Planning the IT team of the future hosted by Monsoon Accessorize
Monsoon Accessorize Technology Director, Andy Tudor, welcomed IT strategists from a range of sectors to Westfield London this month for an open discussion to debate some of the current issues facing decision-makers.
Andy Tudor, Technology Director Monsoon Accessorize
Tris Nelson, Technology Manager, Just Eat
Alan Morris, Chairman Retail Assist
Stacey Anklam, COO autoGraph.me
Alistair Johnston, Director Programme Management NashTech
Mark Lewis, Deputy CEO Practicology
- Resource Planning
- Technology and Innovation
Introductions from the panel and then delegates outlined some of the areas that they hoped to cover in the sessions:
- Resourcing constraints
- New developments and new technologies
- How to work with the challenges that come with digital transformation
- What are the latest technologies on the horizon
Welcome from Andy Tudor
Andy explained that he has developed an ecosystem of internal and external teams to help to build new technology solutions and capabilities from the ground up. As one of the strategic partners working with Monsoon Accessorize, KETL was asked to put the event event together.
What do we even mean by IT?
Alan Morris explained that having worked in retail IT for over 30 years he has seen a lot of changes and noted that IT and retail had not always been aligned. Alan had founded Retail Assist to close the gap that he had witnessed when retailers were not sufficiently involved in technology.
A common theme in retail technology is change. So the challenge for technology strategists is often around managing transition and rapid change. Technology underpins everything retailers do. Companies like Ocado and ASOS wouldn't exist without technology. Retail technologists need to challenge their Boards and have a voice, especially in areas such as:
- Product lifecycle
- Customer service
- Project implementation
So getting the right people that have the complex mix of skills is a challenge. Getting the right balance of in-house and outsourced functions is critical.
How do you get to a position where you have a team of people who are all pulling together in the same direction so that the management team and the Board see IT and technologists as a core competency of the business?
Tris Nelson explained that Just Eat is a disruptor that is in transition. Originally the company described itself as an 'IT company with a food habit', now the company is moving from a 'start-up' mentality to a more sustainable model where tech is not the core of the company but is key to supporting the business.
Core competencies of the IT team revolve around platform reliability. For a company like Just Eat a platform outage of even minutes is very expensive. This has meant that resourcing the technology team is a priority. The technology teams must be empowered and staffed by good quality tech people. As the company moves into the next phase of development they will start to focus on a sustainable pace of change to ensure reliability.
Tris explained that managing outsourced teams does take some adjustments and there are some efficiency gains when teams are based on one site. If you have teams off-site then you need a more structured approach to team communication and you have to consider issues such as time zones.
Technology development needs to be alive to the cultural constraints within an organisation. If you are going to truly adopt an agile-first approach then you need to understand that there is less control and be okay with that.
Topic 1: Technology team
Audience question - Rob: a lot of retailers haven't worked out how to consume their data sources. Is it time to rethink the structure of retail businesses to integrate technology into all the various teams, merchandising, marketing etc to reorganise the way that all the teams work?
Alan asked who even owns the data in a retail organisation? Originally it was only the IT director, now its the CIO, the CDO, COO etc. how do each of these owners impact the way that data is managed? Who takes ownership of the data? For example omni-channel retailers need to stop the separation of web sales manager and head of store sales - customers are customers.
Mark Lewis: If you were a customer service company and not selling a product, then how would you do things differently? Customer service is key. You need to know what experience you are trying to deliver and then work out the best way to do that.
Complexity issues within retail technology arises from the demands from every angle of the business that are all equally compelling. Managing that demand for change is key. Rename the IT department to the Change and IT department. Having systems in place to help teams to manage that change quickly and efficiently is crucial. If IT owns the process of change it can develop the right skills to evaluate and manage risk and then it does not have to be a block to innovation but at the forefront of it. Getting members of the IT team involved in wider business meetings early on in a project is really important.
Alan: IT needs to be driving the business. IT and business should be one and the same thing.
Andy Tudor: For me the it is important that I am the Technology Director and not the IT Director. I joined the company at the same time as the CCO and both of us report directly to the Board. I work closely with the CCO making sure that technology is there to underpin customer focused initiatives. It does take time and effort. Forging relationships across the business to get a cohesive roadmap of what the whole business needs from technology is a key part of my role. I see our role as 'orchestrators of change'.
