Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Giant Eagle CIO Kirk Ball’s recipe for digital transformation success

Aug 31, 202311 mins
Digital TransformationIT Leadership

Clarity on what digital transformation means for your company is an essential first step to getting teams aligned on developing solutions that deliver results.

Kirk Ball stylized
Credit: Kirk Ball / Giant Eagle

CIO Kirk Ball is known for being a strategic executive capable of driving innovative thinking across the organization. Over the course of his career, the Giant Eagle EVP and CIO has held senior technology roles across a range of industries, including C-level positions at The Christ Hospital Health Network and The Kroger Co.

Ball embodies the key leadership attributes that separate top CIOs from the rest, differentiators I’ve dubbed the 7 Cs, because these leaders maintain a laser-like focus on customer, culture, cultivating talent, courage, change, communication, and collaboration.

In a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Ball talked about how these 7 Cs inform his leadership philosophies and playbook. Afterwards, we spent some more time discussing his extensive track record with digital transformation, including how to set up digital initiatives for success. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: People refer to digital transformation in so many different contexts that the term has almost lost all meaning. How can we get better at defining what digital transformation means within our specific organizations, and why does it matter?

Kirk Ball: The particular topic for which a strategy is being developed needs to be well defined with a scope and associated activities required to deliver the strategy. Without a clear understanding by a team or broader set of teams across the organization as to what digital transformation means, each team will create their own meaning and develop their own set of activities required to deliver on the digital transformation strategy. Many times, those activities across an enterprise will not be in alignment, which then results in conflicting solutions, too much spend, and organizational confusion.

Enterprises need to define what digital transformation means for the enterprise and be intentional in orchestrating what activities each team needs to deliver, how each team’s activities coordinate with other team’s digital transformation activities, and how the sum of the work each team does delivers on the enterprise needs.

You were doing digital transformation long before it became an overused buzz phrase. Can you share some examples of the initiatives you’ve worked on?

I started down the digital transformation path back in the late 1990s working at Reynolds & Reynolds, a company that delivers software, hardware, and supplies to automotive dealerships. We developed a customer digital online support solution and a digital set of applications the dealerships used to sell services to their customers. These digital solutions were driving about $200 million in annual revenue in the late 1990s.

From there I made my way to Kroger. While I was there, I was part of a team that created the framework for a digital customer journey that, over the years, has grown into a multibillion-dollar business. One of the components of the digital customer journey was the acquisition of a digital coupon company, YOU Technology, which helped Kroger deliver personalized, digital coupons to customers via the Kroger mobile apps and the website that customers were already using to buy online from Kroger.

My journey in the digital space continued at The Christ Hospital Health Network with new patient mobile apps, websites, and virtual visits, and now at Giant Eagle with analytics and team member and customer digital solutions. These examples primarily focus on external customer-facing mobile apps and websites, but digital transformation also includes developing mobile and web-based solutions for team members to improve their efficiency and eliminate friction as they perform their jobs. 

According to data from Statista, $1.3T was spent on digital transformation initiatives in 2021, yet BCG data tells us that 70% of digital initiatives fail. Why is it so challenging, and what can we do to better set these initiatives up for success?

I view digital transformation as the integration of digital technologies to accelerate business objectives. It’s a simple definition but helpful when discussing with others. The use of digital technologies has and will continue to change how a business operates and how it delivers value to customers and team members. A digital transformation also involves fundamental cultural change. So, what could go wrong with the implementation of a digital transformation for a company when new technologies, new strategies, and cultural change are involved?

To put a successful roadmap in place, we need to start by unpacking the components of digital transformation. First, the enterprise should identify what digital transformation means for the organization. What are the objectives, initiatives to be undertaken to achieve digital transformation, how much budget is available to fund the digital transformation initiatives, what is the timeframe to deliver the digital transformation initiatives, and what metrics will be used to measure the success of the transformation?

Second, there is the matter of organization change management and cultural change. As the implementation of new digital capabilities are executed, there needs to be an identification of what processes should change and what training and communication need to be conducted to help customers and/or team members rapidly absorb the new digital capabilities.

Third, digital transformation involves the utilization of new and ever-evolving digital technologies. Ensuring the technology skillsets and processes of the technology team and engaged third parties are ‘fit for the journey’ is of paramount importance. In addition, the activity of architecting how these new technologies will be used and how they will interact with the legacy systems, solutions, and data is very important. Key technology decisions will need to be undertaken to accelerate the use of digital technologies.

