Tech lessons from the supermarkets

“Just switch to Google Apps!” Right, easier said than done.

Australian businesses have probably heard a similar plea over the last few years, possibly even from myself. “Switch to cloud services and you’ll save a ton of money,” we say.

While that may be true, it’s certainly not an easy task. For businesses struggling with keeping their current IT systems under control, switching over to a new platform isn’t just going to be a logistical nightmare; it’s a maintenance problem too. Not with infrastructure, of course, but people. Employees just don’t like change. Switch the IT system on them and they freak out.

It’s always fascinating to watch technology-minded people, who are usually forward-thinking and intuitive, complain about having their routines changed. “Why did you change the navigation system?” is a common complaint, or “this patch has ruined the whole program”.

These aren’t groundless complaints, but they serve to illustrate when it comes to technology, we’re very much creatures of habit – which makes Woolworths’ decision to switch over to Google Apps this week all the more interesting.

We’ve seen Australian businesses do this already, but they’re usually smaller and more able to handle such a big change. Woolworths has hundreds of staff in its head offices, so this can’t be a welcome shift for all those employees who are used to their Microsoft Exchange or Office suite.

From the company side, it makes sense. It’ll save a lot on tech costs over several years. But undoubtedly it will suffer an internal backlash when employees quickly figure out they couldn’t do everything the way they used to. You can imagine a poor manager having to figure out why Gmail uses labels instead of folders.

But the Woolworths decision also represents a good lesson for businesses. The company isn’t easing anyone into it, instead it’s being decisive and essentially saying, ‘This is the way it’s happening, get used to it.’

Given technology is such a huge part of how businesses operate, and even survive, such decisions aren’t made lightly. The fact Woolworths is even able to make such a large decision suggests it’s able to move quickly and acknowledge why shifting to an entirely new software problem is going to save it money.

So there are two lessons to be picked up from this move. The first is that in order to survive and be innovative, businesses need to quickly adapt to new technology patterns. The second is that when you do, it needs to be done quickly. Businesses shouldn’t fumble about, suggesting a switch-over will occur on a timetable that always seems to be delayed.

Take a note from Woolworths’ example: investigate, make a decision, implement. And don’t waste time in the process.

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