Why it’s not the end of America’s brick and mortar retail stores–Sharmila C. Chatterjee

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Sharmila Chatterjee

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Sharmila Chatterjee

From The Hill

Even in a digital age, brick and mortar retailers have distinct advantages over e-commerce. But the other day, I watched as two stores totally blew those advantages. In a bookstore, the customer waiting in line before me asked for a particular book, only to be told it was out of stock. “We can order it for you,” the customer was told. But she shook her head. “I have books on order. I wanted something to read now.” The second came as I returned an item to a large department store chain, a routine matter — or so I thought. Thirty frustrating minutes later, after being shuttled between employees like a ping-pong ball, I left, wondering why something so simple had taken so long.

Both these incidents demonstrate how the woes facing brick and mortar retailers go far beyond price competition from online shopping. The bookstore I visited had missed its advantage of instant gratification. The department store lost its advantage of convenience and the human touch. An impersonal trip to the post office to mail a return was better by comparison.

My shopping experience underscores three primary factors that underlie the plight of current brick and mortar retailers: retreat from core competence, failure to view online counterparts through a complementary lens, and loss of focus on customer experience. Unfortunately, the results of these missteps are apparent.

Distressed retailers are closing stores at a record pace. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 2,800 retail locations have closed just this year, including hundreds of locations being shut down by national chains such as Payless ShoeSource and RadioShack. The outlook for major department stores is grim. Macy’s said it will close 68 of its 870 stores nationwide, affecting 10,000 employees, citing changing consumer behavior. Sears Holding Corp. will close 108 Kmarts.

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Beer’s role in innovation – Joe Hadzima

Joe Hadzima,
MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer

From Huffington Post

Many great—or seemingly great—ideas come to fruition during the course of drinking a beer. When you’re out with the guys (or girls), one or two cold ones could have you rhapsodizing about how you’re going to change the world. This is most likely when self-lowering toilet seats, automatic pet petters, and self-twirling ice cream cones were all dreamed into existence.

As great as these and other inventions are, we’re not sure beer had any role in their creation. But has beer had a role in actual innovation?

Self-driving cars are all the rage in the news lately, with Google and Uber fighting it out over patents and racing to the front of the line for consumer release. While they were focused on cars for the everyday driver, the first self-driving truck delivered 50,000 cans of Budweiser 120 miles in Colorado.

That’s right. The first self-driven truck was used to deliver beer.

Budweiser has come a long way since the days of the horse and cart, right? In the first days of beer delivery, customers only had access because their drink of choice was brought daily by horse and wagon.

You’re probably familiar with the Clydesdales, still often used in Budweiser commercials to tug at heartstrings. These horses were bred by farmers along the banks of the River Clyde in Lanarkshire, Scotland. The Great Flemish Horse was the forerunner of the Clydesdale, which was bred to pull loads of more than one ton at a walking speed of five miles per hour. While that kind of pulling power was amazing during those days, it was still slow and expensive. Each hitch horse needed 20 to 25 quarts of whole grains, minerals and vitamins, 50 to 60 pounds of hay, and 30 gallons of water per day.

Is it any wonder that Anheuser Busch was the exclusive US licensee of the Rudolph Diesel patents? One might assume Ford or the railroad would have been first on board with the development of diesel powered trucks, but it was actually beer.

Knowing how much was needed to keep those magnificent horses healthy and hardy, it seems diesel was a logical next step. This is a classic example of early adopter customers driving a new technology.

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New study offers hope for commuters caught in traffic – Ioannis Ch. Paschalidis

Ioannis Ch. Paschalidis, a former Visiting Professor at MIT Sloan

If you live in Boston, Los Angeles or any other major U.S. city, you know this fact: traffic is a nightmare. Sometimes it seems that traffic is all anyone talks about and each delayed meeting or event begins with a story about how bad it was.

The average commuter in the U.S. spends 42 hours in traffic per year. The cost of commuter delays has risen by 260 percent over the past 25 years and 28 percent of U.S. primary energy is now used in transportation. Road congestion is responsible for about 20% of fuel consumption in urban areas. According to one estimate, the cumulative cost of traffic congestion in the U.S. will reach $2.8 trillion by 2030. At the individual citizen level, traffic congestion cost $1,740 per driver during 2014. If unchecked, this number is expected to grow by more than 60 percent, to $2,900 annually, by 2030.

It’s a problem with a classic common and tragic root.  No individual driver has an incentive to make changes that would make the entire system better.  In other words, each driver seeks to make the best time or take the most convenient route, but no one is in charge of making the system work better as a whole.  As a result, traffic just keeps getting worse.

