Industry View: Are You Operating in a Vacuum?

Greg Gilkerson, President, PDI

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A few years ago, I watched a TED Talks video about how the Internet and social media were facilitating rapid advances in global learning. At the time, sociologists and anthropologists were amazed at how quickly the art of street dance was evolving. As it turns out, dancers from around the world were using cheap webcams and YouTube to mimic moves from other dancers around the world, develop new techniques and immediately broadcast their inventions. It was a global laboratory for dance.

I was intrigued. My interest wasn’t so much in the dance moves. Rather, it was in the ways these new forms of communication could affect convenience store automation and help our customers do business electronically. I was captivated by the idea that an online platform such as YouTube could help our team and customers learn faster and produce better results.

So PDI invested in developing a new social platform that would give our customers the ability to interact with other retailers, their vendors and our company. The idea was the same as that shared by the global street-dance movement. We needed a way to work together and tackle challenges that none of us could solve alone. We believed that by sharing our experiences and insights, we could learn and develop new ideas to advance retail automation.

PDI Connections, an online community for our customers and their vendors, went live in May 2010. For a while, we heard nothing but crickets, which was concerning. We’d put a lot of thought and effort into the platform. Could it be that our customers or industry were turned off by the idea?

Exchange of Ideas

We soon learned that nothing could be further from the truth. The conversations began as a slow trickle but quickly turned into a powerful network of ideas flowing in all directions. Within weeks, people from all over the country began asking questions and sharing knowledge with one another.

Retailers offered advice and solutions to mundane and tricky automation problems. Vendors received feedback directly from their customers in front of their other customers. Questions and new concepts quickly improved everyone’s understanding of the complex world of retail automation. A new, high-value network of industry professionals had come together to improve their businesses by learning from each other.

Four years have passed since we launched the online community, and we are still amazed at the ways in which organic communication and relationship building affect our understanding and product development. It’s almost impossible to imagine doing our work without it.

High-Value Networks

At this point, you may be tempted to say, “Great. Another advertisement disguised as an editorial.” But the point of this story about PDI Connections is not to pitch a product. It is to help you ask a critical question: Are you operating in a vacuum?

The top-tier companies in our industry can answer that question with a resounding “No!” Long before social media, they embraced the idea that knowledge and innovation are best pursued in community. Their willingness to share knowledge has been a constant, and they continue to look for new ways to contribute.

We should all follow their lead and be a part of high-value networks that aim for growth through shared learning. The most obvious example of a network like this is NACS. Their programs and annual trade show provide a true graduate program in convenience store innovation. A great organization for retail automation sharing is PCATS. Plus SIGMA’s meetings and CSP’s Outlook, CRU and FARE conferences are filled with experts willing to share their experiences and eager to learn from others.

Being a leader in our industry means exchanging ideas about operations, merchandising, HR and other issues to learn what works and imagine what’s possible. It’s true that some successful companies believe their proprietary knowledge sets them apart from the competition. However, in my experience, organizations that selectively join high-value networks become more successful more quickly than others.

So don’t let your organization be insular in its belief that knowledge is a treasure to be hoarded. Make the choice to get involved by joining a high-value network and preventing the possibility that all you know is all you can know. Sharing what you know and learning from the experiences of others is much better than listening to your own thoughts. Or crickets.

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