Salvation Doesn’t Lie in Software: Takeaway from NRF Big Show 2016

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Change in the retail industry is eminent, yet many retailers seem reluctant to accept the real challenge. A popular phrase at the 2016 National Retail Federation Big Show Conference was “reinvent or die,” but the vibe was more “reinvent or buy…this software!” However, transformation will not come out-of-the-box. Effectively shaping a completely new customer or workforce experience will not be seamless. End-to-end software solutions will not future-proof retailers, even if they provide real-time insights and intuitive dashboards.

I don’t blame software vendors in particular for such brass—we all sell a vision of what could be. Software vendors do want to simplify the momentous transformation process retailers face, but there is a limit to what automation and intelligent software can accomplish without also having the support of well conceived processes and educated end users. Software may automate manual processes, but it cannot automate effective use. Glossing over the change process ignores an important reality: user adoption is the bridge to lasting transformation. Many have run into this harsh truth more than once. Software vendors struggle to provide high-quality in both software and services, but implementation veterans know that success is wrapped in both.

A tool doesn’t make a builder

Imagine if a hardware store sold you a power tool and told you it would build you a house. Of course, it could help you build a house, but if you’re not a builder, simply owning or even using a power tool doesn’t mean you can now build a house. The same goes for software. Owning software isn’t the same as using it, or knowing how to use it to accomplish desired outcomes, which is where the ROI comes from. Managers may love owning software with beautiful dashboards, but they also need to acquire the critical thinking skills to interpret the data.

For example, after looking at a histogram of customer volume, experienced and educated managers will schedule cashiers that can handle stressful situations on automated checkout lines during times of high volume because that’s where and when the most problems occur. They also know to track consecutive shifts during times of high volume to understand whether having several stressful shifts in a row is what’s causing fatigue, error, and lower customer service for a certain team member.

Intelligent, automated, and misunderstood

The changes retail needs will be difficult; therefore change must be purposeful and sometimes even guided. This message doesn’t package well in the software industry. It goes against the mantra of “intelligent and automated.” It changes the sales conversation. It means that the problems won’t stop after install. Even the term “SaaS” (Software as a Service) hints at the intertwined nature of softwareand services—and not just services as in hardware and technical services. Services that teach end users how to leverage the technology to serve the business. Creating and installing a new system is different than creating and installing a new mindset culturally, but it serves both sides to do each well.

Managers can use software to collect preference data, crunch the vast volumes of hours and pay data, and even to forecast sales volumes. However, to provide a predictable schedule requires a business and employee-savvy manager that can spot when a string of long day shifts with high sales but few floor associates (understaffing) will create turnover at a certain store.

A more efficient process is not always a better process

If a specific software simply solved an employer’s problems, then there wouldn’t be competition among vendors or products. The issues really would just dissolve after implementation. However, this isn’t the case. Software makes processes more efficient, but it does not change or improve processes. Software may provide answers, but to most effectively use those answers managers need to know how to ask questions and recognize the connection between actions and outcomes. End users need education on how to use their technology.

So here’s my message to retailers: Technology alone will not spur your total transformation. To improve areas such as labor scheduling, you’ll need more than just new software. You’ll need managers that are educated to be just as smart as the software they are using. And that is the real challenge.