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12/10/2004
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Team Of The Year

At Wal-Mart, business technology is a team effort--the retailer's far-reaching RFID project would be impossible to achieve if it weren't. This year, InformationWeek recognizes CIO Linda Dillman and her IT staff--some 2,400 strong--as our business-technology team of the year.

"RFID needs quiet persuaders," says Kevin Ashton, co-founder of the Auto-ID Center and VP of marketing at ThingMagic LLC, an RFID-reader manufacturer. When Dillman said Wal-Mart wanted to use RFID in its supply chain, "no one actually laughed at the idea, but there was tremendous skepticism, ... and a hangover period where skeptics huddled in corners explaining to each other why she would have to back down and why it couldn't happen in that time frame. And here we are now; it's pretty much happening."

As Wal-Mart moves forward with its RFID effort and other projects, collaboration is getting even more fine-tuned, the result of a project launched midyear to analyze IT system development and spread best practices through the company. All of Wal-Mart's IT directors donated a staff member to the seven-month effort, and the group is building tools that incorporate this project-development knowledge, including testing environments and tracking systems. "We do a great job at looking at the processes and building the tools to make our internal customers more efficient, but we've never stepped back to examine what tools we should develop to make the IT group more efficient," Dillman says.

Perhaps, but Wal-Mart has the kind of reputation in the IT community that some CIOs can only dream of. Every week, 300 to 400 resumés come in from hopeful IT graduates or professionals, and turnover is just 5%.


''We're treated as business enablers,'' VP Dan Phillips says. -- Photograph by Bob Stefko

"We're treated as business enablers," VP Dan Phillips says.

Photograph by Bob Stefko
"The fun part about working with Wal-Mart [Information Systems Division] is we're treated as business enablers, not computer nerds," says Dan Phillips, VP of operations, data warehousing, databases, large systems, and communications, who was Dillman's first manager at Wal-Mart. "I've worked at companies where you in IS are looked upon as a necessary evil or drain on expenses." Under Dillman's guidance, the division is viewed as just the opposite. "She approaches everything that you bring her as it is today on paper, but also looks at it with a new set of eyes--are there ways to make it better?" says Mark Porter, director of information security. "She's a businessperson first. And that's what I think is the best thing."

In 2005, Wal-Mart's U.S. IT staff is expected to grow between 5% and 6%, and creativity is a core requirement for those who make the cut. Some of that creativity comes out in the company's annual VPI (Volume Producing Item) contest, where various teams within Wal-Mart each pick a product and compete to promote its sales. The totals are tallied in December, and this year, the Information Systems Division has two products in the top 10; for 2005's contest, Dillman is considering choosing Wal-Mart's private-label Great Value powered-drink mix. Some of the division's secrets for boosting its picks: programming messages promoting the items at price scanners located throughout stores and at the bottom of register receipts. "It's part of the way I can prove our technology works," says Dillman, whose likeness in a cardboard figure at retail stores is promoting a contest pick--in her case, Members Mart Detergent at Sam's Clubs.

Typically, the best project leaders get promoted to managers, and Dillman's goal is to foster within those ranks "executives who manage people who manage projects." So Dillman has implemented twice-weekly team-building meetings for her division's senior executives and directors, to promote the idea that "a constant sense of accomplishment means multiple people collaborating in the project from start to finish." Dillman also has added to Wal-Mart's training opportunities a project-management course she believes could generate significant payback by improving developer productivity.

"Under Linda, there's really been a focus on our people, making sure programs are in place that everyone can build a career," says Sam Moses, strategy manager, merchandising systems. Dillman's father, Leonard Wayne Dillman, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier for 35 years, had a big influence on her in this area. "He did things for other people for no reason other than it was the correct thing to do," she says. "It was a great role model in understanding what real success looks like."

Howard Stockdale, CIO at Beaver Street Fisheries Inc., a Wal-Mart supplier for more than 15 years, appreciates Dillman as a "people person" and someone who also has a profound vision for technology. When Stockdale approached Dillman about joining Wal-Mart's RFID initiative this year instead of waiting until 2006, Wal-Mart "rolled out the red carpet for us and made us feel as important as a top 100 supplier," he says.

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