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Avon calling: The gradual path to IT centralization

Avon CIO Harriet Edelman had to pull back on centralization before she could move it forward.

Harriet Edelman was appointed CIO at Avon Products Inc. in 2000, after a 20-year career on the business side of the New York-based company. Edelman's predecessor had taken the big step of centralizing IT, "and it didn't work," she said. Entrepreneurial and "proud of it," employees at the 120-year-old cosmetics company were not ready for the change.

Harriet Edelman
Harriet Edelman, recently retired CIO, Avon Products Inc.

So Edelman created a federated model, with regional leads reporting directly to her for the next five years. Starting with Avon's marketing units, her team began looking for ways to help people work more collaboratively and letting them see for themselves what benefits could be derived from a centralized system.

"Over time we built the desire of people to work together and figure out where the value-add comes from corporate IT," she said. "Two years ago, when we fully centralized IT, it wasn't an event anymore ... because by then we had built good relationships and respected each other."

Technology comes down to user adoption; it is personal, Edelman said. For technologists, this might be the "unsexy part of the system, data management," but it is critical if IT is to play an effective role in an organization.

"You're asking people to do work in a certain way and not skip steps upfront," she said. " Whatever the upstream process did is what carries through the life of the product -- it's DNA markers, if you will -- and if there is a mess-up upstream, everyone is going to pay for it down there."

Over time we built the desire of people to work together and figure out where the value-add comes from corporate IT.
Harriet Edelman
recently retired CIOAvon Products Inc.

Transformation in most companies today is usually about IT, Edelman said, "and it is usually about big projects, business process and, most importantly, user adoption." The CIO's job is to galvanize users to adopt the technology and understand how their use of the technology affects the company.

Edelman formed an IT advisory committee that meets every eight weeks, for half a day, to discuss the pros and cons of the company's IT strategy. But the CIO can be a lonely position, said Edelman, who began her long career at Avon in the marketing division when she was still a college student. "It is not like marketing," where anyone in the company "can have a voice in the products, because everyone understands those products. Business people are not going to help you a lot," she said, stressing the importance of finding peers through organizations like Women in Technology International.

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