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Embracing cloud computing and big data for success

At Sonny’s BBQ, like many franchise companies, we have a relatively small IT staff when compared to chains that own many or all of their restaurants. When I joined in 2014, I wanted to make sure we didn’t have to use our vital few resources to keep a large data center running. We made the conscious decision to “get everything out of the building.” At that time, cloud services and storage were at the point where it was so much more economical to outsource our infrastructure than to keep it in-house. With good service level agreements in place, we set out to send everything to the cloud. Two years later, the only major systems we house in our building are for document management and accounting, and we are considering moving one (or both) soon. It is so nice not to have to worry about power surges, generators, HVAC, disaster recovery, and everything else that comes with having to support a large infrastructure. Instead, our IT team concentrates on the things that make us unique, like the administration and support of our global restaurant management and franchise management systems (which are also housed in the cloud).

On paper, big data analytics is our ultimate goal, but it comes with its challenges. As a 48-year-old company, Sonny’s BBQ has a great history of success despite our overall scarcity of quantifiable data with which to make decisions. A primary goal when I joined the company was to design an information infrastructure that would allow us to utilize data so we can make the best decisions. Today we are rolling out systems in all of our franchise restaurants that will allow us to capture transactional data on sales, labor, usage, and our supply chain, but are still working to garner the deep analytics to come.

Simply bringing in big data from multiple sources and finding correlations is not our end game, knowing this could lead to false assumptions; the key is “causation,” as your college statistics teacher will tell you. Just because you may find a direct correlation between rainy weather and the sale of pork sandwiches doesn’t mean you should cook more pork when the forecast calls for rain. Our goal is to identify correlations, then test for potential causation through a series of A/B tests. Knowing we are in the early stages of data collection and analytics, it will be a couple of years of analysis to understand if bringing in big data sources for our team.

I learned long ago that if you don’t understand “why” something is being done, you have little chance of succeeding

Fostering innovation and growth

Innovation is what drew me to IT in the first place. Being able to create something brand new from code or circuits is incredibly fulfilling. To foster innovation in a consumer service industry, I pay careful attention to what our guests and staff are doing now and what they may be doing next year. Most importantly, how might they be interacting with our brand next year and beyond. Consumer electronics (which includes cars, IoT, and a slew of other things) have been the biggest disrupters in recent history, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Understanding what will be in our guest’s hands two years from now helps me determine where I should be focusing our R&D time and money. To me, nothing is more satisfying than finding a disruptor in its early stage and exploring options with technology vendors to bring it into their system. I was fortunate to be able to do this in the 2000’s with RFID chips and hotel property management systems, and again in early 2010’s with some advanced touchscreen technology and guest interaction.

While it is great for the ego to initiate something with a “cool factor” it is vital to ensure that there is a real business case for anything like this. I always ask myself, “is this just cool or does it solve a problem.”

Restaurants are ripe for innovation; they are also where many “cool” ideas go to die. The implementation of any new technology requires a great plan for business change management.

Advice for fellow CIOs

I learned long ago that if you don’t understand “why” something is being done, you have little chance of succeeding. So, I always asked a lot of questions until I fundamentally understood “why”: I didn’t just want to know the light switch turned on the light, but how the electrons moved through the wires to create light. As my career progressed, I adapted to focus on the “why” at higher and higher levels, because getting to the electrons every time had succumbed to the law of diminishing returns. I surrounded myself with incredibly smart people who understood the electrons and then started asking other functional areas of the business “why.” Technology people are accustomed to jumping to “hows.” We love to solve puzzles and create amazing systems that solve a business problem, but until we understand the problem that needs to be solved, we cannot find the best solution.

Now that I am moving beyond leadership in just technology, I find that I am having to slightly loosen my grip on my favorite question. I need to make sure fellow leaders and other specialties are asking “why,” so I can focus on “how”, including “How does Sonny’s become America’s premier BBQ restaurant?” Sonny’s BBQ loves and appreciates its unique and special history, but we can’t stop working to appeal and resonate with new audiences in an ever-changing community.

In the past, IT was rarely brought into strategic discussions, but there has been a shift in the perceptions of top executives toward technology. It is becoming incrementally harder to understand our value proposition without understanding the flow of information. Information comes from all functional areas, and the CIO must intimately understand the sources and validity of that information. As this shift has occurred, technology leaders who truly understand the value elements of business have been elevated. The CIO that adds to the value discussion, just as with the leader in other functional areas of the business, is valued and respected.

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