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Fireside Chat with Maryanne Fleming: Lessons Learned in Retail Technology

  • 5th October 2023

Written by Andréa Williams, Head of Marketing

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Maryanne Fleming has spent her career in the retail industry, working for some amazing brands. In this Q&A, she shares insights into the challenges and opportunities she faced while helping retailers implement new technologies.

Click here to watch Maryanne’s interview on YouTube

What led Maryanne to pursue a career in retail technology?

“…And so I walked into Harrods personnel department and was offered a sales assistant job, and from there worked in the shop floor, worked in buying and merchandising, then was seconded into a project in ’97, rolling out their home-built ERP, and training it out to the users and found that I really liked tech and I wanted to stay in tech but I had that business background so I was really lucky that I was able to project manage first of all, planning system implementations.

“And then I got more involved in RFPs at Mothercare. We were looking at ERPs there, then went to Marks & Spencer, got involved in business intelligence. So I’ve seen, a wide range of it, went to Selfridges did ERPs again in an Oracle project, which I would say is very challenging to go down the Oracle route.”

As for challenges, Maryanne views them as opportunities for growth and learning. Her experience with implementing ERP projects taught her valuable lessons in simplifying processes, iterative development, and avoiding the urge to implement everything at once. Similarly, the implementation of Island Pacific taught her the importance of accepting early pain for long-term benefits. Customising systems to avoid initial challenges ultimately creates more legacy debt.

“You can’t work in technology really and say ‘I don’t like change’ because it’s evolving the whole time.”

“I do think the industry now, particularly around retail systems, is at a level of maturity where and I will keep saying ‘keep it vanilla’, where vanilla really is industry best practice. And any retailer has got to consider why they would want to do anything but be vanilla when their USP is not about how you shift your stock from the DC to the store or whatever.”

Through the pandemic, we all saw the opportunity to demonstrate how technology can enable remote work at a relatively low cost. This experience showcased technology as an enabler for the organisation, rather than a hindrance. Maryanne emphasises the importance of collaboration between the business and technology teams, with technology serving as a helpful tool rather than a restraining force.

“In the past it’s always been that technology ran the projects because we were the only ones who really had project managers and business analysts and we’re coming away and being an enabler and not just being seen as a sea anchor stopping them.”

What are your top things to do to make IT successful and your top things not to do to?

“The first thing to make it successful is that it has got to have top-down buy-in. There’s no question. You’ve got to have the management, senior management saying this is the right thing to do… somebody has got to want it, they’ve got to sponsor it.

“There’s got to be a perceived improvement in your day-to-day life. Yes, it’s going to be difficult while you learn it, but honestly, the technology is so intuitive now. It’s not that difficult. We’re all so used to working on a screen, we’re all so digitally connected.

“It’s more about people thinking it will be difficult. It really won’t be.

“I think of the things not to do is to bow to the “but we’ve always done it this way,” so challenge the status quo. Challenge it every time. And if you don’t challenge the status quo, you’re probably going to bend something out of shape a little bit beyond this.”

What does good look like when it comes to selecting technology, selecting technology partnerships and selecting where to focus your energy and your investment?

“You’re not going to really go to Microsoft and say, we like this feature, and they’ll go ‘we’ll build it in the next release’. That’s just not going to happen. But those are the basics that just administer your business. It’s not partnering. It’s just it’s a commodity that you can use and that’s fine.

“And you can buy a lot of off the shelf things. And I think Oracle is overcomplicated because you can over-configure it and you end up being so fancy with it. It almost can’t do what you wanted it to do.

“So something like Merret, which was built with retailers in mind, is much more likely to be a better product because it is very much built in. You don’t need to hugely configure it because it’s meant to do what it does. And that’s when you get into proper collaboration. When you’re starting to say, look, we want to do this thing and it is good enough for the supplier to want to build into their base code so that their product becomes more marketable, but you get the benefits of that functionality.

“I find that that is an overlooked value in the relationship, which is how to innovate together and when not to actually. Because there is real intrinsic value in a partnership between a retailer and a technology company.

“Because you’re a retailer and they’re a technology company, they don’t know retail as well as, you know retail and you don’t know technology as well as they know technology and so the fusion can be quite magical when you apply it to the right places.”

Do you think the next CEO should be the former CIO or CTO?

“It’s an interesting one because some people here have worked at Aurora, and, the basement was where IT were put, wasn’t it? When I worked at Harrods, I moved into a technology team, we were called engineers then and I was put in the server room and told if the alarm went off, I had 30 seconds to get out because the halon would suffocate you.

“But I think what it’s what has really changed is that it’s become a much more diverse team and that the idea of management of change and landing change in teams has become part of what IT offer. We’re enablers to achieving business outcomes.

“I do think bringing people in from non-IT backgrounds is incredibly important in order to get the diversity you need. And that’s not just about gender or race or educational background, it’s diversity of thought. It’s diversity of problem-solving approaches.

“So, while there still will always be the need for the genuinely, really techy people … there’s an industry level thing and that needs vast investment and it’s not an individual company that’s going to be doing that. So as IT teams, I would like to see it starting to be called business solutions, there to support the business in achieving their outcomes.”

“So, I think the teams are much more exciting and much more – I’m going to say it – there’s many more women now. It’s so important.

“It’s turned from engineering to experience – the skillset that is now required in a high functioning technology team. I don’t actually think we should call them technology teams anymore.

“Really it has become this fusion of creativity with engineering, discipline, method, process. It’s an amalgamation of skills. And aggregation of experience. And I think taking that approach into boardroom context where we are a relentless always-on industry, you don’t get to stop the bus to change the wheels, you don’t get to stop the plane to change the engine.”

Maryanne Fleming, Former Head of Technology at Monsoon Accessorize

Maryanne is a seasoned technology leader with over two decades experience in pivotal roles, shaping the technological landscape for various UK high street retailers, driving innovation and transformation. Championing women in technology, Maryanne is a mentor and advocate for inclusivity and a driving force behind the advancement of both the technology and retail industry.

Want to see more from this year’s Client Summit?

Check out some of the other sessions here.

  • 5th October 2023

Written by Andréa Williams, Head of Marketing

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