WASHINGTON -- As information technology becomes increasingly important in the supermarket industry, the most valuable contribution information technology professionals can make is in the more human aspects of learning and decision-making, according to William Vass, executive vice president at Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.
Vass explained this seeming paradox in his keynote address at the Food Marketing Institute's Information Systems Conference, held here Sept. 21 to 24.
He called on the industry's information systems professionals to "use your talents to foster what is distinctively human in your organizations. Information systems professionals are uniquely suited to protect their company's basic humanity."
That humanity is threatened by, among other things, the pace of change in today's business climate, especially technological change, said Vass.
People now look at the world with "a software release mentality -- that everything's going to change in six months. This notion of constant change has been imposed on us by the technologies of this modern age," he noted.
Because change itself is occurring more rapidly, "the future of our industry depends on our ability to learn, and learn quickly, and to deliver value in a shifting environment," said Vass. "We're an industry that's late in its life cycle. There's a capacity glut in many businesses, including the grocery industry," he noted. "There's too much retail food in general. Driving down the interstate there are eight places to eat at every exit."
Vass said the supermarket industry needs a "Framework for Learning." This consists of five repositories of different types of learning: results, data, information, knowledge and decisions.
Each of these learning "repositories" is connected by an activity, said Vass. For example, data is collected by observing results. When the data is organized, it's turned into information. When reason, in the form of analysis and integration, is applied to this information, it becomes knowledge.
To move from decisions to results -- and here's where we often fall -- we have to implement them."
Information technology already "dominates" the observation and organization functions, noted Vass.
"We've become much better at collecting and organizing information with the use of IT," he said. But the "human-dominated activities" of reason, judgment and implementation are not dominated by information technology, though they may be assisted by it.
These human-dominated activities consist of "the motivation to drive quality implementation, the wisdom to drive judgment, and the creativity to refresh and invigorate our reason," said Vass. Unfortunately, challenges to each of these activities are also part of today's business climate. The motivation for quality implementation, for example, is hindered by people's feelings of alienation, said Vass.
The wisdom to guide judgment is also hindered by greater separation between decision-makers and those their decisions affect. "It's difficult to make wise judgments about what will work with customers when we have that distance from them," he said, adding that the problem is exacerbated as companies grow through consolidation.