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The Human Factor

By Retail Technology | Thursday April 13 2017

Retail tech success depends on your human operating system, argues eCommera director of consulting Annabel Thorburn

News headlines are rife with talk of retail innovation, from virtual reality to interactive displays and drones. Yet it’s how retailers manage these projects behind the scenes that will really determine their success.

Regardless of what type of business you are, whether you’re a customer service business, like Zappos, a fundamentally lean company like Zara, or a subscription business like Dollar Shave Club, the starting point should always be the same

Begin by asking; how do you manage your staff to work in the way you want?

Collaboration is key

Nowadays, many new projects are likely to include some sort of tech support, but their ultimate performance hinges on the managing teams at their core.

In this piece I’m going to use a recent example from the team at Asda Walmart to outline how optimising your ‘human’ operating system can drive incredible results -- in this case, an estimated sales uplift of £10m.

It all started when Asda identified several gaps throughout the business and realised if they could find ways to incrementally optimise the efficiency of Asda’s tech, they had the potential to significantly improve customer experience.

Yet precedence always seemed to be given to larger projects or further reaching proposals which needed to be dealt with more urgently. In addition, the internal processes in place within the business for submitting proposals for each individual change took time and required the go-ahead from a number of stakeholders.

It was time to shake-up the traditional method. George tackled the issue by modernising their project management approach, introducing smaller teams that could overcome mission-based challenges in a faster, more dexterous way.

They called these small teams Squads.  

Stephen explains it like this: “Squads were about wanting to find even more pace beyond the background agile operating model. We wanted to be more creative and move faster by devolving more responsibility to teams with specific subject expertise.”

Squad success

Squads were agile teams that largely worked independently from the core team, based on a similar method employed by some of the most successful technology companies such as Spotify.

This way of working meant different areas of expertise within the business could come together directly without having to follow the company’s traditional pathways.

So what made this strategy so different? And what kind of results did it have? 

First, the formation of small squads created more independence. By giving the teams more freedom they could work faster and were encouraged to seek solutions for the problems they were tasked with overcoming.

Second, a clearly defined set of challenges and objectives creates efficiency. For Asda, this centred around improving the speed of their mobile site but the approach could be adapted for a number of different business areas.

Third, the approach led to a management shift. Rather than setting a series of strict instructions, teams were left to decide the best way to approach the challenges. Ultimately, this contributes to ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking and increases staff empowerment.

Driving real change 

The radical new strategy had astounding results. With speed increases of 75% on the mobile site and an estimated sales uplift of £10m. It was clear the technical components had an effect, but it was the change in strategy towards a “soft” approach of managing teams that really led to the project’s success.

Creating a domino effect

There’s a fine balance when it comes to introducing new ways of working to any team. It takes time, as opposed to other new technological updates that can happen with the flick of a switch. 

Clearly defined goals remain the starting point for squad-driven projects. If the objective is not clear from the outset, it will be difficult to reach final goals, even if the team includes all the correct skills and specialties.

That said, once the foundations are in place, the template can be taken and used throughout different departments with a business-wide like a domino effect. And that’s the point where these solutions really come into a world of their own.

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