Rich Corbridge (CIO Boots UK & Ireland) and Jawaz Illavia (CIO No7 Beauty Company, Global Sourcing, International Retail and Healthcare Futures) are two CIOs who have led technology and transformation at very different organisations until coming to WBA as senior leaders outside of the US.

They are together leading a change in how the organisations in the WBA family perceive technology and the change that technology brings about. They face into large organisations and want to try, in 2022, to facilitate a behavioral change that sees the organisations they work with consider a product based approach to delivery.

RC – I learnt something new, applied it and felt the difference in the last few weeks, something new that helps me with a problem I have had for years, a problem that IT leaders have been wrestling with for decades. If you remove the word ‘the’ and replace with ‘our’ as often as you can then suddenly a barrier that is in the way of IT becoming part of all that we do here is removed, the business is no longer an isolated thing but the reason we are here to deliver.

Its no longer THE business and IT but OUR business that we are within. Its not the only solution but it helps.

I don’t like the trendy phrasing around all businesses becoming technology business, they are not, they are a customer focused business using the outcomes of technology to place customers at the top of the business hierarchy of need in every way possible. Our job as leader of technology is to facilitate this happening, to be at the heart of the transformation but never to be the reason the business exists or even why it is changing, technology and the innovation it brings can be the catalyst for a business transformation idea but it should never be the reason for the change being made. If it does the technology tail is wagging the business dog and that very rarely has a positive impact for customers.

JI – I agree – and while we’ve all heard technology teams often refer to the rest of the organisation as ‘the business’, I think it’s not just limited to IT leaders – I hear it being used by HR, finance etc. Language leads a mindset, which in turn leads to an unhelpful ‘us vs them’ way of working. I’ve seen the pride technology teams feel when they are part of the ‘inner circle’ with functions such as sales and marketing. And maybe it stems from the old clichés of IT nerds in the basement. However this disconnect then leads to statements such as ‘we should implement a blockchain supply chain project’. By all means, the technology organisation (as well as other functions) need to research, understand new trends, but we still need to revert back to the ‘what’s the problem or opportunity we’re trying to solve’ and exploring that, there may well need the use of certain technologies working together.

High-performing product teams do not talk about ‘the business’ – they talk about themselves creating revenue, building new efficiencies – they have pride in what they contribute to the organisation, both financially and otherwise.

RC – Technology has a reason for existing in our business, it is there to remove the barriers to our own aspirations; to delight every customer and to put a smile on the face of our colleagues wherever they work in our business. Technology as a part of business architecture, technology is part of the answer to business problems but its not what we are here to do. As Jawaz says its not unique to IT to refer to the business in almost a separate tense, but if we can fix it in our area of responsibility then I think we will see a huge change on what we can do together.

As we begin to create the IT Roadmap for the next three years we do so with key guard rails in place, these being the knowledge that everything we put into that plan needs to support a business need to deliver for our customer and colleagues. Customer Experience and Digital Business Enablement with an excellent Operational Backbone are the goals we aim for as we create the next iteration of our plan.

Important for us as we start to create the next three year plan is where we place two elements that are easily forgotten as we plan for the future. Technical Debt that creates bad data models or simply does not allow data to flow or be joined up is key for us in the next wave of planning. We have to ensure that as we talk about our business and the decisions being made we capture the cost of decisions not just in the cost to deliver but find ways to evaluate the longer term cost of making these changes (and indeed of not making the changes too). Technical debt is hard to build investment plans for as we plan for the future, a trick we are going to use as we go into the cycle this year is to try to associate the movement and use of data as the currency for technical debt and therefore create a new way of having clarity on the investment required.

Once we have this agreed as part of the plan for the future we will then need a new type of governance as well; one based on proximity to decision rights and the creation of value. Anywhere, Everywhere and Beyond is the terminology we are trying to place around the governance, we need it to be adaptive and be owned by our business to ensure that decisions taken are done so in a way that is adaptive and additive to the way we want all that we do to evolve.

JI – I really like the phrase “Anywhere, Everywhere and Beyond” – I can see this extending to all areas of how we approach things – from decision making to ways of working.

I think the technical debt can be categorised into unintentional and intentional. The unintentional debt usually builds up because there isn’t a north star. This in turns leads to situations where there’s a big bang approach to resolving the mess that we’re in – which in turn can often lead to further debt if it’s left too late. Intentional debt is often created by the need to ship a product quickly – which is fine as long as there is a parallel track to resolve this. I’ve seen this where for example, trying to move from monolithic ecommerce platforms to something a lot more open/open source means careful planning of continuing to provide necessary development for the monolithic platform but changing the way these further developments are made so they can be also used in the newer proposed platforms.

RC – We know from experiences of old both in our business and in other places where IT has been too separate from what we do then we need to take care to not suggest change is because whatever we do is currently broken. My own experiences in healthcare prior to WBA have taught me that the ‘centre’ has often used IT as the route to try to standardise the business because facing into the business problem and or the people change was just too hard. Technology and technologists have been used as the stick to create change rather than the carrot to warrant a collaborative conversation with great outcomes in the end. The successes I have seen over the years have always been empowered by the relationships created, be that the Lighthouse projects in Ireland, the delivery of reduced times for clinical trial recruitment or the Boots ‘heart and lung’ transplant we undertook on the .com infrastructure last year, these projects ring solid in my brain as great success not because the tech worked but because the relationship between the business I was in at the time was so close to the delivery of technology nobody wore a badge anymore, the secret sauce to successful IT maybe.

When IT and our business do make decisions together we need to remember that decision making is power and when decisions that come to through collaboration create a power (and the responsibility) sharing capability and when we achieve this together the next steps will always be about getting stuff done rather than the agony of whose ‘fault’ is it anyway.

JI – Absolutely – high performing cross-functional/product teams are much more successful than the old-school siloed approach. The days of building something, ‘chucking it over the wall’ to an operations team, expecting the users to adopt and moving to the next thing should be long gone – but so many organisations still operate like this. I’ve seen strong cross-functional teams who work, socialise and deliver together towards a common goal are so much more successful. Those teams don’t use the terms ‘sales, marketing, tech etc’ or point fingers or have destructive debates. Now this doesn’t happen organically – it needs deliberate intervention to get the teams working together – so sales, tech, supply chain members – for example, all have the same bonus target – and these will adjust as the team progresses.

While the terms co-creation, co-working and cross-functional are overused, this has to be the way forward and this needs careful watering and feeding to ensure when things get sticky, old ways of pointing fingers don’t start to appear.

Rich and Jawaz would love to hear your thoughts on this from your own organisations, any useful tips on making this happen in super tanker sized organisations and how to make sure collaboration becomes the new lubrication for the delivery engine of every organisation.