Shop Talk

Shop Talk

Ken Harris, senior vice president and CIO, The Gap, San Francisco Line of Business: Apparel manufacturer and retailer Bio: Joined The Gap as CIO in September 1999 after a year- and-a-half as CIO of Nike; prior to that, Harris held top IS executive positions at PepsiCo, Pepsi-Cola, KFC Taco Bell and at various banks; he also ran his own management consulting practice Challenges Leveraging technology to enhance the customer experience at The Gap What's the most important leadership strategy you've relied on during your career?

When I've been in challenging situations, time and again, the right solution has been to talk to people. I used to think that all conversations had to lead to action or conversion of your adversaries. But I learned that if you are always trying to win people over, you can spend a lot of time wrapped up in negative energy. That's not the case when you are having a dialogue simply to understand someone's position and perspective. The act of communication builds bonds of trust. By keeping the communication channels open, you will always gain, not lose.

If you're not trying to convert enemies or prompt action, what do you talk about?

I talk a lot about vision. I have the equivalent of a salesman's brief that I carry around. It's the vision of what I'm trying to lead the organisation to achieve with technology. It's an important context for conversations with both the business and technology people.

This portable vision of yours, what does it look like exactly?

The vision brief may be a PowerPoint presentation that talks about what we're trying to do from a business point of view, such as creating the capability to know more about our customers in a few hot-button areas. The business terminology may be knowledge to make better business decisions about customer service. The technology term could be data warehousing.

Is technology part of your vision brief?

It's not technology-based; you start with capabilities. For example, if the vision for an HR organisation is the capability for individual employees to maintain their own data, you have a self-help concept. I can then talk to HR people about a process-how employees could access their health-care benefits online, for example. I can then extend that dialogue to where and how the access will happen. But that part doesn't need to be in the vision brief. The HR vice president will ask me how we can create access for employees, and at that point I can bring technology into the discussion. So this way it's the HR vice president who invites the technology discussion. And when we talk about it, he or she will have a greater understanding of it.

How do you get the vision?

A lot of organisations have strategic plans, and that helps, but it may not be sufficient. When I join an organisation, I'll ask what the business's core competencies are today and what we want them to be in the future. I may put the competencies down on paper as part of my vision and go around the organisation to find out if others agree or disagree with them. In most organisations, you won't get a complete consensus on core competencies. The value is in having the dialogue because then you'll understand the nuances and political forces that matter. It's important to know if those forces are at odds with the vision you're building. As you collect feedback, you look to modify the vision-it's a living document. Over the years it will change significantly.

What's the ultimate payoff from talking vision?

It will help business people make decisions about what they need in order to achieve their goals, which will in turn help the technology people build the tools that are needed. With the IS people, you will get a tremendous increase in buy-in, and their capabilities will improve because they understand why they are doing what they are doing.

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