How business value drives IT at Williams-Sonoma


Learn from its CIO how one US retailer achieves collaboration between IT and business teams to ensure technology projects deliver maximum business value

Williams-Sonoma store InteriorAt US retailer Williams-Sonoma, IT leaves it to business colleagues to make the case for technology investments. That ensures ownership of the decision lies where it belongs, said John Strain, EVP and chief digital technology officer, speaking at a business technology conference last week.

Technology projects in today’s world really aren’t technology projects. They’re really business projects. They should have business benefits and we frankly should prioritize them in a rank-ordered list as per their business benefit and their ability to help the company.

He explained that the high-end kitchenware and houseware retailer has an executive governance board that decides the priority of projects to ensure business value drives IT.

The governance board is with our executive team and every project that we want to go prioritize comes and sings for their supper. I don’t get up and give the song and dance. My team and I support the business as they go forward and what we talk about is ROI, return on investment.

You as a business, you get the Rs [returns]. You get to tell us what the business value is going to be, you set the business context, you preach it out to our executive team and say here’s why we should go do this project. This one’s important, it’s going to deliver business value for us, we’re going to sign up for it.

They [the business] speak to that side of the equation and we [IT] speak to the investment. Here’s the ballpark for costs, here’s the timing, here’s where we would deploy, here’s this overall project that really is a partnership between the business and IT.

The outcome is that business teams own the IT projects — as well as sharing responsibility for setting the priorities, he said.

It really changes the ownership. It shouldn’t be an IT project. It’s not a technology problem. Technology may help to solve it. It’s a business problem. So let’s go and get business benefits and business value and let’s prioritize it in that context. We should be business value prioritized.

My business partners get the opportunity to tell their story and help us set that agenda for the year or for the three years. In that context, if you don’t like the technology projects we’re working on, by the way, it’s your own fault. If you had helped me with more business value, then I could have probably helped you get this farther up the priority list.

But it’s our list, it’s collaborative, it’s a communications thing. It’s the CFO, it is the brand heads, it is the individual function leaders, that come together to help us tell a story that says, the way in which we’re going to set this up and really drive it is going to be out of the business value orientation as opposed to technology priorities.

Strain was speaking during a CIO panel session at the Coupa Inspire conference in San Francisco last week. Williams-Sonoma implemented Coupa’s cloud-based spend management software in 2010 in what Strain said had been “a business driven project” with “very limited IT involvement and support.” The retailer has since implemented NetSuite as its ecommerce and ERP platform for international expansion.

Technology driving the business

Technology is of more interest to the business today because its role is no longer confined to the back office, where IT has traditionally focused, said Strain.

There’s huge technical debt I think a lot of us are carrying. If I never ever have to go and do another ERP implementation, it’ll be way too soon. Those are hard, they’re messy, they’re tough. So frankly we haven’t replaced them for a long time.

Technology is no longer the back office. It is a front office capability. At Williams Sonoma, 51-52 percent of our revenue comes from online. We have 600 stores that make up the other 49 percent.

This gives you a sense that technology now is driving the business. Absolutely, positively, front office is something that really is starting to say, we are here and we’re going to mandate it.

At the same time, users are more comfortable working with technology, he added.

Everyone today is no longer afraid. Millennials are digital natives, they’re not afraid of technology. We have much more literate technologists on the business side. We need to figure out how our game gets up so we can meet those new requirements.

More accessible IT delivered from the cloud allows IT to focus on its core value to the business, he said.

Shadow IT, the reality is it’s there, it’s going to happen. Frankly, it’s more and more right on broad daylight. It’s not the kind of thing where people are sneaking around the back any more. This is in the front door.

We CIOs, as technology teams, need to acknowledge the fact that this is actually a really good thing. This frees us up to go focus on a different area.

There are two main components of the value IT brings to business within an enterprise, he said.

One is a translator — translate the business requirements down to the next level of detail. The bummer about computers and the beauty about computers is they do only exactly what you tell them. No more no less. So sometimes there’s some things that need to happen in terms of business requirement in terms of how you translate that into what the technology needs would be.

The second thing is, we’re there I think to help screw it in. We’re there to make sure the implementations happen and all that goes well. What’s great news — and it is really hard, by the way — there is some opportunity in terms of cloud providers to have them take some of that challenge off the plate.

If you can take some of that implementation effort out to free yourself to spend more time on the front end in terms of business value and the business engagement, I think from a CIO’s transition, that’s a big part of where we have to head.

My take

Golden words of wisdom from John Strain, whose job title interestingly has morphed in the past year or two from plain old CIO to the more expressive and forward-looking ‘chief digital technology officer’.

His comments provide a useful insight into how one company is adjusting to a world in which technology is becoming increasingly pivotal to its success as a business. Where once IT existed almost in isolation from business operations, today the technology team must work in close collaboration with business colleagues to deliver timely and effective outcomes.

Disclosure: NetSuite is a diginomica premier partner and Coupa is a partner. Coupa paid my travel expenses to attend the Inspire conference.

Image credits: Store interior and company logo by Williams-Sonoma.