Wesley Rhodes, VP of Technology Transformation and Research & Development, Kroger
The retail industry has been and continues to be a battleground for innovation. Retailers have sought to distinguish themselves from competitors by offering unique or differentiating products, services, and/or experiences that bring value to the customer for as long as the industry has existed. For the last 20 years, innovation has gone beyond just offering the latest new gadgets, food items, or fashionable apparel. Fueled by digital transformation, data and analytics – insight and hyper-personalization have taken command of the innovation battleground.
With deep insight, prediction, simplicity, and innovation seen as critical assets for every retailer, the need to understand how to develop and deploy artificial intelligence, video analytics, the internet of things, and other emerging technologies has made attracting and retaining these skills of and developing a core competency of innovation an imperative. At the center of this imperative is crafting your technology organization’s brand as an innovator with an environment friendly to collaboration, learning, and creativity, or you will not attract the best talent. Crafting the image to attract talent is one problem, creating the technical competency is another and sustaining that competency with the best talent is the hardest problem of all, for it requires you to live the image you crafted.
To innovate disruptively, the enabling catalyst within an elixir of skills and opportunity is diverse thinking.
Some assert that innovation is a cataclysmic chaotic event that is stumbled upon and ends with a magnificent “aha” moment, the epiphany of genius. We challenge that thought and assert that innovation can be deliberate, intentional, structured, and repeatable with the right environment, talent, managerial techniques and, most critically, if diversity is imbued and cherished. Others may have an impression that you must know the industry well to innovate within it. This is a misconception that has been debunked repeatedly where a newcomer with little specific industry experience solved the problem differently, totally changing the value chain, creating greater customer value and negating in trenched competitor’s advantages; Uber and Amazon’s many businesses are just a few examples of this.
At the center of this imperative is crafting your technology organization’s brand as an innovator with an environment friendly to collaboration, learning, and creativity, or you will not attract the best talent
Innovation is cultivated through the development of a rich ecosystem of employees, universities, partners, government, and non-governmental organizations. Disruption is enabled by a diversity of thought and a diversity of experience essential to overcoming the norms and perceived limitations of an environment. Repeatability is through collaboration with those that have different experiences and expertise that we learn from and who challenge our own thinking, explore new ideas, and eventually build trust, which enables us to take risks with. All innovation comes at the price of experiencing failure; success is found through honesty and corrective steps only engendered by trust.
Retail innovation has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumer expectations or demands have changed dramatically throughout 2020, which drove changes in how consumers want to shop and how they expect to receive goods. Transparency within the supply chain has become increasingly more important as adapting operations to deliver efficiently on changing consumer expectations is a continuous effort. Additionally, new or evolving communication channels put new demands on consumer personalization, and this rate of change will not wait for retail functionaries to learn new perspectives; new perspectives must be unsheathed from the collaboration of an ecosystem of diverse backgrounds and experiences. The speed that comes from this collaboration greatly outpaces the speed of organic growth within an existing knowledge base.
Nurturing collaboration and an ecosystem are made easier through proximity. One method is the development of university labs that offers the organization the opportunity to create an environment where a variety of collaborators can congregate, develop familiarity, build trust, and create a community. It is the community that builds competency at an exponential level. That community is a magnet for diversity, and it is merely up to us to embrace it. Over the last two years, Kroger has opened university labs at Northern Kentucky University and the University of Cincinnati’s 1819 Innovation hub. Both are delivering meaningful results in their short history; looking forward to what we learn in 2021!