CIO interview: Julian Burnett, chief technology officer, Sainsbury’s

On plans for IT project delivery at Sainsbury’s, as well as the move to a multichannel set-up, outsourcing, innovation and skills development.

Julian Burnett is the chief technology officer at Sainsbury’s. Working under IT director Rob Fraser, the former CSC and Capgemini executive is accountable for technology planning at the retail giant.

After joining the company in February 2010, Burnett was initially involved in Project Accelerate, which entailed the reorganisation of the IT function. In 2012, the team will embark on the second year of a five-year IT roadmap.

In this Q&A, Burnett talks about plans for IT project delivery at Sainsbury’s, as well as the move to a multichannel set up, outsourcing, innovation and skills development.

Q: Tell us about the IT department at Sainsbury’s

We have around 450 permanent colleagues across the division, but we extend that through relationships with various systems integrator and services partners so our total headcount sits at about 800 people.

Under [Sainsbury’s IT director] Rob Fraser we have two heads of business change, myself, a head of IT delivery, head of IT operations and a head of IT service.

I run the technology planning function, where I have a flat structure with a principal enterprise architect, who is accountable for the long-term strategy and planning, as well as solution governance.

I also have additional direct reports who are principal solution architects who lead the architecture and design of solutions within our investment portfolio and have a direct relationship with the heads of business change as well.

In terms of IT suppliers, our main partners are TCS, Infosys and Cognizant. We have a wide range of hardware and software suppliers, the main ones being Oracle and IBM.

Q: Is Project Accelerate still ongoing? What have been the main achievements so far?

We’ve come to the end of Accelerate as we knew it. The programme was designed to essentially reorganise the division and focus on key areas of capability to develop the divisional structure in IT.

During the programme, we have been through the big organisational changes that we needed to make and focused on introducing more capability around business change, technology planning, delivery and operations.

The final structural change has been made recently, which was to bring service management out from within the IT operations team and make it a team on its own right at senior leadership level.

We are on version three of our renewed IT operating model and that is bedding in well, our colleagues are adopting that and [the new model] is having a really positive effect on the pace and quality of solutions that we deliver.

Q: What were the main issues you were hired to solve? Would you say that you are succeeding so far?

In simple terms, the brief was around setting Sainsbury’s IT investments onto a longer term footing, introducing architectural leadership to all the investments we make, rather than focusing solely on delivering individual solutions.

We have been successful in that we now have a five-year IT roadmap which was built in close collaboration with our business colleagues. It represents three viewpoints: the demand we see for IT-enabled growth from the business; our need to modernise our IT infrastructure; and the external view of the technology opportunities that the IT industry presents us.

Now we have a well-established roadmap, which has fallen into business as usual in IT planning and delivery activity. We also have a well-informed governance model that applies robust principles around adherence to the roadmap and quality of solutions.

Q: What will be the key areas of focus in your roadmap for the next two years?

The first couple of years are focused on our customers. During this financial year we started some big foundation projects around re-platforming all our multichannel world. We started to invest in the quality and use of our customer information, and we have also started a major programme of investment around our point-of-sale systems.

Moving into year two – which is the financial year starting in early 2012 – it is around improving the IT capabilities that we provide to our colleagues to do their jobs. We are building a more capable colleague portal, essentially designed to get the right information to the right people at the right time, enabling them to do their job more efficiently.

That is underpinned by some very significant investments in our business intelligence and operational reporting, which is supported by replacement of our enterprise data warehouse.

Q: What are the most significant technical aspects of your move to a more robust multichannel platform?

We operate on a platform provided by Blue Martini, and we chose an IBM Websphere Commerce Server platform to replace it at the end of last year. We are in the first year of planning and executing that multi-year project to set ourselves up for the future of multi-channel retailing.

The first stage is to transition our online food business onto the new platform in this coming year, before we extend the scope to our non-food and general merchandise capability.

Alongside the main phase, we are also establishing a more open architecture that will allow us to integrate more effectively with third parties and provide a number of capabilities for the mobile channel as well.

Q: Are you looking to offer contactless payments?

We have looked at contactless and of course will continue to evaluate when the time is right to move into that form of payment technology. We’re watching adoption rates and the way standards are shaping up to judge when it makes sense to invest.

Q: The advocates of contactless often say that if a company like Sainsbury’s adopts the technology, adoption rates will increase. What is your answer to that?

That’s fair, but it is not only Sainsbury’s that operates at our scale. The reality of being as big as Sainsbury’s is that what might appear as a relatively minor technology choice, when presented against the number of stores we operate and the other major IT investments we are making, means we need to judge our timing in contactless quite precisely.

Q: You are a former CSC and Capgemini executive. How will you use your past experience to avoid a repeat of the experiences Sainsbury’s has had with IT systems integrators such as Accenture?

We are certainly not considering a return to a major outsourcing arrangement in any way, shape or form, I can state that unequivocally.  

We believe that less is more. In the past Sainsbury’s had considerable numbers of IT suppliers and our ambition now is to reduce the number of suppliers to a few big partnerships to drive more value. That’s been happening over the last year, when we essentially consolidated around three system integrators and a fewer number of hardware and software relationships.

Our desire is to really provide greater access and insight to these organisations in both ways, to be able to spend more time with fewer companies. In the past, perhaps we suffered by having too many ideas from suppliers with very little time to consider them.

Having worked on the supplier side, I know it is incredibly difficult to find time with senior folk, whereas in the model that we operate, we are making ourselves available for the right organisations, at the right time.

Q: How do you ensure your suppliers are driving innovation?

I would not suggest that we are as mature as we would like in measuring innovation, but what we are doing is deliberately giving an ongoing update to suppliers on the business challenges that we face. Then, we ask them to respond with their ideas on how technology can help us resolve challenges and find opportunities.

Q: In terms of skills development, what is Sainsbury’s doing to enable new IT leaders to come through?

We use SFIA [Skills Framework for the Information Age] as a career development tool, which was set up against a learning and development catalogue made available to colleagues in the division. We have invested in providing training and certification in the Open Group framework which provides colleagues in the technology planning team with tools to help them do their job better. We also set up a project management academy where we train people up in Prince2.

Q: Do you find it hard to find people with the skills you need?

I do - I am looking for a blend of functional expertise in architecture, strategic planning , leadership and communication. It isalso important for us, as a retailer, that people have retail experience. It’s a tricky combination to find.

Q: Not everybody comes out of university with that sort of skillset. Are you comfortable taking people on board and reskilling them, or training them up from scratch?

We have a graduate programme and the IT division participates in that. I mentor a few of the graduates and one of my team who came from the graduate scheme was recently promoted to a wider solution architect role as a result of their great work, so I‘d like to think that I have made a small contribution in terms of developing the future IT leaders.

Rob Fraser also sits on the CIO Board at [IT sector skills council] e-Skills UK, and I do guest lecturing at a few universities, so senior management in IT at Sainsbury’s take an active interest in skills development. 

Q: In February, it will be two years since you joined Sainsbury’s. Looking back, what were your biggest challenges?

Resourcing was definitely one of them, finding the right number and type of people that we need for the technology planning function was hard. Also encouraging folk to look and plan a little further out than they would normally do in retail, thinking about the longer term investments we need to do in IT - and holding all of that against the roadmap that we’ve established.

These will remain the key themes for the future. But IT is a team game, and maintaining and establishing high-performing teams that contribute to the business is the big over-arching challenge that the whole industry faces, not just Sainsbury’s.

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