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Walmart: Recognise technology and automation as force for good

Technology and automation should be seen as having a potentially positive impact on the retail sector and not something to fear that decimates jobs.

Delivering the opening keynote at RW Live Judith McKenna, CEO of Walmart International, provided a rallying cry to the industry to proactively embrace the seismic changes ahead: “History tells us that technology innovation creates more jobs than it takes. We should not downplay the impact of technology but my optimism kicks in and I believe there will be net new opportunities and new jobs.”

As with the previous era of the advent of computers she says many of the roles are not initially envisaged. They emerge over time. “Many will not be imagined yet. We need to consider what the future will look like. There will be a major growth in demand for employees,” predicts McKenna.

With the forecast of 60% of jobs being affected by automation, according to McKinsey, she says the reality is that “millions of people will need to transition or find new careers”. “This could be scary but there is no point in turning the other way. There is concern about AI and automation and we need to ask what are people’s concerns and give them assurances. It is not about grabbing headlines about fear,” said McKenna.

Although she said there are different challenges for each company her visibility of operations around the world highlights gaps in workforces and gaps in skills that require proactive actions by retailers.

McKenna said education and training needs reimagining. She pointed to Asda as having helped 13,000 people achieve qualifications in new fields and underpinned numerous apprenticeships. “Businesses have to commit to lifelong learning, which requires partnerships with educational establishments. They need to be ready for whatever happens in the future.”

She added: “The whole issue is bigger than one company. We need to work together. It needs commitment from retailers and other establishments. Keeping quiet is simply not an option for retailers. We need to lead...and help shape what the future looks like.”

This is certainly happening within the Walmart businesses where innovation is happening at great pace. McKenna referenced the use of robots in store to clean the floors and to scan the shelves for out-of-stocks and for the depth of fill. Automation is also employed in the back-end for emptying trucks. Many of these roles are chores and automation is ultimately giving employees freedom to service customers. “It’s good for business and good for people,” she explained.

McKenna also highlighted that there is a tendency to view technology as simply about automation whereas it should also be seen as the ability to access information and for the sharing of this with employees that is empowering: “Store managers have all the information they need to run a store on their own device. We operate a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy that makes life easier for them.”

The reality for Walmart from the increasing influx of technology in its business is that in those areas where automation is already making a difference the levels of staff turnover have reduced significantly.

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