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Our thoughts on technology management, strategic consulting, and embedded leadership.


Updated: Jul 13, 2021

And perhaps surprisingly, we feel fine.

“Just browsing.” Those two words have been around as long as Retail has existed, but in today’s context, their meaning is substantively evolving. The COVID pandemic has imposed an unexpected stress-test on the industry, revealing cracks in underlying strategy and execution capabilities. With new sanitary requirements for social distancing and mask wearing, many shopping interaction modalities have been disrupted with the removal of most human contact and the imposition of limits on the use of store space.

“We’re kind of open, but you can’t come in.”1 This UK retailer’s comment is reflective of the current global shopping climate, where social distancing has significantly reduced the meeting of friends at the store and the fear of contagion has forced customers to avoid touching anything. Indeed, the face mask itself is a constant reminder that shopping remains a risky activity and has dramatically eroded the intimacy of in-store staff interactions.

So what is the new normal? How has the customer experience evolved in the months since sheltering in place began? We looked at emerging trends that we think are pandemic proof and here to stay.

Browsing 2.0

Browsing has undeniable therapeutic value for shoppers and will accordingly persist in pandemic times, albeit in modified fashion. Webrooming is COVID-proof, but showrooming will continue with changes where quarantining of in-store inventory allows for periods of downtime in between customer’s physical interaction with merchandise. Consumers should expect brick & mortar locations to limit the number of visitors at any given point in time, reduce the number of physical in-store displays, and create one-directional shopping aisles to facilitate social distancing. For items for which physical browsing is an essential part of the shopping experience – books, for example – multiple hand sanitizing stations and store-issued disposable gloves upon store entry are likely. Self-checkout kiosks, cashless & contactless purchasing will proliferate, and window shopping will take on increased importance as retailers display more inventory in greater variety with shopper guidance that incentivizes online sales to offset limited in-store foot traffic.

The Greatest Show…In Store

For several years, retailers have used special events or services exclusive to brick & mortar locations to create differentiated in-store experiences that encourage shoppers to visit, stay longer, and ultimately spend more. These tactics are likely insufficient to tempt visitors to brave the pandemic, however, which means that non-essential discretionary purchasing will continue to migrate from in-store to digital channels. The lessons of this new reality are as follows:

  • Take inspiration from other industries. Movie theaters were forced to re-invent themselves in the face of the ascendance of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu & Amazon Prime, and retailers can do the same. Creative thinking with experiences that cannot be duplicated at home will drive foot traffic during COVID times.

  • Make shopping truly channel-agnostic. Better, more consistent integration of in-store & online browsing and buying experiences makes for superlative customer experiences. During the pandemic, curbside orders increased by 208%.2 Pure plays like StitchFix have proven that differentiators like personal shoppers can straddle both physical & digital channels; click & collect (BOPUS) and buy online/return in-store (BORIS) offerings should be expanded across product categories; support services associated with complex sales like electronics and home improvement can begin online, migrate in-store, and return online with consistently high degrees of personalization.

  • Become digitally native. Instead of attempting to replicate in-store experiences online, reinvent the shopping paradigm. Engagement with large, geographically distributed product enthusiast communities, enhanced application of predictive analytics, and increased adoption of augmented reality and multimedia tools are all examples of exclusively digital customer experience elements.

I Want It Now, Or Tomorrow At The Latest

With the continuing rise of Amazon during the pandemic, customer expectations associated with inventory visibility and compact, predictable delivery timeframes have only increased. Proactive organizations will accept this reality by examining operations with particular attention to end-to-end order fulfillment capabilities - and where necessary, adjust for more resilient and responsive supply chains. For example, Best Buy is adapting by piloting a ship-from-store hub model which is tailored to handle increases in sales volume pre-holiday and thereafter.3 Suppliers should be reviewed based on country-specific COVID impact and if needed, augmented or replaced to minimize disruption. Category sales will require even closer scrutiny to allow for rapid assortment shifts which are more pandemic-proof. And retailers can take cues from food delivery services like GrubHub & DoorDash to discount and provide incentives that sustain customer loyalty in the inevitable cases where inventory is limited or orders are unexpectedly delayed.

