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4/6/2007
12:55 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Wal-Mart's Latest 'Orwellian' Technology Move: Get Over It

Many government workers exist in a world seemingly free from the forces of market demand. Wal-Mart doesn't, and it doesn't need to apologize for managing its business accordingly.

That trend--and it will not be stopped--is for businesses of every stripe to do all they can to offer greater value and more-rewarding experiences to customers. We see it all around us in not only retail but also insurance, entertainment, banking, travel, real estate, construction, utilities, and even education.

It's clear that forward-thinking, customer-oriented companies are looking at this situation and seeing not conspiracies or the decimation of "the working class" but rather a savvy application to help them be more successful. If this is a conspiracy, then surely all of us in the business-technology field must be co-conspirators--right?

Business technology has always--always--been indispensable in helping fulfill the vision of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. "You love it when you visit a store that somehow exceeds your expectations, and you hate it when a store inconveniences you, or gives you a hard time, or pretends you're invisible," he wrote in his autobiography "Sam Walton: Made In America."

That's further echoed by this simple comment on Wal-Mart's Web site: "Ironically, technology plays an important role in helping Wal-Mart stay customer focused. Wal-Mart invented the practice of sharing sales data via computer with major suppliers, such as Procter & Gamble."

In that vein, here's how The Wall Street Journal described Wal-Mart's use of the new scheduling software in a Jan. 3 article: "The move promises greater productivity and customer satisfaction for the huge retailer but could be a major headache for employees. The change is made possible by a software system that can crunch an array of data, part of a shift toward computerized management tools that can help pare costs and boost companies' bottom lines. But it also could demand greater flexibility and availability from workers in place of reliable shifts--and predictable paychecks."

The Journal also mentioned a similar application from Workbrain being deployed by Target: "While it can take managers an entire day to create schedules for several hundred workers at a single big-box store, staffing can now be drawn up across an entire company in a few hours. Workbrain says it generates schedules for Target Corp.'s 350,000 U.S. employees at 1,500 locations in less than six hours."

So Wal-Mart wants to enhance customer service by using technology to help it schedule workshifts to match customer demand--that's just good business, right? Well, not according to a recent report on National Public Radio, which hauled out the obligatory George Orwell cliche in lamenting, "Wal-Mart critics say the company's new computer-based scheduling system may be a boon for customers, but not necessarily for staff. Some have even called it Orwellian, saying the system forces workers into random shifts, regardless of family commitments."

Just type "Wal-Mart computerized scheduling system" into a search engine and you can see lots more anti-business, anti-capitalism sentiments.

For those who want to villify this type of progress--including one politically oriented site whose headline howls, "Why Wal-Mart's New Computerized Scheduling Is Evil (Part 3)"--it's time to gird your constitutional loins because today's global economy makes it impossible for businesses to muddle along unproductively and even unprofitably just to suit the schedules or preferences of employees.

If this country wants to remain competitive in the years to come, then this "evil" approach to delivering greater customer value had better become commonplace in very short order.

If you'd like to comment on this column, and join a discussion with other readers, check out Bob Evans's blog post here.

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