The Next Big Question

Episode 19
Hosted by: Drew Lazzara

Piyush Chowhan

Group CIO

Lulu Group International

Piyush Chowhan is Group CIO of Lulu Group International, a multinational company that operates a chain of hypermarkets and retail companies. Piyush has made the customer the focus of his career with leadership roles at retail brands like Tesco, Arvind Lifestyle Brands, and Wal-Mart.

What Does a Focus on the Digital Consumer Mean for the C-Suite?

AUGUST 2, 2021

On this episode of The Next Big Question, CIO Piyush Chowhan of Lulu International joins the podcast to discuss turning a passion for customer experience into value for the enterprise. Piyush shares how to break down the silos between technology and digital business strategy and how to optimize organizational processes and workforce skills to meet the customers’ needs.


Drew Lazzara (00:13):

Welcome to The Next Big Question, a conversation podcast with senior executives about the solutions to the most pressing business challenges facing organizations now and into the future. This podcast is brought to you by Evanta, a Gartner company.

I’m your co-host, Drew Lazzara. Liz Ramey is taking a well-earned vacation, so for this episode, my big question is – what does the focus on the digital consumer mean for the C-suite? My guest is Piyush Chowhan, chief information officer for Lulu Group International. Piyush has made the customer the focus of his career, as he has held senior roles with retailers like Tesco, Arvind Lifestyle Brands and Wal-Mart. 

Every business focuses on the customer, but Piyush feels that this core focus demands corresponding changes to fundamental aspects of the organization, the way companies are organized, how leaders at the top of the organization create value, and how they move quickly to synthesize consumer expectation into innovative products, services, or business models. During our conversation, Piyush creates a framework for these cascading changes and looks at practical ways organizations can make them faster and more effectively.

Before our conversation with Piyush, we’d like to take a moment to thank you for listening. To make sure you don’t miss out on the next Next Big Question, please subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Rate and review us, so we can continue to grow and improve. Thanks so much, and enjoy.

Drew Lazzara (01:46):

Piyush Chowhan, welcome to The Next Big Question. Thanks so much for being on the show. Great to have you. 

Piyush Chowhan (01:50):

Thank you for having me. 

Drew Lazzara (01:51):

Piyush, we really appreciate you taking some time to speak with us today. And the big question for this episode is, what is a focus on the digital consumer mean for the C-suite? And I know that's something that you at Lulu are thinking very closely about. But, before we dive into some of those specifics, I'd like to just get a little bit of context for your career. How did you get started in technology and IT leadership? 

Piyush Chowhan (02:13): 

It was kind of two decades back that I started working with consumer and retail companies. And obviously, because of my educational degree in engineering, I was kind of hired to do some amount of coding in the early days, which obviously didn't excite me that much. And then I went and did my master's in business administration, wherein I developed this kind of knack between technology and business. And obviously, I could sense from then -- what value does technology bring in from a business perspective? And that has been my kind of journey for the last two decades, working with consumer companies to add value. How can you enable technology, not for the sake of technology, but add technology so that it can add customer value. 

And I've been a strong proponent of adding customer value at each and every activity that you do. And that has been my passion. I've led kind of CX initiatives in almost all the companies that I work. So, for example, when I worked with Wal-Mart, we predominantly were trying to work and see how we can work on the technology in the front end checkouts of the stores, so that every person who kind of …. about standing in the line, how can their life be easier when you're standing in the queue out there? So, I think these are the kind of things that have worked in the past. My passion has been in terms of building CX strategy and then helping the customer, which in turn obviously create value for the enterprise itself. 

Drew Lazzara (03:56):

It's great that we have you on with such a wealth of experience focusing on the customer, because, you know, I feel like trends in the IT leadership world kind of go in cycles, and we're moving out of sort of the digital transformation realm. And we're now really focused on the consumer across industries. But you've been thinking about it for decades. So, I want to kind of just start with the premise that I hear. You know, I feel like the CIOs that I get to speak with kind of fall into two broad camps. One is very much like you with that focus on the customer first. But there's another CIO out there that says, you know, the best thing I can do to serve our end customers is to provide the best service to my internal business partners so they can better serve our customer. From your perspective and with your experience, what do you think is a little bit incomplete or maybe needs to evolve about that point of view? Does that limit the business in any way?

