Why Workplace is Changing the Way Retail is Conducted

The world’s largest private employer, Walmart, has signed up with Workplace by Facebook. It means 2.3 million employees are now able to connect and collaborate across the entire organization.

Why did the king of retail align itself with Workplace, Facebook’s relatively new venture into enterprise social networking? Because the retail industry is being disrupted and its only defense is to disrupt itself.

Traditionally, retail has been one of the major employers globally. It’s now one of the most affected by digital disruptions, including online shopping and virtual supply chains.

The pressure for the retail sector to innovate and change has never been more intense. A tool is needed to connect employees across large and disparate retail outlets, where leadership can communicate with shop-floor staff in real time and those dealing with customers face-to-face can communicate back up the ranks of the organization.

Enter Workplace by Facebook. Workplace is the enterprise collaboration offering from Facebook creating a safe place for employees to connect, share knowledge and solve problems.

Back in the old days, retail organizations operated through a clear chain of command from the executive to branch, store and supervisory levels. (Think British TV comedy Are You Being Served?). Today that hierarchy resembles more of a wine decanter than a pyramid.

In a collaboration study we conducted for a large retail bank we found eight levels of management. These ranged from the CEO at level 1 down to the lowest at level 8. 68% of the staff were in levels 6 and 7, and only 32% in levels 1-6. What surprised us was the answer we got when we asked them which colleagues they most relied upon to do their job well. It was their peers that were overwhelmingly nominated, more so than their line managers.

What’s clearly needed is a communication tool that enables peer-to-peer interactions, rather than only top-down broadcasts, at scale. Workplace does exactly that. It connects Walmart’s 2.3 million employees and can ask them; “What can be done better?”.

How is Workplace Helping Retail Organizations?

The mobile enablement of Workplace has been a boon to adoption by staff continually on the move, as is the case in retail. The Workplace platform is already familiar to anybody who uses Facebook. For retail organizations – especially those with millennial-aged staff – the use of social technologies like Workplace is more likely to be demanded, than seen as a barrier.

A common theme from studies into the use of enterprise social networks is the impact they are having at the operational level, i.e. day-to-day work tasks.


One of our clients is a popular fast food chain which employs a large number of millennial-aged staff. For these employees, the work roster plays a large part in their lives. Establishing staff rosters is not the main challenge. It is adapting the rosters to the changing needs and wants of the staff, where the complexity emerges. A lot of these employees are students who need to change their shifts to work around school, university and college schedules and as well as their social lives.

Enter the enterprise social network, where staff have learned to ‘negotiate’ shift swaps with their peers online. Not only does this relieve the store management of an onerous and often thankless task, it facilitates a culture of social obligations amongst the store staff members. Helping each other with shift swaps can translate to helping each other with other tasks in the flow and ebb of a busy day in retail.

Sharing best practices

Other operational cases we have observed include the use of photos to share shop display layouts that have proved effective. Another from a hardware retail chain sharing instances of shop theft. For example, one store had identified a practice where a low-cost bags of fertilizer had been emptied out and filled with expensive tools before accessing the self-checkout facility. The rapid sharing of these fraudulent practices can happen instantly on Workplace.


Another common theme is innovation. Starbuck’s CEO, Kevin Johnson, famously spoke of how Workplace by Facebook had enabled them to introduce a new standard line in a period of only 24 hours, for a process that previously would have taken months to complete, if at all.

Employee Engagement

Employee Engagement is another area Workplace and similar tools have impacted positively. At SWOOP, we have found that stores with more connected staff will more regularly report higher staff satisfaction scores. This is consistent with experiences from other enterprise social network initiatives.

Not a Silver Bullet: Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

The impact of enterprise social networks on retail performance has attracted the interests of the academic community. Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have taken a deep dive into one major retail organization, looking at how an enterprise social network aids employee innovation. They immediately found that the network had increased employee ‘reach’ from their prior practice of relying on email for some 27,000 staff, to now up to some 200,000 staff using the ESN. They found “empirical evidence that ESN use for innovation purposes is a multi-level phenomenon that is influenced on the organizational level by cultural norms that, in turn, influence individual mindsets towards or against innovation-at-work”. Essentially the research found that as long as the cultural norms reflect those supported by the network, the benefits of increased innovation do flow. However, if the prevailing culture is one of autocracy and fear, then the enterprise social network technology will not prevail on its own. Another finding was the value of friendly ‘competition’ between stores. It is not uncommon for enterprise social networks to be used to facilitate inter-store competitions, which on the whole, increased the overall level of innovation experienced.

The Role of Social Network Analytics in Building Excellent Retail Organizations

Retail organizations have proven to be the masters of using analytics to target customers. Turning the analytics engines in on themselves and their own staff, however, is still somewhat novel. At SWOOP we have observed the collaboration patterns of several retail organizations and consulted on what a ‘best practice’ collaboration model might look like for a retail organization. Using the SWOOP ESN Maturity framework, we can identify how Walmart can best exploit the value of Workplace:

The SWOOP Maturity framework can be used to plot the path to best practice use of Workplace. Below we look at an appropriate journey for Walmart, based on experiences we’ve gained from our retail clients.

Social Media Phase

At the early stages of maturity, Walmart will gain early benefit from sharing experiences between stores using Workplace. The important measures at this stage is to encourage active participation of all staff (measured by activity/user) in at least consuming insights shared by other stores. Typically, it will be the store leaders who will have the scope to facilitate social media sharing by posting experiences from their store and responding on behalf of their store. All store staff can contribute through recognizing posts that have helped them, with a simple ‘like’.

Social Networking Phase

At this phase personal connections are being forged. For Walmart, this should happen at two levels. The stores themselves need to be built into a cohesive network. Applications like peer-to-peer shift swapping at store level, or using Workplace to facilitate intra-store chat for instantly reacting to customer enquiries and requests for help. Beyond the stores themselves, inter-store connections and store-to-corporate function connections would typically be facilitated through the leaders’ network, where the store managers and supervisors might actively participate in cross-business groups, often facilitated by the corporate center. It is through these groups that larger scale innovations, potentially sourced from the shop floor, are developed and resourced.

Job Fulfilment Phase

This is the phase where the ‘rubber hits the road’; where significant tangible value is realized. Operational problems experienced at the shop floor are resolved through the collective intelligence of the organization as a whole. The response rate measure is a good indicator that problems are being addressed and potentially solved. Major business improvements are introduced and implemented at the store level. Successful innovations call for a diversity of thought, driven by catalysts in open networks, combined with the ability to implement through cohesive store level networks. The feedback loop from shop floor to the executive and back is now facilitated through the trust networks facilitated through Workplace.

If Walmart is to disrupt itself, it must ensure it reaches the ‘Job Fulfilment’ stage. Measuring exactly where Walmart is, and change course where required, will be critical to getting there as quickly as possible.

Final Words

ESNs have proven to be an effective way of connecting across large and disparate retail outlets. Peer to peer networking within and across retail outlets, facilitated by Workplace, can start to level the playing field with online-only businesses. The use of social networking analytics can ensure that the collaborative capabilities of staff at all levels is finely tuned and capable to adapt and react in real time to the growing competitive demands the sector is facing.


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