As I reflect on my 27-year career in IT, never before has there been as great of an opportunity as there is today for CIOs to have an impact—not only on business strategy and performance, but in my industry in particular, on shaping the future for our customers and consumers.
The force behind this tectonic shift is the fact that IT is pervasive in every area of our businesses and our lives. IT is no longer an appendage, but is often at the heart of our experience. Once viewed simply as an overhead or cost, IT is now seen as a key driver of business value and is providing opportunities to reshape how we connect with our consumers and partners. We no longer focus only on the products we manufacture and sell, but on the total experience connected with them.
For CIOs, that necessitates a new mindset and a new skillset; to play a role that is as much business strategist as it is technologist. Consider just ten years ago. The majority of my time as an IT leader was spent looking inward. Our role was to guide the organization in investing in efficiency, automation and standardization of processes, and IT capabilities through transactional systems like ERP.
Today, as a CIO in the consumer packaged goods industry, I dedicate significant time every day to looking outward, to understand trends in the industry, especially where food and technology intersect, and the opportunities that presents. Our role has moved beyond simply helping the organization use the technology to anticipating how our business must evolve, or be disrupted in a technology-driven world.
At Mars Food, we are focused on the important role that dinnertime plays in our lives. Today and in the future, this is being disrupted by trends like the connected kitchen and the potential reality of a world with highly personalized and customizable food choices – even 3D printed food we can create ourselves. This will change what consumers expect and demand from a company like Mars. As we see, more than simply wanting or needing products from us, consumers expect a rich and highly personalized experience: from the recipe inspiration, to the high-quality ingredients, and the knowledge and skills to prepare it – all delivered to the doorstep, and seamlessly integrated with our “smart” kitchen appliances through capabilities like “scan to cook” and the ability for those appliances to learn and cook to our tastes and preferences every time.
IT is no longer an appendage, but is often at the heart of our experience
Increasingly, consumers will be looking for companies to help them solve for what their meal choice should be based on their tastes, lifestyle and health and nutrition needs—and expect products to then appear seamlessly to accommodate it.
Preparing for this future requires coordination between companies like ours and others in the “eco-system” including retailers, appliance manufacturers, logistics services, and more. With IT and data underpinning all of it, it is the CIO who has the responsibility of bringing all the stakeholders together and driving it.
Simultaneously, we need to become adept at utilizing data to stay on top of highly personalized and constantly evolving consumer needs. It’s about finding ways to deepen engagement with consumers, through both traditional and developing channels such as social media and digital footprint, to gather better insights which can ultimately inform our own development process. With the way that our industry is changing—including the flood of new entrants and competitors coming to the market—the winners will be determined by the ability to engage more directly with and better understand consumers and then partner with members of the ecosystem to deliver high value experiences. Data is the key; and as CIOs, we have an opportunity to help our organizations collect, interpret, and understand it—including data that isn’t our own.
And yet, as we open ourselves up to new ideas, information and partnerships, we need to remain keenly aware and vigilant of the present and growing challenge of cybersecurity. With the increase in data and knowledge of our consumers comes increased risk. It is our highest responsibility to protect and defend both our own data and that of the people who have trusted us with their business.
Finally, while our remit has changed, we must also remember our roots, which is helping our organizations continue to realize efficiencies through technology. While many of us have a legacy of IT investment in traditional business process areas, there is a new opportunity to digitize the workforce. At Mars, we’ve been on the forefront of driving a digital workforce that is smart, connected and collaborative. We are creating opportunities for our Associates to connect and interact through tools like Skype for Business and Yammer. Once connected, we envision a global workforce that can find the information and expertise they need with advanced search capabilities and then collaborate and share best practices through platforms like One Drive and SharePoint. At Mars, the Associate experience is heavily enabled by technology, and, while this may represent a culture change for some, this has become the expectation for new entrants to the workforce – Associates expect to leverage technology at work with the same ease with which they do in their personal lives.
In sum, our opportunity is to recognize that the remit of the CIO is no longer defined by boundaries or even a job description. It’s defined only by the possibilities of what technology can enable. It is our job to imagine what is possible, to challenge the status quo, to disrupt before we are disrupted, and to deliver the capabilities that will drive our business into the future.