Technological advance is rapid, there is little doubt about that. Indeed, we probably live in times when advances are so fast we can hardly keep up. I recall my Dad coming home when I was a youngster with the first ever “electronic calculator”. It had bright green lights and could do adding up and taking away and we were able to type in a series of numbers to spell out rude words when you looked at the display upside down… !
There were no personal computers at that time; even the “whiteboard” had not been invented, my teachers still used chalk on a blackboard. Gosh I am old… !
In my lifetime things have moved on dramatically. Now a teacher in Thailand can deliver a lesson to a student in Turkey “live” using an “electronic whiteboard”. Not only that, but the student can send their work back across the ether and it can be marked and sent back, arriving home within hours, in spite of the thousands of miles of separation. It used to take a few days for my Mum and Dad to get letters from the school, just 15 miles from my home.
Many people are now surrounded by technology. There are those clichés suggesting your mobile phone has more power than the mainframes that sent men to the moon. But it is worse than that. Your mobile phone has more technological power than that desktop computer you bought just a couple of years ago. Moore’s Law suggests that the power of technology doubles every 18 months. Technological capability appears to be growing exponentially.
This means that we are all aware of the immense power of technology and so we often seek solutions to problems by looking for a technological answer. The retail sector is a good example where technological solutions can have a clear impact on the business.
Imagine you are a supermarket owner and you need to adjust the price tickets on the shelves. That takes time and people to do it. The law requires you to display prices, but as a good retailer you want to adjust your prices on a daily basis to make sure you maximise profits. But in doing so, you have to accept the cost of changing all those price tags on the shelves below the products on sale. Enter the electronic shelf tag. This is incorporated into the shelving and as someone changes the price on the central database which runs the checkout prices, it also updates the shelf price across all your stores. This is a clear technological advantage, enabling supermarkets to increase their profits.
However, focusing on technology can sometimes drive a business in the wrong direction. For instance, there are now companies working on “emotion detectors”. The idea is that these will be placed in retail stores so that a computer can analyse the emotional state of shoppers, leading to adjustments in displays to help pep-up the shopper. Nice idea, a great technological advance. But shops already have a fantastic emotion detector – a sales assistant. The human brain has millions of years of evolution that has led to a significant emotional sensor inside each of our heads. You know you can sense the mood around you without even looking at people. The “emotion detectors” are nowhere near as good as the technology inside your head.
Similarly, clothing retailers are experimenting with “virtual mirrors”. The idea is that people will be able to try on several different kinds of clothing and see how they look in various outfits all at the same time. Essentially, it is a large screen that stores images of each outfit a shopper tries on and then shows all of those images simultaneously. However, even if someone is able to compare themselves wearing their outfit they’ll probably get home for their partner to say something like “why did you buy that colour?” Often, people are unable to decide what suits them, but other people can spot instantly what clothing looks good. Rather than a virtual mirror, all you need is a friend with you who will use the more advanced technology inside their head to say what looks good on you.
Sometimes, we get so hooked on technology we assume that it must give the answer to our problems. For instance, you can now get a myriad of technological add-ons to manage your emails. Yet you have a better management system already, the technology in your brain where all you need is to reset your attitude to email and suddenly it is managed. People are now spending hours managing the apps that manage their emails when all they need to do is use their brain.
Businesses could well increase their profits if they ask a simple question before looking towards a technological strategy for their business: could a human being do this? The answer is frequently, “yes” – and often at a lower cost. Perhaps it is time to think people first, technology second.