Joe Topinka believes that business and technology need to partner in order to be successful. It’s an idea that drives his work at Red Wing Shoes and also one he’s driving home with his new book, IT Business Partnerships: A Field Guide (with an intro by John Sculley). Here, Topinka elaborates on this idea, and what it looks like in the world of “omnichannel retail.”
What do you consider your most important role?
This is going to sound like motherhood and apple pie, but my job is to really understand what the goals and objectives are for each of our lines of business, and then find ways to help those units achieve those goals. There are all of the other operations—keeping the systems running, making sure the data is secure—but the real value of a CIO comes when you help the business achieve its strategic goals.
What are some ways you work to understand these goals and objectives, and affect change from the IT side?
I connect with the business if I’m actually out in it. In an IT-business partnership, I spend time with customers directly. We’re not sitting at corporate headquarters trying to guess what people want us to do; we’re seeing first-hand things that are actually happening. A good example of this is what we do with our sales organization. We spent time in the field with them, trying to understand what they need in order to conduct their business when they’re actually engaged with customers face-to-face. We learned that it was difficult for them to find the information they needed—products, open orders, and so forth. So we put that information right at their fingertips, on their smartphones.
Do you have a process for communicating the necessity of IT solutions like this to the rest of the Red Wing management team?
We do a monthly investment committee meeting that I chair, and in those meetings, we have a simple process. A new idea is either going to drive incremental revenue, or it’s going to drive cost savings, or it’s a response to a regulatory requirement. If the idea has legs, we will pursue it. When we then complete a project, we talk about the value it delivered. We don’t talk about investments as being IT projects—they’re business projects.
What specific elements or trends in your industry affect your role as CIO?
The proliferation of mobile devices, the advent of the cloud, social media, and data—these four things are changing retailing in a way that we’ve never seen. We no longer tell consumers how to buy; they’re telling us. We have to be positioned to respond in kind. That could be through social-media venues, but also concerns the proliferation of mobile devices. It’s called “omnichannel retail,” and that’s a program we’re currently deploying.
How valuable is the proliferation of information—and access to it—for delivering on this concept of omnichannel retail?
Very valuable, especially as we learn to capitalize on changes in smartphone technologies and laptops. The sooner we can actually embrace those technologies, the more value we’ll be able to deliver not only to consumers, but also to the people that work for Red Wing—the actual employees. This isn’t just a consumer phenomenon.
With these changes in the retail industry, complemented by changes in the technology industry, what does this mean for tomorrow’s CIOs and IT leaders?
IT leaders and CIOs in the future need to have a really solid blend of both business and technology skills. With more and more available in the cloud, you need to figure out a way to integrate it with regard to an information and workflow process perspective, but also from a security perspective. I believe IT organizations are going to become better at IT integration and information than at writing brand new software from scratch.