We all know the definition of retail is evolving and that new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), have tremendous power to increase personalization and responsiveness to help retailers deliver against their purpose.
With the rise of AI, customer-facing roles become even more important. Store associates become brand ambassadors.
Intelligent technologies can help both the corporate- and customer-facing workforces to be more effective in their jobs by automating execution work that requires minimal human judgment and frees up employees to focus on thinking, problem solving, and doing creative work they are passionate about. They can become the curator of experiences and the inventor of offerings for customers. Automating tasks also increases agility and saves money that can be reinvested in improving customer experience offerings.
Let’s look at one good industry example. At Adidas, SPEEDFACTORY moves from design to production of a customized shoe in days. The initiative not only reduces time to market, but also shifts the entire value proposition to satisfying demanding consumers with differentiated products.
Importantly, it also requires a pivot to a highly specialized workforce of tailors, process engineers, and others working closely with intelligent technology. The linchpin is the collaboration of people and robots in a series of overlapping production steps. Human hands are required, for example, to finally shape shoes that have been co-designed by computers and people. Customization requires a level of adaptability that only people can provide, working hand in hand with intelligent machines. But many retailers are not yet ready to seize the opportunity. Accenture research shows that there are large gaps between executives’ aspirations and how they are preparing their workers.
According to our findings, nearly three-quarters (74%) of the retail C-suite (CXOs) agree that adopting intelligent technologies will be critical to the organization’s ability to differentiate in the market. And the good news is that more than half (54%) of the employees we surveyed are ready and willing to adapt to AI, and 59% feel AI will encourage creativity and innovation.
The less good news is that less than a third of retail leaders believe the workforce is ready to work with AI, and yet only 4% plan to significantly increase investment in reskilling programs. We know that leaders must lead the evolution, yet only 5% of CXOs are establishing a new leadership role to manage and promote human-machine collaboration. In addition, just 9% of companies are undergoing an organizational realignment and change management program.
Retailers must step out of their comfort zones and be proactive in creating new structures, roles, measures, and skills to compete. Head offices will require new skill sets around data, analytics, and AI, but these skills are also needed in the field and in stores.
Here are four steps that can help guide decisions about the future workforce:
1. Embrace The Power Of Technology
AI and other new technologies are tools for growth, and when embedded across the enterprise, help connect disparate functions. In fact, Accenture estimates that if companies invest in AI and in human-machine collaboration at the same rate as top-performing businesses, they could boost revenue by 41% between 2018 and 2022.
2. Rethink The Workforce Model
Think about the skills you need to deliver on your company’s purpose and enable differentiated experiences for customers. Give employees opportunities to succeed in acquiring those skills and remaining relevant. Nurture new skills. Help people to learn. Rethink the way work is shared and teams are formed. Reconsider performance measures, rewards, and career paths.
At Walmart, U.S. employees are being trained at the retailer’s training academies using Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, allowing trainees to experience and practice responding to real-world scenarios. Think a spill in aisle three with the instructor and trainee peer group able to provide performance feedback as they watch remotely through the employees’ eyes. Following early success of the pilot, Walmart has now rolled out the program to all 200 academies.
3. Power Up With People
Retailers need the right people with the right skills, many of whom are in the company, ready and willing to step up. Some of the needed talent may exist—and remain—outside the four walls of the business. Through crowdsourcing, collaboration platforms, and partnering throughout the ecosystem, retailers can acquire on-demand talent to fill specialized teams focused on a particular business challenge, and the needs may change every quarter. Technology makes it easier for companies to find people, and for people to find opportunities. In the future, AI will identify the best person for a specific task or initiative by accessing a talent pool of internal employees, contractors, and freelancers who can view upcoming jobs on their mobile devices and decide whether they want to opt in.
4. Cultivate Diverse Talent
Every retailer should have a mature approach to inclusion and diversity. It starts by employing a recruitment strategy that targets diverse populations. Through regular review of talent pipelines and looking at attrition and promotion rates for diverse talent, the business can be accountable for its progress in inclusion and diversity. Leaders should be aware of legal obligations and the company’s ambitions for inclusion and diversity, being measured, and rewarding for achieving the desired goals.
There is a tremendous opportunity to use the power of your people to drive business growth. However, retailers must reinvent organization structures, attract and keep the right talent, and plan how to give employees the tools, training, and support they need to use new technology to deliver differentiated customer experiences and drive growth. The stakes are high, and the business risk of inaction is substantial. Now is the time to act.