Woolworths anticipates a greater degree of cross-collaboration, partnership and embedding of skills between its WooliesX and Group IT functions in coming years, as digital technology is worked even deeper into the company’s core operations.
In this week's CXO Challenge on the iTnews podcast, Woolworths’ chief digital technology officer (CDTO) Nick Eshkenazi provides a detailed look inside the company’s technology operations and strategy, its customer-first approach to innovation, and some key projects that are creating value.
He also provides insight into his own - and WooliesX’s - approach to recruiting and retaining talent and his encouragement of a culture of experimentation.
Since WooliesX first emerged about this time in 2017, it has grown into a digital powerhouse, spawning a series of ‘X’ offshoots in other parts of the Group, and influencing other large household brands to set up similar digital innovation arms.
“About four years ago, something important was recognised at Woolworths - that through the power of technology, and digital and data, we can continue to evolve and create a sophisticated connected experience for our customers,” Eshkenazi said.
“That [led] to something quite exciting at Woolworths, which became WooliesX.”
A year later - “through a set of events, inflection points and circumstances” - Eshkenazi, then a technology executive at Costco in Seattle, “had an opportunity to connect with the leaders here at Woolworths.”
“Through those conversations, we discovered we had a similar mindset, and as a result, it was exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join a very exciting journey here, of the journey of transforming customer experiences through the power of the coalesced entity of digital, data and technology,” Eshkenazi said.
“How many times in the history of Australia will you be able to join an iconic brand like Woolworths and further the vision and the thinking of something exciting that is happening?
“Helping Australians find what's important to them in the busy lives that we live in is a passion for me, and it's exciting that it's an aligned passion for Woolworths as well.
“When you put two passions together, some incredible things happen.”
Many of those things are now public-domain: Scan&Go smartphone shopping, AI-based smart scales, showing stock availability in chat, queue-tracking at supermarkets, and using gift cards to pre-qualify vulnerable customers at online checkouts for priority delivery.
“We, at all times, focus on what we exist for as an almost 100-year-old retailer right now - and everything we do starts with our customer,” Eshkenazi said.
“We wake up in the morning, and we evaluate our priorities and our initiatives based on that customer-first thinking in everything we do, and as a result, our innovation agenda, our portfolio of initiatives are purposeful in nature, focused back on the customer.
“If innovation is not focused on our customer from that purposeful standpoint, we would forgo it for something that is customer-focused.”
From the beginning, WooliesX and Eshkenazi recognised the critical importance of working closely with the broader Woolworths Group, including IT.
“The relationship and the partnership on a day-to-day basis with our counterparts in Group IT, with CIO John Hunt and his team, has never been stronger,” Eshkenazi said.
“We work together, we're very closely connected, and we partner on many initiatives across the Group.
“As a result, as we keep the customer top-of-mind, we're able to deliver on those initiatives together.”
If anything, the partnerships are deeper than ever, as Woolworths pursues more large-scale digital initiatives at a Group level.
“What has happened more and more over the last four years is the embedding of capabilities - which is what we call them across the wider Group - because many of the initiatives demand that,” Eshkenazi said.
“For example, it will be challenging to imagine an initiative in our customer fulfillment centres, for example, that doesn't require the involvement of our Group partners.
“On the other hand, our Group partners would involve us in any new and innovative experiences that we want to do in-store, such as the launch of Scan&Go, for example.
“My assessment from a future standpoint is that we will see more and more of that cross-collaboration, cross-partnership, and embedding of skills across the Group, as we work together on mutual initiatives.”
The close ties between Woolworths Group functions and WooliesX also means people are moving between each to work on different projects and advance their skills and careers.
“It's important to recognise that as a result of this close collaboration and partnership that we have across the Group, we've seen a number of people jump from one place - jump from digital and go to Group, and jump from Group and go to digital,” Eshkenazi said.
“That's exciting for all of us to see that we're not creating silos in the organisation, but rather we're creating an environment where people can continue to further their careers.”
Tech talent destination
Coming from the US, which - particularly pre-pandemic - was often a destination for many skilled workers, Eshkenazi said he had “made it a mission to create opportunities for local talent to continue to grow and evolve” on Australia’s shores.
His focus has been on establishing WooliesX as a place where “people can find a home for the things that are important to them in their own personal career”.
“We've built a very successful technology practice across engineering and architecture and other skill sets, and we will continue to evolve and grow that,” Eshkenazi said.
“The result of all of that is that the WooliesX brand in terms of digital, technology and data capabilities has become quite strong now in the industry.
“As a result, through word-of-mouth and people wanting to work with likeminded people, we have created a lot of attraction.”
He noted that WooliesX would not “sit still” in that regard; it has recently struck a partnership with ‘Code Like a Girl’, “so we can offer opportunities for internships for girls and women in the STEM disciplines.”
“You will continue to see more of these [initiatives] as we continue to explore partnerships with schools and universities and other entities to create an environment where people can find their home here for their technology career while they're continuing to evolve on their journey,” Eshkenazi said.
He also noted that Woolworths and WooliesX is culturally set up to encourage experimentation and the use of new tools, technologies and frameworks.
“Many of the ideas that are serving our customers now as real-life concepts started with someone bringing a new framework or a new tool [into the organisation] so we absolutely value that, and we create an environment where the engineers, technologists and data scientists can bring forward those concepts and ideas,” Eshkenazi said.
“At the end of the day, the engineers, technologists and data scientists are in the driver's seat for that because if it's meeting their needs, and it's helping them to do their job and create value and innovation, then it's helping the company as well.”