RETAILERS URGED TO USE CLIENT-SERVER TECHNOLOGY

WASHINGTON -- Many retailers are asleep at the wheel when it comes to finding and implementing the best technological solutions for enhancing their business operations, said the former director of applications development at Kash n' Karry Food Stores, Tampa, Fla.Jim Stikeleather, who is now a partner at Technical Resource Connection, a Clearwater, Fla., consulting firm, said too many retailers are

WASHINGTON -- Many retailers are asleep at the wheel when it comes to finding and implementing the best technological solutions for enhancing their business operations, said the former director of applications development at Kash n' Karry Food Stores, Tampa, Fla.

Jim Stikeleather, who is now a partner at Technical Resource Connection, a Clearwater, Fla., consulting firm, said too many retailers are mired in the past and overly dependent on vendors for technological expertise instead of taking advantage of new, potentially more effective hardware and software systems, including client-server and object-oriented programs.

"The biggest impediment to implementing client-server [and other innovative] technology is people," said Stikeleather, who spoke about such systems at the Retail Systems '94 conference sponsored here earlier this month by Retail Systems Alert, an industry newsletter. Much of his talk drew on his experiences in developing the object-oriented architecture being implemented at Kash n' Karry.

Before chains make the leap to a new generation of hardware and software systems, retailers will have to change their mind-set. "A lot of what you do with client-server technology is counterintuitive to the way we process on mainframes of the past," he said.

"The supermarket industry in particular has been kind of floundering in key areas, such as client-server," Stikeleather explained in an interview with SN following his presentation. Client-server technology puts both data and applications in the hands of the end-user, unlike a mainframe environment where processes are largely limited to technical staff.

Though interest in client-server technology is on the rise among supermarkets, the food industry

may face more obstacles than other retail classes of trade, he said.

An overdependence on vendors for computer systems guidance has allowed "technological stagnation" to set in since scanning was introduced in supermarkets in the early 1970s. "We got scanning in and said, 'Wow, it's a great, wonderful thing. Then we stopped. We absolutely stopped as an industry,' " Stikeleather said.

"The supermarkets I've dealt with have abdicated their information technology architecture to their vendors and, as a consequence, don't have the inherent technical staff on hand to effectively implement client-server," he told SN.

Fortunately, that pattern may be shifting, he said. Supermarket chief executive officers are beginning to seek out information systems people with client-server experience.

The forces driving companies to client-server technology today stem from increasing demands at the consumer and CEO levels, he said.

"The customer doesn't just want that can of beans," Stikeleather said during his presentation to conference attendees, mainly management information systems executives from many classes of trade. "He wants nutritional guidelines and recipes. He may also want to put a whole meal plan together."

Likewise, today's CEOs are more demanding. They don't want to spend time interpreting various reports, from accounting to human resources. Executives want a comprehensive document that incorporates multiple strategic bases to present a state of the business overall.

"No longer is it valuable to build an information system that does one thing. That information system has to be tied together and integrated with all the other information systems you may have," Stikeleather explained. Client-server technology provides that link.

Urging retailers to think in terms of process, not function, Stikeleather said companies must first devise their information architecture model, one that runs parallel to the concepts of that company's business process re-engineering.

"I have to organize the entities of information in a logical manner that reflects the processes that I have," he said. "That's a tall order."

Second, a technical architecture must be developed, a process complicated by the overwhelming degree of options available. Stikeleather was quick to steer away from an overemphasis on the technical aspects, however. "The mistake people make when they talk about client-server is they tend to tie it to hardware. Companies that are implementing client-server are not looking at it as technology. It has to do with the way people look at information, the way organizations operate," he said.

Systems applications should be broken down into "easily understood pieces" that can be accessed by multiple users for an array of purposes.

In one model, Stikeleather demonstrated how 11 different aspects of a single application could be broken up into individual servers for that application. Those components, then, become reusable by other applications.

Reusability is critical to successful client-server programs, Stikeleather said. "For the last 20 years, we've been rewarding [information systems personnel] for the wrong things: generating code. But if you want reusability, you want to reward them for not generating new code."

Servers should also be unitary in function, he noted. "A server should do one thing and one thing only." The less a server does, the higher probability it's reusable, correct and easily maintained.

Stikeleather said companies venturing down the client-server path had better be prepared. "You've all heard that it costs less to go to client-server. Nope." Substantial upfront hardware investments and training initiatives are necessary, and the learning curve is huge, he said.

"Initially, when you first go to client-server technology, it will take longer than an equivalent system built in on your mainframe. Your third or fourth system may be your breakeven system."