Quick, what's wrong with this picture: why is the IT leader of a package-delivery company based in Atlanta leading a day-long seminar in Manhattan about business innovation and environmental issues, with emphasis on the fresh-vegetable and plumbing-supply industries?
We tend to look at things through the lens of preconceived notions because that approach is always convenient, usually easy, and sometimes even accurate. In this case, our preset filters—our stereotypes—are telling us that IT guy should be back in Atlanta running IT, that guys in brown trucks delivering brown boxes is not exactly innovation, and that none of that has anything to do with tree-huggers or celery or shower fixtures.
And our stereotypes, as is so often the case, would be completely and profoundly incorrect.
UPS CIO Dave Barnes is at the hub of this entire contradictory scenario, and we'll get to him in detail in just a moment. But first, here's what was really going on:
**UPS is, of course, much more than a package-delivery company. It's certainly that but it also develops and markets enterprise-level software; offers consulting services for global logistics, supply chain, and more; is the world's 9th-largest and most fuel-efficient airline; and has recently become a leading voice in environmental-sustainability efforts that have massive business impact by lowering costs, increasing efficiencies, sparking innovation, and being extendable out to customers.
**Fresh vegetables and plumbing supplies: Two of UPS's customers from those businesses participated in the event to share their experiences with how UPS technologies and services had provided significant business value to their companies in operational performance and sustainability improvements.
**Business innovation has to be inextricably linked these days to everything IT does—otherwise, what's the point? Why not just slap that big red bumper-sticker on your forehead proclaiming your status to the world: COST CENTER!
All those threads run through Dave Barnes, senior VP and CIO at UPS and leader of its 5,000-member IT team and top decision-maker behind the $1 billion the company spends annually on technology. He's helped lead the technology-based efforts that have been behind wide-ranging initiatives to improve business performance while simultaneously consuming less fossil fuel, lowering emissions, and weaving those concepts into the company's core strategy and operating principles.
From that point, the logical next step is to work with customers to show the benefits UPS has gained and share with them ideas for how their businesses can benefit from adopting similar policies and processes. Along the way, customers realize with great clarity that while UPS certainly does deliver packages—more than any company in the world—it is also able to deliver ideas, innovation, and other types of business value as well.
For Barnes, that dynamic of leveraging internal innovations out to customers is as much or even more a part of his job than executing the company's technology strategy. It's become an indispensable component of the overall UPS culture and operating philosophy as well: a relentless effort to measure, analyze, and optimize processes in order to find new ways to delight and excite customers.
Because of that approach, and in spite of the fact that he's been at UPS for 33 years, Barnes represents the archetype for the "new" breed of CIO who transcends technology expertise and instead becomes an unwavering advocate for customer-centric innovation. That outlook—along with the management practices and processes woven around it—allow Barnes to be 100% accurate when he says that the UPS technology strategy is the same as the business strategy:
There's no difference.
"We tend not to see limits of what IT is responsible for," Barnes said in a 90-minute chat over oatmeal in Manhattan this week. "I'm on the company's strategy committee and we have to look out 10 years and try to see what the world will look like and prepare the company for that future. As we do that, we tend to focus on what can be done much more than on what can't."
It's an attitude that's reflected strongly, Barnes says, in the companywide focus on environmental sustainability that led to the new "Decision Green" program at the center of the event in Manhattan showcasing UPS's approach and some of its customers' stories. Here's how a slide from Barnes' presentation defined Decision Green: "UPS's environmental platform reflects our pursuit of sustainable business practices worldwide through operational efficiency; conservation initiatives; and industry-leading innovations. This approach extends to helping our customers do the same."
Barnes related a personal anecdote from three decades ago that reflects not only the company's overall position toward efficiency and sustainability but also his sense of personal responsibility for ensuring the IT organization is driving relentless innovation to support those initiatives:
"Environmental issues have always been a part of our culture, even before we started calling them that. I can remember when I started here 32 years ago and if people would leave a conference room without turning the lights off, someone would always say, 'Hey—didn't you forget something?'
"That's vitally important because now that environmental sustainability is so strategic for UPS, the ideas need to come from all across the entire company—and if you can get that going, you can come up with lots of ideas," Barnes said.
"But you've got to make it everyone's job—you've got to make it personal."
In a followup piece, we'll offer lots of details about sustainability efforts at UPS and among its customers. But during these challenging economic times, as many CIOs continue to struggle over how to define their role—technology enabler versus growth generator—Barnes' outlooks and approaches suggest some questions that should help resolve those questions:
1) Barnes said he and his team "tend not to see limits of what IT is responsible for." How about you: are you and your team boxed in?
2) One of my favorite lines from Barnes was about who's responsible for coming up with ideas: "But you've got to make it everyone's job—you've got to make it personal."
3) And how about the definition of IT strategy—are you still in the old "alignment" boat, paddling upstream to try to retroactively "align" with a target that's moving and changing position faster than you can hope to follow? Or do you go with the Barnes approach: "It's the business strategy—there's no difference."
4) Are you involved in extending and projecting your company's internal innovations out to your customers? If not, why not?
5) Do you view sustainability issues as tree-hugger goofiness, are in the three-part business-centric approach Barnes outlined: operational efficiency; conservation initiatives; and industry-leading innovations?
Seems like it's time to make it personal.
Bob Evans is senior VP and director of
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