Boots leading drive for ‘professionalisation of IT’ in retail

Boots becomes member of the BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, as CIO Rich Corbridge accelerates drive for the ‘professionalisation of IT’

Boots’ CIO for UK and Ireland, Rich Corbridge, says he is “striving for the professionalisation of IT”.

In a recent LinkedIn Pulse post, Corbridge – who has been CIO at the high street chemist for the past year – cited ex-NHS CIO and active digital healthcare campaigner Andy Kinnear as a key influence in this space.

Following the Kinnear line of thinking, the Boots tech boss believes that for IT roles to gain official professional status, they must create a programme of learning that is multifaceted in its focus, develop skills for all and provide access to new knowledge for everyone, and create new networks and relationships for each team member.

Using this as a blueprint, Corbridge has taken the decision to make Boots a member of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT. It represents a rare move by a UK retailer, but is indicative of a changing world where industries previously not considered “digital” must invest time, effort and resources in IT development, in acknowledgement of its growing importance.

Corbridge and Boots do not just want to be members – they want to use their position in the BCS to engage with other industries to talk about best practice, and also to build a “retail special interest group”, where multiple retailers share experiences.

What is the professionalisation of IT?

Computer Weekly caught up with Corbridge to find out more, and he says it is time the IT team benefited from the “professional recognition” their colleagues in human resources (HR) and finance departments have received for decades.

BCS helps organisations take their training, development and framework and apply that to the technologists comprising individual workforces.

“When we look around at the exec teams in organisations in general, HR and finance have to be accredited – and in our business, the pharmacists and healthcare professionals too,” says Corbridge. “They have to go through a period of training and development and to demonstrate their personal development as they go.”

“My passion for the last 10 years has been a case of how to create professional recognition of IT to such a degree that it is on a par with a finance or HR leader – making it professional”

Richard Corbridge, Boots

But that is not currently the situation for the senior IT representatives within organisations.

“To be a CIO or IT director, as long as you’ve got the CV, you’ve probably got the job,” Corbridge notes. “I don’t have an IT degree, for example. My passion for the last 10 years has been a case of how to create professional recognition of IT to such a degree that it is on a par with a finance or HR leader – making it professional.”

The BCS accredits individuals and organisations in several different ways.

At Boots parent Walgreens Boots Alliance, there is already an established IT Academy run in partnership with online education site Pluralsight. But by adding BCS to it, the retail and pharmacy group will have access to more training options focused on areas such as general IT skills, organisational change and personal development.

Every member of the IT leadership team at Boots must be a fellow of the BCS by September 2022, according to Corbridge, underlining how seriously the retailer is taking this new tie-up. “We can lead from the front and show we believe in IT,” he says.

In the current environment, where stores are being digitised, online healthcare is on the rise through initiatives such as Boots’ public healthcare digital partnerships and remote working has expanded due to the pandemic, it feels like a suitable time for membership.

Corbridge says the move has “galvanised the team”, adding: “They are super-enthusiastic for any development. With changes in tech, ways of working and in how we work, it’s seen as something people want to seize on.”

Retail special interest group

The Boots CIO believes BSC membership will also open up networks, and he is looking forward to the collaboration that comes with being part of such an organisation.

Corbridge says Boots is volunteering to lead a “retail special interest group” within BCS to try to bring IT professionals from wider retail together.

“Where it’s not commercially conflicting to do so, we can say, ‘How did you do X Y and Z?’ and ‘What did you think of partner A?’,” he says.

“The BCS partnership and IT Academy is about making sure we have the skills to do everything from customer experience work all the way through to managing crucial network changes”
Richard Corbridge, Boots

Corbridge doesn’t think there is currently such an environment for sharing good practice in this way and believes “at the core end of IT” competing companies should be able to share and support each other.

“It’s kind of for the good of the British high street at a digital level,” he says. “It’s a case of not making the same mistake twice. Wherever there isn’t commercial conflict, I want to push really hard to see where we can share stories.”

Other retailers, including Specsavers and John Lewis Partnership, have previously been organisationally part of the BCS – but this is a new initiative to increase collaboration and to have open conversations with like-minded individuals across multiple businesses.

For Boots, right now, the move to professionalise IT within its own organisation is pertinent.

Corbridge says Boots has transformed its online offering since the turn of the year. A replatformed, the implementation of Adobe as a personalisation tool, and a marketplace for healthcare are all part of that work, but will only be fully visible to customers next year once peak trading has passed.

More access in Boots stores and online to healthcare services that Corbridge says will “help the NHS cope with the demand that is here because of Covid” is also on the horizon at Boots.

“The BCS partnership and IT Academy is about making sure we have the skills to do everything from customer experience work all the way through to managing crucial network changes,” Corbridge comments, admitting digital touches all parts of Boots.

The BCS view

Corbridge believes Boots’ commitment to IT will help it stand out in the recruitment market but, for the institute itself, it could represent a stimulus for more membership.

Adam Thilthorpe, director of external affairs at BCS, talks of the professionalisation of IT as putting a structure in place for organisations to fully get to grips with “best practice and next practice”.

“Professionalism is around adopting standards so you don’t make the same mistakes over and over again – and that means doing today’s stuff well,” he remarks.

“If you can nail that you can move on to this ‘next practice’ idea – doing tomorrow’s stuff first. What tech will have a material effect on our business and how will we have the skillset in our organisation to deal with it?”

The BCS, he says, is well-positioned as a “non-threatening” body to bring different organisations together to share such ideas, learn together and help shape a more professional future for IT.

On Corbridge’s move to lead a working group via the BCS, he adds: “Big organisations like Boots are on their journey to reimagine what the next iteration of their companies looks like.

“I hope we can get more retailers happy to share some of the things they’ve tried, as well as their hopes and dreams of what retail and digital might look like in the future without us constantly just talking about Amazon.”

Read more about retail technology

  • As the coronavirus outbreak accelerates the shift in consumer behaviour, how are retailers using technology to keep customers engaged?
  • The pandemic appears to have solidified e-commerce’s ascendancy against the high street. Coronavirus has accelerated technology adoption in many sectors, and people have been forced to stay at home, increasing their reliance on online shopping.


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