Technology’s a wonderful thing. It enables us to create more amazing things faster than ever, it connects us to people around the globe, and it constantly feeds us information to keep us on the ball. Yet how often does it feel like we’re tripping over systems or processes which just get in our way?
One of the main reasons we as people use technology is to make us more productive. For a business this equates to lower costs and higher output. At Waterstons we consider raising quality and lowering costs to be the “great quest” of business, and are passionate about leveraging technology to do this.
Of course not all technology is created equal, and every organisation has different needs. A system which saves loads of time for one company may be do nothing for another, or worse – may hold them back.
So how do you figure out what does and doesn’t work?
Consider the humble washing machine. Even a cheap one is a heck of a lot more expensive than a washboard, it has higher running costs, and you can arguably get stains out more effectively by hand washing. So why do we use washing machines at all? The answer of course is simple – it saves time. We’re happy to spend the extra money in order to free ourselves up to use our time more productively. A washboard may be cheap, but the time it would take to use one would cost us much more than the price of running a washing machine.
We use the same justification in business. We invest in technology to save us time and enable us to be more productive. When productivity is directly correlated to profit, there is a clear-cut justification for the investment.
The problem is that technology only benefits us when it matches our situation. Consider email. Investing in an email system to communicate with customers is a smart move, however investing in an email system purely to communicate with the person sat next to you is not so smart. In this case the same technology is not appropriate to the situation. Now if that same person were to move and work from an office in a different time zone… you get the picture?
Another common problem is good technology implemented badly. More than once I’ve been asked to help a business find a replacement for a rubbish system and at the end of the selection exercise concluded that the best technology for their needs is in fact the technology they’re already bought –it’s just not been deployed in a way that adds value to their business. It makes sense actually, because the person who chose it probably went through a similar exercise. It’s amazing how the same technology wielded in a different way can completely revitalise a business process. When it happens it’s great – because you get all of the return with only a fraction of the cost of a brand new system!
So think about the technology you use every day. Does it remove some of your daily burden, or does it add to it? If technology is adding to our burden then it’s not doing its job. Fortunately most people have an innate understanding of what does and doesn’t work. Unfortunately businesses don’t always pay attention to this. If a system seems to frustrate your employees and they think they’d be better off without it… they’re probably right…
Times change. So does technology.
Businesses which desire to last must learn to adapt as markets change. Businesses which desire to excel must learn to adapt as technology changes.
The fascinating thing about technology is that it changes very rapidly. Your options in 3 months could be very different from your options today. The mistake a lot of businesses make however, is to stick with their existing methods because there’s nothing wrong with them. To say that your solution “still works” or “ain’t broke” is naïve. The horse and cart still works, but that doesn’t mean it’s still your best option for logistics today.
Inevitably every solution will be rendered obsolete. No matter how great an idea it was at the time, or how much time and money it has saved you, something better will come along. If you don’t take advantage of the advancements as they come then that’s costing you in lost potential.
Your recent investment is not an excuse.
This can be a bitter pill to swallow. When you have invested a lot of time and money into a good idea, you’ll naturally want to see it succeed. To have someone suggest you should throw it all away before it’s had a chance to prove its worth is not going to be popular. Sometimes though, it’s the right call.
I’ve often heard businesses acknowledge that a new idea would benefit them greatly, but turn it down with the justification that they’ve just invested heavily in something else. If the new idea will provide a cost / productivity benefit over and above the existing investment then surely the sensible thing to do is to go for it? Yet we often pass up the opportunity because we feel a loyalty to the previous idea, or because it would offend our ego to throw away something that we’ve put a lot of effort into. This unfortunately is a case of letting pride get in the way of progress. It also makes no logical sense – just because something better has come along doesn’t mean the previous idea was a poor choice. None of us can see the future, and it was probably the best idea at the time, but we shouldn’t get hung up on that.
When I joined Waterstons I worked in our managed services team, and spent a lot of time manually checking customers’ backups. There was some automation, but it was a largely manual task that took up a fair portion of my day. I developed a pretty revolutionary system for automating the checks across all of our customers. It was a huge success that saved us hours of time every day. I felt pretty pleased with myself… for 6 months. Then a new graduate suggested a different approach which could provide better reporting, but meant throwing everything I’d done in the bin and starting again. Rather than remain loyal to the system I’d personally invested in, I not only encouraged our graduate – I helped them implement it. The new system didn’t add much that we needed there and then, but it allowed us to provide the kind of SLA reporting that our larger customers would come to expect in the future. Since then we’ve scrapped and replaced the system several times over. My point is this – the first system I built was awesome, and is still way ahead for what a lot of our competitors can do today, but if we had not continued to innovate then there’s no way our managed services team would be operating at the same levels of efficiency and reliability that they are today.
So what does the future hold?
Over the years technology has become very good at carrying out tasks for us very, very quickly. Calculations that used to take hours or days can be done in seconds. Documents can be sent to the other side of the world and received almost instantly. In a lot of ways the biggest bottleneck is now the time it takes us to tell the technology what we want it to do.
A number of the technologies which are starting to emerge are taking aim at exactly this bottleneck. Advances in machine learning mean that systems can now anticipate your next move. A basic example of this is rolling out across Microsoft’s Office 365 – with technologies like mailbox Clutter and Office Delve attempting to reorder your data according to the system’s estimation of your immediate priorities, or to anticipate the information you’re likely to need and suggest it in advance.
Whilst the technologies are fairly young at present, it’s something to keep an eye on. If you had a human assistant who needed to have their tasks tediously explained to them every day you’d probably get rid of them pretty sharpish. We put up with that from technology for now because there’s not been a better option… but that could be starting to change.
A more imminent trend which is already emerging today is the commoditisation of cloud services, with rapid provisioning and pay as you go billing options. We have entered a world of disposable IT solutions. It’s entirely possible to put together a solution to a short-term problem quite quickly, use it, and then throw it away without any on-going cost. Contrast this to the old approach of large investments where each implementation would have to be planned based on its cost and return over 3-5 years. For organisations that can keep pace, this flexibility can be leveraged to keep them ahead of the game.