Piyush Chowhan (04:42):

It does. And I think, unfortunately, I see these two camps, as you rightly said. There are a set of CIOs or leaders that I see who are more internal focused. And they believe that by being a kind of a service provider, being a provider of technology, their job is to listen to business, understand the requirements and deliver to the requirements. Now, this is exactly what I did maybe the later part of the earlier century or…. into the early part of this century. And since then, with the power of digital, things have drastically changed, and particularly in the last decade, what we've seen is digital has become the core of enterprise business strategy. There is no enterprise who says, ‘I want to grow in the future’ and does not have digital at the core of its business strategy. I think that to me is a big transformation, and hence technology leaders are in the best position to play that role of being a catalyst, being a change agent, being a driver in this digital transformation journey. 

If a technology leader, if you believe that you are a provider of technology to the digital program, you will never be able to add value and you will never be able to see the value that technology has for the enterprise. And hence, it is a -- and I posted it on LinkedIn and people can check on my LinkedIn... I saw a job posting in which they were saying ‘we are hiring a CDO, and the CIO will report into the CDO.’ Now, to me, that sounded a little weird, yeah? A CIO reporting into a CDO. I was just wondering how will that relationship work out? Whether that CDO needs to understand enough of technology or whether the CIO needs to understand enough of digital, and to me that divide, if until and unless the technology leaders --name does not matter much -- but as long as the technology leader is not able to look at the power and the transformative agenda of digital, they will never be able to accept. And that is the second segment of our second group of technology leaders, which are kind of lagging behind. And hence the organizational requirements and the organizing vision is kind of them saying that ‘these guys are not able to scale up, and hence I need somebody to come and drive that digital agenda.’ Which to me is a little bit of an opportunity. But I think it is high time that those set of technology leaders need to wake up, understand the business, understand the consumer, and understand the entire CX transformation strategy that they need to work on. 

Drew Lazzara (07:39):

The job posting that you referenced reminds me of another sort of dichotomy that I remember hearing about, you know, five, seven, eight years ago, which is this idea that there is a separation between technology and digital strategy. And you mentioned that that still seems to be alive and well in some organizations. What can the technology leader, whatever their title is, what can they do to help break down those silos? Because to me, that seems like a business organizational challenge. The business itself seems to look at digital and look at technology as different things. So, what can you do from your seat to influence that and kind of break down those silos so that you can get closer to the customer and influence their experience? 

Piyush Chowhan (08:16):

Yeah, and I think that to me is a journey in itself. Obviously, structurally, the seat has enough power, but you need to derive the power by working with the other C-Suite members. Obviously, as would happen, there again, this so-called three or three sets of organizations. One set of organization wherein the board and the CEO own the digital charter, which I think is the right thing to do. Then there is the second set of organization wherein they said that we don't understand much about digital, so let the CIO and then run it. And they have very low interest in that. And then there is a third set of organizations which predominantly say, all right, the technology is not scaling up. Let me bring some fresh talent from outside and title them as CDOs or transformation officer or whatever you call it. 

Now, all the three -- there is no rocket science to say that all the three are existing into this context. And it is important for the CIOs to understand how can you bring them, the entire C-suite, the CMO, the CFO, the CEO and all of them together so that you are able to bridge the so-called digital silos which are getting created. I’ll give you a very simple example. The marketing team would always want to spend a lot because their job is to make sure that you acquire customers. Their job is to make sure that you reach the customer. They don't care too much about saving money. Whereas if you go and speak to the CFO, the CFO will say that why, why, why on earth is the marketing guy spending so much? What is the ROI? What is the value that they are deriving out of it? If you go and speak to the supply chain guys, the head of operations of the supply chain, they would say that we have to be most efficient, most kind of cut throat in terms of our operational efficiency. So, if you look at this, every CXO has their own agenda, which they're trying to support. Nothing wrong in it. But there needs to be a glue which can tie everything together. 

And to me, in a lot of organizations and in the past, what I've done is to be the glue. And the glue is nothing but your ability to make each of these functions data driven. You should make sure that your team is serving to the data requirements of each of these functions. Show to the CFO, look, this is the ROI that the marketing guy is achieving. And obviously the CFO will speak and try to have an honest discussion with the CMO to say that how can you optimize on the marketing spend that you're doing.      

