Technology Doesn't Replace Talent

Cars today appear to be built in such a way that it’s a rare occasion when you have to exhibit any “real” driving skills. Dashboards tell you all sorts of information (apparently the Mercedes Benz E-Class has 41 different dashboard symbols); but does it always help, and are we at risk of becoming slaves to the dashboard?

I have a car that ‘suggests’ what gear I should be in, in order to drive economically. This is a useful guide that tells me (for example) I should be in 6th gear when driving along a dual carriageway

But my car can’t see the steep hill looming on the horizon; nor does it have the benefit of years of driving experience. So I override the dashboard because I know that it makes more sense to move to a lower gear in preparation for the climb up the hill.

Even if my car could “see” the incline ahead and react accordingly, there are then the situations when something really unexpected happens. And because I’ve become so reliant on my car doing everything, how soon will it be until I’m no longer equipped with the skills and experience to know how to react…?

Sometimes the dashboard (or speaking more generally, data) doesn’t give the whole picture. Without the skills to interpret data and information, we risk stumbling into major errors in our thinking. Consider the blanket application of the law of averages – if your head’s in the freezer and your legs are in the oven, then, on paper, you’re comfortable.

It takes us several years of driving to get to the stage where we can deal with the unexpected and understand when to use the dashboard, and when to use experience and common sense. Equally in business it takes expert, talented people to be able to interpret the data and say: “This is what we actually need to do and this is what’s likely to happen when we do it”

In fact talent becomes even more valuable – because it becomes about looking at the data and choosing what to worry about and what “noise” to ignore. So whilst technology can help you make better informed and quicker decisions; it cannot drive your decision making on its own.

Recently I read a great story about John Lewis inviting its staff to submit ideas for their next major technology roll out. 150 ideas were submitted in total, which got cut down to 10, then 5, then ultimately one concept.

The winning idea was all about utilising mobile devices on the shop floor. Tablets would be used to demonstrate products to customers, be part of the check-out process, and ultimately help to improve many of the processes that take place across the department stores.

John Lewis claimed the reason they opened the gates for staff to come up with their own ideas was because they wanted to access their ‘expertise and innovation alongside their ground level knowledge of specific customer needs’.

Essentially, they knew it was their own people who had the best knowledge of what happened on the shop floor, and what sort of questions they get asked by customers on a daily basis. So they were the best people to ask about what processes needed making more efficient, and how technology could be used to solve this.

This brings us back to the importance of talented people. Would this idea have come about if it hadn’t been for the staff suggestion process? Well, it might have done, but would it have been as closely tied to staff needs and observations?

Interestingly, Paul Coby, Chief Information Officer at John Lewis, didn’t consider this major innovation as an ‘IT project’, saying he didn’t actually believe in them.

He said, “Instead we believe in business projects that involve technology. Everything has to be about creating great business results.”

I think that’s a great way of looking at it – IT affects everything. It’s a business decision that needs to involve people, and it’s their talents that will make the technology work; not the other way around.

We’ll inevitably hear more stories about Google robots being built that can outrun your dog, but let’s not forget the value that people can create with technology, and how technology makes people’s experiences more valuable. Which Microsoft detailed quite succinctly in their Superbowl ad:

One of the biggest advantages to using technology in business is being able to improve customer service. You don’t need to replace the delivery driver, but you can add tracking information and provide detailed arrival estimates for your customers. And then follow up with them afterwards to gain feedback.

But, importantly, you need the right, talented people behind the systems, interpreting the data and helping to drive your business forwards.

Making talented people even better through technology, and using technology to drive value for your customers, can give you a real competitive advantage. Which then allows you to employ more talented people to help your business grow.

Read Part 2 of Technology Doesn’t Replace Talent
Read Part 3 of Technology Doesn’t Replace Talent