Sainsbury's IT chief: Why communication is key to IT success

'If you talk about servers and datacentres, you'll lose your audience'

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...