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IKEA digital innovation

Innovation

Unpacking the digital transformation at IKEA

Published 15 February 2022 in Innovation • 8 min read

In an IbyIMD interview, Barbara Martin Coppola, Chief Digital Officer of IKEA Retail (Ingka Group), explains how she is helping to take the company, famous for its out-of-town stores and physical products, in a bold new direction. 

For nearly 80 years, IKEA has provided the world with its distinct style of ready-to-assemble home furniture, appliances, and accessories. IKEA is now one of the most recognized brands in the world, and its fame was built on quality physical products and analog distribution and business model. So, how does such a successful incumbent company stay relevant faced with the fast-changing realities of the digital economy?  

Four years ago, to accelerate its digital transition, IKEA hired Barbara Martin Coppola, a seasoned digital executive with global experience from Google to Samsung, with a remit to accelerate the digital transformation of IKEA. 

IMD Professors Didier Bonnet and Michael Wade asked Barbara how she faced the challenges of digitally transforming such an iconic global brand.  

 

What were the priorities of IKEA when you joined the company? 

When I joined IKEA, I was the first Chief Digital Officer in almost 80 years, the company was going through a deep self-reflection about its future directions. There were headwinds in the retail industry, consumers were changing their habits, the way they live their lives and their consumption patterns. Yet, when you think about IKEA, you think about those big flagship stores outside main cities, which is the model that, over the years, had served us well to grow the company. Now, with digital technology providing the opportunity to operate companies more efficiently and find new sources of growth with digital business models, IKEA had to embrace this digital wave quite urgently.  

In discussion with our CEO, we progressively realized that a digital transformation would mean changing deeply the way IKEA operated. But with one strong guiding principle. Every digital change was to be true to the values and the mission of IKEA. So, the remit was not to design a digital transformation “on the side” of the core business but to truly follow the firm core principles. 

“Now, with digital technology providing the opportunity to operate companies more efficiently and find new sources of growth with digital business models, IKEA had to embrace this digital wave quite urgently. ”
Barbara Martin Coppola

So, it was not about a digital strategy, but a strategy enabled by digital transformation? 

Absolutely. IKEA was very clear on its driving objectives, and the idea was that we needed digital to underpin and accelerate the execution of these objectives. On the surface, the driving objectives were not technology-driven, but fundamentally linked to our changing customers and our competitive position. The vision and mission were built around three core elements: 

  • How do we become more accessible? Given our traditional out-of-town locations. 
  • How do we continue to be affordable? Serving our wide base of customers from India to China, to Germany. 
  • How do we become planet-positive? Contributing to the sustainability of the world we operate in. 

I like to refer to these as the “Three Icebergs”, because the bulk of the digital work was to take place below the surface. Let me give you a tangible example. How do we become more accessible? When you start peeling the onion, it means that our customers have to be a click away from the brand, they have to be able to access a multitude of touchpoints even when they live within large cities. The consequences of doing that are profound as it means our inventory flows need to be different, it means the speed and agility which we operate the business have to be different, it means merchandising needs to be different and even the skills of the people delivering to customers need to change. This is exactly where digital needs to come to the fore. 

The change you describe implies you managed to execute your digital transformation across the natural silos in the organization?  

First, it needs a realization that the silos, particularly in terms of functions, needed to change themselves. To execute effectively, we also needed to build cross-functional teams bringing different expertise to tackle digital solutions end-to-end. It required a lot of human interactions, a lot of communication and a lot of stakeholder management. Second, it was about how we empowered those cross functional teams and give them the freedom to execute fast. We gave them decision rights to execute the change and produce the results. One thing I think we got right during the pandemic, is that we did not implement a heavy governance mechanism upfront with committees and layers of decision-making and approvals. We empowered the teams first and then formalized the governance later. And it was a business governance around three functions: Digital, Commercial and Operations. We had to remain pretty nimble, particularly during COVID, as the stores were closed, so empowering the front line and leading from behind was key to speedy execution. 

Ikea fournitureIKEA's modern Scandinavian style is familiar throughout the world

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Digital and Sustainability are the two major transformations facing businesses today, how do you reconcile the two? 

I see huge complementarity between the two transformations. It would be wrong to treat them separately. Digital is absolutely central to achieving our “Planet Positive” objective. Let me give you an example of how the two reinforce each other. One of the key sustainability goals of IKEA is to have a circular business model. One of the main implications is that we can follow the goods, trace the provenance of materials, monitor their usage and be able to get goods back for recycling. This is entirely based on digital product information, supply chain visibility and the data flows that underpin all these digital processes. You also need to digitally equip consumers through apps so they can see that information and be able to return an item to IKEA.  

We started a program last year where customers can sell products back to us for recycling. On Black Friday alone last year, we had 100,000 items sold back to us. And this is just the beginning, we plan to triple that number this year. We need to understand each component of the item to be able to recycle them effectively either by reusing materials or by reselling used items in the stores at a cheaper price – benefiting our affordability goal. Everyone benefits we save on goods and raw materials, we save on carbon impact, and we prolong the life of the products we make. I believe a lot of people will be happy with this. And it’s only possible because of our ongoing digital transformation.  

Our research shows that externally appointed CDOs often find it hard to navigate the complexity of large organizations, you seem to be a counter example?  

It’s a great question, you’re right, I’m only the second executive coming from outside IKEA in 78 years. And I’m not Swedish, I’m digital and I’m a woman. I think, first reporting directly to the CEO was an essential signal of the intent. Second, the CEO deserves a lot of credit for supporting me and putting in place the right conditions for the digital transformation to happen. I would also say that other executive team members were also extremely supportive, and that is a great help. 

I believe that what made a difference is that the whole executive team was aligned on the need to change. But, more importantly it was also about fitting into the values and the beliefs of the IKEA organization. To be honest, I was closely observed at the beginning, and I had to pass the “can we trust her” phase, way before any questions on my digital expertise. Once the confidence was established then we moved into the transformation execution. During this phase, we needed to bring proof points and early successes, so people went “oh, my god, this is working”. And started to believe in the power of digital to augment IKEA.   

If there’s one thing I have learned is that the human dynamics are essential to digital transformation success. How do we embed a digital mindset as a core component of the company’s leadership, and how do we bring the entire organization on the journey with us? 

Back to your question, I think it’s a lot about respecting what is and envisioning what could be. There is a sentence at IKEA that I really like and that capture that mindset: “Love the past and create the future.” 

This article is part of a series of “Digital Leaders” interviews that IMD is conducting, to learn from real experiences from practitioners leading the digital transformation of large, global organizations.

Authors

Didier Bonnet

Professor of Strategy and Digital Transformation

Didier Bonnet is Professor of Strategy and Digital Transformation at IMD and program co-director for Digital Transformation in Practice (DTIP) and Leading Customer Centric Strategies (LCCS). He also teaches strategy and digital transformation in several open programs such as Leading Digital Business Transformation (LDBT), Digital Execution (DE) and Digital Transformation for Boards (DTB). He has more than 30 years’ experience in strategy development and business transformation for a range of global clients.

Michael Wade - IMD Professor

Michael R. Wade

Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD

Michael R Wade holds the Cisco Chair in Digital Business Transformation and is Director of IMD’s Global Center for Digital Business Transformation. He directs a number of open programs such as Leading Digital Business Transformation, Digital Transformation for Boards, Digital Execution, Digital Disruption, and the Digital Transformation Sprint. He has written ten books, hundreds of articles, and hosts a popular management podcast. In 2021, he was inducted into the Swiss Digital Shapers Hall of Fame.

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