Best Buy

(April 16, 2009) In my conversations with Josh Kahn, it became apparent that Best Buy is doing something really different. Over and over again, I asked him if it felt like being at “Ground Zero”, if he could think of any other company who was organizing along the same lines. While he pointed to Zappos, and there may be some substance to that, I want to tell what I think I heard about Best Buy.

Let me start with the trigger. Josh sent me a pointer to this slide deck (only 15, easy to read) called “An open, social approach“. (If you follow the daily links, it was at the top of Monday’s list of social recruiting links). Please take a moment to step through it.

Now, anyone can put 15 slides together. Even 15 slides as good as this. What’s different is that Best Buy seems to have figured out how to execute on the vision. The agile retailer uses this apparently radical philosophy to keep its businesses aligned and hypercompetitive.

The presentation is by Gary Koelling, one of the co-founders of Blue Shirt Nation (BSN), Best Buy’s fabled social network. Along with cofounder Steve Bendt, he tried to get internal adoption of the project. Koelling went “all the way around the circle” (meaning that he asked for approval, was put off and sent to the next person until he came all the way around to the original person he asked for help) before deciding to build the system on his own. Being entrepreneurial usually requires a “forgiveness is easier to get than approval” approach. Here’s how Koelling describes it.

This is social community /component/page,shop.product_details/flypage,flypage.tpl/product_id,57 professional as competitive discriminator.

Best Buy, above all, knows its weaknesses. It’s not a place for everybody. The organization changes quickly (in order to adapt to the rapidly changing realities of retail), priorities shift as rapidly. If you like stability ion organizational structure, it’s the wrong place.

They’ve discovered that ideas happen in pockets. Creativity and rapid adaptation are not distributed evenly around any organization. Best Buy is no different. But, with Blue Shirt Nation, they are able to get the pockets of adaptive capacity to talk with each other.. The organization operates like an ecosystem.

It’s pretty Darwinian and really not for everyone. Ideas get heard based on personal initiative, you have to be an effective lobbyist and entrepreneur all at the same time. But, anything slower wouldn’t suit the needs of a monstrous organization (100,000 employees can use BSN).

Somehow, in what could easily be a very conservative environment (think Wal-Mart or Target), Best Buy has found a way to effectively experiment and fail in public. Take a look at Best Buy Connect (an emerging initiative). It’s a Twitter flow from any employee who wants to sign up. The only editing is for vulgarity; negativity is allowed and flows through the pipes. Best Buy shows a level of trust in its employees that almost seems unreal.

Josh Kahn spends some of his time working with the employment brand and sourcing problems. He’s clear that the brand is the brand; that there’s no difference between the professional employment brand and the overall brand. (This may not be true for all companies but seems true for BB). Knowing that the place isn’t for everyone makes the business of selection easier.

Best Buy is changing the way that things get done in retail. Trusting employees (not common) to participate and improve the customer experience is at the heart of the experiment. Keep watching them.

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