More Than You Want to Know About Wal-Mart’s Technology Strategy Part 2

This article is a continuation of my earlier analysis (Part 1 here, continued here at Part 3) where I waded into Wal-Mart’s strategy for technology infrastructure and strategy for IT capability & staffing. Whether you love or hate Wal-Mart, no one can argue that historically the organization has been highly innovative, effective and efficient. In this second part of my three part series I will broach the company’s strategy for information risk and security, stakeholder requirements and project return on investment.

Wal-Mart: Strategy for Information Risk & Security:

Wal-Mart operates a massive information system infrastructure that has been called the largest private computer system in the country. As such, the company must be strategic in implementing the proper information security protocols and vigilant in order to react to attempted compromises to its confidential information. Any compromise of sensitive customer information could lead to a significant expense in compensating affected parties and lead to updating systems, processes and procedures to restore customer confidence. This scenario is especially relevant as Wal-Mart’s extensive point of sale system, from a black hat hacker’s perspective, registers a veritable treasure trove of customer debit, credit and gift card information.

In order to mitigate the aforementioned risks, Wal-Mart has complied with the PCI DSS or Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. PCI DSS offers, “compliance guidelines and standards with regard to our (Wal-Mart’s) security surrounding the physical and electronic storage, processing and transmission of individual cardholder data” (Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 2016). Some operational system components of PCI DSS include maintaining a secure network via use of firewalls to protect sensitive data, encrypting cardholder data that is transmitted across public networks, regularly updating anti-virus software as well as tracking and monitoring all access to network resources and cardholder data. (PCI Security Standards Council, 2016). Former CIO Turner has stated, “Necessity is the mother of invention, and we’ve invested a lot of knowledge and capital in intrusion detection and playing as much offense as we can to make sure that we’re protecting our company. Personally, every day I spend time on security” (Lundberg, 2002).

From a disaster recovery perspective, Wal-Mart maintains redundant primary and secondary information systems to mitigate the risks of operational downtime and/or significant loss of information. The organization keeps primary and secondary information systems physically separated. In 2005, the company was lauded for its disaster recovery and business continuity efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The company stood up satellite links for its retail centers enabling those centers to correspond with headquarters despite the loss of phone lines and internet connectivity (Worhten, 2005). Wal-Mart also maintains an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) established in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The organization has a central EOC located at headquarters in Arkansas which works in concert with decentralized EOCs at a division level. During Hurricane Sandy, the organization was successful in moving generators across state lines in order to reopen stores and provide systems operability in a timely manner (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2005).

Wal-Mart: Strategy for Stakeholder Requirements, Testing & Training/Support:

Wal-Mart’s immense size allows it considerable influence over its supplier stakeholders. Typically, suppliers reside in an inferior position (Wal-Mart can end the supplier relationship or demand sub-optimal concessions from the supplier) which enables the retailing behemoth to dictate industry wide changes in how suppliers and merchants interact. This unbalanced power relationship allows the company to micromanage its supply chain partners from a business process and respective information technology project perspective. When the power balance is more on an equal footing, Wal-Mart is willing to work collectively with a supplier.

Case in point is the lauded cooperation between Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart in the late 1980’s to implement Retail-Link. Retail-Link was a joint business process and related technology systems project between the two organizations for mutually beneficial gains. Wal-Mart’s in-store point of sale data acted as a pull to automatically trigger manufacturing orders to P&G when stocks were low (Wailgum, 2007). When this concept proved successful, Wal-Mart dictated to 2,000 supplier stakeholders that they must all update their information systems to integrate with Retail-Link. The integration and information sharing with Retail-Link was a boon to Wal-Mart’s suppliers as it provided predictable volumes and constantly humming factories, but the takeaway is that Wal-Mart mandated the terms to stakeholders based upon its asymmetrically favorable power position.

In some cases, Wal-Mart’s technical project mandates to suppliers did not yield mutually beneficial Return on Investment (ROI). An example of this scenario is embodied in the much publicized initiative to have its suppliers adopt RFID in the mid 2000’s. Wal-Mart was seeking to increase its inventory visibility at the warehouse and in its stores. In this case, Wal-Mart did not adequately consider stakeholder technology implementation concerns before issuing its RFID mandate. A supplier is on record stating that the consumer packaged goods industry was not the best early adaptor for RFID and that the small margins and project complexities didn’t offer compelling ROI (Wailgum, 2007). The ROI that could be established from a supplier standpoint was to continue doing business with Wal-Mart while only investing the bare minimum in upgrades required to implement RFID. A Gartner analyst has estimated that the implementation costs of RFID for smaller companies would cost between $100,00 to $300,000, while larger manufacturers could experience investment costs of up to $20 million (Network World, 2008).

Once a critical mass of important supplier stakeholders decided that their operating costs were being negatively impacted, Wal-Mart decided to back down from its mandate. Only when the favorable power dynamic shifted from Wal-Mart to the supplier network, did the company walk back its mandate.

