Working at Wal-mart

Lynne Kiesling

Charles Platt, a former senior writer for Wired magazine, is doing a guest blogging stint at Boing Boing right now. Yesterday he wrote an extremely interesting post about his experience as a Wal-Mart employee. His motivation started with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed, and the extent to which it “didn’t ring true” to him. So he applied for a job to check it out.

His whole post is extremely intereresting, but one detail in particular caught my attention:

My standard equipment included a handheld bar-code scanner which revealed the in-store stock and nearest warehouse stock of every item on the shelves, and its profit margin. At the branch where I worked, all the lowest-level employees were allowed this information and were encouraged to make individual decisions about inventory. One of the secrets to Wal-Mart’s success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn’t, and (most important) what customers are asking for.

In many ways, Wal-Mart internalizes the value of local, private knowledge directly into its business strategy, and does so better than any other company. They are a wonderful example of the value of using technology to harness “edge intelligence”, which is the trendy phrase for the diffuse private knowledge about which Hayek and others have written so extensively, and that inspires the name of this web site.

2 thoughts on “Working at Wal-mart

  1. This is precisely the point I’ve made in my work on Wal-Mart’s role during Hurricane Katrina. They were effective because they trusted their associates and store managers to make good decisions in the face of uncertainty. You can do that when you have a clear mission and powerful corporate culture that makes sure that all of your employees are “on the same page.” Wal-Mart does this very well, and thus can trust that employee decisions make on tacit and local knowledge will be good ones. See my paper here:

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