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The retail CIO’s rise to power

September 25, 2018

Technological disruptions have resulted in a mass culling of the herd of retail companies. It has taken a real bloodbath for retailers to finally realize they are in the business of technology.

This shift toward tech has catapulted Chief Information Officers (CIOs) into the spotlight and forced them to wear a variety of hats.

A decade ago, CIOs were like digital plumbers: their role was to make sure work flowed smoothly among various types of software. These days, however, the modern CIO’s job is more like their title suggests—a master of information. Data lakes are doubling in size every two years and the CIO’s main charge is figuring out how to make profitable use of all that information.

The visionary and the voice of reason

With information (i.e., data) now at the heart of retail performance, CIOs have become like executive oracles. Their knowledge is sought after by the board and the rest of the C-suite, which puts them in a position of leadership.

CIOs have to be visionaries in the boardroom. They have to keep up to date with new tech like beacons and blockchains, and makes sure their company stays ahead of the curve.

At the same time, CIOs must play a cautionary role. These days executives are liable to see tech as the solution to every problem. So a good CIO has to put the brakes on the adoption of tech that might still need a few years to mature—again blockchains are a good example.

Customer advocate

Formerly the inward-focused nerd of the C-suite, the CIO is quickly becoming a people person. Perhaps ironically, the CIO is now the chief customer advocate.

Retailers collect a flood of customer data from e-commerce activity, and increasingly from in-store activity as well. This data is a gold mine as it gives retailers a much better idea of what products a particular customer will be interested in and what discounts to offer.

But before customer data can be put to use, someone has to crunch it and extract its secrets. That is the job of CIOs and their staff.

As a result, the CIO ends up knowing the customer better than any other executive. Quite naturally, the CIO takes up the role of advocating for an improved customer experience.

Information security guard

With the recent rash of customer data breach scandals, retail executives are rightfully concerned about information security. Security breaches can be extremely expensive and ruin a brand’s reputation.

Unfortunately, only 17% of corporate respondents to a CSO, CIO and Computerworld survey said they have dedicated information security departments. Meanwhile 54% said the job of information security falls to the IT department. So the CIO is often on the hook for information security as well.

Lead developer for mobile and omnichannel

Improving mobile and omnichannel commerce is at the top of every retail CEOs list. Since these are issues of technology, CIOs are expected to lead the charge into these new frontiers.

Enabling omnichannel commerce is a particularly difficult task. The job is to share customer data and make a seamless shopping experience across mobile, desktop, phone and brick and mortar.

This is no small feat as the technology to share customer data across various retail channels is by no means fully mature. As of yet, there is no way, for example, to automatically get customer data to a salesperson in a physical store.

Supply chain and pricing manager

As tech’s influence on the retail industry grows, numerous other aspects of the business come under the CIO’s purview. Here at Evo, for example, we often deal with CIOs when we pitch our supply chain management and pricing algorithms.

Pricing used to be the job of bean counters and price managers. Nowadays, however, AI-powered dynamic pricing (link when dynamic pricing article is published) engines like ours automatically recommend price adjustments that will boost bottom lines.

While it is still important to get the input of pricing managers to improve the performance of the dynamic pricing algorithms, pricing is now mostly an issue of technology. That means CIOs ultimately oversee pricing decisions.

The same is true for supply chain management, specifically inventory allocation. What used to be the purview of the COO is now in large part managed by algorithms, which are overseen by the CIO.

The future for CIOs

As tech floods into every nook and cranny of the retail industry, the responsibilities of the CIO have grown so wide as to be unmanageable. Many companies have created Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) and Chief Technical Officers (CTO) to take some of the burden off of CIOs. Nevertheless, CIO’s importance will only continue to grow as retailers becomes more dependent on tech.

The CIO’s role has already shifted from a focus on operational tasks to a focus on knowledge management. Up next for CIOs is a more powerful position guiding the board and the rest of the C-suite in transforming retailers into digital companies.

About the author

Will Freeman is a content expert at Evo.

He is a former economic journalist and part-time entrepreneur.

His interests include economic development, China, India, cryptocurrency and blockchain, and financial technology in general.

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