Published on: October 16, 2006
GENEVA, Switzerland – The second day of presentations here at the CIES IT & Supply Chain Conference offered some interesting juxtapositions, as speakers offered differing perspectives on the roles that technology can play in business.
For example, there was a fascinating presentation by Peter Mahler, CIO of Australia’s Coles Myer, who painted a vivid picture of a company that until a few years ago had more than 600 different applications, which each of its many banners acting autonomously – leading to a massive waste of money and energy, not to mention an extreme lack of efficiency. The company now is engaged in an effort to consolidate its applications and processes, an effort that is as much cultural as technological as Coles Myer outsources what can be outsourced and instead looks to have “knowledge people” inside the company who can take a more strategic and tactical approach to the subject.
One of the byproducts of the Coles Myer presentation, at least for us, was the appreciation for how complex and massive the company’s business infrastructure is. It wasn’t that long ago that rumors were rampant that either Wal-Mart or Tesco might try to buy the company…but based on the description by Mahler, this would be an enormous undertaking. Not that Tesco and Wal-Mart wouldn’t be capable of it…but it wouldn’t be easy. Or pain-free.
There also was an interesting joint presentation by Bill Long, vice president and director of general merchandise business strategy at Asda-Wal-Mart, and Kenneth Forster, Coca-Cola's group director of strategic initiatives, in which they described in some detail the data-sharing system called Retail Link and how it endeavors to create “one version of the truth” that the retailer and the manufacturer can agree upon.
In the presentation, Forster noted that “commerce” is defined in the dictionary three ways – as the exchange of money, as the exchange of ideas, or as a kind of intimate personal knowledge. Retail Link, the men argued, really attempts to achieve all three when it comes to establishing a relationship between supplier and distributor; it is designed to be more than just a communications tool that drives best practices, but also the foundation for a deeper, more intimate relationship between two companies.
During the discussion session, which we were privileged to moderate, Han Willemse of Ahold used this metaphor to note that it was nice to see that Wal-Mart and Coke were both in love and living together, but wondered if that meant that neither company would be willing to have such a relationship with another. But both Long and Forster said that Wal-Mart works actively to have such relationships with other manufacturers, and that Coke would love to have such relationships with other retailers.
(Which is where the metaphor probably should have stopped. Except that being a bit of a wisenheimer, we commented to the entire conference that “it’s nice to know that everybody is in love and that nobody is getting screwed.” What we never found out is precisely how the interpreters translated that into French, German, Italian and Japanese…)
Finally, the conference ended with a presentation by Polar explorer Robert Swan, who has walked to both the North Pole and South Pole and has become a leading advocate for the environmental preservation of Antarctica. Vividly describing the changes that global warming and the hole in the ozone layer have wrought in some of the coldest places on earth, Swan argued passionately for a greater consciousness about such issues on the part of citizens, governments and businesses. It was the kind of passion that, in the words of Ian Mumby, head of supply chain, logistics and IT-food for Marks & Spencer, made him want to move issues like “sustainability” to the top of his list of concerns.