The Politics Of Being A Retail CIO

Written by Todd L. Michaud
September 12th, 2012

Todd Michaud runs Power Thinking Media, which helps retailers and restaurants tackle the convergence of social, mobile and retail technologies. He spent nine years delivering technology platforms to more than 10,000 retail locations as VP of IT for Focus and Director of Retail Technology for Dunkin’ Brands.

Why is it that the same retailers who will replace a finance clerk’s desktop like clockwork every four years will let their POS linger for eight, nine, 10 or more years? Why is it that datacenters can be consolidated and

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servers can be virtualized but E-Commerce still operates as a separate channel? The answer is simple: politics.

Becoming a CIO is a lot like running for office. You have to make a lot of promises to get the job. Once you get the job, you have high expectations to deliver on a lot of competing interests (a lot of people to keep happy). You find way more ghosts in your closet from your predecessor than you expected. You get about four years to make everything happen, or they will find someone else to do the job. Sound familiar?

No one likes to talk about the fact that many retailers change IT leadership more often than they turn inventory. After decades of high turnover in the IT leadership position, you would think CEOs and CFOs would learn that the grass isn’t any greener on the other side. The CIO, no matter who he or she is, may be hamstrung by a large amount of technical debt, which means way too many resources are allocated to keeping the existing systems running and not to delivering innovation. That the organization may be either too bureaucratic or too free flowing to deliver quality projects on time. That vendor contracts may have been built around a price point rather than an expected level of service.

It’s a dirty little secret that CIOs are faced with having to make decisions that often put their personal income and career trajectory at odds with delivering business benefit. Do they swing for the fences and try to undo a decade of poor technology decisions? Or do they bunt and virtualize their servers? Do they make the throw to home plate by standing up to the CMO when it comes to the best way to implement social strategy? Or do they hit the cutoff man and deliver iPads to the C-suite? Home-run hitters tend not to have the highest batting average, and this industry has little patience for strikeouts.

So CIOs are often left with the reality that although they may want to change the world, they have to be there long enough to do it. That they have to focus on achieving some smaller, often political, victories to give them more runway to tackle the bigger headache projects. The more time that goes by, the more technical debt invades an organization and the more difficult it is to undo. Couple this with the complexities of emerging technologies (nothing is easy to implement anymore), and you have a tough road ahead.


3 Comments | Read The Politics Of Being A Retail CIO

  1. CIO Inverted Says:

    Having spent 5+ years in the retail industry (moving out a few months back), I tend to agree with some of the points that are raised, but not necessarily all !

    Reality is that CEOs of most large retailers were born in the era of no internet, no mobile phones, social media ? what’s that ! And most of them are techno phobic. CEOs of this generation have largely tolerated IT and the CIO or they have made sure that discussions give you pain in all the wrong parts of the body. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are exactly that, a minority of exceptions.

    The story is the same world over having seen similar behaviors from Europe and Asia too.

    Yes it is hard to make progress of any kind, it does take longer and the budget discussions all over the place with thinning margins. Ideas to change some of these are rarely acted upon (if it has worked for so long, it will eventually work tomorrow too).

    You may want to check out

  2. ed Says:

    This discussion parallels the banking industry going through the same challenges. The old adage apply that if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it or upgrade it which is why many computer systems and the software tend to be 10-15 years old!

    I believe these industries want a CIO that understand how to keep the gears spinning rather than the latest and greatest gizmos.

  3. Paul Lappage Says:

    That’s an eye opening and frank insight Todd. It’s always interesting to learn about the pressures that these professionals are under.


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