So, these kind of discussions are something that the technology leaders can enable with the power of data. And so, one part is trying to break the silos, how you break the silos -- not just by the position, but try to enable the organization with data driven decision making capabilities, with the ability to bring in collaboration so you can create collaborative platforms by which all the CXOs are able to collaborate, share data, look at each of the data, so that there brings in a new power, which is with the power of digital. Unlike in the past, the CFO will have a dashboard for their own. So, it's called a CFO dashboard. There'll be a CMO dashboard, there’ll be a COO dashboard, and everybody looks at data with their own lens. You, as a technology leader, will be able to drive a lot of discussions which are towards the digital agenda of the enterprise. And to me, that is a game-changing event. If you are able to drive data driven decision making with the help of technology, everybody will just love you. 

Drew Lazzara (12:17):

Well, it's funny that you use that word. I know several data and analytics VPs that would love to hear this from their CIOs because I know that the data community believe the data is that glue that you talked about. And I think what's interesting about that for our conversation is data is very often reflective of what the consumer is doing. Now, in a recent talk with a CIO in the retail space, I made the mistake of suggesting that maybe they only react to what customers expect. And she corrected me and told me, no, we're trying to guide that and trying to meet them where they are and also help to influence their decisions. So, I want to talk to you about that kind of relationship. When you talk about understanding the customer through data, what does that what does that mean for you? How do you anticipate expectations? How do you put that into practice so that you're building a strategy flexible enough to address what the data is telling you in purely in terms of what the consumer expects? 

Piyush Chowhan (13:08):

To me, this is a very difficult problem to solve, particularly in the retail context. Now, obviously, there are two kinds of consumer companies in today’s era. One, obviously, are so-called digital native companies. If you're born in the last five, 10 years, and they were born in the cloud, everything that they do is so nimble, so agile, so cloud-friendly, and that they are having a little bit of a natural advantage in terms of interactions with the consumer. Unlike the so-called, I would not use the term ‘legacy’ here, but at least the old school retail companies. And they are in a fix, in terms of the legacy applications which they are running. Those applications are very difficult to move to the cloud. Those applications are very rigid. They are monoliths, and hence, they are not able to flexibly change those to the needs of the consumer. And what the consumer needs to raise is a right click and left click on the mobile phone for everything. Anything, anything, which takes them more than three steps they basically hate and disregard in the next second. 

And so, since the consumer has moved on and the expectations of the consumers are so high, some of their enterprises are not able to deliver. So, this is a real problem. So, what needs to happen -- and this is the strategy that I have adopted in my past, and continue to do that here is -- create a brand new application architecture, which is customer centric right from the word ‘go.’ Don't spend millions and millions of dollars trying to rewrite, trying to fix some of your old legacy applications and trying to look like the so-called cloud-native, customer-friendly applications. They will never be, yeah? Doesn't mean that you need to throw them away, but try to make sure that you create two ecosystems which can run in tandem, make sure that you keep on developing. And this is where the application modernization transformation journey needs to happen in each and every organization, particularly in retail. 

Make sure that you build your application modernization journey from the customer itself. And that, to me, is one of the key elements of this digital transformation agenda. What typically some of the organizations are doing is they are trying to, again, look at operational leverage. They are trying to look at operational efficiencies. The customer value addition in an operational excellence program is not as high as creating a high engagement program with the consumer, yeah. And so, spend the dollar where you can get maximum data of the consumer. Spend the dollar where you can engage with the customer. Spend the dollar where you can enhance the experience with the consumer. Until unless you are doing that, fixing millions of dollars, trying to fix and improve your operational efficiency and creating a real effort for your operations team will not going to add too much of value. And to me, this prioritization of the application modernization journey, which I've been working on, is very, very important because time is essential and you cannot spend… And these large enterprises require time to be transformed. And hence, it is important that you spend your dollars on the customer-facing part and then you can keep on building backwards, where in you touch the operational part at a later stage in the transformation. 

Drew Lazzara (17:03):

So I want to -- there's a couple of things that I want to follow up on there. But first, I want to start with this idea of spending your dollars where the value comes in. If your organization is resistant to making that kind of investment, for whatever reason, they think that efficiencies are their biggest problem. What are some specific things that a CIO needs to do in that situation to help change their mind? What are some things that you found have been particularly persuasive when you need to alter a perception from your business peers? 

