by As told to Laurianne McLaughlin, technology editor, <em>CIO</em> magazine

Former Wal-Mart CIO on 20 Years of IT Change

Apr 20, 20073 mins
CIOData CenterData Management

"It's hard not to couple the advent of massively parallel processing with broadband," says CIO Hall of Famer Bob Martin.

Retail industry pioneer Bob Martin joined Wal-Mart in 1984, first serving as executive VP and CIO for Wal-Mart Stores before becoming president and CEO of Wal-Mart International in 1993. Martin was named to CIO magazine’s CIO Hall of Fame in 1997. Now retired from Wal-Mart, Martin today serves on the board of directors for Sabre Holdings, Conn’s, Furniture Brands International, The Gap, The Guitar Center and Students in Free Enterprise. We asked Martin about the biggest changes in IT and the CIO role during the past 20 years.

For me, it’s kind of hard not to couple the advent of massively parallel processing with broadband. Massively parallel processing really gave business the ability to mine through a lot of data efficiently. It also raised the ante for database architecture.

We used to work on set databases that were populated once a day. The ability to have the large databases that can be processing very efficiently—then have the broadband communications to make that real-time—changed the old mainframe approach. It got us away from the more process-oriented approach to business and made it more dynamic.

This really changed the dynamic of how people think and work. In the industry I came out of, retail, you could now mine data about the performance or trends of a particular product across geographies. That’s different from using a price management app or looking at a distribution process. It became more decision-oriented. I was able to get results quickly on my specific analysis. That’s a significant shift. Instead of being inside a business app, we were able to have these huge databases and massively parallel processing, which in the early days was just buckling a bunch of PCs together&you never would have done that without broadband communication capability.

There’s no question that, year by year, the strategic nature of the CIO role ramped up. Technology was always strategic, but far too often in the past, if you go back two decades, the CIO was about delivering solutions. Today, it’s far more of a transformational role. The demand today for transformational leadership should, and must, be much higher.

Also, the CIO’s role found its way to the boardroom in the appropriate way. Wal-Mart was a big advocate of this. I was one of the few who had the opportunity to move from CIO to CEO. That’s an opportunity you see more and more of today, to move from technology to business operations. There have been more ways for CIOs to move over to the operational side of the business. It’s a good grooming position.

The way boards interact with the CIO and technology has changed. Back then, technology was clearly viewed more as an expense than an investment. Business at large struggled to understand the payback. Technology was a tactical discussion, so the CIO’s dialogue with the board was tactical. It just was not part of the strategic dialogue. Today, technology is critical to the transformational opportunities for business.

We are inducting new members to the CIO Hall of Fame as part of CIO’s 20th Anniversary celebration. The new members will be announced in October 2007. You can nominate your own candidate—the deadline for nominations is May 15. And, read about current members of the Hall of Fame.