We humans have very little foresight and tend to react only when things escalate to the point where we are about to get into imminent danger. Take cars for example. Between modern car manufacturers and the computer industry, the greatest investment in recent times is in the adaption of technology into vehicles, most of it aimed at taking human skill out of the equation in return for marketing advantage that appeals to consumer laziness or worse – ineptitude.
In an era where we don’t actually need or want more cars on our already over-burdened road networks, we have effectively begun to eradicate the mechanism for slowing down the growth of potential motorists. A mechanism based on the simple and apparently out-dated notion that to drive a car you must have the necessary skills to control it.
Cars can park themselves. Cars can stay within a lane. Cars can navigate for themselves. Cars can drive themselves. When I was taught to drive, the idea was that if you couldn’t do these fundamental things you didn’t get a licence. As a result of modern technology we will end up with a generation of drivers who will not be able to control the car. The car will control them – through technology. Until something goes horribly wrong and they can’t save it. And don’t even get me started on what happens when people start hacking car systems en-masse.
When it is possible to see the folly of this pursuit and the potential disaster on a whole host of levels, why don’t we pre-empt rather than react to the inevitable outcome?
The same applies to retail. The biggest investments in retail today are in technology. It is dominating budgets to the exclusion of investment in differentiation. But worse, the application of technology is dumbing down retail models, customer experience and retail talent. We are ending up with a ‘tick the box’ process based industry. And when everything goes according to the technologist’s plan and their ‘algorithms’ it all looks okay.
But when the context changes or something goes wrong, more often than not the people within the business don’t know how to think outside the process, let alone solve problems. Technology has its place and can enhance and embellish retail in ways that are monumentally beneficial to all stakeholders. But with a rapacious industry – that has no basis in retail fundamentals – today technology (like gravity fed water) gets into everything, whether it is valid or not. With the best salesmen and marketers the world has ever seen, vendors make every new ‘app’ and shiny machine sound so ‘must have’.
Too many board members have the double whammy of not being retailers and also being technology Luddites, so they opt for what they see as the low risk option and over-invest in the skin deep, short-term advantages being peddled. But ‘buyer beware’. Be very careful what your business is losing when adopting technological solutions that run the risk of killing internal skill sets needed to maintain a healthy retail business in all trading conditions and for the long term.
There is no replacement for human skill – unless the technology industry has its way and eradicates it by dumbing us down. Then it really will be ‘the rise of the machines’, but with no customers left to sustain them as we’ll all be unemployed.
Peter James Ryan is head of Red Communication and can be contacted on (02) 9481 7215 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.