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12 Mar

Successfully Overcoming Cultural Barriers to Retail Tech

Retail Technology

Landing a technology project can be difficult at the best of times; conflicting stakeholder views, multiple voices and different priorities all compete for supremacy. Add in a global, multi-national dimension and retail tech projects become even more challenging as cultural differences come into play.

The bigger the organisation and the more countries that organisation operates in, the greater the risk of clashing cultural barriers.

Overcoming these blockers is the key to delivering successful tech projects. And that means managing change effectively, as REPL’s change management specialist, Emma Armitage explains.

When Two Tribes Go To War

When smaller organisations or those located in one country think about cultural barriers to technological change they’re usually concerned with internal organisational culture.

However, when you add retailer internationalisation to the mix, another layer of complexity is introduced. Multiple countries mean differing attitudes to retail tech among customers and employees. Even the meaning of retail innovation can differ between two countries depending on technological maturity.

That’s not to say that organisations based in one country don’t need to manage change carefully. They do. But deploying new retail tech at a global level brings additional challenges.

Programmes that deliver

As retail tech consultants, we see this complex interplay on a regular basis. “At board level, there’s often appreciation that there will be some level of cultural challenge”, says Emma. “but how this is going to be overcome is not always considered and if it is, there is often some level of disconnect between perception and reality. This means that the resulting project and change plans are fundamentally not fit for purpose from day one.”

Our expertise in helping organisations effectively manage change in a way that ensures a programme’s success is one of the reasons global retailers partner with REPL.

Mission Impossible Defined

Significant retail innovation at a global level can feel overwhelming. At REPL we see it as our mission to make the challenging not only possible but successful.

The starting point for any retail tech project, regardless of scale or the number of cultures participating, is to gain clarity. As Emma explains: “We start by defining the problem statement or the opportunity the business wants to go after. It sounds obvious, but this simple step can often be over-looked and if not approached in a collaborative way, can often bring problems later down the line. Retailer internationalisation means that one market might have a benefit case to hit so they’ll be going after a specific product feature whereas another market might have a completely different driving force and therefore the product development and implementation approach can be very different across the retailer’s global footprint.’’

“For example, one programme I’m currently working on is implementing a new back office system across a number of markets. In Germany, the business wants the solution to fit around their existing processes. Whereas in the US they are taking the opportunity to review and improve what they currently do and launch new ways of working. Both approaches are right for the individual markets, therefore we have tailored accordingly.”

With conflicting needs between countries, it could become impossible to move the project forward. However, REPL’s experience shows that having a shared and understood brand vision, supported by a plan based on aligned prioritisation of requirements will keep the project moving forward.

Creating a framework for prioritisation is a major part of Emma’s role and it helps to overcome cultural barriers: “We establish what the overall business plan and expectation looks like and then we mobilise cross-functional working groups across different markets to establish a consensus between disparate areas and cultures. It’s also important to consider wider issues, like a market’s compliance and legislative requirements. Issues like this will clearly take precedence over a ‘nice to have’ element of the project.”

The Significance of a Project Sponsor

This is where the importance of having a strong programme leader comes into play. Particularly where different needs clash or there is disagreement about what is in and out of scope. “A project sponsor is the ultimate decision maker. They must have a strong collaborative network within the different country leads or business functions. They have a really important task – not only are they accountable for the solution, they’re accountable for bringing those market leads and their teams on the journey.”

With support from Emma, these leaders have individual coaching and communication plans to help them execute successfully. And, by gathering all the needs and prioritising them in terms of business impact, a change approach is established and agreed that transcends cultures and barriers.

If In Doubt Consider the End User

Depending on the type of retail tech it will either serve employees, customers or both. Keeping the customer at the centre of every decision is another way to overcome cultural blockers, says Emma: “Across the different countries and business units, we all have one point in common: the customer. So, we often ask teams to consider how their customer or employees will be impacted both today and in the future. Running retail innovation sessions where the focus is on future customer journeys often aligns any cultural differences.”

Of course, different countries have different levels of technological maturity and this will impact customer and employee expectations. Working with an experienced retail tech consultancy in these instances is extremely useful as Emma notes: “At REPL, we go into any business with a good grasp of customer and employee habits today and where we believe they’re going to be in the future. We need to be three steps ahead of the client because we need to help them navigate towards that future point.

“For example, some countries are further behind the UK in terms of contactless and mobile payments. We also see differences in how retailers want to approach landing a change initiative with their employees; some may invest in reward and recognition activity whilst others may prefer to focus on compliance scorecards. Being aware of such differences and creating an appropriate change roadmap to navigate towards this kind of retail innovation is another area where REPL adds significant value.”

Data chart

Common Cultural Barriers And How to Overcome Them

With any retail tech change programme there are a number of common concerns that frequently emerge. To anticipate these challenges, an effective impact assessment needs to consider not only systems and processes but the impacts on people too. Key to overcoming barriers to change is answering: “What’s in it for me?” for each stakeholder group and being transparent as early as possible in the change initiative on what is and isn’t going to change.