The Opportunity To Adapt

Retailers hunkering down to weather the pandemic storm are advised that this particular storm may abate, but it won’t disappear altogether - consumer habits have shifted, and as COVID lingers through the holiday season, new habits have become set. For some, acknowledging the new reality means facing a bleak future but for others who are more enterprising, this seismic moment represents an uncharacteristically stark opportunity to evolve. Those organizations that do so successfully – even if the change is painful in the moment – will be better positioned for both the next pandemic and to dictate the future best practices of customer engagement.

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Updated: Jul 13, 2021

What Does Organizational Resilience Mean To You?

COVID-19 has necessitated revisiting the importance of organization, collaboration, & grit.

In the last 15 years, a great deal has been written about organizational resilience – how to build a resilient culture, characteristics of resilient leaders, and fostering resilience within employees. The last major event to warrant the flood of content came as a result of the recession in 2007-2009, and the current crisis certainly invokes similar considerations. Companies struggling with plunging revenue, facing potential or recurring layoffs, or coping with morale issues of distributed employees working from home, will likely revisit these themes as they plan for where to go from here.

At Acariya, we thought it useful to distill some of these themes here with an eye for updating them to increase relevance.Let’s start with a definition that we like:“Organizational resilience is the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.”1 To apply this definition within an existing organizational framework, leaders must appreciate the seemingly opposing drivers of resilience (progressive, or achieving results vs. defensive, or protecting results) in order to introduce consistency and flexibility.This framework of blended thinking informs development of all aspects of what will ultimately become an HRO (High Reliability Organization).

People Come First

Resilient organizations invest heavily in their people – both in leadership and in non-managerial staff. Corporate cultures that facilitate the growth of managers into leaders are investing in resilience, and that investment pays when these leaders are given the latitude to deviate from an established course to both protect the well-being of their staff and serve the long-term viability of the company: “When people make mistakes in the workplace, this is not seen as a source of error, but rather an opportunity to learn from the incident and to build resilience.”2 And willingness to create personnel interdependency within and across business units allows for mentoring, cross-training of skills, and mutual support, particularly important during stressful periods.

Processes Are Meant To Be Malleable

Business continuity during disruptive events requires adaptability at a corporate level. When, for example, a workforce must become completely remote overnight, established protocols will be profoundly disrupted. But if leadership is empowered to act and staff are encouraged to innovate, historically brittle operational models can be modified or replaced with nimble, distributed alternatives that have been stress-tested under trying market conditions. “Successful firms are prepared for adversity and yet are also proactive and flexible when encountering a crisis.”3 That proactivity should be embedded in business process design that includes governance, accountability, financial reporting, supply chain re-engineering, knowledge management and customer experience considerations. In many of these areas, introduction of new tools & methods in the form of technological enablers will expedite the path to the desired result.

Technology Can Be Evergreen

By ‘evergreen,’ we don’t mean that organizations should perpetually upgrade legacy systems. But by taking the steps to reshape the internal corporate technology landscape – or ideally, by building a resilient architecture in the first place – companies are far better positioned to rapidly pivot if market conditions require it. Even better, with leaders and staff operating in a culture that embraces both personal support and regular innovation, adoption of new tools to enable business to move forward becomes the new normal. Here’s an example: enterprise applications & data in the cloud are more accessible to employees connecting from home. Similarly, corporate budget allocated to upgrade last-mile connectivity infrastructure with a better WiFi access point or higher bandwidth Internet Service Provider (ISP) can produce a more productive remote workforce.

Intentions Should be Shared, Early & Often

Change is often feared, which is why true organizational resilience demands elevated levels of communication. Leaders who understand that employees respond to stressful situations in highly individualized ways - and that some are accordingly more at risk than others - will help to alleviate potential organizational issues. Articulation of the context for decisions made and the rationale for change is essential, as is striving to connect on an individual level. “The personal touch is important now more than ever, and is part of the foundation of a sustainable, resilient culture.”4 Two way communication, active listening and frequent feedback loops can convert fear of change into a culture that innovates and rewards creative problem-solving.

While the pandemic has wreaked havoc to business worldwide, examples abound of companies across multiple industries that have adapted to the current environment to survive and even thrive. In the end, leaders who embrace the drivers of resilience will see their organizations thrive during periods of instability, and companies that invest to become HRO’s will be those best positioned to weather the current COVID storm as well future seismic events.


