What is the role of technology? At first glance, it is a pretty simple question with a simple answer. “To improve the quality of life,” was the main answer given to me when I asked the question. But pause a second, let the respondent think and you’re likely to find divergent, cynical answers just as I did. “To support people, but it doesn’t really.” “It’s often a horrible burden.” “If it works, it might function, but how many hoops must one jump through…”
I started this little experiment when I was asked to write an article about the upcoming Leaders in Logistics, Post and Parcel 2019 European event. When I sat down and looked at the agenda, I was kind of amazed to find nearly every session on day 1 and a good third to half on day 2 and 3 framed in the context of technology.
From AI, blockchain and big data, through to robotics and the elephant in every company; the “A” word (hint: think Industry 4.0 and you’ll find automation creeping somewhere around the corner in your organization). With so much technology around us in our business lives and the pace of adoption having never been faster than it is today – when was the last time you stopped and asked is the movement towards blind, rapid adoption of technology actually good for us and if so, how do we survive the digitization onslaught?
We need to pause for a second now. If you’ve never read my past work, you should know that I’m typified as being an “overly optimistic” supporter of all things technology, going so far as to produce and host a podcast on emerging technology. The aim of this piece is to play the role of devil’s advocate to not only challenge your line of thinking (assuming you’re pro-technology) but as well, to run a quick spot check of my own. So, without further ado, let’s unleash the cynical, anti-technology Matthew…
Technology solves problems
Tech is often hailed as the solution to solve your company’s problems. The sales and marketing teams for technology companies are good at selling this message too. As such, technology is permeating its way into every aspect of business. Blockchain solutions are coming out of the woodwork. Automation is commonplace in post and parcel hubs for sortation and new self-driving and robotic delivery technologies will only see this grow beyond the hub. But, is technology really solving the problems it set out to solve or is it complicating the matter further? To paraphrase a sentence or two from what I’ve written previously: An old problem + new technology = an expensive old problem.
Take blockchain, for example. Smart Contracts, built on blockchain technology, are helping to automate paperwork and payment processes. But, given recent revelations that blockchains aren’t as secure as the sales guys keep telling you, should we not be more cautious? Sure, our paper process isn’t perfect, it isn’t fast, it doesn’t generate data we can mine for insights, but it works – so what’s the problem? What ever happened to the argument, “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”? Are we simply throwing technology at the wall to see what will stick?
Technology drives innovation
Another argument I’ve seen a lot is the idea that you’re going to fall behind and not be competitive if you don’t invest in technology. This is sometimes paired with vague notions that Uber (yeah, Uber) and Amazon are going to take over our industry. Let’s be clear, there is a huge difference between innovation and technology – they are not one in the same. And buying and implementing technology does not, in and of itself, constitute innovation or guarantee you resilience from the likes of Amazon.
Innovation is defined as, “a new method, idea, product, etc.” Innovation in post and parcel logistics could as well be something like adopting reusable packaging as the industry standard (physical product) and taking the first steps towards actual environmental sustainability (win for the environment) instead of chasing cost reduction.
In 2016, my Nespresso coffee machine malfunctioned and since it was covered under warranty, it was repaired at no cost. What was cool was that the loan machine arrived in a reusable crate which doubled as the shipping crate for my machine. And, you guessed it; when my machine came back to me, it was in the same reusable crate. Brilliant.
Technology improves your bottom line
Talk to any technology company and they’re selling you a solution to drive down costs, improve profit margins, and maximize returns. These things are all possible, but how often do they happen? No, we’re not asking whether, two years into a project you’ve found some stats to suggest they’ve happened; any clever project manager who sold the idea to the board can do that. Ask the hard question: “Has technology solution X delivered value Y?” Big technology projects take buy in at all levels of an organization and there are few who actually want to admit that the projects that they advocated for might have failed. Play the devil’s advocate (spoiler alert, it’s really fun) and see what you find. Here’s a list of the top 9 reasons IT projects fail and some great examples.
It is also worth noting that in technology spaces most ROI comes from the reduction of human related work. Take a look around; it isn’t popular as an employer to buy technology solutions with the objective of letting employees go. So sure, humans still have a role to play, but the extra hardware (automation, robotics, etc.) and software (AI, blockchain, big data, etc.) systems are only adding to the complexity of our work environments. Wasn’t the point of technology to make things easier… not more complex?
I have to admit, it was actually fun writing this piece. It was fun asking my colleagues, friends, and family what the role of technology was and then delving into wonderfully philosophical conversations. Conversations that I hope will arise at this year’s Leaders in Logistics, Post and Parcel 2019 European event too. I encourage you to get involved in technology discussions and to challenge the role of technology. Try to get informed before you attend industry events, so that you’ve got great questions to ask the speakers to really learn from them and to engage with the experts presenting and available for conversation.
Finally, I must say, I’m still going to be classified as blindly optimistic towards technology, even after having argued the counter point herein. That said, there are two points above that are still sitting with me some days after I first wrote them and subsequently are my key learnings from my personal spot check.
First, “an old problem + new technology = an expensive old problem”. Technology alone is not the solution. Technology implementation is a process that requires as much organization change management as it does IT support. I wrote about this last year and it was well worth remembering.
Second, technology and innovation are not one in the same. What post and parcel operators need to position themselves for the future is innovation – this can be in the form of technology. But, equally, it could be in a novel new process or product.
Header photo: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/ shutterstock.com