From a development standpoint, Wal-Mart traditionally used the more structured Systems Development Lifecycle (SDLC) methodology. All systems within the company require testing & validation. According to former CIO Turner, “In any development effort, our [IS] people are expected to get out and do the function before they do the system specification, design or change analysis. The key there is to do the function, not just observe it. So we actually insert them into the business roles. As a result, they come back with a lot more empathy and a whole lot better understanding and vision of where we need to go and how we need to proceed” (Lundberg, 2002). Turner also eschews testing systems in low volume stores or with the easiest customers.

Recently, in its more cutting edge Silicon Valley based development division (@WalmartLabs) the company has moved to adopt an Agile development methodology. Agile methodology allows the group to react faster to changing market conditions with respect to the much slower SDLC methodology. This approach is necessary in a cut-throat marketplace where competitors such as Amazon have been using Scrum for over a decade (King, 2014).

Wal-Mart: Project ROI and Key Success Measures:

Despite the less than successful analysis and grasp of intended project benefits related to its RFID initiative, Wal-Mart relies heavily on ROI as a measure of project success. Cost is a major driver of IT related expenses thus a reliance on ROI is a sensible approach. Former CIO Turner has stated that 33% of Wal-Mart development projects are canceled before they are completed and that 56% of completed projects are subjected to budget overruns of 189%. “One of the problems is that a lot of companies don’t require an ROI except for major purchases. ‘At Wal-Mart, everything has to pay its way, even infrastructure [investments]. A lot of people say you can’t cost-justify infrastructure, but you can. There is a way. You have to make ROI the center of what you’re about, to begin to pay your way’” (Power, 1998). At Wal-Mart all technology implementations are assigned a payback analysis and the savings from the analysis must be incorporated into the business plan. A quarterly report on each project is shared at the executive level to ensure that business unit profit and loss statements reflect the investment value that was initially calculated. The mentality at Wal-Mart is a focus on turning information technology from a traditional cost center to a profit center.

Additionally, the centralized information technology group at Wal-Mart does not saddle its divisions with a chargeback funding method. The company takes a holistic enterprise wide view approach with respect to determining which projects make sense for the company. Wal-Mart can be said to employ the corporate budget funding method where IT managers have considerable control over the entire IT budget. When it’s time to implement a project, the divisions with the largest budgets are treated the same as divisions where resources are more scarce. As of 2004, the organization lacked an IT steering committee which helped speed up the project selection process (Sullivan, 2004). The drawback to this funding method approach is that IT competes with all other budgeted items for funds (Pearlson, Galletta & Saunders, 2016).

Project completion dates in the organization’s nomenclature are referred to as “end dates”. All projects are tracked against the end dates and problem projects are scrutinized when they fall behind schedule. When new systems are deployed it is not uncommon for high level management to solicit feedback from line employees involved in using the system. When necessary, personnel are replaced on project teams in order to increase project effectiveness (Lundberg, 2002).

To be continued in Part 3 where I address these three areas:

  • Strategy for Data Acquisition and Impact on Business Processes
  • Strategy for Social Media/Web Presence
  • Strategy for Organizational Change Management, Project Strategy and Complexity

References:

King, R. (October 2014). Wal-Mart Becomes Agile But Finds Some Limits. Dow Jones Institutional News. Retrieved from Factiva

Lundberg. A. (July 1, 2002). Wal-Mart: IT Inside the World’s Biggest Company. CIO magazine. Retrieved from http://www.cio.com/article/2440726/it-organization/wal-mart–it-inside-the-world-s-biggest-company.html?page=2

Network World. (September, 2008). “Wal-Mart’s RFID revolution a tough sell; Even for the world’s biggest retailer, championing an unproven technology with no clear ROI has been difficult” Retrieved from Factiva on June 13/16

PCI Security Standard Council. (2016). Maintaining Payment Security. Retrieved from https://www.pcisecuritystandards.org/pci_security/maintaining_payment_security

PricewaterhouseCoopers. (September, 2013). Interview with Mark Cooper. Walmart takes collaborative approach to disaster recovery. Retrieved from http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/industries/capital-projects-infrastructure/disaster-resilience/walmart-disaster-response-strategy.html

Power, D. (June, 1998). WAL-MART: TECHNOLOGY PAYBACK IS IMPERATIVE. Supermarket News. Retrieved from Factiva

Pearlson, K., Galletta, D., & Saunders, C. (January, 2016). Managing and Using Information Systems: A Strategic Approach, Binder Ready Version, 6th Edition

Sullivan, L. (September 24, 2004). Wal-Mart’s Way: Heavyweight retailer looks inward to stay innovative in business technology. Retrieved 6/17/16 from http://www.informationweek.com/wal-marts-way/d/d-id/1027448?

Wailgum, T. (October 2007). How Wal-Mart Lost Its Technology Edge. Retrieved from http://www.cio.com/article/2437953/strategy/how-wal-mart-lost-its-technology-edge.html

WAL-MART STORES, INC. (January 31, 2016). FORM 10-K. Retrieved from https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/104169/000010416915000011/wmtform10-kx13115.htm

Worthen, B. (November 1, 2005). How Wal-Mart Beat Feds to New Orleans. CIO Magazine.Retrieved from http://www.cio.com/article/2448237/supply-chain-management/how-wal-mart-beat-feds-to-new-orleans.html

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