As we hurtle once more into the festive season, retail organisations are bracing themselves for another bumper year of surging sales both on and off-line. Nowhere is evidence of this massive, temporary explosion in sales more visible than on “Black Friday” – a US retail phenomenon that, over recent years, has become more and more popular here in the UK.
Black Friday takes its name not, as some people believe, because it is the one day in which retailers push themselves further into the “black” through discounts and other sales promotions, but instead because of the chaos that is created across streets and shops by an overwhelming army of bargain hunters on the busiest shopping day of the year. It’s a term that actually has its origins in 1960’s Philadelphia where it was used by Police Officers, taxi drivers and bus drivers who would bemoan the nightmare that such a sudden, short term, influx of people would create in their normally manageable daily routine.
The Philly cop’s annual headache is something that’s really worth remembering, not just in retail, but for any organisation or industry that experiences wild swings in demand either seasonal or otherwise.
Now, it’s at this point in time that IT cloud providers would swoop in and start talking to you about the amazing benefits of the “elasticity” of the cloud and quite right – if you do experience swings in demand and you’re not operating in the cloud then we really need to talk. But what’s crucial to remember, is that the flexibility of your on-line services represents just one part of your overall business process, and as such fixing it in isolation only serves to move the problem elsewhere in your organisation.
Solving part of the problem doesn’t help, if you want to be truly successful you need to take a holistic view and apply the “elastic” approach to all aspects of your business and your culture. In fact, if you really want to be successful in living up to the potential of significant changes in demand in your business, you need just three things:
- You need a better way of predicting what “will” happen, rather than a better way of understanding what “has” happened.
- You need an organisation that can react and respond quickly and consistently to changes. Consistency is a key point here – even if you manage to meet the new demand can you be sure that the rest of your “promise” to your customer will be able to cope? Will your customers experience the same level of customer service? Will the products/services be of the same quality? If they won’t you may have won the short term fight, but you run the risk of losing the long term battle.
- You need the basic technology infrastructure that enables your business to scale and flex to optimise both your business costs but also your ability to service your customers.
I’m not going to touch number 3 because this should not be news to you and you’re either doing it already or you’re sitting on the fence procrastinating about making the leap (just do it already) but it’s the first two that we’ve historically overlooked but are increasingly becoming possible thanks to advances in both technology and our understanding of its potential.
When it comes to predicting in the future, the days of consulting soothsayers or settling for “best guesses” are finally coming to an end. The exponential growth (and availability) of data combined with innovations in both the power and accessibility of technologies like Machine Learning is enabling us to move away from a world of mere “reflection” (i.e. using the data to understand what has happened) into a world of “prediction” (i.e. using the data to understand what will happen). A world filled with better predictions is a world full of less (organisational) surprises and provides a backdrop against which better plans can be made.
Secondly, by shifting the culture of the way we collaborate inside our organisations, we can ensure that crucial knowledge, insight and values are not “locked away”, hidden from view from others in the organisation, either temporary staff or even existing staff having to pull extra duties in order to cope with the peak in demand. Crucially here, it’s not the technology alone that makes the difference it’s the culture. Yes you need to break free of old ways of working, moving to new collaborative tools rather than locking crucial information up in email inboxes, but unless you engender a culture that promotes and rewards open sharing of information (where appropriate of course) the tools alone will not help.
Agility is driven (or restricted) by knowledge, the more freely the knowledge flows inside the organisation, the more agile the business can become. It’s that simple.
So, whatever your organisation, whatever drives the spikes in demand, from the one person accountancy business trying to cope with the client demands of the HMRC tax year deadline right through to the big retailers trying to make the most of all that the festive season offers, all you need to do to make the most of the opportunity is to anticipate it, react to it and then deliver on it.
Make that happen, and your “black” day need not be a headache, a period of stress, dread and over-work, but instead a celebration where you and your organisation can make the most of all the upside that a significant increase in demand brings for your business.