It’s Time to Ditch the Spaghetti Diagrams

Written by Todd L. Michaud
February 1st, 2012

Todd Michaud spent years leading retail technology teams for Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins and today serves as the VP of IT for a billion-dollar franchise restaurant company. He also runs Power Thinking Media, which helps restaurants and retailers with social and mobile challenges.

With all of the new data coming in from mobile and social, retail IT has a truly strategic psychological problem. The old way of creating interfaces between systems can’t scale and will not deliver the results this new world of information overload demands. You’ve got to stop thinking about interfaces and start thinking about services. You’ve got to stop thinking about batch ETL processing and start thinking about real-time data integration.

You’ve got to start accepting cloud computing as a method of scaling your computing platform up and down. You’ve got to dive deep into the world of big data (and unstructured data). In short, you’ve got to rip out most of your information architecture and start over.

The challenge of deriving true business value out of the wealth of data created within a retail organization is not a new one; just ask someone who works in Business Intelligence for a living. And although there has been a lot of progress made in this area over the past 10 years, in the majority of retailers that I speak to, their ability to extract meaningful information from their current data is both limited and time-consuming. It is often done with myriad interfaces, across a patchwork of systems, and requires spaghetti diagrams to explain.

In the past few weeks I have had a chance to talk with Dave Levitt, VP of IT for The Children’s Place, about how the rapidly increasing needs for sharing data across various back-office platforms was quickly dragging the IT team into interface hell. Add to that the marketing team’s desire to fine-tune their marketing messages with data from social networks, and you’ve got an IT team who spends most of their time collecting and moving data around.

Instead of taking the easy way out and asking for more programmers or DBAs, Dave and his team put together a robust information architecture using a trio of technologies that, until recently, wouldn’t be caught dead together in the same enterprise: an enterprise service bus, cloud computing and open-source software.

But with these technologies in place, The Children’s Place is able to maximize E-mail marketing by customizing 80 percent or more of its E-mails to be highly tailored specifically for individual customers. More importantly to the IT team, they now have a highly flexible, easily scalable system that has enabled their team to focus on higher value activities than babysitting data.

Other chains should take note, because most IT teams are ill-equipped to face the tsunami of data heading their way as a result of social media and mobile technology. Add to that the complexity of cloud-based applications that are invading the enterprise and seemingly always need access to data from within the datacenter. Then, if you keep trying what you’ve always done—the definition of insanity—you are going to find yourself all wet.

But with platforms such as social media and mobile technologies dramatically increasing the amount of data being created, the larger need will be to gain insight from this data. I call it the Information Revolution, and it’s already underway. The Information Revolution will consist of three phases: “help me” (decision support); “help you” (marketing optimization); and “help me, help you” (customer optimization). Retail IT teams need to start putting their boots on and getting their hands dirty right now, before it is too late.

Let me explain a little bit about these phases and why they are important to the business.


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