Open-systems architecture is ushering in more than a new information age. It's bringing a shift in the role of information systems executives.
With technology-driven programs playing an increasingly critical role in all aspects of store operations, from continuous replenishment to frequent-shopper programs, MIS executives are being asked to oversee an expanding array of strategic initiatives.
Marty Yarborough, MIS director at Community Cash Stores, Spartanburg, S.C., said new opportunities have emerged since the chain began converting to open systems. By year-end, half of Community Cash's 27 stores will be on line with open point-of-sale systems.
The MIS director's role "has definitely become more strategic from the standpoint that we have the ability to get into the system and write some of our own codes," he said. "We can do what we want with the data, instead of just having an outside company hand us what's available. And that's great."
Open systems at the front end and in departments such as deli and bakery are giving store managers new decision-making tools. But those new capabilities are boosting the MIS department's support responsibilities.
Meeting the growing demands of headquarters and store-level managers for more time and complex information can be difficult, said one industry observer who asked not to be named.
"The trend is to give stores more information without the time gap. Store-level people complain that the company gathers the information and the MIS department does a great job, but by the time they get information back, it's of little value. The decision-making process is no longer days, but minutes and hours," he said.
"The MIS department used to be kind of a priest cult that served the mainframe and had its own rules. Retailers could go to it and submit their prayers, and the MIS people would tell them what the god said. It was usually, 'No,' " the source said.
"The way it's changing now is that the MIS department is dissolving and moving out into the field, into the stores," said another source. "MIS are no longer a group gathered around a big machine as much as a resource spread out into the operational positions of a company, working more closely with end users."
Tom Nowak, vice president of MIS at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., said the information systems executive's role is evolving.
Open systems are "just making our roles more difficult," Nowak said. "You're still faced with the traditional challenges of developing systems so the corporation can change and move forward. At the same time, you are changing the way you do business yourself."
John Granger, vice president of MIS at Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis., stressed the need for MIS executives to meet challenges and use available options, including open systems. Executives who insist on sticking with only mainframes will have a hard time surviving, he said.
"I believe these people will become less and less effective as time goes on. I read statistics that say 30% of my brethren bite the dust every year -- and I believe that's more than one person that moves every third year," Granger said.