Audience question - Nadine: Does anyone on the panel have experience of moving IT people into business functions?
Audience response - Cathy: at Burberry each business team had an IT person assigned to it.
Tris explained that the more a business treats tech in a hostile way, the less innovative the tech team are. Just Eat embraces the fail-fast-learn-fast mentality and we set up our tech teams to succeed. Specific elements of change may fail, adding in new elements to systems might disrupt others and so the whole tech team needs to be able to mitigate this. The big disrupters aren't Amazon or Uber - it is the consumer/customer who is driving and demanding technological innovation.
Mark: If you have a company that is dysfunctional in its business processes then technology alone is not going to fix those bigger issues.
Stacey Anklam: Head of IT needs to be a good internal salesperson to be able to promote small projects to the business and have the authority to be able to take time to convince the business about larger projects.
Tris explained that indecision is a problem. Companies that are too risk averse to enable their technology to innovate will get left behind. It is important to be confident to be prepared to make mistakes and learn lessons.
Audience comment - Peter: In government there isn't always a customer to put first and there can be different drivers. From a CDO perspective it is easy to understand the frustrations with IT management when it can appear that they are holding back innovation by resisting system changes/upgrades.
Audience comment - Phil: Who owns customer data in your organisations and should data science fall within the IT team? Do retailers have CDOs?
Andy explained that he is accountable for data at Monsoon. He sees it as an opportunity to facilitate change and to manage and mitigate changes in the regulatory requirements such as GDPR and to improve data quality.
Alan: Often people who analyse data do not understand the wider business aims and objectives. If you outsource data science then it is difficult for the data to be put into a meaningful context. Equally though do you want your merchandisers or buyers to be spending time pouring over spreadsheets when that is not really what they are best at? Many companies are still not sure how they should be using data and what they are looking for or what questions they should be asking their data.
Audience comment - Cathy: Every member of the board must have an interest in technology and the role of the senior IT specialist is to cultivate that curiosity. In the next 5 years retail will change radically. Previously retail teams needed to understand finance but now they must understand technology too.
Alistair Johnston presented the group with findings from the Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey. The presentation is available as a pdf on the free resource button opposite. The full CIO report can be downloaded here.
Alistair's advice for those embarking on outsourcing is to ensure that you retain core business function in-house. The first time you venture into outsourcing choose a function that you are happy to bring back in-house if the project stalls. Outsourcing is a partnership and that can take time to develop. Start small.
Ian Cray explained that companies that outsource need to have the processes and resources in place to be able to plan, develop and create detailed specifications. This is not always available within the existing team.
Tris explained that outsourcing is now more possible for more organisations because of the improvement of tools to enable teams with multiple locations, Skype, HipChat etc.
Topic 2: Technology and Data
Stacey explained that we must start to bring the consumer into the conversation about how we collect their data. At autoGraph they have developed a platform to help brands to proactively engage with consumers to truly personalise their experience. Retailers are only able to get data from the consumers that choose to buy from them. What would be equally valuable would be data from consumers who are choosing not to purchase from them.
In a collaborative project autoGraph worked with retailers in Regent's Street over the Christmas 2016 period to gather customer data from visitors to the whole street. This enabled shops to gather information on consumers that were not necessarily intending to shop with them. The data was not personally identifiable data but the app allows stores to benefit from the trends highlighted in the data.
Stacey pointed out that consumers are expecting brands to engage with them in a personalised way now and to understand that one approach does not alway fit all. As a consumer I may be happy for a store to know my shopping history when it is convenient and I am in-store about to purchase but not if the information is poorly used and I am sent details of inappropriate products or services. For some brand launches it is more important to identify who you don't want to target, Stacey gave the example of the Shapewear launch. If you have a low propensity for marathons and a high propensity for body beautiful products then you are more likely to be interested in Shapewear.
Alan: Many retailers now partner with data specialists, very common in retail logistics for example, but perhaps more collaboration amongst retailers would be of benefit to identify trends.
Tris explained that Just Eat have been experimenting with machine learning to identify customer expectations around delivery times which has resulted in some very surprising results. Just Eat invests in research and development and uses in-house hackathon-style events to encourage problem solving and to deliver innovation.
