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Down To Business: Is Customer-Obsessed IT In Your Company's Blood?

How do your internal users, your company's paying customers, your various suppliers view your IT organization? As a can-do partner and service provider? Or as a nitpicking naysayer and excuse maker?
How do those who matter most to you professionally--your internal customers, your company's paying customers, your various supplier customers--view your IT organization? As a can-do partner and service provider? Or as a nitpicking naysayer and excuse maker? The answers to these simple questions will tell you whether you have the stuff of a world-class business technology organization or are obvious outsourcing fodder.

The vast majority of companies in our 19th annual InformationWeek 500 ranking fall into the former category. For them, the concept of "aligning IT with the business" is yesterday's challenge. Aligning IT meticulously with external and internal customers' needs, as my colleague Bob Evans often points out, is now the end game for the most astute companies.

You can see this can-do culture at companies like No. 1 Con-way, which years ago moved its applications to a service-oriented architecture aligned with its trucking business. More recent initiatives include deploying asset management software and business intelligence tools to grease shipments to customers. Kimberly-Clark, No. 4 on this year's 500 list, has opened a Customer Immersion and Design Center, which includes a virtual reality theater where its retail customers interact with new Kimberly-Clark products and displays in the same way their customers would.

Consistent customer-centric IT innovation is also the hallmark of the Magnificent 7, the seven companies that have ranked the highest on the InformationWeek 500 over the last five years. First among them is E.&J. Gallo Winery (a former No. 1), whose real-time supply chain management system benefits not only Gallo, but also its distributors and retailers. "We're very involved in how we extend to the consumer side," says CIO Kent Kushar.

Outside the realm of the InformationWeek 500, the smartest small and midsize companies are aligning their IT with their biggest customers. Pacific Coast Producers, which sells $400 million worth of packaged and canned fruit to Wal-Mart and other grocers under various brand names, got on board early with Wal-Mart's 4-year-old RFID tagging mandate, even before it saw a clear ROI. Why? Wal-Mart's an important customer--period. Pacific Coast Producers has created a cross-functional RFID team of IT, sales, and customer service employees, who work with Wal-Mart on ways to improve inventory control and ultimately to boost the supplier's sales.

Contrast Pacific Coast's mentality with that of a reader who took issue with a blog post I wrote commending the supplier's efforts. "What B.S. A 400 million dollar company does it for a handful of products and it is sold as a big deal. How much less than 1 percent of its products is that? You make it sound like 100 percent compliance and everybody should do it. It took several years ... with that big of a company and you expect small companies to jump on that bandwagon."

Well, yes, I do expect suppliers to leap when their most important customers say jump. Anyone can come up with a reason this or that customer-focused IT initiative isn't practical. (It's too costly. It's technically unwieldy. We can't get management support. My customers are unreasonable.) Overall, what's the biggest obstacle to innovation at companies today? Risk-averse, foot-dragging cultures, according to a recent survey of 2,500 executives by Boston Consulting Group.

Another reader of the blog post on Pacific Coast Producers, responding to the no-can-do fellow, cast aspersions on the entire business technology profession when he chimed in: "The previous guest must be an IT guy. Knows everything except about listening to customers."

It's the worst of all IT reputations: that of the dismissive know-it-all. If this kind of customer indifference is seeping into your IT organization, cut it out before the cancer spreads. Nothing less than a customer-obsessed approach will do in this day and age, regardless of the obstacles.

Rob Preston,
VP/Editor In Chief

([email protected])

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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