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Encouraging Ideas and Seeking Out Innovators at Sam’s Club

Think about what Uber has done to the transportation industry. Or the impact upstarts like Tesla have had on established automakers. Or the ways Amazon has changed the equation for, well, more or less all retailers.

These are just a few disruptors that have arrived to turn a sector on its ear, essentially forcing their competitors to adapt or die. And there are similar stories in every corner of the business world. 

At the i4cp 2019 Next Practices Now Conference, Sam’s Club senior vice president and chief people officer Rebecca Schmitt will discuss how organizations can better prepare for the disruptions that will inevitably come along and compel them to rethink how they do what they do. And the fact is, a lot of companies haven’t always been on their toes when disturbances occur, she says.   

“For a long time, many companies were often caught just kind of standing by when disruptions came along,” says Schmitt. “But many of those same companies have woken up to the fact that you will be left behind if you’re not the one disrupting.”

Enabling the exchange of ideas

Like almost every company in almost every industry—and certainly in the retail sector in which it operates—Sam’s Club has had to wrestle with how to integrate artificial intelligence and automation.

A sometimes-overlooked part of this struggle, says Schmitt, is the attempt to allay fears that AI will displace employees in large numbers. She points to cashiers at the membership-based warehouse club’s nearly 600 stores as an example.

“We even have customers who say, ‘I don’t want that checkout person’s job to go away, so I’m going to skip the self-checkout and wait in line to be checked out by a cashier.”

But automation isn’t about getting rid of that cashier’s job, says Schmitt. Rather, the presence of that self-checkout machine frees up that cashier to focus on acquiring new skills, take advantage of training opportunities, and continue their professional advancement.

“We want that cashier to move on to become, say, a personal shopper with us,” says Schmitt. “We want to give people more opportunities to grow, so they leave a job as a more well-rounded person, whether they end up doing a different job with us or they move on to work somewhere else. Technology continues to change us—that’s the reality. But I think the real paradigm shift involves the question around how we bring employees into the discussion concerning our day-to-day and long-term business.”

In 2019, HR and other business leaders simply must seek out more employee feedback—whether it’s through everyday conversations, surveys, town halls, or various other means—as part of steering everyday operations, says Schmitt. She describes the move toward getting employees more involved in decisions large and small as “the democratization of the employee experience.”

“I think this is a dramatic change over the last 10 years or so. It follows from the way that social platforms are democratized,” she says. “Everybody can have a say, and everybody can be a superstar. When you create that kind of transparency in your organization, you disrupt the idea that knowledge is power. Now everyone can have knowledge and power, and they can use that to innovate.”

Creating an environment in which ideas flow freely is integral to innovation, says Schmitt. But not all companies have typically embraced this mindset.

“Many organizations are very insular—they’re not open to creating a platform where they’re exchanging ideas with other organizations, in their market and elsewhere. We can take cues from tech organizations and their open-source model. Maybe not for everything, but there are times when we can develop something and then share it, get input, iterate, and make it better.”

Sam’s Club works with partner organizations to help connect with other companies that are open to sharing innovative ideas, says Schmitt.

Recently, for example, another large company shared with Sam’s Club a cost-effective way that it could roll out a virtual reality experience to all employees, by opting for private viewing on YouTube and using cardboard virtual reality sets.

Finding innovators throughout the organization

A collaborative-minded workplace in which employees feel unafraid to share ideas and take risks is a hallmark of a truly agile organization, as well as a healthy culture.

In fact, i4cp research has identified the employment of tactics to increase risk tolerance and decrease fear of failure in the effort to drive innovation as one of the five traits of agile leaders and organizations. This includes increasing the utilization of prototyping and experimentation, and enabling and empowering decision making throughout the organization.

At Sam’s Club, Schmitt and other business leaders seek out employee innovations every day, and spend plenty of time at Sam’s Club stores and distribution centers uncovering new practices that can potentially be implemented throughout the organization.

Schmitt recalls one leader’s recent stop at the Fayetteville, Ark.-based club, where an hourly associate had identified a new, digital way to handle a complex, manual inventory process in the bakery department. 

“She brought the idea to a leader during a club visit,” says Schmitt, “and now it’s translated into a new way of working companywide that will save both time and resources.”

And, while this particular employee’s concept has been effectively put into practice throughout the company, pursuing employee ideas that don’t quite pan out when implemented are still worthwhile— and those ideas can be springboards for future innovations.

“Don’t be afraid to show and share things that don’t work out,” says Schmitt. “This says that, ‘Hey, this didn’t exactly work, but it helped propel us to the next big thing.”