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Updated: Jul 13, 2021

It’s December 2019, and many organizations have finalized their IT governance portfolios for the 2020 budget planning cycles. These portfolios invariably contain project profiles that address required annual maintenance, end of life system replacement, a pet project or two from the business and often, a new or ongoing swing-for-the-fences digital transformation initiative that if successfully delivered will have enterprise-wide implications and the potential for tremendous ROI.

Why is it that these latter project types are so frequently late, over budget, or characterized by watered-down results? Or delivered by an eager IT department only to see the solution underutilized by the business? Or begrudgingly accepted by the business because they are forced to substantively adapt the organization or operational processes to actually use the new tools they’ve been given?

It may nearly be 2020, but the game hasn’t really changed: if you build it, there’s a strong possibility that they won’t come. In 2017, the Project Management Institute determined that 39% of IT projects did not meet their goals, 43% went over budget and 49% were late. The likelihood that this cycle will be repeated next year, across multiple industries, is as high as it was before the introduction of software delivery methodologies like Agile, Scrum, XP & Lean.

And yet, project delivery models that sufficiently incorporate holistic people, process, & technology considerations have lost traction in the face of rapid development cycles. The pendulum has swung from old school, slow, Waterfall-style project delivery with heavy emphasis on up-front documentation to iterative development sprints producing light documentation that accompanies working code. That shift sounds promising, but the failure rate remains very high for a number of reasons, among them the desire to build something simply for the sake of building (or because it’s cool/fun) as opposed to asking a handful of key questions:

· Why this?

· Why now?

· What are we missing?

· What’s likely to fail?

What’s Old is New(ish) Once More

64% of respondents to PwC’s Global Digital IQ Survey confirmed that lack of collaboration between IT and the business hinders digital transformation; 58% of respondents indicated that slow or inflexible processes were to blame. What’s frequently lost in today’s project funding & planning exercises are organizational considerations that can include good old-fashioned fear of change, interdepartmental politics, a lack of a sufficiently senior project champion, or a bridge-building program oversight philosophy that brings all aspects of the enterprise along for the ride.

So how to break the cycle? How to ensure that once built, they will come?

Enter The Brain Trust

In 2019, IT departments with multi-million dollar capital/operating expense budgets frequently lost sight of the value that a seasoned multidisciplinary team brings to enterprise-level digital transformation. This brain trust advises (and can act as a surrogate for) the executive champion of the project, advocating on behalf of the business who must adopt and ultimately, live with the project result. This group is a credible liaison to the CIO/CTO, a vigilant watchdog for the CFO, and a surrogate for the CEO & COO who lead the business.

The brain trust also acts as an insurance policy of sorts. While nothing is guaranteed in enterprise software development, their multifaceted focus on three old school fundamentals addresses the issues that continue to plague projects:

· People: the organization, the client, the adopters

· Processes: what’s known & entrenched as well as what is still effective

· Technology: is this the right solution for this business today?

People – a.k.a, those who must live with what’s been built – are invariably the wild card and organizational change management (OCM) is the key to addressing this unpredictability. Knowledgeable practitioners will take the time to understand where resistance lies, ferret out fears about job security, process & tool adoption issues, and identify legacy interoffice politics to inform their project rollout strategy.

Processes – business process re-engineering has long been a consideration within a digital transformation initiative. In recent years, though, what seems obvious in hindsight has often been overlooked in the pre-project work. Legacy processes have often been battle-tested over time, and the frequent desire to introduce a fresh model in conjunction with new technology rollout can overlook process steps that are both worth keeping and sometimes, essential for operational continuity.

Technology - it’s worth noting that the technical heart of digital transformation lies in its enterprise architecture – and often, it remains a significant point of project failure. In a 2016 survey conducted with Henley Business School, McKinsey noted that “when companies go all in on digitization, the number of point-to-point connections among systems rises almost 50 percent, the quality of business-process documentation deteriorates, and services get reused less often.” A considered enterprise architectural design will reduce unnecessary complexity, increase pragmatic reuse, and enhance consistency across the enterprise.

A capable brain trust must to be able to simultaneously balance all three of these elements, sometimes in equal measure and other times, emphasizing some at the expense of the others. If such a group of individuals does not exist within an organization, executive leaders and IT portfolio owners are encouraged to engage external experts who can act in this capacity - ideally, prior to finalizing the 2020 budget and without question, prior to project inception. Early involvement, guidance, and engagement from this team of experts can make the difference between another compromised project or realization of that swing-for-the-fences initiative next year, the version to which they do come.

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