Boots leading drive for ‘professionalisation of IT’ in retail

by Joseph K. Clark

Boots’ CIO for UK and Ireland, Rich Corbridge, says he is “striving for IT professionalization”. In a recent LinkedIn Pulse post, Corbridge – who has been CIO at the high street chemist for the past year – cited ex-NHS CIO and active digital healthcare campaigner Andy Kinnear as a critical influence in this space.

Following the Kinnear line of thinking, the Boots tech boss believes that for IT roles to gain official professional status, they must create a program of learning that is multifaceted in its focus, develop skills for all and provide access to new knowledge for everyone, and create new networks and relationships for each team member.

Using this as a blueprint, Corbridge has decided to make Boots a member of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT. It represents a rare move by a UK retailer. Still, it indicates a changing world where industries previously not considered “digital” must invest time, effort, and resources in IT development to acknowledge its growing importance.

Corbridge and Boots do not just want to be members – they want to use their position in the BCS to engage with other industries to talk about best practices and build a “retail special interest group” where multiple retailers share experiences.


What is the professionalization of IT?

Computer Weekly caught up with Corbridge to find out more. He says it is time the IT team benefited from the “professional recognition” their human resources (HR) and finance department colleagues have received for decades.

BCS helps organizations take their training, development, and framework and apply that to the technologists comprising individual workforces.

“When we look around at the exec teams in organizations in general, HR and finance have to be accredited – and in our business, the pharmacists and healthcare professionals too,” says Corbridge. “They have to go through a period of training and development and to demonstrate their personal development as they go.”

“My passion for the last ten years has been a case of how to create professional recognition of IT to such a degree that it is on a par with a finance or HR leader – making it professional.”

Richard Corbridge, Boots

But that is not currently the situation for the senior IT representatives within organizations. “To be a CIO or IT director, as long as you’ve got the CV, you’ve probably got the job,” Corbridge notes. “I don’t have an IT degree, for example. My passion for the last ten years has been a case of how to create professional recognition of IT to such a degree that it is on a par with a finance or HR leader – making it professional.”

The BCS accredits individuals and organizations in several different ways. At Boots, parent Walgreens Boots Alliance, an established IT Academy, is running with the online education site Pluralsight. But by adding BCS, the retail and pharmacy group will have access to more training options focused on areas such as general IT skills, organizational change, and personal development.

According to Corbridge, every member of the IT leadership team at Boots must be a fellow of the BCS by September 2022, underlining how seriously the retailer is taking this new tie-up. “We can lead from the front and show we believe in IT,” he says.

In the current environment, where stores are digitized, online healthcare is rising through initiatives such as Boots’ public healthcare digital partnerships, and remote working has expanded due to the pandemic. It feels like a suitable time for membership.

Corbridge says the move has “galvanized the team”, adding: “They are super-enthusiastic for any development. With changes in tech, ways of working, and how we work, it’s seen as something people want to seize on.”

Retail special interest group

The Boots CIO believes BSC membership will also open up networks, and he is looking forward to the collaboration that comes with being part of such an organization.

Corbridge says Boots is volunteering to lead a “retail special interest group” within BCS to bring IT professionals from broader retail. “Where it’s not commercially conflicting to do so, we can say, ‘How did you do X, Y, and Z?’ and ‘What did you think of partner A?’” he says.

Richard Corbridge, Boots

Corbridge doesn’t think there is such an environment for sharing good practices in this way and believes “at the core end of IT,” competing companies should be able to share and support each other.

“It’s kind of for the good of the British high street at a digital level,” he says. “It’s a case of not making the same mistake twice. Wherever there isn’t commercial conflict, I want to push hard to see where we can share stories.”

Other retailers, including Specsavers and John Lewis Partnership, have previously been organisationally part of the BCS – but this is a new initiative to increase collaboration and to have open conversations with like-minded individuals across multiple businesses.

For Boots, the move to professionalize IT within its organization is pertinent. Corbridge says Boots has transformed its online offering since the turn of the year. A re-platformed, the implementation of Adobe as a personalization tool, and a marketplace for healthcare are all part of that work. Still, they will only be evident to customers next year after peak trading.

More access in Boots stores and online to healthcare services that Corbridge says will “help the NHS cope with the demand here because of Covid” is also on the horizon at Boots.

“The BCS partnership and IT Academy is about making sure we have the skills to do everything from customer experience work to managing crucial network changes,” Corbridge comments, admitting digital touches all parts of Boots.

The BCS view

Corbridge believes Boots’ commitment to IT will help it stand out in the recruitment market, but it could represent a stimulus for more membership. For the institute itself

Adam Thilthorpe, director of external affairs at BCS, talks of IT professionalization as putting a structure in place for organizations to fully get to grips with “best practice and next practice”.

“Professionalism is around adopting standards so you don’t make the same mistakes repeatedly – and that means doing today’s stuff well,” he remarks.

“If you can nail that, you can move on to this ‘next practice’ idea – doing tomorrow’s stuff first. What tech will have a material effect on our business, and how will we have the skillset in our organization to deal with it?”

The BCS, he says, is well-positioned as a “non-threatening” body to bring different organizations together to share such ideas, learn and help shape a more professional future for IT.

On Corbridge’s move to lead a working group via the BCS, he adds: “Big organizations like Boots are on their journey to reimagine what the next iteration of their companies looks like.

“I hope we can get more retailers happy to share some of the things they’ve tried, as well as their hopes and dreams of what retail and digital might look like without us constantly just talking about Amazon.”

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