Mark: As data scientists are hard to come by at the moment there is a tendency to outsource this function. This trend will adjust as the number of data scientists increases. Data scientists will indeed become core to a retail business's proposition.
Stacey explained that she believed that consumers will start to have more control over their data and how and when it can be used.
Ian pointed out that there will probably come a time when consumers will be given the opportunity to sell their data to brands and retailers and then there would be an incentive to give more detailed and accurate information.
Alan thought that when machine learning really comes in and provides the innovation and the analysis capability that is promised it will empower stores to use Watson type technology for facial recognition and match that with buyers history to allow store colleagues to 'know' a customer.
Mark explained that there has to be a quid pro quo between consumer and business. If the deal is only advantageous to the retailer to gather data then the consumer is more likely to be resistant. But if the data gathered is used in a mutually beneficial way then the consumer will be more willing to share.
Alan talked about retailers who use focus groups for product launches and user experience - but there is an inevitable lag built into this model - so good to focus on younger audience to see where your product needs to move towards over the next few years.
Audience comment - Peter: Dating apps are miles ahead of the way in which they use data compared to retailers. Algorithms will be the next big disrupter.
Tris pointed out that he didn't trust marketers and retailers with his data. The first thing that a retailer will do is 'trick' someone into providing their email. A great example of a two-way relationship is the BBC website. When you sign up you are able to choose what you do and don't want to subscribe to. The site makes it clear and easy to do this. Build up trust and subscription rates increase.
Mark said that basic honesty about the what you intend to do with someone's data is the least we should be doing. Even better we should be explaining to people why we are doing something with their data. Identity theft is a big problem when it happens to you so trust is going to become more and more of a concern to consumers. Losing data and lack of care of PII data can have a devastating impact on consumer's trust of a brand. Bad publicity relating to data security makes problems for everyone and can dent general levels of trust in consumers.
Helen: How can companies fund investment in technology innovation and set up pilot projects?
Ian: How do you bring in new tech, without disrupting the business, whilst planning for the future?
Andy: If you have a good partnership relationship then you share the risk and reward. Retailers shouldn't have to bear the entire burden and risk of innovation. Different businesses are going to have different attitudes to risk and experimentation. For me I feel that it is essential to get the basics right and working before trying to innovate. Currently we have been innovating in our data warehouse design and function to enable core benefits to the business. Once the core benefits are nailed then we can find budget for research and development.
Alan: This is why startup companies carry a lot of debt up front, because it takes time to encourage people to buy something that is entirely new to the market.
Tris described how Just Eat has its own incubator with four small companies. This gets around issues of risk. You empower the developers to think creatively and give them the right space to innovate. Then the business itself is able to react in a flexible way to bring the new tech in at the right time and with the right balance of risk. Tris also pointed out that it isn't just the products or service improvements that R&D can bring but changes to methodologies too that can be valuable to the way that the whole company operates. So R&D teams need to have structure and methods in place that allow them to create, test and pass/fail within a process that is creative. We never know what will take-off.
Alistair pointed out that research and development projects that fail to lift-off will often contain elements that are useful and will move onto speed up production of future projects. Lessons that have been learned and put to good use.
Audience comment - Cathy: There needs to be a corporate culture that allows people to follow their gut instinct where there's a small risk. New technology such as voice control and activation is likely to be an area of innovation in retail. When something is simple and relevant we all adopt it immediately, as a customer, but if there's friction we give up quickly. Sometimes though as technologists it makes sense to revisit projects that were initially unsuccessful as they may become more relevant in future developments. This is seen in the way that voice commands have evolved into useful tech such as Alexa now.
Stacey pointed out that often new tech that takes hold is successful when it breaks down a barrier to action. An example at Heathrow airport where an app was developed to help identify maintenance concerns quickly and simply. Staff could take a picture and it was immediately uploaded to the maintenance crew who could assign a priority. It was minimum effort involved from other teams and was easy to use.
We then had to finish the event. Helen explained that the plan was to host another event in the autumn if delegates and panel speakers had found it useful. Helen thanked everyone for their time and looked forward to continuing the discussions via social media and at future events.