There is an incredible similarity between the business challenges of a Sumerian potter and a modern-day business owner. Decades separate the two, but the same problems keep them up at night. Both need to create a unique product they can sell, or, if it is a standard product, find a way to trade it in large quantities in an efficient way. Differentiation of offerings, personalization of experiences, utilization of resources, optimization of processes.., these have been, are, and will be the challenges of businesses over time and geography.
However, as businesses become more complex to run, better tools are needed to meet these challenges, and this is where technology comes in.
The “Tech And Business” Ongoing Dialogue
Back in the late 1700s, the flavor of the day was delicately decorated pottery dishes. Making such dishes required skilled artisans, which stood in the way of scalability Josiah Wedgewood, the famous British industrialist, and entrepreneur (he founded the Wedgwood pottery in 1759!) leveraged the tech of the day to make molds and manufacture what seemed to be hand crafted pottery in a streamlined and industrial way. Technology, we quickly learned, is a business differentiator. Fast forward to today, technology is the enabler of businesses, and in many cases, tech is the business itself. For example, cloud computing provided by Amazon AWS helps companies store and analyze data as well as host websites, and is a foundational building block for many businesses worldwide. Tech can also be a revenue generator in its own right: for example, AWS is a major revenue generator for Amazon.
To this end, there is a lively ongoing dialogue between business problems and technology. Business problems at a high level, have not changed. They have been and will be about differentiated products and the ability to scale. What is changing is how we resolve these challenges, and here tech plays a major role. Hence the valid question every business owner and decision-maker must ask themselves: How can technology help me solve my business problems? How can it make my business better?
The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894
Take as an example the combustion engine. Most of us own one (under the hood of our car), and given the pace tech is moving at, we may not even consider it to be a “technology.” However, at some point in time, combustion engines were the height of technology. Considering the alternative of using human muscles, animals, or steam engines, the attraction of combustion engines is evident. If we were entrepreneurs in the mechanical age and we encountered a combustion engine for the first time, we should have asked ourselves the four following questions:
- What technologies are available today? Is a combustion engine a better technology?
- What can this new technology do?
- What business problems am I facing?
- Can this tech help me solve these business problems?
1. What technologies are available? The importance of this question is not just to identify which technologies are at play, but what is their level of market readiness. At the time combustion engines erupted, the alternatives were animal power, steam, electric motors, or petrol engines. Petrol won at the end of the day due to market readiness, value, and an active and supportive lobby. The tech was ready, willing, and available. The question was, what can you do with this technology?
2. To be able and solve business problems with tech, we need to know what these technologies can do. In the case of the combustion engine example, it can convert energy to linear and radial motion. Is this exciting? Only when it meets business problems…
3. Which business problems am I facing? Finally, let’s get to the business problem of horse manure. At the time, large cities had a big horse problem. As the population grew, so did the number of horses to haul people and freight. The amount of horse manure rose accordingly, to the point that there was a risk that cities could not afford to grow any larger, or they will be covered by a certain horse by-product. This was knows as “The Greate Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.” A cleaner solution was needed. Today we know better, but at the time, combustion engines were that “cleaner choice.” The entrepreneur of the day thought: “If I have a power unit that can convert energy to linear and radial motion, I could, for example, get rid of the horse and replace it with an engine.” Brilliant.
4. Can these capabilities solve my business problems? In a world of new automation and industrialization, engines could solve many business problems: The answer to the question of “how do we move people around in a clean way” is the “motor.” To the question of how we move goods where there are no railroads, trucks were the answer. And the list goes on. For the entrepreneur or business owner of the day, answering the above four questions was the path for identifying how the available tech of the day could help solve business problems.
But there is an additional layer here – the dialogue between tech and business. When tech revolves around mechanical development (engines, machines, etc.), business problems tend to revolve or define themselves around similar capabilities. A combustion engine could not solve math problems, but it could power things. Business questions started spinning around power, and mechanics, efficiencies and automation. Tech defined the types of questions businesses of the day asked.
To make the four mentioned questions clearer, let’s take a more recent example: the age of mobile and web connectivity. Imagine that you are an entrepreneur somewhere around 2009:
- What technologies are available? mobile, web, internet, connectivity
- What can these technologies do? Connect users, share information on the go, connect users to services, enable mobility…
- What business problems exist? The business world does not live in a vacuum. As soon as “web and mobile” became available, related business frictions emerged: how do I connect my users? How do I sell online? How do I keep productive on the go? Very different questions to “how do move goods in a more efficient way?”
- Can these capabilities solve my business problems? When we understand the tech capabilities, as well as business problems, innovating is not such a big challenge. Considering tech capabilities and pressure testing them against business problems is a fruitful way to innovate. And the answers follow: mobile applications, online stores, app utilities and the like.
“Today” Is Complicated
The answer to the question “How technology can help solve business problems” today is more complicated than in previous times. The reason is that technology is also becoming more complicated. Considering the last decade of innovation: when we said “digital,” we essentially meant “web and mobile.” Today digital means IoT, AI, Decentralization, AR/VR/MR, and a host of other technologies.
Just to answer our first question of “what technologies are available”, more time is needed. Double click on AI, and it immediately expands into different tech capabilities such as Natural Language Processing, Computer Vision, Fraud Detection, and the list goes on and on. The same applies to IoT and the rest of the culprits. Similarly, to understand what these technologies can do also requires in-depth knowledge. The data scientist you’ve just hired to work on Computer Vision problems is not the same person who can answer questions regarding Natural Language Processing. The days of the one-stop-shop full-stack engineer who can solve all are coming to an end. And if these are tough questions for your engineers, imagine your product managers or salespeople. Without an understanding of what technologies are available and what these technologies can do – how can they help solve your clients’ business problems or find new opportunities?
So once again, in the words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin’.” With them, we need to expand our knowledge and understanding of technology. We need to understand which technologies are available. We need to educate ourselves on what these technologies can do. In parallel, we need to define our business problems and objectives – with an eye on those new and emerging technologies. And last, we need to discover how these new tech capabilities can help us solve business problems.
But Why Should I Care?
You could, in theory, continue and deliver your business value with yesterday’s tech. Why should you care about the above four questions? For two reasons, and two reasons only:
- With new tech, we can revisit every problem already solved in the world, and check if we can provide a better answer. A better way to utilize, optimize, personalize, and other typical business objectives. In most cases, the answer is yes. New technologies, new capabilities, better solutions.
- Every business, industry, and end-user has those nagging problems that could not be solved – because the tech was not available. Can we now solve these problems with new tech capabilities?
If the answer to 1 or 2 above is “yes” then you have found the answer to the question “How technology can help solve (my) business problems”. You may also found a way to generate new business value for yourself and your clients.