Digital evolution is challenging for a company as large as Qurate Retail Group. But CIO Karen Etzkorn is helping it succeed by creating a customer-centric culture: going where their customers are and elevating the digital experiences.

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Qurate Retail Group comprises seven brands, including QVC, HSN, Zulily, and several other lifestyle brands. The company is the top video commerce company globally, is among the top 10 ecommerce retailers in North America, reaches 380 million homes through 15 television networks, broadcasts 150-plus hours of live content every day, employs 27,000 people, and ships more than 220 million packages a year. And at the center of this massive operation is the customer, whose demands for digital engagement are at an all-time high.

How does a company of this size and complexity create a customer-centric culture?  For CIO Karen Etzkorn it is all about talent development and creating a value stream model for technology investments.

Martha Heller: Whatdoes “digital” mean to Qurate Retail Group?

Karen Etzkorn:Over the past year, we have developed a comprehensive technology strategy with three pillars: to continue to modernize, accelerate, and protect our business. While our digital channels include websites and apps, we’re constantly developing new ways of working and of driving engagement with team members and customers.

Digital, for Qurate Retail Group, is meeting our customer where she is and bringing together large audiences efficiently through varied distribution channels. We are elevating our digital experiences across all aspects of the business, including product, procurement, planning, and creating curated experiences for our customers. We have a long history of leveraging technology to serve our customers. We began with television, where we mastered the art of integrating rich video content with commerce. Today, we have expanded into online, apps, Facebook Live and Messenger, Instagram, Roku, personalized emails, and catalogs. We are even digitizing the in-store experience.

What operating model changes have you made to facilitate your business’s shift into the digital economy?

We are breaking out of our traditional silos and building high-performing technology teams centered around value streams that offer substantial benefits to the business, including faster learning, shorter time-to-market, and higher quality and productivity.  Value streams include Merchandising, Customer Acquisition & Retention, Content & Media, Customer Purchase & Service, Supply Chain, and Corporate Services.

When we look at technology investments on a value-stream level, as opposed to a project level, we are able to tie our investments more closely to improving the customer experience. By saying, “This quarter, we will invest this number of teams in this value stream,” we ensure that technology investments are going toward the highest value returns.

The Value Streams Model has five components:

  1. Business engagement: Streamline consistent ways to engage the business.
  2. Metrics: Establish, measure, and optimize business, operational and technology debt metrics.
  3. Cost transparency: Enable better visibility and management of all costs – not just incremental portfolio costs.
  4. Optimized funding: Establish a capacity-based funding model at the value-stream level that can be governed through metrics.
  5. Delivery agility: Increase throughput and reduce lead time to deliver new technology products in and services in weeks, not months.

How are you developing the right talent to execute on your digital strategy?

As we developed our strategy, we established five talent differentiators to execute on that strategy: engineering excellence, collectivism, customer advocacy, curiosity, and courage. With each of those, we have identified specific traits that we are cultivating across the organization in a number of ways.

We are leveraging culture hacks to help drive the change. “A culture hack,” according to Gartner Analyst Mary Mesaglio, “is a small change that exploits a single area where your culture is vulnerable to change. Hacks are small, emotional, immediate changes that have big impacts.”  

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Karen Etzkorn, CIO, Qurate Retail Group

For example, we recently launched a low-effort, organic way of communicating with our broader IT organization to more deeply connect our team members with our leadership team. We call it “Leaders Unscripted.” Our leaders record videos of themselves, in “selfie” fashion, talking about highlights of their week, what keeps them up at night, what their critical priorities are, or what they are thinking about for the coming week. Then they share the videos with the global IT organization.

We are also spending a lot of time communicating our technology vision and strategy internally and externally to help us attract and develop new talent. We are driving agile practices across the IT organization so that we’re creating a flexible self-sufficient, cross-functional team. And we are encouraging the team to explore possibilities and support new ideas. 

To that end, we’ve created a “Spark on the Spot” award to encourage our team members to recognize someone for living our differentiators. For example, if the way team members manage a project clearly shows that they are considering our broader organizational goals, they might be honored for demonstrating our “Collectivism” differentiator.

The more we reinforce our culture and talent aspirations — either thru living our differentiators or executing culture hacks — the more we’ll develop our talent and team. 

What advice do you have for CIOs who need to drive this level of change?

It’s always the right time to seek advice or ask for help.When I joined Qurate Retail Group, I recognized that I needed help building out our strategy. We leveraged external experts who have put us on a terrific path.

Take advantage of networking opportunities.I’m a member of the National Retail Federation (NRF) CIO Council, and I participate in Gartner’s Research Board where I learn from my peers on a regular basis. I also participate in Tech T200, an informal network of female CIOs across the globe. Every day we share tips and learn from each other’s successes.  

Embrace your fear.Placing yourself in situations where you are uncomfortable is part of the growing process and is where you are most likely to meet those who will inspire you to push past the fear and thrive.

What leadership lessons have you learned from this experience?

Often the most challenging moments in my career have been the most rewarding. If an opportunity does not scare you a bit, it may not be the right opportunity.

About Karen Etzkorn

Karen Etzkorn became CIO of Qurate Retail Group in December 2017. She leads a team that plays a pivotal role in driving long-term growth, innovation, and productivity by bringing best-in-class technology solutions that leverage the combined resources and talents of Qurate Retail Group’s worldwide technology teams.

Karen previously served as CIO for HSN, Inc. (HSNi), which was acquired by Liberty Interactive Corporation in December 2017. She joined HSNi in 2013 and led a multi-year systems transformation of core processes and technologies, which increased efficiency and fostered a seamless integrated experience for HSNi customers.

Before joining HSNi, Karen served as senior vice president and CIO at Ascena Retail where she was credited with integrating the IT functions of three brands and consolidating the company’s data centers. Previously, she was senior vice president and CIO at Tween Brands, Inc. and held senior technology positions at retailers such as The Home Depot, Williams-Sonoma, Gap, and Limited.

Karen is on the board of directors for Hibbett Sports, Inc. She received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from The Ohio State University.

Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, anIT executive recruiting firmspecializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the authorThe CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT LeadershipandBe the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.

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