In recent months, an explosion of dialogue has taken place, particularly in retail circles, about the power of analytics in creating better customer experiences.

It's no wonder. Advanced analytics—the science of extracting meaning from vast quantities of data—enables more sophisticated forms of segmentation and real-time decision-making that create new opportunities for merchants to know and serve their customers better. In today's highly competitive global marketplace, such a capability is particularly critical for retailers.

But even as analytics technology is ascendant, those in the information technology (IT) department responsible for deploying such tools are facing increasing pressure. Traditional IT approaches are often inadequate to keep up with the demands of a fast-moving marketplace.

Moreover, the data needed to feed the analytics engine is often fragmented and of poor quality. And getting approval for large IT projects can be a lengthy process, even when the business case is evident and the payback is significant.

What can the chief information officer (CIO) do?

Wrong question. The right question is, What can the CIO and chief marketing officer (CMO) do together?

As analytics become increasingly vital to a retailer's ability to understand and reach customers, the CMO can no longer enjoy the luxury of being naive about IT.

According to a recent IBM survey of 1,700 CMOs, 45% cite lack of alignment between Marketing and IT, and 25% cite lack of IT skills, as major barriers to adopting new technologies.

Just as with e-commerce, the marketing function is increasingly becoming a technology-enabled endeavor. Here are six steps CMOs can take to grow their influence and more fully embrace technology tools such as analytics to improve their effectiveness.

1. Make the CIO a close colleague

Make the CIO a close colleague, and request that one of her key leaders be a dotted-line report to you. Concerns about the level of skill and lack of technology ownership within the marketing function suggest CMOs need to work more closely with CIOs.

Ensure that your objectives are thoroughly understood by the IT team. Ask IT to teach you and your team the art of the possible. And when IT folks talk about how hard all of this stuff is, believe them, but challenge them to figure it out anyway.

2. Get involved in data governance

Get involved in data governance—the practice of treating key data as a vital corporate asset that is critical to, not the byproduct of, your business. As all marketing communications become personal and direct, is any asset more vital than your customer data? Your customer data needs to be managed, watched over, and protected. Tell the CIO you want to help with that effort.

3. Ask smart questions

Asking smart questions will make you a better leader, and you'll learn something as well. Ask to be walked through how the company manages its data and its road maps. Ask whether the company is considering migrating away from the traditional separation of operational and business intelligence (BI) systems and toward an integrated environment that can accommodate real-time analytics, with the math as close to source data as possible.

Ask about the alternatives the company is considering for the architecture of such an environment (a discipline called enterprise information management). If you're unfamiliar with those concepts, take some time to read about them online. An hour or two of self-education will make you a more knowledgeable consumer of IT services.

4. Invest in infrastructure

Building complex one-to-one marketing and customer relationship management (CRM) applications on top of weak or aging customer databases is like building a tower on sand: It eventually falls down.

Integrated and managed customer data is the rock-bottom foundation for building customer intimacy. Consider the differences between your view of your customers and their view of themselves. The insight you gain will have far-ranging implications as you build the foundation for ubiquitous mobile connectivity, commerce, and marketing communications.

5. Drive business process changes

Along with the IT investments, make sure that you drive business process changes and that you have the right staff in place. In a study by MIT Sloan Management Review and IBM, 44% of companies reported that cultural barriers impede rapid analytics adoption within their organizations.

You will get different results only if you operate differently. Root out entrenched ways of thinking and working. The introduction of analytics into a discipline (marketing) that has historically been creative and intuition-based could meet with resistance.

6. Hold everyone accountable

Finally, hold everyone—IT, Operations, Finance, and Marketing (your own team)—accountable for the financial performance of investments. With each project, isolate the business decisions you'll make differently next time around. Be disciplined about measuring impact.

* * *

CMOs must lead their organizations into the new era of ubiquitous connectivity and customer intimacy via technology.

Advances continue to be made in analytics that will make that process easier. Watson, the Jeopardy-playing computer that defeated two of the game's most celebrated champions last year, represents a major step forward in deep analytics and in the ability of computers to understand human language, a technological advancement that can be applied to the retail industry. Watson can analyze exabytes of data, the equivalent of hundreds of millions of pages of material (books, reports, articles, and so on), in seconds, and it can find the correct answer in an ocean of information.

Having the right technology foundation and business processes in place will enable you to derive unimagined levels of customer insight via analytics. A strong partnership between the CMO and the CIO is a necessary first step in that journey.

(Image courtesy of Bigstock. Two baby dogs.)

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Jill Puleri is vice-president and global retail industry leader at IBM global business services, a management and technology consulting firm.