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How payroll can learn from the digital strategies of retailers

How payroll can learn from the digital strategies of retailers

On 27 & 28 March 2019 the annual Retail Week event took place at the Intercontinental in London. This specialist event is attended by many well-known brands, who come together to listen to industry heavy-hitters, network and explore what the future holds in the world of retail. It comes as no surprise that the retail world is changing. New technologies, new buying habits and new markets are constantly emerging. What has become clear from the messages and themes at this year’s event is that retailers are now focussing their energies on collaboration, technology and innovation, these three components are key for long term sustainability and growth.

A common thread across many of the sessions is the use of digital strategies to support Retail, with robotics and machine learning seen as two of the key components. Sessions by Graham Johnston at Three Mobile, Peter Pritchard from Pets at Home, Leone Foster of Dunelm and Graham Burridge of Disney all touched on the importance of digital innovation for retail and how tools such as robotics and machine learning can help as part of a wider digital strategy. What is interesting is that much of what was talked about also relates and resonates in the rather different world of payroll.

Do any amount of searching online for payroll trends and you will quickly see that robotics and machine learning are two hot topics. So, what do these two phrases actually mean and what is their impact on the two very different worlds of retail and payroll?

Robotics for Retail. Robotics for Payroll.

Like so many things within the technology world, robotics is an evolution of an existing and long-standing concept that has been reworked and given a new exciting name. When you distil it down robotics is essentially computerised automation of manual processes. The difference here - and the reason we have a new exciting title for this technology - is that serious advances in computing power along with the affordability of this technology is now allowing businesses to automate processes to levels never seen before.

This is very exciting, but when you look closely it means different things for retail and payroll.

Robotics within retail already does and will continue to deliver massive efficiency benefits. These range from automated warehouse picking, through to automated packing and delivery of new stock to stores, through to automation within the stores themselves. We already see elements of these technologies today in places such as Ocado’s automated warehouses, interactive tablets in stores like M&S which let you virtually try on clothes, through to self-service checkouts. All these technologies are essentially replacing human beings which in turn drives efficiency and lowers operating costs, allowing retailers to be more competitive. The key for retailers is to find that perfect balance between managing their costs whilst enhancing the shopping experience.

The same for payroll? On the face of it robotics for payroll is hugely exciting and it too has potentially massive efficiency benefits. However, if you dig a little deeper you will quickly see it is far from the ideal as much of it can be undone with one simple question.

“Why is there a manual payroll process that requires robotics in the first place?”

In many instances robotics automation used in Payroll because of deficiencies in the underlying Payroll technology, which necessitate manual workarounds. By using robotics to mask these payroll deficiencies businesses are essentially adding a sticky plaster over the problem and they end up with an underlying piece of technology that is propped up and supported by automated workarounds rather than the old human workarounds. The risk here is that the sticky plaster will let go and businesses could run into serious issues with their payroll.

So, Robotics has no use in Payroll?

Actually it does. Robotics usefulness in payroll significantly improves when you start to think about robotics combined with another buzz phrase of the moment. Machine learning.

Just like robotics, machine learning is a not a new technology, it has been around for a number of years and just like Robotics the advances in computer power and lower affordability see this technology finding its way into new industries. Online retailers are one of the pioneers of Machine Learning, with business such as Amazon using this technology to recommend products to end users based on their current basket, purchase history or products viewed

The concept of how this works is actually very simple (Although the algorithms and coding used to power it are very complex). In the example of Amazon, machine learning is looking at all of their consumers buying data along with website traffic, it then analyses this to look for patterns and trends. If any patterns are found, these are presented back as insights to the end user.

A great example of this is when a consumer looks at an item on Amazon and their site says

‘People who viewed this item also viewed these items’

This is possible because machine learning has found a pattern of previous buyer behaviours and presented this back seamlessly to the user.

And for Payroll?

So, what happens if you combine robotics with machine learning in payroll? In short, an almost endless and very exciting array of possibilities.

As discussed above robotics today is mostly being used in payroll to automate a manual process that has a defined path with defined outcomes. Step outside that defined path and robotics will need to route the work to a human to complete.

By harnessing the power of machine learning with robotics and then baking this into the underlying Payroll technology, it is possible to make processes much more intelligent and much less likely to require any human intervention.

A practical example.

Let’s take a quick look at a practical example based on employee holidays. As everyone knows absence & holidays have a big impact on a payroll. With most modern systems employees can request a holiday via a mobile app, but there is still a lag waiting for the manager to approve this before the data finds its way into payroll for calculation. What happens if the manager approval happens after payroll cut off? Or if the Employee wants to book a limited time special offer holiday they found online but needs approval for the time off first?

This is one of many everyday processes that could be improved through a combination of robotics and machine learning.

Machine learning might find a pattern that says Manager A always approves holidays when less than 20% of the team are off and always declines them when 50% or more are off.

While Manager B always approves holidays when less than 30% of the team are off, but always declines them when 70% or more are off.

What is to stop robotics using this insight to approve or decline accordingly for both managers based on their previous behaviours and only route those that fall into grey area to the managers? The answer is absolutely nothing. This type of approach can apply to many traditional HR & Payroll tasks and if used correctly can have hugely positive impacts for everyone. Employees get quicker responses, managers get better insights and less admin burden while Payroll can benefit from straight through payroll processing and have less reliance on manual tasks.

Different sectors, same challenges.

Just like in the world of retail the world of payroll is also changing. Providers have to adapt to new markets, the different ways people want to consume their data and new emerging technologies. To thrive payroll providers will also have to utilise collaboration, technology and innovation to drive efficiencies while improving the employee experience. Just like retail both robotics and machine learning have a big part to play in that exciting journey.

To read more about how technology can future-proof your business, download our free Workforce of the Future whitepaper. If you’re interested in finding out how ready your payroll is for the future, complete our simple online benchmarking tool.

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Team SD Worx

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