Real Time Access to Accurate Information: A Game Changer for BlueLinx

Bob Toupin, CIO, BlueLinx Corporation.
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Bob Toupin, CIO, BlueLinx Corporation.

Technological trends in BlueLinx:

Real time access to accurate information will be a game changer for BlueLinx. We have numerous custom business applications with great data, but not great information.  Hundreds of employees spend enormous amounts of time inputting data into systems but what do they get from that effort?  Unless you can consolidate the data to provide timely and actionable information to decision makers it is a missed opportunity. We can easily determine from data which customers are increasing their spend with us or decreasing it. We can see what they are buying and if those habits are changing.  We have the ability to use data to increase revenue and profits by analyzing it for targeted marketing campaigns and cross sell / upsell opportunities.  We find data so valuable we are partnering with Microsoft to implement a Business Intelligence solution.  With numerous custom applications, if someone at BlueLinx wants answers to questions it involves either running various reports from multiple systems and consolidating it themselves or requesting IT to gather and compile the data.  This is often a lengthy process and is not easily reproducible the next time they have the same question.  The new Business Intelligence platform will provide a single pane of glass for the entire business across all functions.  It can show purchasing data, customer data, and logistics data all in one place.  The business employees will no longer spend the majority of their time gathering data, but rather analyzing it and making decisions on it.  A finance associate should not have to worry about which of the four systems they should go to, and what the cryptic field names are that don’t correlate to their nomenclature. They view vendor terms as “Vendor Terms”, not APTYUU4 in the APT table.  The technology has become so advanced that IT can simply rename the cryptic name in the dashboard to “Vendor Terms” without any back end database changes.  IT should be not be spending time teaching business people how to speak in our language, but rather we should spend our time building a technology bridge between the two languages so it is transparent to the users where the data comes from and what format it resides in.  Traditional reporting also includes a lot of numbers and information, but not colors or charts.  It takes a person analyzing and correlating the numbers to find anomalies or trends.  The new Microsoft BI platform shows information in colors and charts for fast and easy analysis, but also retains the numbers via Drilldown for deeper analysis.

“It is a balancing act, but one that has brought IT closer to the business has added tremendous value to the organization.” 

BlueLinx and IT:

IT is truly becoming a partner of the business here at BlueLinx. 2 years ago when I started at the company IT had a traditional organizational structure with technology and application development (appdev) teams.  The appdev team had project managers, programmers, and dba’s.  While this structure was beneficial for IT resource planning and workload management, the business saw us as order takers.  We would receive tasks and requirements and then we would execute and deliver.  We had large project lists and “work queues”.  No one in the business thought we were focused on their area or were doing things fast enough for them.  They demanded to know how we prioritized our workload and why their projects weren’t at the top. 9 months ago I changed the structure to be more of a strategic partnership.  I assigned a top IT manager to partner with each part of the business and we called their new role ITBP.  (IT Business Partner). We now have Financial, Logistics, Sales, and Supply Chain IT leads.  The Finance team for example only works on finance projects and supports finance applications.  They are in the finance team meetings, strategy sessions, and all members of the team have to spend time doing accounting processes.  They take one day a quarter to apply cash or reconcile payables.  They are truly a part of the finance organization and the CFO feels she has control over what IT is doing for her and when.  Gone are the questions of “what is IT doing for me?!?!”   We have similar roles in logistics, where the IT team goes on delivery runs with truck drivers and performs branch inventory cycle counting.  The team is even getting into business process improvement initiatives, leveraging process and technology changes to enable a more efficient company.  The IT department in every company is very unique in that it sees processes and workflow across the entire company and knows how the pieces fit together holistically. Keeping this holistic company view while at the same time focusing on one segment of the company is a challenge. In order to compensate and to prevent people from getting siloed we have established focus teams around specific technologies.  The DBA’s of each team meet once a week to discuss technical issues and training.  The programmers meet to discuss their technologies and share idea’s over coffee.  It is a balancing act, but one that has brought IT closer to the business has added tremendous value to the organization.

Advice to CIOs’:

I would recommend any new CIO to spend considerable time not only learning the industry, but more importantly learning the culture of the company. There is a very accurate quote: “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”.  For example, if the training plan for new projects includes online learning but employees at that particular organization learn most effectively through classroom training, adjustments must be made in order to be successful.  If a CIO is focused on rolling out new technologies yet the company is strategically focused on cost savings, the IT plan and resource allocations needs to change.  Spending time at facilities and travelling with sales people is also invaluable.  What you hear from fellow executives and what actually happens in the field can often be two drastically different things. I would also recommend spending a lot of time relationship building, not just with other executives but with key members of the organization.  Often times a project or initiative is successful based on who you know, not what you know.  Having those key partnerships in place where you can share ideas and concepts with veteran employees you trust before going down the wrong path can save both, time and money.  The role of the CIO is not to be an order taker, but rather to strategically help the business make money.  If the IT department does not help increase Shareholder value, we as CIO’s aren’t doing our jobs. 

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