will never exchange information about what they’re doing. But technologies are only as good as their execution, and company-specific tidbits rarely bene1/2t competitors. So people are more willing to share than you might think.

Another bene1/2t that these meetings bring is joint industry action to address a common problem. Our year 2000 project was recognized by the White House as having provided outstanding leadership to private businesses. For three years, 150 retail industry IT professionals, lawyers and internal auditors explored how to escape anticipated system failures as a result of the date rollover. You already know the result—your neighborhood stores opened as planned on Jan. 1, ready to take your money.

There’s similar work going on with retail technology standards. The Association for Retail Technology Standards, the technology standards arm of the National Retail Federation, is working to de1/2ne XML tags for the retail industry’s data model for transaction capture. No individual member could accomplish this alone.

Perhaps the most obvious work that trade associations do is head well-meaning but misguided legislation and regulation hatched in Washington (and that’s why most trade associations are in the nation’s capital). We’re now working to address potential legislation addressing customer data privacy. It seems reasonable to ask online companies not to share information about their customers with third parties—until you consider that this might mean that a retailer would not then be able to ask UPS or FedEx to deliver products to its customers. Business practices that are necessary for good customer service can sound just plain wrong—until you know why they’re in place. And our association’s job is to help people in Washington understand those reasons.

In many cases, trade associations labor alone without direct input from key, dues-paying companies. However, the results of actively participating can be remarkable. Committee participants get insights that even pricey consultants can’t match. And there’s nothing like peer feedback. At one meeting, a CIO mentioned that he was piloting an expensive new technology and watched as his colleagues dropped their jaws and mouthed “Huh?” That reaction was worth a lot of consulting fees, and the project was dropped before much more money had been spent.

Trade associations will go to bat for their members. We can talk to the press and explain that the stupid mistake you just made has been made by many others in other industries. We’ll 1/2ght for your issues on Capitol Hill, even if you don’t know you should care about them. We’ll even help consumers understand that baffling new fee that’s just shown up on their phone bill.

There are plenty of associations out there. Get involved with one. Try the association that represents your business, then get in touch with associations representing technology issues you care about. Chances are good that they’ll have newsletters you’ll want to read, webcasts you’ll want to see and all-day meetings that end with a great dinner and cigars at the bar. We’re working for you—use us!