A key step in scaling a business is developing strong, repeatable processes to build efficiency and consistency in deliverables. Yet, growing companies still struggle to balance the need for consistent processes. They are cautious of losing the flexibility to evolve and react to market changes.
Piyush Chowhan, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at LuLu Group International is one of the people who manage to strike a balance between innovation and structure. He explains why having a bimodal approach is the key to ensure the organization benefits from fresh ideas.
Piyush’s professional journey
Piyush started his career as a consultant for Tata Infotech. Then, he joined Wipro to work on the company’s supply chain management in both India and the USA. In 2006, he became Tesco’s Lead Program Delivery Manager, bringing many key IT retail initiatives to completion in 13 countries.
Piyush transitioned over to SanDisk, where he set up and led their Business Analytics team. A stint at WalmartLabs India as Director followed before he became the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Arvind Lifestyle Brands Limited.
In November 2019, Piyush began his current position as Group Chief Information Officer at LuLu Group International.
Can you tell us a bit more about your company and what your role involves?
LuLu Group International is a multinational conglomerate headquartered in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. We operate a chain of hypermarkets and retail companies all over the world. We 200 stores and around 55,000 employees.
As Group Chief Information Officer, I’m responsible for creating a digital roadmap for the company’s global operations and managing its retail operations technology across 22 countries. It’s a fascinating job that I love.
Can you talk us through the evolution of retail and how that’s impacted the customer experience?
Retail has gone through 5 major disruptions in the format and experience over the last hundred years:
2. Mail-order catalogs
3. Big-box retail
5. Omnichannel retail
Each of these had a transformative effect on the industry as a whole.
Now, with omnichannel retail, the opportunities are huge. This helps companies get their strategy right. However, there’s an increasing level of competition.
The industry itself is becoming more complex. Take marketing, for example. It has changed beyond imagination over the past two decades.
Customer journeys are getting very complex with digital and mobile platforms becoming prevalent. Modern customers might discover a product on one channel, research it on another, and then purchase it from a third channel.
Modern companies are paralyzed by having so many processes in place. I understand the need for processes, but sometimes they can just end up stifling organizations.
These challenges are very much interlinked. If a company’s processes are hindering it from progressing, it won’t be able to creatively adapt its data strategy and unearth any golden insights.
You’ve worked with lots of older, well-established organizations. How do you balance innovation with maintaining business as usual?
That’s quite a complex question. In my mind, more ‘traditional’ organizations can either choose to buy a disruptor outright or they can effectively build their own startup (which I think is often a better idea).
Gartner refers to this as having a ‘bimodal’ approach. Essentially, you have one part of the organization (the legacy team) that’s focused on maintaining business as usual and another section that operates as its own startup. It’s a lot more experimentative and innovative.
If you get the legacy team to lead the innovation project, you’ll likely just end up with the same ideas over and over again. Having a bimodal approach is a good way to ensure that the organization benefits from fresh ideas.
These innovation teams must be filled with people from different backgrounds. Having a diversity of thought is paramount. Once you’ve got the right team on board, you can start innovating.
This is where the 70/20/10 model comes in handy.
- Large organizations should spend 70% of their budget on maintaining their existing model.
- 20% should be invested in driving incremental changes on an ongoing basis (updates, tweaks, and changes, etc.)
- 10% should go on developing their innovative new ‘breakthrough’ ideas.
What hurdles do you encounter when implementing large transformation programs?
During my time at Arvind, I learned that there are three main elements of wholesale transformation projects:
2. Process modernisation
3. Workforce modernization
These 3 elements are all equally important. If you modernize one part without modernizing the other two, your transformation will fail. It’s as simple as that.
Large traditional organizations tend to operate more slowly than smaller disruptors. For example, to receive the necessary buy-in across the company, you need to ensure your transformation roadmap is truly collaborative.
It needs to be jointly developed and owned by everybody on the leadership team. As a result, enacting large-scale transformations in big companies can take a very long time.
Why is that? Surely the larger the company the more money they have to see projects to completion?
That’s true, but there’s often a higher fear of failure. Large companies tend to be more risk-averse. They have bigger reputations and more customers.
There’s a lot on the line. If something goes wrong, the damage could be severe. However, once you get going and build a bit of momentum, it becomes slightly easier moving forward.
It doesn’t work to simply implement modern technology into outdated ways of working (especially with a team that’s very set in its ways). If you’re doing multiple releases per day with a team that’s not used to working at such speed with these new tools, you’ll just end up exhausting them. If you do this often enough and for long enough, you’ll begin to meet a fair amount of internal resistance.
Instead, you need to test out the new ways of working with a small, focused, highly capable team. This team must have the freedom to fail without fear of repercussions and to be as innovative as they possibly can be. Innovation often requires new faces. You need people to look at traditional problems with a fresh set of eyes.
Data is a clear catalyst for this type of innovation. In an ideal world, how would you ensure that your organization is geared towards making data-driven decisions?
I’ve always found it slightly strange that customer data is considered a marketing department property. I understand why marketers need it, but isn’t it as important for other departments too?
Additionally, the marketing team aggregates the data for their own purposes before passing it over to the supply chain team. This just doesn’t work. Companies need to move away from this linear model and allow different departments to be able to dig into the raw data in its purest form.
So that’s the first major step: democratize your data. It’s simple enough in theory, but you’d be surprised at how many organizations struggle to do this.
Secondly, there should be shared goals across different teams linked towards customer success and the customer experience. Forrester’s CX index has demonstrated time and time again that companies with the best customer experience (CX) also benefit from the fastest growth rates and the highest increases in shareholder value.
Finally, it’s important to understand that this is a journey. Some companies just rip up the rulebook and start from scratch. Adopting a customer-centric approach doesn’t require rewiring the entire organization.
Instead, focus on small steps at any one time. Create a data pipeline, make your data accessible, and ensure to remain as nimble and agile as possible.
Once you have some decent insights, try to put these learnings into action. Adopt a ‘test and learn’ approach to all projects. You probably won’t get things right the first time around, and that’s fine. This is expected.
Retailers must prioritize customer-centricity above everything else. They need to finetune how they collect, analyze, and leverage data to gain a holistic view of their customer. The ultimate goal is always to create that ‘Wow’ factor.Piyush Chowhan, Lulu Group International Chief Information Officer