How Retail Tech Impacts Employees

“Introducing new retail tech often causes employees to worry about how it will change how they work or even remove the need for their role altogether. For example, when replacing a legacy back office system, a category manager needs to know how it will impact and most importantly enable them and their team. There’s often a fear around changing ways of working. When people have spent a significant amount of their time collating and analysing data on spreadsheets, they’re naturally going to be concerned about how the new system will impact their day jobs.

The message here is that technology and the automation of some everyday tasks will help elevate what people do by enabling them to focus their power and effort into continuous improvement and innovation.”

There will often be a need for renewed learning and development initiatives as roles begin to evolve into new areas and because of this a project change plan should always go beyond the system go live and have a longer-term sustainability focus.”

Worries Over Asking Employees to Use Personal Tech

“When working with a leading UK fashion retailer to improve communications across their retail teams we knew that there were several cultural factors to consider. For example, the idea of introducing a new mobile app which would require employees to use their personal device had a mixed reaction from the Board. Would employees really want to use their own data and in their personal time to interact with the business? Being aware how employees’ expectations of their work experience continue to evolve, we were confident that if the company’s processes and communications were adapted in line with the app launch, employee take-up would be strong. Adding features that made life easier for employee, like shift swapping, messaging and content sharing not only increased engagement but also enabled faster communications and operational execution for the business. This kind of trade off can work well in overcoming concerns about change.”

Adopting New Cultural Norms and Behaviours

“Delivering the retail innovation is just one part of the journey. The other critical component is delivering process and behaviour change to truly realise the associated benefits. Therefore, it is critical to understand what the future operating model will look like post implementation. There’s often a need to update or create standard operating procedures, role profiles, policies and align to the company’s balanced scorecard or KPIs; a good change plan should factor in all these elements and how they will vary across markets.”

Taking such an approach is critical when implementing retail tech such as workforce management systems into global organisations. Countries will have very specific employment laws and regulations they will need to adhere but can also fall into the trap of believing today’s way of working is the only way. By bringing teams together with subject matter experts, best practice ideas are shared and implemented whilst remaining compliant.

Changing Siloed Working Practices

“A major challenge when introducing retail tech is siloed working practices however, these can be broken down when bringing different teams into discovery and requirement gathering sessions. Having the opportunity to share current challenges and future ideas in a wider group, not only supports alignment on prioritisation but also stimulates other continuous improvement initiatives and ways of working. It’s great to see these lightbulb moments and even better when we can implement them aligned to the tech project. This goes a long way to driving engagement for the project and end-user adoption.

We often see relationship dynamics evolve between reporting and trading teams; the days of the finance individuals being the publisher or gatekeeper of information are over. This democratisation of data raises important considerations and opportunities for any retail tech project. Having a plan in place to support the changing relationships in teams will reduce a potential risk of siloed working and missed opportunities.

Our Five-Step Plan to Overcoming Cultural Barriers

When you’re investing significantly into new retail tech, you want to know your project will land and stick. Our experience shows that effective change management relies on the following tried and tested steps:

1. Establish the shared vision

At the very beginning of the project it’s critical to clarify what you’re doing and why. Ensure that this high-level vision is understood, recognised and respected and that it’s relevant to all parts of your business. Appreciate that the journey towards this vision may need to differ for business units and individual markets and develop the plan accordingly.

2. Assess the impact

Successful programmes are based on collaborative working and informed teams. Build a network of cross-functional teams, representative of the business units and markets operated in. Translate the vision into the future operating model and identify the key changes that will be required. Don’t just focus on what needs to be done to get the retail tech live, look beyond this to get it truly embedded and delivering results. Ensure constant scanning of the horizon to identify any new opportunities and potential risks.

3. Solution design

Build a requirements prioritisation approach that everyone believes in from the start. Link requirements to shared goals like customer experience and profit growth to align stakeholder expectations. Embrace new requirements and have a transparent process for planning future project phases.

4. Communicate and engage

Don’t under-estimate the impact an effective Sponsor can have but surround them in market change agents representative of the wider business.
Use a blend of communication methods appropriate to the audience and arrange sessions to accommodate multiple time-zones.

5. Foster a continuous improvement culture

Look beyond the point of when the retail tech is implemented; change is constant and there will always be a need to continue developing solutions to exceed the evolving customer needs and expectations. Celebrate project success and benefit realisation and build on this momentum to maximise the opportunities emerging technologies continue to present.

At the heart of any retail innovation project is change. The degree and type of resistance to change will depend on organisational and international differences. By keeping an open mind about cultural norms, applying retail internationalisation expertise and tried and trusted change methods, REPL overcome cultural barriers and successfully deliver retail tech projects.

To secure major retail innovation in your business, get in touch with Emma Armitage our change management expert on +44 (0) 808 200 7375.

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