Sainsbury's head of IT Rob Fraser: We want to get our behind-the-scenes IT people more embedded in the practices of the store

Sainsbury’s head of IT Rob Fraser: We want to get our behind-the-scenes IT people more embedded in the practices of the storePhoto: Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury’s head of IT Rob Fraser knows that if you talk datacentres and servers, you’ll lose your audience. So he’s been focusing on communication and the business skills of his tech staff. Mark Samuels reports.

Rob Fraser, head of IT and a member of the operating board at retail giant Sainsbury’s, has worked hard since his appointment in July 2009 to ensure the resources of the inhouse technology team match the key objectives of the business. Crucially, the core of his attempt to meet such aims is people rather than simply technology.

Fraser says former CIO Angela Morrison put a lot of effort into reintegrating inhouse staff, following a period of outsourcing with service provider Accenture at the start of the century. The engagement of the firm’s 500 inhouse IT staff remains a critical priority.

“Our IT team complete the upfront tasks that make sure business outcomes are met,” says Fraser.

“We don’t want technologists. We want people with an understanding of how retail works. The strategy and planning will support our great IT people. We want the dynamic to continually evolve from push to pull, so the business can always come to us for great ideas on what to do next.”

Fraser has already increased the company’s spend on IT training during his time in charge by two and a half times. But he thinks there is still more work to be done.

“We want to get our behind-the-scenes IT people more embedded in the practices of the store, so that they really know what their work means to the shopfloor,” says Fraser.

Organisation-wide engagement with IT

He refers to ‘Scout Hut Sessions’, a recent organisation-wide attempt to engage the firm’s 150,000 staff. Store managers were taken on a two-day session to Center Parcs, and Fraser was keen to distil the programme down to an initiative that would be useful and manageable for the IT team.

While the content of the initiative could have been passed on quickly, he was eager to provide a detailed focus on the importance of the organisational vision and to show how the strategy could be brought to life through a series of events.

In a series of days out of the office, IT staff participated in a session that demonstrated the retailer’s ambitions for 2020 and what these aims meant in terms of day-to-day realities.

Fraser’s IT leadership team was briefed and set about running 15 sessions for the firm’s 500 technology workers across a three-week period.

Each session included a series of competitive elements, which Fraser says were similar to those seen on television programme The Krypton Factor, and which encouraged employees to think about business outcomes in a strategic manner. “We’ve had great feedback,” he says.

“It’s been a fantastically positive investment because now our IT people know where the business is heading. We get excited about technology but we must think about what IT really means for the business.”

Fraser, then, recognises that communication is important not just in relation to the internal IT team. CIOs looking to drive value from IT investments…

…must ensure that the rest of the business understands how to derive the most from technology resources.

The Sainsbury’s executive is keen to explore new ways to highlight the potential business benefits of technical innovation. Such methods need to help the IT department move beyond the confines of back-end systems and processes. One such method is through the use of internal communications specialists.

Like an increasing number of his CIO peers, Fraser says such specialists can really help prove the value of IT to the rest of the business. Fraser has someone in the IT team that is responsible for internal and external communications, and he encourages other business executives who are eager to prove the value of their business contribution to make a similar appointment.

“You need to communicate outside the department,” says Fraser. “IT can be hard for other divisions to understand. We need to help people get under the skin of technology and getting people from outside the IT function to help drive the message of strategic change is key.”

Drawing on the skills of specialists is not the only interactive initiative being undertaken by the retailer. Fraser says Sainsbury’s is very communications-centric and he has been involved in a number of programmes to help demonstrate the benefits of IT.

Such projects include the Monday Huddle, where the IT team gets together with key line-of-business executives to talk about what the organisation’s objectives mean for the technology department.

“You have to communicate relentlessly,” he says, referring back to the collection of people-based initiatives begin undertaken at the firm.

“If you talk about servers and datacentres, you’ll lose your audience. We have a vibrant IT team, with a flexible technology system that helps support real-time organisational activities. The business must understand why IT matters and how the potential benefits really are believable.”

Stamping technology’s mark on the business

Not that Fraser is in any doubt about the value of technology to the retail giant: “IT is the critical nervous system of the organisation,” he says, before suggesting that technology professionals working in the modern, digital era have a great opportunity to stamp their mark on the business.

“People going into the IT industry now have joined at just the right time,” says Fraser. “Technology at Sainsbury’s, for example, is now woven into the front end of business processes, and is providing real efficiency gains in the supply chain and in operations. Our business truly is IT-enabled.”

Fraser recognises the move towards the cloud means organisations can now think about using IT on-demand. As in the case of outsourcing, which Sainsbury’s has used as a central part of its IT strategy in the past, buying such on-demand capability can be right for the business. However, he is clear that creating more reliance on a core internal IT team is right for Sainsbury’s.

“Bringing our IT capability back inhouse was definitely the right decision. The longevity allowed by such a decision means you know you can always look to connect IT to the mainstream thinking of the business. And that’s where our IT department continues to have a huge role to play,” says Fraser.

“Stretching towards new areas of business IT means you need to look for efficiencies. Modern organisations are powered by IT and retail is becoming more and more reliant on technology. Creating seamless integration of new IT projects is absolutely crucial for the business.”