Digital transformation is seldom about technology alone. People have to get their heads around it; behaviours have to change. For that to happen in the retail industry, businesses need a CIO with a strong vision.
And retail CIOs are often hired exactly for that transformation vision. They are brought in at crucial times in the history of organisations when major changes in operating models, ways of working and culture are required to make sure the business survives and is competitive into the future.
In the past two years, few industries have gone through as much change as retail. Post-pandemic, this sector is still battling with staff shortages, rising inflation, supply-chain disruptions caused by the current geopolitical situation and consumers continuing to relocate from city centres to less urban areas. In addition, long periods spent in lockdown have forced people to alter their shopping habits with online purchases and delivery services becoming much more prevalent.
All this volatility and ambiguity are placing unprecedented pressure on retail CIOs. New CIOs only have a short window of opportunity to prove their transformation is going to succeed. Armed with the experience of other projects they have led in the past, CIOs set out to design a path forward for companies they are just getting to know. Inevitably, transformation anxiety is one of the first challenges they encounter. Some board members might not appreciate the necessity of a major IT investment at a time when the company is struggling but still showing positive results. They might also worry about their teams and the extra burden the program means for them, particularly given the tight recruitment market. Employees might also be concerned about their roles becoming obsolete. Those close to retirement might be reluctant to learn the new skills required.
Before CIOs can get down to shaping the system change they want to achieve, they have to battle with a series of people-related challenges, both at the board level and on the ground.
That’s where involving a change professional from the early days can make a difference. A change manager can act as a trusted advisor and an ally to a CIO, helping him or her tune into the mood of an organisation.
There are several scenarios where such an advisor has proven invaluable. We would like to highlight a few.
Win the board over
The scope and scale of a transformation program can make board members uneasy. They might not understand the benefits of the new technology. They might fear that the anxiety the transformation is causing among their teams could offset, at least in the short term, the advantages the new system is promising to bring to their business.
Take, for example, a board member in charge of marketing and communication at a large retailer, and who doesn’t want his overall corporate communication strategy linked to the digital transformation. He probably doesn’t really believe in the transformation and therefore doesn’t want his communications associated with it. This kind of disconnect could prove highly disruptive. The CIO needs to get the board member and marketing team on her side. And she needs ammunition to be able to convince them. A change professional can help by carrying out research among different stakeholder groups, evaluating their propensity to change and assessing the way they would like to learn and consume information about the transformation program. Armed with such knowledge, it will then be possible for the CIO to present the hesitant board member with facts and convince him of the importance of building a common front and joining up their communication efforts.
A vision to relate to
Analysts agree that CIOs have become as influential as CHROs when it comes to setting the culture of a workplace. And culture has become paramount in retail for attracting and retaining staff. CIOs are also instrumental in creating the identity of a transformation program. Every digital transformation needs a vision. We are talking about unprecedented long-term projects likely to unsettle large groups of employees and encounter their resistance. We need a compelling vision able to inspire minds and mobilise efforts.
And that vision has to be broken up into chunks that people can easily relate to and get excited about. Otherwise, they will feel left behind. As Jonathan Smart describes in Sooner Safer Happier, the bigger the capital ‘T’ in transformation, the steeper the Kübler-Ross change curve1 an employee has to ride through.
One of those chunks could be data. Data and analytics are some of the most inspiring aspects of a transformation. The prospect of being able not only to collect data, but also to extract unique insight from it is irresistible. Data’s potential inspires people. All of a sudden the vision behind a new system becomes tangible, less abstract. Every employee in retail knows the difference that having better consumer analytics could make to his or her job. For store managers, the possibility of getting more data from interactions with consumers and combining it with social media or weather data means they can handle their inventory in a more proactive way, exploiting predictive insight.
Change professionals are used to gauging the appetite of an organisation for the new. They can spot the most compelling arguments behind a transformation, like data, and turn them into a powerful story. They are ideally positioned to help a CIO create an identity for a program and strengthen its vision by making it more relatable and easier to communicate.
The workplace path
How fast an organisation is able to transform also depends on its openness to cloud technology. CIOs are often confronted with the issue of an organisation not being able to fully grasp the benefits of moving from on-prem to cloud. And retail has often proved a rather traditional sector.
In our work, we have become aware that the path to cloud often goes through workplace modernisation. Office 365 has become for some retail clients an entry point. Once their employees are exposed to the freedom of accessing files anywhere from any device or the experience of collaborating on the same document with unprecedented version control, they can start picturing the difference cloud can make to other processes.
CIOs can use the energy around a workplace transformation to get buy-in for their overall vision. Again, a highly tangible digital experience can be utilised to help users visualise changes at a much larger scale.
Workplace collaboration tools alleviate the administrative workload of store staff. They free up time staff can spend interacting with consumers at the front of the shop, rather than having to fill out paper-based form after form in the back.
Workplace transformation is one of the main areas of expertise of many change professionals. It has an impact on how employees behave, share content and connect. That’s why change managers are instrumental in making sure that workplace technology is not merely rolled out, but fully adopted and its new ways of working internalised.
Change professionals are ideally positioned to advise retail CIOs on how to turn the success of a workplace modernisation into an engine of further transformation.
Our experience tells us that, rather than being an afterthought, change management needs to be positioned as a key supporting element of a transformation roadmap. With a change manager as a trusted advisor, a CIO will be able to build powerful alliances throughout the business and keep an ear on the ground as the transformation program progresses.
Summarised, here are some of the primary ways in which a change professional can support a CIO embarking on a transformation for a large retailer:
- Have the conversations a CIO can’t have with reluctant and sometimes hostile stakeholders. Gauge the change appetite at different levels. Often, it tends to be higher at the store level due to the emotional bond between staff and consumers. It is key to capitalise on this energy and use it to feed change in other parts of the business.
- Develop a compelling vision for the program supported by professional communication and inspiring messaging.
- Identify ‘entry points,’ i.e., steps on the transformation journey that are easier for people to relate to (e.g., workplace modernisation) and turn them into engines of adoption for the overall program.
- Inspire the board with stories and examples of other retail companies that have been successful at getting their people’s buy-in by placing change at the centre of their transformation.
The speed at which the retail sector is changing and embracing digital is only bound to increase in the near future due to an overall rise in inflation and a decline in customers’ purchasing power. A growing number of employees will continue to have little time to adjust to new operating models. Strong partnerships with change professionals are what CIOs will continue to need in order to be able to deliver successful transformations.