Don’t just do your job. Think of how you can help your colleagues.
Timothy Kasbe views retail as a prime space for CIOs to apply their management and career leadership skills.
“Being in the information industry, in the CIO role and in the digital role, you really get to know all parts of the business,” says Kasbe, who moved to New Zealand in May this year to take on the newly-created role of chief information officer and chief digital officer at The Warehouse Group.
“You are connected to supply chain, to finance. You know every single thing that uses technology.”
This dovetails with one of the main insights he learned from an earlier stint at IBM: 'Don’t just do your job. Think of how you can help your colleagues.'
“Yes, I can do my tech job, but I can also help in the supply chain side and sales.
“Digital technology is a service industry still and we really have to see how we can not only make the systems and all the digital core ready and usable, but also have be aware as to what are other problems you can solve.”
He smiles as he reveals what he believes is the “biggest secret to digital success”.
“If you can find out and meet the unarticulated needs of your business, before they even ask, that is digital success."
“I always have a wide-angle lens,” he says on his approach to career and executive leadership. “That is why opportunities have opened up for me.”
For Kasbe, this means taking his experience as global consultant, CIO and COO, to TWG, which operates The Warehouse, Warehouse Stationery, Noel Leeming and Torpedo7 brands.
He brings to the role experience in online and digital transformation programmes at clothing retailer Gloria Jeans in Russia where he was chief operating officer, and also at Fortune 50 companies such as Intrexon Corporation and Sears Holdings; Reliance Industries in India; and IBM in the US.
As senior partner at IBM’s global retail practice, he worked on the digital transformation programmes at Walmart and Target in the United States, and with Boulanger in France.
“I really got attracted to retail as part of that assignment," says Kasbe. “There is something about retail, you have the human touch with the community.”
We want to create tech that is so easy and so digital that our business colleagues can go and build the apps they need, and not worry about what is underneath
He experienced first-hand how the sector provided critical assistance during an emergency.
Kasbe was in Mumbai during the terrorist attacks in November, 2008.
He was then the CIO of Reliance Retail and was in one of the hotels that was under attack.
“I started hearing gunfire,” he says, who was living at the Taj Mahal hotel at that time. “It just kept going and then there was a huge bomb blast. The whole building shook and that was how my 18-hour journey started.”
When he escaped, he made sure he and his employees returned to help the victims and their families.
“When these natural disasters or human disasters happen, retail companies are close to people to help them."
It was the same when Hurricane Katrina struck in New Orleans.
He was then the CIO at Sears, and he noted that the retailer’s truck first to go into the disaster zone with relief goods.
He smiles when asked about how the sector is facing new competitors and also disruption brought by technologies.
“Retail has been a target of technology companies for a very long time,” he says. “I think there are opportunities here to really see how we can keep the human side of retail, which is so important.
“My view is there will always be some physical presence [in retail],” he says, referring to the rise of online only stores.
“There will never be a world where we will not have a physical presence. People will love to come into the stores, to touch and feel the products.
“People love to get advice, and to get support and services,” Kasbe adds.
“As we look at how the whole retail world is transforming, the role of stores may change. But the footprint will be there to serve our customers.”
He says the company has a new app. “When we enable our customers with the app, anytime they need something, they just press it,” he says.
“You can scan it, do a search, or speak to it,” he says.
"There is a possibility we can get them what they need within 30 mins an hour or the next two hours on the same day or the next day they can choose how they want to be served."
“It is like an endless aisles for things you can not find in the store.”
“That is an unbelievable competitive advantage.”
Kasbe states the app is number one on the Google store and is in New Zealand’s top 10 in IoS, with zero advertising.
People can use the app to do research, but then go to the store to buy or go to the online store on desktop, he states.
"We will have it ready for our customers in the right place, right time and right price. All of that has to work together.”
This doesn’t just apply to our customers, but also to our internal colleagues and stakeholders, he says.
He explains how The Warehouse Group has its entire digital agenda underway.
I want the group AI officer to look at how we can take on this AI hype and break it down into simple things that will help our customers.
“We want to make tech near invisible, so all you need to do is press a button to get what you need.
“This is not just about our customers. We also have 12,000 team members and we need to serve them so they have things ready at the right place and at the right time.”
“If we are doing our job well enough, IS should have a reduced role in things like training,” he adds.
“If a system requires a lot of hand-holding, training and marketing, then we need to go back to the drawing board and re-do UX, design and application of AI. Voluntary systems adoption is the new ROI for the enterprise.
“We want to create tech that is so easy and so digital that our business colleagues can go and build the apps they need, and not worry about what is underneath, and can configure it and customise it the way they want to do it.”
An example is the recent deployment of the help desk app for HR.
“We wanted to create a beautiful platform to support our HR colleagues that didn’t require a lot of admin and could be implemented quickly, without significant involvement from IT.
The self-service portal freed up people support specialists to focus on more complex requests, he says.
“For me, that is the new IT, that is what we are doing here.”
Kasbe has an MBA from Duke University and is a distinguished visiting scholar at Stanford University in California.
He visits the university twice a year and spends three days at its computer science laboratory.
He is there as part of the teaching interaction, and says he learns a lot from the students too. “This is where students believe anything is possible. They have no fear at all. They can do anything.”
While he is at the forefront of technology research, he also looks at it as a pragmatist.
An example is his view on artificial intelligence. We need to break down the hype around AI, he says. “It has to be about creating something useful.”
He also talks about the skills needed to thrive in ICT.
“The learning component is the number one thing,” he says. “We are bombarded with new stuff all the time. It is a case of picking the needle out of the haystack to see what is gonna work or not.
“Out of habit, what I have done is always interview people whether I have roles open or not to see if I come across a star.”
Wanted: Group AI officer
Kasbe reveals he is preparing a new role in the company, the group artificial intelligence officer.
“I want the group AI officer to look at how we can take on this hype and break it down into simple things that will help our customers and employees."
Kasbe takes a long-term view on growing the technology and digital team, both at the Warehouse Group, and in the industry itself.
This year, the retail group has started its first batch of technology interns.
“Interns are a way for us to invest in the future and can offer a fresh perspective on the way we work,” he says.
The current batch of 12 interns is coming from a range of tertiary providers including Massey and AUT and through the Summer of Tech programme.
They will work from 12 weeks from December to February and will be assigned to e-commerce, design, product management, engineering, security and digital strategy.
Each intern is allocated a mentor, rather than a manager, and they are given a project or task they will take ownership of during their time at The Warehouse.
"At the end of their internship, each participation will give a short presentation about what they have done during their time with us and what they have learned," says Kasbe.
Outside his office is a long table where employees can meet ICT staff about their technology concerns.
“You should never be sitting on a problem,” he says. “We have self-service solutions, but we also want to create that one to one human experience.”
“We have a huge business intelligence focus,” he states. “We are transforming our company into an information driven enterprise.
“We don’t talk about printing numbers and analytics and reports. We are talking about converting those numbers into actions for the frontline, the back office and in here,” Kasbe says.
“The secret sauce to all of these things is good clean trustworthy data.”
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