Unscrew Your LightbulbRollin Ford has one of the toughest CIO jobs on the planet. He leads a global IT team in one of the world’s largest companies by revenue and employees, a company that has earned a reputation for leadership in supply chain that has allowed it to dominate its markets. Yet Wal-Mart is constantly under pressure to maintain its leadership position. In the US, Target has become a fierce competitor, while in the UK, Tesco may have overtaken Wal-Mart in supply-chain leadership, with Tesco’s move into the US watched closely by Wal-Mart.

Earlier this year, Ford sat on a CIO panel discussing IT’s role in innovation. His thoughts on innovation also touched on strategy and alignment. He suggested that innovation starts with the customer, then leads into a business strategy, and then it gets enabled by technology. However, he acknowledges, “there are very few secrets out there.” Ford suggests that the only competitive advantage over time is the speed at which your organization can implement and leverage innovative ideas: “Your organization has to embrace change and new technologies, and that becomes your model. It’s about getting from A to B and doing it quicker than everybody else.”

But, success requires the organization to embrace a culture of change and that can be challenging. As Ford suggests, “Every day you’ve got to get up and run faster than the next guy; every day you come in to work uncomfortable; you have to ask yourself every day: what do we need to do different?”

Of course, retail is a unique business, with its own idioms and processes not found in any other business. Nevertheless, retail is changing. As Ford acknowledges, “We’re a retailer in a broad context; online, in social space; in convergent technology space. Retail is no longer just bricks and mortar.” The recently published Forrester report on retail trends highlights this convergence of technology.

Developing winning ideas and enabling business strategy means you have to be willing to have some failures along the way. But to have the failures, you have to be trying out new ideas, concepts, and technologies. And that’s a crucial point according to Ford — using a baseball analogy, he highlights the importance of swinging at the ball. “You’re paid to get more hits than outs and without using steroids. You’ve got to create value for the business; you’ve got to create the hits to get the home runs.” And as if to emphasize the point, Ford acknowledges that not even Wal-Mart can get it right the first time. “A lot of our failures turned into home runs. Our first supercenter was a failure.”

So how does Wal-Mart’s IT group work alongside the business units to facilitate innovation? “We allow the business side to channel business ideas, and we go about enabling them.” To help harness the 2.1 million employees’ minds around the world, Wal-Mart has tapped into social technologies, using internal blogs to spur employees to share ideas. “We did a blogging exercise on energy to associates; we had 5,000 that participated. The great ideas on energy savings have saved our company millions of dollars. For example, one associate suggested unscrewing the light bulb in the vending machines around the store.” I have to confess, my initial reaction to this was along the lines of surely that’s not so big, but for Wal-Mart, that one simple idea implemented worldwide saved the company $1 million.

So I wonder, no matter what the size of your organization, what are you doing in your organization to unscrew your light bulb?

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