CIOs Say Customer Data-Sharing Is Ongoing Struggle

Gill Hoffman, senior VP and CIO at Maritz Inc., told InformationWeek conference attendees that the company recently hired someone to set up customer-data-sharing processes.
CIOs are still struggling with ways to comply with regulatory issues and share customer data among business units within their organizations. At the InformationWeek Fall Conference on Tuesday, it was a topic for a panel discussion between IT executives at synthetic fiber company Unifi, sales and marketing services firm Maritz, and trucking company Crete Carrier.

The three aren't small businesses. Maritz, a global company, garners $1.5 billion in revenue annually, supported by about 4,000 employees. Still, until recently its business units operated in silos. Employees talked a lot but didn't share the data. "Our value is providing customers with data they can't get through their own IT organization," says Gill Hoffman, senior VP and CIO at Maritz, which collects customer-satisfaction data for large auto manufacturers. "It became clear the information couldn't remain in silos if it was to benefit the customer."

The exception is Crete, which operates in 48 states and on May 15 became a dedicated carrier for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s new Grocery Distribution Center in Bartlesville, Okla. The program started on the first day of operations with 55 drivers and is expected to increase to 80 drivers by this month. Crete has been sharing customer data across business units for years. The marketing group has its own IT department. They analyze data such as shipping and delivery status, sharing it with customers after deliveries are made, Crete CIO Ron Edwards says.

Unifi and Maritz have the technology to share customer data internally within their respective companies. The real questions are, do they share it across business units, and are they doing it better now than in the past or are regulatory compliance and privacy issues making it more complex?

Only 62% of the 84 executives participating in a real-time research poll during the session believe their companies in the past year have made improvements in sharing customer information internally across business units.

Also speaking at the InformationWeek Fall Conference on Tuesday, VP and CIO Ben Holder told a room full of peers that Unifi is making a second go of putting in place processes to share data across its business units. "We have the capabilities," he says. "What we lacked is the social network. It was an assumption it was there."

So Holder hired the employee who headed up Unifi's Six Sigma processes to create a social network for sharing data across the company's business units. "It is a foreboding task, even as we sit down and try to create a job description around what she will do," he says.

Unifi went down this road several years ago with little success. The automation and customer-relationship-management tools deployed last time to promote collaboration between business units had been a near recipe for disaster. This time the company is creating and documenting processes first. When complete, a Web-enabled application written in Microsoft .Net will let the company collect and house data in one repository. That won't go live until processes are in place.

Complicating projects are regulatory-compliance issues such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Maritz ran into some interesting challenges as it recently embarked on sharing data between business units because it brings in departments that hadn't previously worked with specific customers.

Some of these customers have different internal policies on how data is handled, especially issues around Sarbanes-Oxley. "Often customers ask us to change our security practices to become compliant with theirs," CIO Hoffman says. "Many of our clients are defining security levels and request requirements beyond what we normally provide."

Maritz attempted to standardize the approach by industry but found each client has a different interpretation of compliance.

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