The More Things Change (Wither the CIO?)
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I saw a notification on LinkedIn this weekend that one of the retail industry’s great CIOs, Ron Griffin of Autozone, has announced his retirement after a 48 year career. Before being at Autozone, Ron worked at HP, the pre-Bob Nardelli Home Depot, and Deloitte. I knew Ron back in the 1990’s when he as at H-D, when he and some other CIOs, including Walmart’s Randy Mott (and later, Kevin Turner), Sears’ Joe Smialowski, Hannaford Brothers’ Bill Homa, and Target’s Paul Singer, would join informal get-togethers at the big Retail Systems Alert (RSAG) “Chicago” show. The host of these gatherings was Tom Friedman, RSAG’s founder and leading light, who worked hard to foster “peer-level” discussions among professionals. Of course, there were certain rules, the most important being that the focus was the tech, not each other’s businesses.
There was always plenty to talk about. It’s almost inconceivable now to think about how seriously we took the issues of the day, “little” things like whether new Epson printers or Symbol scanners could connect to an IBM POS terminal, and if not, why not and how to correct such an industry-wide problem? BTW, the answer to that was to form a standards committee- ARTS, headed by another of that generation’s CIOs, Boscovs’ Richard Mader. All the CIOs in the group supported the ARTs initiative, and that is why – among other things – you can plug a low cost printer into a USB port on the back of a POS register today. Problems like that littered the crossroads between retail and technology in the 1980’s-90’s and got in the way of progress, because the technologies involved were so primitive, proprietary, and expensive.
I met Ron through Tom Friedman, because I was staring down the barrel of a big and very expensive IBM-SNA network upgrade, and I was beginning to hear a lot of chatter about “peer-to-peer” networks that used Internet protocols. Since Tom knew “everyone”, I called him to find out who was doing that kind of thing, and Tom introduced me to Ron. I’ll never forget what he said to me on our first call: “Well, since Longs Drugs doesn’t sell wood and Home Depot doesn’t sell aspirin, we can talk!” Ron was a perfect gentleman, and in turn introduced me to John Chambers at Cisco Systems, and as the saying goes, I was “off to the races”.
Like his contemporary Randy Mott at Walmart, Ron was adamant that Home Depot had to develop its own solutions, and he had a big development shop to support that point-of-view. There were two salient facts-of-life in those days, that may seem almost like fiction now. The first was this: commercial applications didn’t work. They were really frameworks, and it required a huge amount of custom code to successfully get them up and functioning. Ron’s position was essentially, “why do we need to pay for the framework – we can do that ourselves!” And so, they did.
The second reality of the day was that the applications weren’t portable – what worked on an IBM AS/400 wouldn’t even load on an HP3000. So, CIOs had tremendous power in those days; no matter how sexy an app looked to the business users, if it ran on an AS/400 and your shop was an HP3000 shop, it was no-go.
That was the world that Ron operated in, and he was tremendously successful. Ironically, years later in the early 2000’s he and Randy Mott became the leadership team at H-P that consolidated divisional computing into a centrally managed IT environment that utilized commercial apps like Oracle and SAP. If one ever needed a good indication of just how much things had changed in the 15-year period 1990-2005, that is it.
But Ron wasn’t a tech bigot (as perhaps I was). I remember watching Ron receive a very tepid response at a talk he was giving towards the end of his stint at H-D, when he proposed that IT shouldn’t have any budget – the spend should be 100% allocated to line-of-business departments. His contention was that if the business didn’t value a tech investment enough to “own” it, IT shouldn’t do it. I thought I heard a collective gasp through the room; after all it was filled with IT leaders who spent most of their time trying to get MORE money from the business, not less. But that’s Ron – business first, tech second – even though sometimes it might not have seemed that way.
In a roundabout way, this brings me to a topic that we discuss a lot at RSR, but rarely write about. And that is, the role of the CIO. From Year 2000 until the pandemic, the industry saw a steady erosion in the power of the CIO. I have argued that that is because Ron’s generation of CIOs was so successful in pushing the technology solutions providers to improve their game, to implement standards, to deliver systems that did what they were supposed to do, and to help retailers improve their operational processes with the thoughtful application of technology to streamline the business. With those achievements increasingly taken for granted, the CIO role changed in dramatic fashion.
So, by 2019, the demise in the importance of the CIO role was a common theme. One article in CIO magazine (Waning Or Waxing? What’s Happening To CIO Influence? CIO, January 2019) summed it up this way:
“Ten years ago, most enterprise systems, software and infrastructure were developed and managed inside the business and under the remit of the IT organization and its head—the CIO… More and more CIOs are now taking on the strategic negotiation and oversight of cloud and digital solution providers rather than directly managing those teams. For some CIOs used to working closely with internal IT teams, this might feel like a loss of influence and connection to technology. However, the potential and scope of cloud computing as well as other transformative technologies like AI, automation, block chain, and machine learning can and should be viewed as an opportunity to once again elevate the CIO role.”
The quote underscores a wish that CIOs would become internal change agents by promoting the use of new tech, the Cloud, AI, blockchain, etc. Without the context of the business challenges that those things may help to address, I can’t imagine how a conversation with the CEO or CFO would be successful!
It could be though that the pandemic is triggering a reconsideration of the CIO role in business. RSR has already written reams about how the pandemic has caused retailers to elevate “digitalization” of the business from a mere concept to an actual transformation project, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that retail businesses are discovering that digital information and the insights that can be derived from it are strategic to helping the business be more proactive and agile in today’s marketplace.
Encapsulating this point of view, in January 2021 an article in the Wall Street Journal stated:
“The coronavirus pandemic has put corporate information technology in the spotlight, as companies turn to digital tools to keep running amid lockdowns and travel restrictions. In its wake, IT leaders say they have gained influence in corporate boardrooms and expanded their role in front-office decision making—an upward shift that is likely to remain permanent, chief information, technology and digital chiefs say. ‘The pandemic has shown us that digital transformation is the number one business imperative right now, and, as a result, the role of the CIO has never been more crucial,’ said Chris Bedi, CIO of cloud-software company ServiceNow Inc.”
So it is that “now” should be a great time to be a CIO. Leaders like Ron Griffin showed us all how to get it done.