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21 Aug

Thoughts on the Evolution of WFM

evolution man

Author: Chris Brett


Workforce Management (WFM) touches all kinds of businesses, too much perhaps to summarise in a few short paragraphs. As such I’m going to focus on retail; which is arguably the progenitor of the entire WFM industry.

There was a time when ‘labour management’ boiled down to making your rota total the employment budget set by finance. Heck, if you were really fancy you might even have a spreadsheet that tracked hourly rates to give you a half-decent weekly pay summary. Nowadays, we talk about forecasting metrics, labour modelling, standard minute values and schedule optimisation, and look to them to revive our businesses. But why do we need WFM and why has it grown so quickly?

Why do we Need WFM?

Evolution is a noun meaning the gradual development of something. This is an interesting way to think about business because, in retail, like any other market, there is a lot of proverbial chaff amongst the wheat.

We live in tumultuous times and thus we are all, more than likely, familiar with the environmental factors threatening to consume us currently:

  • National living wage
  • ‘Rise of the Millennials’
    • Generation X are already on their way
  • Brexit
  • Ever changing demand
  • Consumer disloyalty
  • Price wars

We understand that to survive we must adjust to these, we must evolve beyond them. But hasn’t this always been the case? Retail has existed since we grew opposable thumbs. The economical and societal factors are, and will be, ever present. However, something has been happening ‘recently’ that is changing the game every year; often unpredictably and sometimes overnight. The evolution of technology.

Technology is a modern-day retailers’ greatest threat and – somewhat ironically, through the power of WFM solutions – its saviour.

Why has WFM Evolved so Quickly?

Perhaps you’ve heard the adage ‘retail is detail’? That fairly sums up the answer to this. Retail is big business and despite our best efforts it remains an unpredictable endeavour. First and foremost, I think we can all agree that, as a human race, when it comes to shopping:

  • We love buying things
  • We’re demanding
  • We’re generally pretty lazy

These are our constants. Now let’s take a (very) brief look at how things have developed over the past century:

  • ‘Invention’ of the supermarket in 1916
  • E-commerce in 1984
  • Internet in 1991
  • Amazon expands beyond books in 2000
  • Self-service checkouts in 2002
  • App boom in 2008
  • ‘Click and collect’ boom in 2012
  • Amazon delivers via drone in 2016

Do you see the pattern? Innovation is exponential in line with the evolution of computing capability i.e. technology. We started off with decades between major advancements and now it seems like the market flips every year. If a business doesn’t pick up the pace, it inevitably falls behind the pack and we are a demanding populace. Fall behind and perish.

Invariably there are two established ways of tackling the above for an established business:

  1. Refine keep up
  2. Reduce overheads to protect profit margin i.e. consolidate your position

A focus on WFM fits the bill nicely – a successful adoption is likely to streamline your workflows considerably whilst reducing your overheads. Here in lies our ‘why’ then.

But (and it’s a big one) I don’t believe WFM is a single system or technology to be purchased off the shelf; instead I believe it describes a variety of business and labour management techniques that are supplemented by the wonders of modern day computing. It’s always been here though, in one guise or another (time cards in the factories, rota pinned up in the canteen).

Technology has evolved to become our biggest environmental threat but, when applied correctly, it can drastically enhance our operation. It empowers us with data, refined processes, improved communication and number crunching. It dazzles too. In fact, technology often dazzles us so much that we are blind to its limitations. Yes, technology gives us the data but we still must interpret it. AI hasn’t quite landed yet. WFM software solutions by themselves are not a silver bullet then and we’ve still room to grow.


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