Piyush Chowhan (17:29):

Very simple. Show them the value, yeah? So as technology leaders, I've always believed that gone are the days in which the board and the C-Suite gets impressed by PPTs. And in today's context, as technology leaders, you should be able to drive a POC very quick, four, six, eight-week POC. Do the POC with the relevant buy-in from the respective C-suite, and make sure that you are able to show that value. If you continue to have those large monolithic applications, large programs which run for years together, you will never be able to sell those ideas. And that is where the transformation in the transformation journey, your organization's ability to adopt agile as a new way of working is seen alive. You will not be able to influence those kind of decisions. 

So, this comes to the other part. What is very important from a CIO or CTO perspective is -- how can you be the change agent for the agile transformation of the enterprise, as well? How can you build skills which are more towards design thinking, more towards problem solving, more towards creative thinking, rather than the old school thought in which we predominantly try to look at so-called copycat ideas and then which is then decided only PPTs and don't see the light of the day. So, it is important that you create an innovation mindset, create small units within your enterprise, maybe within the technology organization. Create and do those POCs which are live. Don’t do a lab POC. Do a live POC. Take a small set of consumers. If you're running, let's say, 120 stores like we do, take two or three stores, run a small pilot there, show the business case and the value. And obviously, if there is dollars, I'm pretty sure there is no CXO who would say absolutely no for any value that we're bringing in. 

Drew Lazzara (19:35):

You know, Piyush, the way you lay this out seems so, so rational, so logical. It just seems like it would make a lot of sense. As you point out, there are dollars attached to it. So how can anybody say no? Yet, I know that from speaking with you in the past, you feel that overall in the industry, this change isn't happening fast enough. So, when smart people like yourself are in control of driving this, what are some of the friction points that still slow things down? Why isn't it happening faster when there seems to be such a compelling case for it? 

Piyush Chowhan (20:03):

And I think to me, the biggest point is the transformation in terms of skills. And that to me is the biggest roadblock as of now. If you… I believe that, you'll speak to a lot of the so-called C- suite and even a lot of technology leaders, even as we speak today, even though digital transformation has been there for more than a decade now, you go and speak to any CIO, any CEO, everybody will give the version of digital of their own. That is no still standard version of what digital means, yeah, which is fine. I don't say that everybody has to be on the same page. But what that creates is it creates a different version in terms of what skills are needed. Now, in some organizations, people will believe that digital means anything to do with technology, which is a very extreme position. I believe that that is the most strong view and perception that anybody can have. And so, what happens is you would try to increase the technology budget and assume that position because in the technology budget we are trying to build digital. Now obviously, you need to include the technology budget, but if your view is that by increasing technology, you will be able to bring in digital transformation, maybe that is not the right case. 

And hence, until unless you have things pivoted around three core principles. One, obviously, that has to be a technology modernization roadmap, which I think is absolutely needed. What I mean by that is you need to bring in capability and skills which are more cloud friendly, which are more agile friendly, which are more modern age applications and so on and so forth, which are more data analytics driven and things like that. We need to invest in modern business optimization platforms, engines, which means that your ability to transform the business processes should be very high. And third the workforce transformation. So, technology transformation, business process transformation, and workforce transformation. To me, these are the three broad pillars on which you need to build skills on and not only focus on technology. If you have the most sophisticated and the best technology in the world, if we give it to a set of people who don't understand digital and are using it in an old school way, I'm pretty sure none of the technology will deliver any value that you kind of started and bought the technology for. And hence, until and unless this holistic view of digital transformation is adopted, we will be able to see the value of it. So invest in people and bring in the right skills to basically lead the digital transformation in your organization. 

Drew Lazzara (22:56):

I really love that breakdown and particularly the emphasis on skills there, because I often think about these transformative efforts in terms of the people on the ground level that are kind of executing on a piece of this on the day-to-day basis because, you know, you're at the C-level creating this vision, creating this holistic picture, and this mindset that is so important. But the people that are doing a small piece of it every day. What kinds of things can you do… I'm thinking of skills almost in terms of legacy skills. You know, you can't totally refresh your staff. You can't bring in a whole new set of people wholesale. So, you kind of have to deal with the skills that you have and build some people up while you're supplementing those capabilities. What kinds of things do you do from a C- suite perspective to support your managers who are developing talent? And how do you give them the tools they need to bring that front line talent along so that you have the capability that you need? 

