#RIC18: Walmart CIO Embraces People-Led, Tech-Powered Strategy

The 2018 Retail Innovation Conference, April 30 to May 2, began with Store Tours on Monday, and then the content section kicked off Tuesday morning with an informative “fireside chat” with Walmart CIO Clay Johnson and Retail TouchPoints Editor In Chief Debbie Hauss.

Additional reporting on the sessions, the event’s Top Tweets and a sponsor roundup will be appearing in the coming days.

Walmart Innovation Puts People First, But Empowers Them Through Tech

Consumer-grade technology is outpacing business applications, and as a result retailers need to change the way they work. Johnson pushes a fail-fast model, with a focus on iterating quickly rather than risk falling months behind competitor developments. Leaders need to accept that some ideas are going to fail, and accept minor setbacks rather than anticipating victories at every iteration.


“If you look back in time, say 500 years ago, the pace of change was happening only every 100 years,” said Johnson. “As you entered the 1900s you saw changes start to happen every decade. What you’re starting to see now is changes happening at least every six months.”

Retail leaders need to understand the tech itself rather than have the results presented to them in business terms, Johnson noted. While this can create a sometimes steep learning curve, comprehension from the top down is vital to keeping a retailer’s initiatives at the forefront in an evolving market.

“I think a lot of it is making sure the tech teams don’t just always talk technology and terminology,” said Johnson. “We have to make sure they put it in a story, so people can relate to it. Making sure they put it in terms people can understand is important.”

Additionally, retailers should integrate the innovation team across the entire company rather than sequester it within the tech side of the business. Walmart champions the concept “people-led, tech-powered,” where technology is considered a way to empower employees and customers, rather than an end goal itself.

“We purposely put the innovation team in the business,” said Johnson. “The innovation team shouldn’t be in tech, because all they’ll come up with is new technology, which isn’t always the way to solve the problem.”

Facebook Workplace Empowers Collaboration

Walmart’s model of empowering people with technology led to the rollout of Workplace, which is designed to help employees collaborate more efficiently than they could through email. Employees were initially hesitant, but the program quickly grew into a source of collaboration and friendly competition at stores across the chain.

One useful byproduct of the strategy was idea generation. Walmart used the tool to gather suggestions voiced by associates, resulting in approximately 200 submissions in just a few days. The list was narrowed down to the top three ideas, which are currently being implemented.

Johnson said that the search for innovation should continue outside the company — and even outside the industry — when seeking talent. Johnson, who himself comes from a manufacturing background, noted that sticking solely to the retail environment may cause companies to miss the forest for the trees.

“As I’ve had a chance to work at some really great companies and for some really great leaders, one of the things I’ve discovered was everywhere you go the technology’s pretty much the same — it’s how you use it,” said Johnson. “At the end of the day the people are the differentiator: it’s really the people that you have and the team that will make the difference.”

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