How retail and logistics CIOs are tackling tech transformation

Chief information officers in retail and logistics discuss the ways their roles have evolved and how they’re building the teams of the future, in a recent roundtable

To say it’s been a challenging couple of years for retail and logistics CIOs would be an understatement. Online sales in the UK jumped up by 15% between March 2020 and February 2021 as people turned to ecommerce during coronavirus lockdowns and both retailers and logistics firms leant heavily on their technology leaders to meet consumers’ demands for goods.

Coming out of the pandemic, there is now a skills shortage to grapple with. And as firms embrace emerging technologies and compete to hire talent, salaries for some roles have rocketed. These were all topics covered at length in a recent roundtable discussion sponsored by specialist IT recruiter and project services provider Computer Futures. 

As a result of this fast-moving change, the CIO role has been seriously elevated. “We were leaned upon in a way that we could have only ever dreamed of … We have, at last, been trusted and believed as a transformation agent rather than an IT director, which is a positive thing,” says Rich Corbridge, CIO of Boots UK and Ireland. 

The unrelenting focus on technology has fostered new ways of working and made CIOs and their teams more proactive within a business. Delivery company Yodel now uses agile ways of working, with CIO Helen Marshall creating the relevant multidisciplinary teams – known as squads – and relentlessly prioritising to deliver business value at pace. “We’re able to move much faster,” Marshall says. 

For the roundtable participants, there has also been a shift towards a product-orientated operating model, a way of working that focuses on a particular business capability rather than an IT system, with teams working together to deliver a solution to an internal or external client. At Yodel, this means its apps can integrate, so, for example, a driver can use a tailored app to communicate with a customer for directions to their address, via that customer’s app.

Integration has also become more important at Boots. The pandemic helped to blur the line between brick-and-mortar stores and the retailer’s ecommerce site, which had previously been seen as a competitor to its physical shops. “It’s fascinating – the way that people in our stores see technology. It has become just another part of what they do, rather than it becoming this competitor, this thing that’s going to take their jobs in the future,” Corbridge states.

Keeping up with constantly evolving consumer trends and your tech needs means carefully managing your talent supply, says Faith Doherty, senior business manager at Computer Futures. “A big challenge in delivering the kind of projects and programmes of work … is being able to prepare yourselves and your teams to have the right people to deliver them at the right time,” she says. 

Remote working has widened the talent pool for logistics company Wincanton, which has its head office in Wiltshire. As for many firms, the pandemic proved that large projects can be done by a distributed workforce – Wincanton delivered significant large scale systems, including a transport management system and a cloud enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform, remotely during the pandemic, says its CIO Richard Gifford. 

Hiring from more diverse talent pools is also something the firm is focusing on. “We actually set ourselves KPIs from the board, the exec team and then down through the organisation … when we’re looking at forming teams, at recruitment, all the way through, it’s a very positive thing that we’re doing. So, it’s not just happening, we’re designing it, and we’re actively on it,” he states.

We have, at last, been trusted and believed as a transformation agent rather than an IT director, which is a positive thing

Hybrid and remote working helps different types of people to thrive, a trend Doherty has seen within Computer Futures as well as with clients. The stereotypical view of a white male sitting at a boardroom table is now on its way out, she says. “It’s actually people sitting in their homes, juggling work and life, from different types of backgrounds, from different parts of the country.” 

But, while talent has become more accessible in some ways, other hiring challenges remain, with the supply of tech workers not meeting the demand. “One of the things we’ve tried to do differently is to be more generic in the roles we bring in and then allow them to develop into specific roles,” says Corbridge, adding that solution architects are particularly hard to find. 

Another way to attract talent is to showcase what’s on offer, says Marshall. “At Yodel, we focus our investment on technology that delivers value to our clients, consumers, and colleagues. Our IT colleagues have fostered a great team, working to deliver technology that provides cutting edge solutions. It’s an exciting prospect for new talent to be able to work so dynamically.” 

Retaining staff is a key concern, especially with the so-called ‘great resignation’ underway in most sectors. In IT, just 29% of workers have a “high intent” to stay in their roles, according to a Gartner survey, and keeping people is a focus for all of the roundtable participants. “We’re very conscious now of bringing people in and immediately making sure that for those people, there is a career path that’s defined,” says Wincanton’s Gifford. 

Indeed, retention at all levels is proving tricky. “Developing colleagues has always been an important focus for us here at Yodel and it’s now more important than ever to ensure these opportunities are provided, allowing colleagues to upskill and get promoted in order to grow them in the business,” explains Marshall at Yodel. 

A common theme across recruitment in the STEM industries is how to keep hold of people, Doherty confirms, and forward-looking businesses are looking proactively at how to manage demand, she adds. “They’re looking at those programmes that are being bid for, or are being mapped out at an exec level, and people are saying ‘where are my gaps over the next 12 to 24 months? And how can we partner with people that can help me get that work done?’” 

What’s next for CIOs? The pace of change is only going to increase, says Yodel’s Marshall. “We’ve seen dramatic changes in how we use technology in the last few years and this trend looks set to accelerate even further into the future. The next step for us is to build on our utilisation of predictive analytics to support the continued development of the business, whilst at the same time evolving our employee proposition to attract and retain the best talent,” she says. 

At Wincanton, the CIO role is “less about the tech,” says Gifford. “It’s much more about the business value that that’s going to bring and ensuring we unlock business process and innovative areas of value … that’s all about building a great team.”

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