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Mandate For CIOs: Leverage Crises To Bring About Real Change

Only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change. Consider that observation, from the late, great University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, a rallying cry for business technology execs who need to pull some positive outcomes from what could otherwise be a paralyzing recession. It is for Eastern Mountain Sports CIO Jeffrey Neville, who sees the current economic mess as an opportunity for everyone at the company to think differently about almost everything: supplier and customer r
"Only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change." Consider that observation, from the late, great University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, a rallying cry for business technology execs who need to pull some positive outcomes from what could otherwise be a paralyzing recession. It is for Eastern Mountain Sports CIO Jeffrey Neville, who sees the current economic mess as an opportunity for everyone at the company to think differently about almost everything: supplier and customer relationships, technology platforms and services, and just the way they do business.For starters, EMS CEO Will Manzer made it clear to his leadership team that in no way should the recession weaken the company's relationship with its customers. So the retailer of outdoor gear and apparel is investing in two key customer-facing systems: a GSI Commerce e-commerce platform that Neville says will make it much easier for customers to find what they need on the site, buy, and get out (EMS customers would rather be hiking and climbing than shopping); and a JDA Software point-of-sale system that's better integrated with e-commerce (for instance, letting customers start a transaction at an in-store kiosk, suspend it, and then finish it on a register).

Jeffrey Neville
Jeffrey Neville
CIO, Eastern Mountain Sports

Real change during times of crisis also funnels down to the smallest technical decisions. For many years, employees at EMS's stores used an AT&T service that connected them to other stores by dialing 700 and a three-digit code specific to each one. Problem was, that legacy service got more expensive every year as AT&T tried to wean customers off it, but EMS employees were reluctant to let go. In this latest budget cycle, however, as soon as Neville laid out the potential cost savings of moving to an alternative service, it was done--no more debate.

Especially in this economic environment, CIOs must reassess all of their technology assumptions and consider potentially more efficient alternatives, whether they involve cloud computing, open source, virtualization, unified communications, telepresence, Web collaboration--or just revisiting relationships with existing suppliers.

I caught up with Neville, an InformationWeek Editorial Advisory Board member, last Friday at the grand opening of the privately held retailer's 17,000-square-foot store on Broadway and Spring Street in Manhattan's SoHo district. He isn't your average CIO. Having come to EMS from consulting--five years doing business strategy for IBM and Mainspring (a firm IBM acquired in 2001) after years as a retail consultant for Andersen/Accenture--Neville also has P&L responsibility for EMS's e-commerce business, which accounts for about 11% of revenue. Reporting to CEO Manzer, Neville is the company's chief strategy officer as well, though his title remains just CIO.

Like every CIO, Neville's constantly under the gun these days. What he likes most about having a three-faceted job--IT, e-commerce, strategy--is that it's never mundane: He gets to switch gears from decisions about phone switches and e-commerce platforms to focus on customers' cross-channel experience. "There are always nooks and crannies I'm discovering," he says. "But I'm learning every day."

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