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Keeping pace with the future—which emerging technologies are right for your business?

Spend a few days at a conference like SXSW Interactive and you begin to feel like a citizen of the future—a world where virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain are common topics. Everyone seems to be communicating via social media platforms you’ve never heard of, and in every room an oracle is prophesying about where we’re heading socially, medically, economically, relationally, and even aesthetically—including, in 2018, apparently, the return of the super high heel (which I personally see as a regression). In this environment, it’s easy to feel hopelessly anachronistic, like there’s no way to be ready for this future that is already here and upon us. I mean, I still don’t know where we, as a society, landed on the question of kale.

Then I think: If I’m feeling this overwhelmed, how do businesses keep up? How can companies move fast enough to ensure they are marketing on the latest and most relevant social platforms, measuring employee health on the latest tracking software, using the best collaboration tools, and generally moving in the direction of Tomorrowland?

The answer is: mostly, they don’t.

In "The State of Digital Business 2018: Top Technologies by Maturity," a report by Forrester covered by ZDNet, more than 80 percent of businesses think technology is critical to their business strategies, but this is technology defined mainly as web and mobile apps or software. Only 44 percent of advanced companies and 27 percent of small or “beginner” companies see artificial intelligence and machine learning as critical to their business strategy. And very few see emerging technologies, such as augmented or virtual reality, or automated voice interfaces, bots, 3D printing, and near-field communication as anything more than experimental technologies. The article didn’t even mention blockchain.

Only 44 percent of advanced companies and 27 percent of small or "beginner" companies see artificial intelligence and machine learning as critical to their business strategy.

Research by Deloitte showed that 40 percent of small businesses didn’t think new digital tools were relevant to their business, and the cost of implementing and maintaining new tech scared them off.

Any business ignoring the march of technology is operating less efficiently and more expensively than its more advanced competitors. Companies fall behind when they’re not communicating on the channels or technologies their customers are using. And, without harnessing technology to drive revenue growth, a business broadcasts to customers and candidates that it's not an innovative company of the present, much less the future. According to Forrester, those businesses that do adopt emerging technologies in service of efficiency and revenue growth will have .

Without harnessing technology to drive revenue growth, a business broadcasts to customers and candidates that it's not an innovative company of the present, much less the future.

Of course, the question then becomes, how does a business know which emergent technologies to invest in? Adopting bleeding edge technologies can be a gamble. Tech for tech’s sake is a waste of money and big distraction. The goal is to and that helps your business improve those customer relationships.

VR and AR, not just for collecting Pokémon

IKEA’s VR kitchen, for example, turned out to be tech for tech’s sake. The kitchen is a small, sparse environment where—if you don a VR headset and controllers—you can “open drawers” to see pots and pans and cook VR meatballs. This is not exciting in the real world and the limitations of VR don’t improve the experience. Compared to the wonderland that is a trip to a physical IKEA store, it’s sterile.

Lowe’s, on the other hand, is doing some crazy stuff in its Innovation Labs with robots that help floor staff move heavy inventory; AR that directs shoppers to what they’re looking for in a store (finally!); and VR for everything from helping people “mix” concrete, so they understand the kind of strength and speed required, to allowing customers to stand in the middle of a virtual kitchen to visualize how their cabinet and countertop choices will come together.

Sephora has a Visual Artist tool on its iOS app that lets people try on makeup using augmented reality. And Wayfair lets customers see 3D furniture in their homes before they buy. In each of these cases, the company is actually helping customers make decisions in a practical way, not just playing with expensive technology.

As Kyle Nel, a behavioral scientist and the founder (and former executive director) of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, said, separate units like the Innovation Lab are essential to helping companies like Lowe’s keep up. At the same time, he said, the lab’s experiments have to “stay true to something real and tangible. Otherwise, you become this fringe group.”

Experiments in an innovation lab must "stay true to something real and tangible. Otherwise, you become this fringe group." - Kyle Nel

Get out on the edge, but not too far

It can be scary to invest in technologies that haven’t proven themselves yet. Every company has made a mistake like that—buying software that employees didn’t use or that was eclipsed by a product from another vendor only a year later. That’s why so many companies sit tight and let someone else be the early adopter while they wait for a clear winner to emerge. By that time, however, your business might be the clear loser in your market.

For example, the Fortune article that lauded Lowe's also said RFID tags—which make it easier for wholesalers, retailers, and even medical supply companies and hospitals to use a robot to digitally track inventory—had gone nowhere. But, less than a year later, an article in Business Wire predicted the RFID market would hit $27.5 billion by 2023.

, said Nel. Do your customers even want VR experiences? Are they looking to get more of their transactions on blockchain? Or does the new technology free employees up to be more creative and proactive about the customer experience, because they’re not doing rote tasks that a computer can do faster and more easily?

Rather than do nothing, many companies stick a toe in the water. They set up innovation labs or skunkworks—little guerilla teams with the mandate to explore, experiment, make mistakes and break stuff—in the interest of pushing the company forward. There are many ways to do something similar. You can designate one elite team, or select a revolving team, to help everyone stir the creative juices and bring in new ideas. Another option is to get everyone involved. Adobe, for example, invites anyone in the organization to develop an idea and gives them a “red box” with the tools and techniques for the development—including a pre-paid credit card to experiment with and help validate their idea. Other options include having an open platform for everyone in the company to develop on, or to host company- or community-wide hackathons to solve industry or customer problems.

Rather than do nothing, many companies stick a toe in the water. They set up innovation labs or skunkworks in the interest of pushing the company forward.

These smaller teams won’t just be playing with technology, but evolving management systems—like figuring out if your hierarchy needs flattening—and shifting marketing approaches, investigating new social media platforms, distribution strategies, website structure and design, and more. They can roll out prototypes (known in the startup world as “Minimum Viable Product”) or pilot programs to just a few customers or stores to see how it goes. Some ideas simply won’t make sense for your company. Other may be a perfect fit. You’ll never know unless you’re actively testing things out and can recognize that failures along the way are the inevitable cost of real success.

There are companies that always show up as the rockstars of events like SXSW because they failed a lot in the interest of becoming a company of the future. These are the companies everyone looks to and follows—but usually about a decade too late, when it seems ‘safer.’ Investing in customers and employees is where the world is heading, and so it will become increasingly important to think about what the company needs from that perspective and to take some initial steps, and even missteps, to get there.

Maybe just not in super high heels.

Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.