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David F Carr
David F Carr
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Red Robin CIO Named Social Business Technology Leader

For best articulating the value of social business in the context of business transformation, Chris Laping of Red Robin is our 2012 Social Business Technology Leader of the year.

The BrainYard's 7 Social Business Leaders Of 2012
The BrainYard's 7 Social Business Leaders Of 2012
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As a CIO whose ambitions who extend beyond technology to transformative change, Red Robin's CIO Chris Laping enthusiastically embraces the concept of social business.

Social business "gets out of the hierarchy and works the network," Laping says. "To me, it's the essence of fast companies and next generation companies."

When Red Robin introduced a new Tavern Burger product line in April, social collaboration technology Yammer proved to be an important part of refining the product and its delivery.

"The way we thought we'd get feedback was we thought the guests would get on Facebook," Laping says. "What they did was they talked to the servers, the servers talked to the managers and the managers got on Yammer."

Using those store manager discussions on the enterprise social network, internally branded Yummer, Red Robin was able to refine the recipes and the operational processes in the restaurants in about four weeks -- a process Laping estimates would have taken six to 18 months in the past. Without it, operations leaders would have been "scratching their heads" wondering why the product wasn't performing as expected, he says.

[ Red Robin CIO Chris Laping will join an onstage discussion of The BrainYard's Social Business Leaders at E2 Innovate, Nov. 12-15, Santa Clara Convention Center. ]

Laping was among the business and technology executives nominated for The BrainYard's Social Business Leaders feature, and we picked him as our Social Business Technology Leader. The rest of our choices, and the lessons we learned from them, will be highlighted in the November 12 edition of InformationWeek.

As it happens, Laping's role is actually broader than technology leadership. When CEO Steve Carley joined the company in 2010, he elevated Laping's role by giving him the additional title of senior VP of business transformation. That means he also oversees training and development, as well as an operations services group responsible for the implementation of new processes in restaurants. At a time when too much of the leadership team was working at cross purposes "going in different directions, dazed and confused and very unproductive," Carley says Laping "was very forthright and very open and honest" about what needed to change.

Organizational change requires a combination of people, process and technology, Laping says. "How do we drive these game-changing innovations into our organizations? We're not going to drive them if we're a passive IT organization that sits around and waits for someone to give us the requirements."

Formerly a principal of technology and business consultancy Stratera, Laping became Red Robin's CIO in 2007. He says it was his job to jolt the IT organization out of being a pure "keep the lights on" organization. He firmly believes that IT leaders have the opportunity to be business leaders, if they just think about more broadly applying skills like project management and change management. "We can have impact across marketing initiatives and operations initiatives by consistently and constantly aligning our technologies to the strategy," he says.

Chris Laping

"Social is the biggest tool in our toolbox around effecting change in our organization," Laping says. In adopting Yammer, "part of the argument I made was 'I need this tool, my team needs this tool. I need a tool that will let me get out a message and get feedback immediately if assumptions aren't playing out right and we need to make modifications.'" The IT team also plans to introduce a social project management application later this year, he says.

"Technology, when used appropriately, is a terrific enabler of change," Red Robin CEO Carley agrees. "Chris has leveraged that, and he's also used his collaborative nature, his listening skills and his ability to manage his ego to get the best out of his peers."

Red Robin has made progress at breaking down silos, partly as the result of a management shakeup in which less collaborative executives were shown the door, Carley says. The Yammer social network also helps cut through layers of management, he says. "I'm on every Yammer subject group, so I see the streams right from frontline employees about what's working and what's not working."

To keep the discussions frank and open, Red Robin has had to keep some corporate compliance efforts in check. For example, early on, one of the compliance officers tried to shut down a discussion about new mixed-drink ideas, worrying that it could be interpreted as an endorsement of non-corporate approved products in one of the most regulated parts of the restaurant business. Since Red Robin is trying to revitalize its bar business, the compliance official was told to back off so the online brainstorming session could resume -- with appropriate reminders that bartenders shouldn't start serving the proposed new drinks until they got corporate approval. "The decision was to get the compliance piece at the end of the funnel, not the beginning," Carley says.

Yummerversity, an iPad-based social training program that incorporates Yammer and learning software from Oracle, is being tested now for a launch in January, when Red Robin will boost the number of iPads in its restaurants from 700 to 1,000. Because good store managers spend more time on the floor of the restaurant than sitting at a desk, they typically access these social applications from their phones or the iPads. Restaurant employees also use the iPads to maintain a wait list, recording mobile phone numbers so guests get a text message alert when their table is ready. The iPad app can be used to sign people up for the Red Robin loyalty program at the same time.

Carley also credits Laping with having forged an unusually strong relationship with the marketing team, which has led to good coordination between social media initiatives and transactional systems, for example in the case of the restaurant's loyalty programs. Red Robin has also partnered with Plink, a service that lets customers earn Facebook credits as another type of loyalty reward.

Laping says embracing social and mobile technologies shows employees that real change is coming. "Enterprise IT tools tend to be these huge Swiss Army knives, whereas with social I get something more like my mobile app that gives me the one function I need right now." Some other social software products are more sprawling, comprehensive platforms, but Yammer's relatively tight focus on the news feed makes it "the closest manifestation of what social really is," he says.

Ryan Distelrath, a general manager at a Red Robin in Henderson, Nev., who has worked for the company off and on for the past 11 years, says he typically has both Facebook and Yammer open on his phone. Toggling between his personal and business social networks feels perfectly natural to him. One of the Yammer conversations he has been active in recently was a brainstorming challenge from CFO Stuart Brown on who could come up with the best cost-cutting ideas. Previously, opportunities to discuss best practices with other restaurant managers would have been restricted to regional management meetings, and opportunities to exchange ideas with people from other parts of the company would have been non-existent, he says. "We all face the same challenges, and maybe someone in the East Coast in a rest I've never interacted with has a best practice or a way of fixing something that I never would have thought of."

Laping says it's actually the assistant managers at the stores, rather than the general managers, who are most active on Yammer. Yammer accounts are currently available to corporate staff and to the general managers and assistant managers in company-owned restaurants. Franchised Red Robins, which make up about 25% of Red Robin's more than 470 locations, are currently not part of the enterprise social network, although Laping says he will look for a way to provide them with an appropriate level of access. Yummerversity will be offered to all restaurant employees, including those at franchised locations, he says.

For years, the company's technology was "at a standstill," Distelrath says. "It's awesome, and quite a relief, to see all the changes and how much Red Robin has embraced the technology that's available today."

Old patterns in which IT had all the sophisticated technology and metered employee access to it have been turned on their ear, Laping says. "Now, it's IT that's got the stupid stuff, where you've got 10 times the connectivity at home, plus access to mobile and YouTube." In other words, it's IT that needs to match or at least the approach the sophistication of consumer technologies, he says.

Social business is partly about adopting some of the informality and spontaneity you see in a company like Google, where people sleep on couches and wear T-shirts to work. "It's not that the big is eating the small in the business world, it's that the fast is eating the slow," Laping says, and established businesses need to pick up the pace. "Social business, to me, is a framework to accomplish that."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

The business world is changing. Is your company ready? E2 Innovate, formerly Enterprise 2.0, is the only event of its kind, bringing strategic business professionals together with industry influencers and next-gen enterprise technologies. Register for E2 Innovate Conference & Expo today and save $200 on current pricing or get a free expo pass. Nov. 12-15, 2012, at the Santa Clara Convention Center, Silicon Valley.

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