Spielberg’s impact on supply chain
If the act of swiping photos left and right or instantly maximizing Web pages with your fingertips feels blasé, it’s probably important to point out that all these features on your mobile devices were really only brought into the public consciousness a decade ago.
Call it the Minority Report effect.
That, of course, refers to 2002 Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise sci-fi film whose technological legacy has been far more indelible than its cinematic one. The movie brought viewers face-to-face with visual technologies we could scarcely have imagined. Cruise was swiping giant hologram-like police records with a flick of his wrist one second, then dodging retinal-scan-enabled billboards the next.
It really was mind-blowing stuff.
But here’s what’s really mind-blowing: many of those technologies have already hit the streets, not in the imagined year 2054 in which the film was set, but in the very real 2013. Every day, we perform a more sedate version of Cruise’s stylized 3-D holographic police work while thumbing through emails, or checking the game scores. Online ads are tailored specifically for us based on our past buying and browsing histories.
The prescience of Spielberg, and the group of technologists he summoned prior to making the movie, to imagine what 2054 would be like should be lauded, but it’s not exactly a new phenomenon to predict the technological future. Check out the scene where Dr. Heywood Floyd rides a space plane on his way to the moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He opens a device that gives him access to news from all of the world’s newspapers at once…sort of like an iPad. That’s pretty prescient for 1968.
So what does all this mean to the logistics world?
Well, the technologies that were once ground-breaking and “cool” have now become expected. More to the point, the behaviors engendered by these technologies have become ingrained in workers young and old. Can you envision buying a smartphone without a touchscreen, or one that fails to give you the ability to instantly leaf through whatever information you choose?
Those expectations are filtering through to business-to-business applications. Workers who are accustomed to an iPhone-like interface in their personal life crinkle their noses up when they log on to their desktop and find it looks more like 2000 than 2020. It’s a disappointing step down in technological evolution when you find that your desktop has less computing power than your phone.
It’s no different in the arena of logistics and transportation management. A freight analyst fresh out of college wants information presented in a way that closely resembles the way he or she consumes data in his or her life outside work. Mobile computing, from functions to aesthetics, has changed the way workers work, down to the way they think about working.
The aesthetics are really key in this development. The look and feel of a system can go a long way to making it more useful and engaging. This is way beyond the traditional IT vendor pitch of “going from spreadsheets to automation.” This development assumes the automation is a given and strives to replicate the interfaces users see in their daily lives.
In January, I had the chance to attend an event where SAP announced it was offering customers a choice to migrate their SAP to its new database technology, so-called “in-memory.” The event got pretty deep in the weeds of B2B enterprise platforms, but the biggest takeaways for me were that SAP had focused on two things: giving their customers a choice to migrate to the new database; and, more importantly, presenting information in an exciting interface, one dotted with dashboards and configurability that at least more closely resembled their outside-the-office technology experiences.
Over the past two months, in conversations with a half dozen or so people in the supply chain technology field, this topic came up again and again.
“Users want to be excited by a system,” one said. “It has to look and feel more like Facebook,” said another. “It needs to be highly configurable and customizable, so that the information that they want is presented in a format they like,” said another.
So what makes a system aesthetically pleasing, and thus engaging? It depends somewhat on the user. If that user is an IT-oriented person accustomed to code, having a flashy interface is probably less important than if that person has a more rudimentary understanding of IT.
It also depends on the system we’re talking about. If it’s a visibility platform, having interactive maps where users can see their freight move in real-time is a far more riveting concept than email alerts when that freight passes certain milestones. Again, a data-driven person might appreciate the milestone alerts, while a manager might find visualizing shipments on a global basis more appealing.
The point is that the bar has been raised for all groups of users. They want to be dazzled, not confronted with static lines of text, or spreadsheet-like volumes of data that need to be fed into other systems. They want color-coded dashboards and configurable menus and homepages and interactive maps and social media linkups.
Again, this is not about merely providing “technology,” it’s about providing an aesthetically-pleasing form of technology
There are benefits to this for supply chain technology vendors. Systems that are “cool” tend to be considered more user-friendly, and that increases a system’s stickiness among users. In an age when shippers are gradually moving away from fully licensed on-premise platforms to more easily switchable cloud ones, vendors can use all the stickiness they can get.
For shippers, the development of more iPhone-like application environments can only be a good thing. If the work platform parallels the play platform, employees will learn how to use those applications faster (meaning less time spent on training) and be more engaged when they use the system.
Maybe we can’t all be movie stars, but with more user-appealing applications coming to a workplace near you, we can at least pretend to be as we flip through commercial invoices with the touch of a finger and the flip of the wrist.