This highlights the significant aspects of digital transformation that enterprises should actively manage in order to be successful on the digital transformation journey, but there are others as well.

Just like no one would ever say, ‘We need to align finance with the business,’ it doesn’t make sense to talk about technology in those terms. Technology is the business. That being said, you use the term alignment differently when it comes to the digital journey. Can you talk about what you mean by alignment in that context?

I believe we have entered an era where technology is no longer a cost center and a support activity; it’s a key part of the business fabric. The technology organization and what it delivers are essential for the business to achieve and exceed its goals. This is why technology teams should be working alongside the retail operations, finance, marketing, merchandising, supply chain teams, and others to understand what those different areas of the organization are trying to achieve, individually and collectively. Then they should be developing, in partnership with those teams, a comprehensive set of technology projects and activities that are required to meet the objectives of those areas — really working as just another component of the business fabric required to achieve business objectives.

This takes a significant partnership between the technology organization and the other aspects of the enterprise, and it must be constantly strengthened by continual interaction across all aspects of the organization, from senior leadership through the ranks of individual contributors.

Today, we have all the tech we need, but no time to stop and think and build relationships and be strategic. How do you overcome this dynamic, and how do you help your people with this?

I think a mix of digital collaboration capabilities and face-to-face interaction is a powerful combination for building strong relationships and continuing to stay in alignment with all areas of an organization.

I have a rich tapestry of approaches I take to build relationships and stay in alignment with my peers. First, I spend consistent time with team members from all other organizations. I spend time with each area understanding what their objectives are and understanding the strategies they are employing to achieve those objectives.

I and others in the technology team regularly spend time with other organizations in their areas of the business. In our organization that means visiting grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, fuel centers, and distribution centers with the team members that manage those aspects of our business. We are seeking to understand the progress they are making in achieving their objectives and how the technology solutions we deliver are enabling their progress.

I consistently encourage technology team members to spend time in these areas seeking feedback on the technology solutions we create: Are those solutions working? Can they be improved? What additional, future enhancements can be made to increase effectiveness? In addition, I have meetings with the managers and individual contributors to seek feedback on what they need in order to deliver technology solutions to enable all areas of the enterprise.

It is imperative that the other business areas have confidence that the technology team understands their objectives, challenges, and needs. And it is imperative that the technology team consistently delivers technology solutions on time, with high quality, and within budget to meet their needs. It is imperative that the technology team has the tools they need to deliver.

I also think it is important to be intentional about taking a small amount of time on a regular basis to collaborate with others to strategize about today and the future. We cannot afford to get trapped into focusing all of our energy and time on tactical activities. Paying attention to both tactical and strategic activities creates the needed balance to ensure the technology team is effective today, tomorrow, and in the future.

One of mantras you operate by is ‘don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress.’ Why is that an important guiding principle of your leadership?

That phrase has helped me make sure that I find the balance between having the courage to make choices and move at a pace that matters to the business and ensuring that quality is delivered in the solutions that are built. There are always a number of factors affecting the projects or strategies that are being delivered. This is about finding an optimal balance across all of the factors that are influencing what you are working to deliver, whether that is a project, a strategy, or a tactical activity.

In other words, don’t be afraid to make a decision, don’t be afraid of making mistakes, and move at a pace that matters. Very rarely will what you work on be perfect, but almost all the time what you deliver will be very good, will be delivered at a pace that matters to the business, and will have high quality. 

What advice would you give to those that are just starting in the technology field?

  • Be the kind of teammate that helps others succeed. 
  • Take care of the team and they will take care of you.
  • Be constantly curious. Be a lifelong learner about leadership, technology, organizations, and whatever else interests you.
  • Life is more than your job. Find balance in all aspects of your life, and the professional portion of your life will benefit.
  • Enjoy the journey as much as the destination in your career.
  • Develop relationships across all areas of the enterprise in which you ply your trade. Those relationships will be key in helping to get initiatives completed.
  • Develop relationships with vendors, mentors, and leaders in other organizations. You will learn from all of them.
  • Learn from the successes and learn from the times when the objectives aren’t met. Both will provide lessons that will be useful in the future.
  • Seek feedback. Others see things you sometimes cannot.
  • When you teach you learn. Be a teacher and you will learn a lot.
  • Happiness is an ‘inside job.’ Life is too short to be unhappy. Find your joy.

I could go on, but these are some of the key pieces of advice I would offer to others.

For more words of wisdom and leadership insights from Kirk Ball, tune into the Tech Whisperers podcast.

Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the Tech Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."