Cheryl Millington has been Asda’s chief information officer (CIO) for just under two years and in that time has driven IT skills development to the forefront of the retail giant’s technology agenda.
Graduate recruitment and organisational restructuring have been core elements of Millington’s skills drive, which is underpinned by the fundamental belief that IT and the business need to be complementary forces.
Having been acquired by America’s Wal-Mart in 1999, Asda is now operating as part of a global company that is one of the biggest employers in the world.
“We run a very successful graduate IT programme at Asda, where we typically recruit two or three people a year,” says Millington. “The candidates don’t necessarily have to be IT graduates, but we are definitely looking for people who can work very closely with the business. Business acumen is hugely important, and is something we specifically look for.
“We are are a retailer and not an IT organisation. We are definitely looking for people who are great at IT, but more important is the ability to understand the retail business.”
Millington says all her new recruits must spend their first few months visiting Asda stores to get a “full idea of what the business is about”.
Asda’s IT team is set to increase by 50 per cent by the end of 2011 as part of a transfer of capabilities from the US to the UK.
“At the moment, the IT team at Asda is made up of about 200 people. However, we have been doing a lot of recruitment and this is set to increase by 100 employees this year. We are also currently working through plans to take on more people next year,” says Millington.
“A lot of IT support has historically been provided to Asda from the US, but we have now decided to move a lot of that capability over to the UK. We will still be operating within a global framework, but we will be more self-sufficient with regards to our IT,” she added.
Millington says the IT team’s expansion has presented challenges. “We are now required to recruit at scale, which can certainly be a challenge, due to the complexity of what we do. Retail is incredibly fast paced: we work on a weekly cycle, and we also operate across global systems. Consequently, as an IT team, we need to be able to respond in very short time scales, but we need to be strategic as well.”
As well as recruiting more staff, Millington has overseen significant changes to the organisational structure of Asda’s IT team. Her aim, she says, was to “industrialise” the workforce, by which she means building a department that works seamlessly as a team.
“When I joined Asda I went about changing the organisational structure, as I wanted staff with broader experience than what we had previously,” says Millington.
“We used to work in functional alignment, where we had experts in trading or supply, for instance, and they were responsible for projects from cradle to grave. Now we are organised in a way that reflects an IT lifecycle, and so we will have experts in business analysis, development, testing, coding and support of applications,” she adds.
“I like to call it industrialising the skill base, and it has been a difficult transition. The IT team used to behave like toddlers playing football, with everyone trying to get the ball. Now they need to play in formation and pass the ball. We aren’t at the end of the journey yet, but we will be more efficient and effective when we get there.”
Having previously been chief operating officer at nPower and worked in various senior business roles for Halifax Bank of Scotland, Millington sees solid business experience as essential to becoming a successful CIO. She also believes that given the role technology now plays in the enterprise, there is no reason why CIOs cannot go on to be successful CEOs.
“I came from a business background and this has made a massive difference for me when operating as a CIO. I don’t have to imagine what it would feel like to be the recipient of change or service, as this is something I myself have gone through. I look at everything from a business perspective, and I think to be a CIO you need to have that business experience as well,” she says.
“Because change in an enterprise is exponential, and because change is now so dependent on technology, I would also hope that there are more opportunities for CIOs to become CEOs.”