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The simplest question in a changing retail environment remains 'how do companies meet customer expectations?'.

Many customers have digital expectations. Accordingly, companies must be digitally fluent or risk alienating the customer.

Having all of a company's digital knowledge within an ecommerce team is no longer sufficient to keep up. Digital knowledge is needed in marketing, merchandising, the supply chain, customer service, HR, PR and beyond.

With a limited pool of digital talent so quickly snapped up by pureplays and companies willing to attract with high wages, it's hard for retailers to simply employ 'digital staff' to plug these gaps.

Shop.org, the digital side of the National Retail Foundation (NRF) has written an open letter to retail CEOs about perfecting the talent mix, and much of it echoes what we've been writing on Econsultancy.

So what can CEOs do to address this talent shortage?

Cross-pollinate talent

Existing digital talent must lead other parts of the company. This isn't a one-way interaction. Digital talent can learn about the wider business from staff with other areas of expertise.

The multi-functional requirements of digital means ecommerce teams have good experience working with wider marketing and merchandising.

Ecommerce teams already know a lot about company and culture and likely have existing relationships to build on when providing expertise to the rest of the business.

There are many models of organisational structure and they don't necessarily represent a hierarchy of best practice. Whilst a 'honeycomb' or enlightened organisation model obviously represents the ideal (and perhaps not achievable), the other structures of 'centre of excellence' and 'hub and spoke' have their pros and cons.

It's tempting to keep digital talents together in their own silo, thinking this will allow for quickest innovation and development purely on a digital front. However, this isn't as effective as committing to skilling-up the workforce and and making sure some of the digital team's time is spent wth functional teams. Of course, there's no denying the latter approach will need more resources thrown at it.

This cross-pollination won’t always be easy. There are many tales of digital experts being brought into departments, leading to power struggles and temporary confusion that can affect productivity. Setting clear boundaries is important here.

challenges for transforming businesses

Recruit digital talent from outside retail

There are many reasons people might be willing to switch industries to work in digital in retail.

  • Retail is an area where digital talent is increasngly rising up the organisation. CEOs of the future are heads of ecommerce today. This ability to have a say should be a draw for digital talent.
  • Retail has a bright future. It's growing. With some estimates of 50% of transactions being impacted by the internet, digital in retail is a big growth area.
  • The scale of change in retail, driven by Amazon and other pureplays, means incoming digital talent will have big opportunities to work on big projects with big data.
  • There are opportunities globally. Rather than being confined to San Francisco and silicon valley, digital talent can choose where to work. There's caution here though, too. If your location is less than desirable, it may be hard to attract talent.

office culture

Remember, disruption is not easy 

Identify opportunities

Although stakeholders need to understand the process of digital transformation is a long one, there are low hanging fruit that should be identified. Allowing these opportunities or quick wins to be targeted first will afford an iterative process of improvement.

Make change a priority

Improvng the digital literacy of your company and improving the customer experience needs to be a top priority. That means it's fully backed on high. Digital change should be in a company's three or five year plan.

Culture shock

Many more staff with traditional retail backgrounds will be upset by the arrival of digital talent with no expertise in retail. Unless the organisation is open to new ideas, it won't be able to innovate. Employee engagement is as important as customer experience.

Recruiting digital talent is difficult

The allure of start-ups and tech giants means getting hold of real digital talent is tough. Make sure the jobs market is aware these new roles promise the ability to work at scale and influence big companies.

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Check out the Shop.org open letter to retail CEOs in full.

Econsultancy currently has a range of services available that can help guide organisational change, business restructuring and digital transformation strategy.

Ben Davis

Published 29 April, 2014 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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