Piyush Chowhan (23:45):

Yeah, and that to me, is a journey in itself. So out of the three pillars that we talked about, technology, business optimization and business process optimization and workforce, I think this is the most difficult, and this is to me the most time taking as well. And somehow there are multiple models that I have adopted. One model is to create a so-called -- what Gartner’s call us bimodal organization, in which there are two legs which are running parallel, in which there is one leg, which is very fast paced, very modern, very agile, comes in with a lot of innovation mindset. And there are two ways to build that, the modern organization. Either you work with smart people who are kind of brought in as incubation leaders, will incubate ideas, or do you work with startups, yeah? You can say that you kind of partner with some of the startups who are very fast paced and the energy that they bring in can give them cross pollinated to the other part of the organization. But you need to be very careful to say that. How can I keep on making sure that your innovation agenda is at least a couple of steps ahead from the other part of the organization, which kind of keep on taking large scale problems, bringing it to scale, and things like that. But small innovations, incremental and radical innovation agenda is run by the small and nimble team, either in-house, venture, startup model, does not matter, whichever suits you. Please separate it out, flush out your ideas, practice your ideas, proof concept your ideas. Once you believe that those ideas are making sense, pass it on to the larger engineering team so that they can scale it up and roll it out to the business. And I think that separation has worked for me in the past. 

Drew Lazzara (25:41):

Piyush, we always end each episode with two big questions, and one comes from someone in your community. Our last guest was Amit Sethi, who is the vice president of Data and Analytics for Momentive. And obviously very data focused, which you're trying to bring to your organization as a key pillar here, as well. But he was wondering about once you've established some data acumen within the business, he was interested in some of the technologies that will amplify that, specifically artificial intelligence and machine learning. And his big question was, where do you see opportunities for those kinds of technologies in the business functions? Where do you see the biggest opportunities to gain, I guess, competitive advantage by implementing those technologies? 

Piyush Chowhan (26:27):

What I've been seeing is that -- and I think I read some of the work that Ogilvy and others are doing, and particularly in the consumer space. Although artificial intelligence is nothing but a replication of the human intelligence and trying to work towards that. And hence, a lot of businesses will move towards what is known as behavioral science. If you are excelling in behavioral science and to me that is the big thing that I'm seeing is, how are you able to mimic what a customer thinks, yeah? If you are able to deliver and develop a wing within your business, which predominantly tries to mimic what the consumer is thinking from a holistic perspective, not from a transaction perspective. And that transformation from transaction-led interaction to a holistic interaction is to me a very, very big phenomenon and a change which can happen. Neuroscience and allied subjects combined with artificial intelligence can play a very, very big role in terms of identifying where the opportunity lies, in terms of interactions and experience with the consumer. And that could be a very big game changer in the days to come. How can I apply some of those techniques which are still lying in the labs or in some colleges or in such institutions and operationalize them into a daily activity? So, every customer that I interact with, I should be able to make some behavioral analysis of that consumer to solve that consumer better. To me, that to me is a big, big game changer even in the days to come. 

Drew Lazzara (28:19):

I feel like it's right around the corner, too. I feel like you're not alone in that thinking. So, I'm sure that'll be happening soon, if it's not happening already. Our last question is what your big question is? As a business leader yourself, what is the big question you would pose to a peer on the C-suite? 

Piyush Chowhan (28:36):

I wish -- we have been talking about data being the new oil. Then we talked about data being the new soil, which I liked much. But unfortunately, I still believe and I see that that transformation in terms of adapting data for everyday decision making is still at a pace which I'm not very happy with. So, my big question has been, although there have been a lot of investments in data platforms, a lot of investment in data analytics engines and stuff like that, why is it that we are not able to still see a large part of your organization using data for each innovation in that domain? 

Drew Lazzara (29:22):

Yeah, that is a big question. I don't envy the guest that follows you and has to tackle that one, although I'm sure everyone is thinking about it, as well. Piyush Chowhan, thank you so much for being on the show. Really appreciate the time and the conversation and learned a lot. Thank you so much. 

Piyush Chowhan (29:35):

Thank you for having me. It was great. 

Liz Ramey (28:38):

Thank you, again, for listening to The Next Big Question. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. Rate and review the show, so that we can continue to grow and improve. You can also visit to explore more content and learn about how your peers are tackling questions and challenges every day. Connect, learn, and grow with Evanta, a Gartner Company.

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