IS STRATEGIES -- WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

What are the big issues still facing information-systems executives heading into the late 1990s? What additional key challenges still lie ahead?s confront the food industry and what additional areas of concern need to be addressed. Here's what they focused on:SN: What other key information-systems issues do you see confronting the industry today?David Reed: How we control the change process is probably

What are the big issues still facing information-systems executives heading into the late 1990s? What additional key challenges still lie ahead?

s confront the food industry and what additional areas of concern need to be addressed. Here's what they focused on:

SN: What other key information-systems issues do you see confronting the industry today?

David Reed: How we control the change process is probably my biggest concern. One of the major problems we have in our industry today is turnover in the IS department. The life expectancy of the MIS director is what, 18 months? That's pretty sad. Are we doing a bad job? If CEOs turned at the rate of MIS directors, the state of the economy would be pretty bad.

How difficult is it for an information-technology person to make decisions knowing the life expectancy in that job is only 18 months? We almost have to take on the presence of used-car salesmen: to make that quick sale, because in 18 months we're going to be gone.

We need to work harder to bridge the gaps to upper management and solidify those partnerships, because it's not just an IS guy or a CFO, it's the whole combination that makes all of this work.

Dick Lester: We're all faced with replacing the infrastructure we've built over the past 20 years, moving from a mainframe-oriented system to networking out to people in the stores and moving to PC-based LAN-driven systems. We're doing it all for good business reasons: We need access to information faster. We need to create links to business partners.

The exchange of the information is at a much higher level. It used to be just purchase orders and invoices. Now it's tons of information that has to go back and forth. All of this involves replacing the technology infrastructure we've relied on for 20 years. There are huge capital-investment requirements and we have thousands of people we have to train to use this new technology.

Our people are probably the biggest challenge. We need leadership to get the value out of the investment. Some companies are ready to meet the challenge more than others. But I don't think the right amount of conversation is taking place about the big picture, that we as an industry are replacing our entire infrastructure.

Tom Dooner: Retailers have begun and will continue to recognize the importance of bringing into their organizations, or training people already within, to be much more focused on technology.

There's going to be a much higher demand placed upon having knowledge-based people at all levels of the organization who know how to maximize use of the systems running their operations and take full advantage of the technology that's there today and will continue to proliferate.

There's got to be an understanding of the importance not only of merchandising and running the store, but also managing data to do things more effectively and efficiently.

Don Reeve: Today's retail and wholesale environments require an unprecedented need for more effective ways of competing. There's substantial investments being made in new technologies to enable businesses to operate in a more cost-effective manner and ultimately add value for their consumer.

Information-systems departments and their sponsoring business units must be able to deliver these goals at a speed at which the investment may be leveraged to the maximum. The leaders will be those who learn more about what their customers want and then are able to deliver.

SN: Any other critical issues or areas of concern?

Dooner: Perishables is an increasingly important part of our industry's future. The ongoing initiatives for share of stomach and the introduction of improved perishables departments to differentiate grocery stores from one another is playing an increasingly strategic role in the industry. The pace of change and implementation of technology to run the grocery/frozen-dairy part of the business -- the core of the store -- has far outpaced the technology for the produce, meat, deli, bakery and restaurant departments. That's not to say there haven't been significant improvements in areas such as scale management, nutrition information, recipe information. But in many areas, the systems aren't integrated or open. For all intensive purposes, all the systems [in perishables] are proprietary in nature. They're islands of automation that are not easily integrated with other systems that run the rest of the store.

Ed Oertli: The key throughout the rest of the 1990s will be integration, taking and utilizing one database to run the point of sale and the other store-systems applications. The beauty of open systems is that if there is one platform containing all your data about items, employees, customers and whatever, then you also have a much greater level of data integrity.