From Dinosaurs to Birds: Evolving with the Digital Economy

02 Apr 2019
Hani Weiss, Chief Executive Officer, Majid Al Futtaim – Retail;

It’s not every day that a piece of research strikes a chord. But a Cushman & Wakefield report on exponential technological change and its implications felt personal. It read: ‘An executive moving from graduation to management over 20 years will face technology 500,000 times more powerful than the day they started work.’

Having started my career in the retail industry almost 20 years ago, that got my attention because it’s so true. I’m witnessing things today I never even conceived of in my first job, much less before that. But like anyone who needs to survive and thrive today, it’s that same galloping technology that’s helping me evolve from a dinosaur to a bird.

In my role, I am ultimately responsible for the regional operations of Carrefour, which brings more than 100,000 food and non-food products and thousands of household goods to more than 750,000 customers daily.


Why am I providing this context? Because biscuits took me by surprise.


It was a regular brand of chocolate biscuits, nothing that we considered particularly standout or crucial. But our data scientists found it had a detrimental effect on our customer walk-out rate if it wasn’t on our shelves. For many customers, if they didn’t see that specific brand of biscuits on our shelves, not only would they not buy any other product from the biscuit and confectionary aisle, they would walk out of our store altogether!

That insight from data analysis led to even more data crunching for solutions. Based on multiple data streams, we reorganized and optimized our entire biscuit and confectionary offering based on customer preferences and habits, achieving 9% per cent sales growth in that category.

That was a Eureka moment for me with regards to the power of data. Where our industry as well as others once relied on instinct honed by years of experience to anticipate, identify, meet and even prompt customer demand, it’s not enough today. Not only do today’s consumers demand more, but we have the capability to discover more. 

Data is an intuition multiplier, a powerful means to offer consumers the choice and value they want. Collecting data is not enough: It’s mining it – making sense of it and transforming it into valuable business intelligence – that’s crucial. We didn’t have the capacity to do that – or so we thought.

Did you know that a full 59 per cent of companies – nearly two-thirds – would go on a hiring spree for digital- and data-literate talent, while only 11 per cent would train and reskill their existing teams? Where is your company on that spectrum? The optimal answer seems to be somewhere in the middle.

Fresh blood is good, but the speed of change dictates that even digital natives will soon be left behind. True future-proofing, particularly in a fast-paced and constantly evolving and innovating industry like retail, lies in combining old and new – in equipping talent and effort with tailored learning and development, access to new technology and analytics, and new ways of working, communicating and collaborating.

Reskilling and upskilling are key in turning us land-based dinosaurs into amazing creatures of flight. It’s what triggers exponential speed and agility, and it’s what will allow us to compete in an era of data-rich, seamless and online environments.

Experience is not less valuable – it’s still essential. But imagine what experience coupled with evolving adaptability can do, how exciting it can be. Education is lifelong, and it’s up to us to provide that for ourselves and our people. When we apply science to data, for example, we uncover insights more valuable than any other commodity. We can identify actionable trends that would have otherwise gone completely unnoticed – just like our fleeing customers.

Just like learning a new language takes time and immersion, learning the new language of business will require the same. The United States alone is expected to need up to four million data translators by 2026: but data translators are simply everyday employees who have learned to speak the language of data scientists and analysts.

At Majid Al Futtaim, our optimal path has us providing opportunities to learn those new languages, to help our people make sense of the unprecedented metrics and measurement they have access to. We offer our 2,500+ managers training on how to understand and utilize data at a micro-store level. We learn more every day about the form and complexity of questions we can ask of data and the answers amplify the understanding of even our most seasoned professionals.

For the wider MENA region, integrating and positioning youth to succeed is a no-brainer. Equipping them with a high degree of data fluency is a critical success factor for all businesses and industries with an eye on the future. Organisations in the region have a role to play in upskilling talent for the new world order of retail, and it’s essential to partner with academic institutions and regional governments to develop specific curricula and training programmes to build the necessary capabilities, while also instilling a mindset of continuous learning.

Technological advances in automation and AI are rendering certain routine and complex jobs obsolete, and we have a responsibility to do something about it. Fostering a culture of adaptability through continuous learning lies at the core of developing enduring careers in such dynamic times. That’s how we evolve, ensuring that our people are agile, and our dinosaurs become birds.