American Apparel, Belk, Deckers CIOs Discuss IT's Changing Roles

The old caricature of an IT executive was the guy (and it was usually a guy) getting totally carried away by the excitement of the latest piece of tech wizardry – pushing hard for the dreaded "tech for tech's sake." Even if this stereotype was once true, today it's been turned on its head. In retail, IT executives are frequently the ones moving the corporate conversation away from the latest gadget and back to the business problem that needs to be solved.

That's not to say that the panelists at the 2012 RIS Retail Executive Summit session titled "What the C-Suite and Board Need to Know About IT" don't appreciate technology. It's more that they see it as an enabling tool rather than an end in itself.

"IT's role is as a business consultant, one that improves business processes and uses technology," said Mike Laurenti, CIO of Belk Department Stores. "When you see an oil drill pumping, it's important to remember that the oil is what provides the value – the drill, the technology, is just what extracts that value."

Laurenti, one of the winners of the 2012 RIS CIO of the Year Award, is leading a multi-year IT and business transformation at the 300-store chain that includes new merchandising, POS, warehouse and order management solutions and the building of a new distribution center, among many other elements. He's well aware that success requires both technology and processes be aligned and right for the business: "Our saying is 'BP + NT = EBP: Bad Process + New Technology = Expensive Bad Process.'"

Stacey Shulman is CTO of American Apparel, not only a retailer but the world's 14th largest clothing manufacturer (and the largest in the U.S.). "Our CEO believes technology is the way to get a business to the next level, and that every dime spent on tech goes directly to the bottom line," sais Shulman. Given this high-level belief in technology, "it would be easy for us to take a lot of latitude with that, but the way we see technology in the organization is to be an internal consulting group for the business. My team has to continuously look for ways to improve the business, and their goal is to do that without making a technology change."

That said, Shulman noted that the IT group tends to be in the forefront of new trends, particularly social media, but mostly as it relates to expanding American Apparel's business. IT has driven initiatives on tracking conversion, tying customer loyalty into social media, augmented reality applications, the use of mobile apps to tie these elements together and customer messaging consistency.

In terms of IT's communication with corporate boards, the general rise in people's tech knowledge helps Yul Vanek, vice president of IT at Deckers Outdoor. "In communicating with boards, it elevates the conversation from the tactical to the strategic level," said Vanek. Boards themselves are "becoming increasingly accountable and engaged with senior management."

On the other hand, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. "A board member may have heard about cloud computing on Jim Cramer's CNBC show and ask 'What are we doing with the cloud?' That's not really the conversation we want to be having, because cloud is just another delivery vehicle, another arrow in the quiver."

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