Lessons from Corporate Express' seven-year transformation

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Lessons from Corporate Express' seven-year transformation

'Executive-first' CIO standardises IT, operations.

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Corporate Express is at the tail end of a seven-year transformation program that has effected major change for the business and program sponsor, former chief information officer Garry Whatley.

The transformation standardised business processes across 40 locations, unifying the operations of "about 70" businesses bought by Corporate Express since 1996.

It also altered Whatley's remit. While he came into the program as the firm's CIO, he exited as vice president of IT and business services.

In some ways, Whatley’s title transformation merely reflected his approach. Although he spearheaded the project as CIO, he maintained it was a business – rather than IT – driven body of work.

“The fight … was always … this thing of because I, as the CIO, was driving it, it was sort of an IT project," he told iTnews in advance of his presentation to the CIO Strategy Summit this month.

"I just kept the mantra of it being a business project.”

Part of that positioning was personal. “I came [into the program] as CIO but I always say that really I took on the role as an executive first,” Whatley said.

“I’m a firm believer that to do [their] role properly, the CIO needs to be at the executive table. It’s about being acknowledged as a C-Level counterpart to every other C-Level role.

"If you're not at the table and you're not having those discussions, it's very difficult to drive and be a transformational CIO.”

Throughout the project, Whatley reported directly to the CEO, rather than through the chief financial officer, as has been a trend for some of his CIO counterparts in recent times.

Had his reporting line been up through the CFO, Whatley said he may not have been able to deliver the same outcomes on business transformation.

“I think reporting to someone and being a peer is very different. I’d hazard to say that I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve had to do if I reported to the CFO and wasn’t at the table with my peers on a regular basis.

"To me the key fundamentals to this are all around trust and credibility. It's about understanding those [C-Level] conversations, building those relationships.”

He acknowledged that the CFO – as much as the CEO – would likely have understood the business case for process simplification and transformation at Corporate Express.

But he cited the level of executive turnover across the seven years of transformation as one example of why reporting directly to the CEO was an advantage.

“In the seven years, I’ve had two owners of the business, a change of board, two CEOs, two CFOs, three heads of supply chain,” Whatley said.

“With the amount of executive change throughout the process, if you were sitting a level down, to be able to continue a program like this would be near impossible, because a lot of my time was spent on reselling the benefits of getting buy-in and building credibility and trust with those [executives].”

Before attempting to transform customer service at Telstra, incoming chief customer officer Gordon Ballantyne got a first-hand look at the situation by answering calls from customers in the carrier's call centre.

Similarly, Whatley said that when he first started as CIO, he “went out with drivers on deliveries” and spent time in the Corporate Express call centre.

“I still actively go out and talk to customers. I think that's really, really important,” he said. “It sends a message that you are part of the business and understand it.

“I think it helps you with your executive colleagues because you actually have a really good view of the business, and from a customer perspective you’re getting good feedback on what the organisations’ doing or the customer needs.”

Whatley described being involved and being active in the business as hallmarks not just of the next-generation CIO, but of the entire IT department.

“The IT organisation really needs to transform itself more into getting involved in orchestration [of] business process and around information rather than around the technical components [of IT],” he said.

“Some [IT] organisations will do that and I think that will be the next generation of whatever we call the CIO.

“But I think some [IT] organisations may put up the walls and try to control things and still try to be a controller of technology. They’re the [IT] organisations that will end up back under the CFO and [will] end up being constrained in dollars and lost budgets.”

Continue to page two for a detailed look at Corporate Express’ business transformation.

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