Business skills break down the barriers

Putting IT at the heart of the business is crucial to making Asda a best place to work in IT - and IT staff are recognised as vital for the company's success.

Putting IT at the heart of the business is crucial to making Asda a best place to work in IT - and IT staff are recognised as vital for the company's success.

But they were not always so well regarded. "In 1997 Asda outsourced its IT to IBM because IT was seen as non-core to retailing," said IT manager Steve Taylor.

That philosophy was turned on its head when Asda was acquired in 1999 by US retailer Wal-Mart. "Wal-Mart's view is quite the opposite - IT is core," said Taylor.

The outsourcing contract with IBM was dissolved, and Asda's IT brought back in-house. However, Wal-Mart's philosophy was also that acquired companies should use, for the most part, Wal-Mart's IT systems, to which most of Asda's IT was duly migrated.

During the outsourcing to IBM, Asda's internal IT had shrunk to a team of 12 staff, or colleagues in Asda terminology. "That meant we were virtually a greenfield site colleague-wise," said Taylor.

Some of the original Asda IT team who had transferred to IBM were brought back, and some IBM staff who had been working on the Asda account were also taken on, including Taylor himself. But that still left a lot of empty desks to fill. "Our primary goal is to hire people who have a passion for retailing," said Taylor. "Most people in Asda's IT department do not have maths or computing degrees. Instead of an IT professional, I would rather find a business person with a bent for IT - I can teach them what systems knowledge they need."

Taylor was keen to recruit people who were already part of Asda. "We have recruited about 20 or so in the past two years and our primary source is IT's own [internal] customers, especially from among the 2,000 colleagues at our main office in Leeds. They are my first port of call," he said.

"After that, we will advertise outside the company, but we specifically advertise so as not to screen for IT people, and we advertise first in non-computer magazines. For example, most of my team who support our finance systems are qualified accountants and, for our retail systems, one of our IT colleagues recently gained an industry-recognised vintner retailing qualification."

Asda has a compelling rationale for preferring business and retail skills to IT expertise. Although UK IT has only about 150 staff, the department can draw on Wal-Mart's 2,500 strong IT organisation in the US as a huge technical resource for both IT infra- structure and specialist IT skills. This leaves Asda free to focus its own IT department on its relationship with the business.

And it can best do this, the company believes, if IT staff have strong business and retail backgrounds. "IT staff can speak as equals to business staff," said Taylor. "IT can sometimes have its own agenda and priorities, but both sides respect each other's issues."

Having such a high concentration of IT staff with business and retail backgrounds removes a lot of the "habitual conflict", which makes for a better place to work, he said.

That close alignment means IT is brought into the business loop at an early stage. Asda directors all present their annual plans to the executive board. "If their plans rely on IT, they are expected to have already engaged with IT as to the implications," said Taylor. In turn, all new systems have to get their return on investment signed by the business users, who have a given time to show that business benefit has been delivered after implementation. "That helps to eliminate the nonsense projects," said Taylor. It also helps track whether business changes mean that a proposed system is still necessary.

Taylor believes keeping IT focused on Asda's business is critical. "Our shoppers do not care about our IT - they care what is on the shelves and what price it is," he said. "That is why on every IT colleague's lanyard tag is our motto - 'think like a merchant'."

How to ensure IT's business credibility

Ensuring IT is at the heart of the business is a complex and multi-layered process. Never a "one off" project, it needs a permanent cultural shift within IT.

  • Consider hiring IT staff from the business, or from the business' industry sector, rather than only from the IT industry
  • Place IT staff in secondment roles within business departments to make relationships and see the world through user eyes
  • Hire specialist staff whose primary function is to build and sustain IT's relationships with business
  • Regularly survey business units' impression of IT's performance and act on the findings
  • Build and sustain relationships with business at all levels, from on-the-ground staff through to the chief executive
  • Get "basic hygiene" with smoothly running IT- this is essential for IT to be seen as a credible, competent business partner.

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