But technology, which in the form of the automobile gave us this problem, may now offer up the faintest hope of a solution for this problem—that is, the global positioning system, the pervasive use of cell phones, and the advent of the self-driving vehicle could bring new solutions to this seemingly intractable problem. Read More »

IOT’S people problem – Peter Hirst

MIT Sloan Associate Dean of Executive Education Peter Hirst

MIT Sloan Associate Dean of Executive Education Peter Hirst

From Insight

This spring, I participated in three major IoT-focused events and came away with mixed feelings about the state of the industry. The first was the Internet of Things World in Santa Clara, California. The conference tends to focus on more technological aspects of IoT and draws thousands of attendees. A few days later, I flew to London to take part in the Internet of Things World Forum (IoTWF), an invitation-only event that caters to the C-suite audience. The third was a board meeting and strategy workshop for the Internet of Things Talent Consortium, a spinoff from the IoTWF, of which MIT Sloan Executive Education is a founding member. The three events were highly educational, thought provoking and inspirational in their own right, but all shared a common theme—we, the people, are the main barrier to faster and wider IoT adoption. Moreover, it’s the very nature of humanity, our habits and idiosyncrasies that seem to be stalling the robots’ march toward making our lives wonderfully better—or toward total world domination, depending on how you look at it. More seriously, here are some themes that emerged in my mind once the conference excitement wore off.

Stop Resisting Change
People are creatures of habit. We are comfortable with what we know. It’s not laziness—it’s an evolutionary trick we’ve developed to survive as a species. New is scary and we tend to resist it, willfully or subconsciously, but this resistance can hinder progress. For example, as we heard from the main stage at IoT World Forum in London, GE— who is one of the earliest and relatively successful entrants into IoT—sees organizational inertia as one of the biggest problems in digital transformation. Culture clashes between different kinds of businesses within an organization are dragging down the entire enterprise. Traditional engineers and digital engineers are not speaking the same language. Business leaders are not yet adept in the ways of leading required to drive a digitally-enabled transformation. At IoT World, I was on a panel discussing the future leadership needs around IoT. The panel featured professionals in different industries from education to talent recruitment to defense. And what everybody was saying is that when you look at executives, the need to have agility and resilience is just as great as the need for people who can understand both the technology and the business. In the IoT era, leaders need to have awareness of all sorts of business-environment issues, as well as other important concerns, such as privacy and cyber security, regulation and public policy. Whether it’s strictly IoT or not, you could see that in examples like Uber or Airbnb, as they’ve run into public policy, regulatory and other kinds of situations. I think it’s fairly self-evident that it would be hard for those businesses to succeed without having leaders who are able to take on those kinds of aspects as well.

I’ve touched upon this subject previously, and hearing from companies like GE only reinforced my impression that there is an immediate need to not only train the workers who will work on the IoT implementation, but also to educate leaders on how to lead the transformation. In light of this, the IoT Talent Consortium is redoubling its efforts to help organizations understand and analyze that question. The group sees itself as a community where digital-transformation pioneers and people who believe that they need to or want to go through this kind of journey can share experiences and identify successful practices.

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Four ways technology will change how people do business – Thomas Kochan

MIT Sloan Professor Thomas Kochan

MIT Sloan Professor Thomas Kochan

From MIT Sloan Custom Studio

Technology platforms and the IoT are clearly changing the structure of organizations — and the valuation of companies today is out of line with the numbers of jobs they create. In the past, the General Motors, and even the Googles, created lots of new jobs and the valuation of the company reflected this — but compare Netflix, just 3,700 employees, with its old-world equivalent, Blockbuster, which at its peak had $7 billion in revenue and 60,000 employees. Today, Netflix has a larger market capitalization. The world is changing — and the question is, will we create enough good quality jobs to meet the needs of the workforce of the future?

There’s an old Japanese phrase that came out of robotics work in the 1980s and 1990s in manufacturing that technologists ought to begin to understand and build into their work: “It’s workers who give wisdom to machines.” People give wisdom to the technology and then technology can in turn enhance human judgment. We can solve big problems in the world and create big opportunities and the next generation of inventions and jobs.

But it will mean some major changes to how businesses are run — and how companies view (and use) technology.

Technology is a tool — not a goal.

It’s not technologies that will solve future challenges — it’s how we use them that counts. That means we have to start with human and societal problems, and figure out how to put technology to work to address and complement what we can do together with other institutions. We must define the questions we ask of technologists and not view technology as an autonomous, deterministic force, but as an asset that is mobilized to address these important issues. Most important, we have to educate technologists and not leave them to define the objectives of the technology. If we do, they will define it very narrowly and squeeze out as much human variabilities as possible, which would lead us to false solutions. A broad participation in defining the problems will enable us to find our way to a better world for everyone.

Technology platforms need to be designed with stakeholders in mind.

There’s no single deterministic model or market design for digital platform design. Uber uses data to control its customers and driver workforce. What would be different about the experience for drivers, and maybe customers, if that information was decentralized so they could maximize their own incomes and improve their own livelihoods? We have to think about how we design these new platforms, so the benefits are more broadly shared across the different stakeholders.

In the long run, a good business model is one where the more your customers and employees know how the company works and have information to control their actions, the more committed they will be to building the business to benefit both themselves and the organization that’s providing that information. We’ve got to think about ways customers, employees, even public/private partnerships can share information to use these technologies much more holistically than for some specific stakeholder. In this way, customers become part of the innovation cycle. Maybe not the first mover for innovation but the second generation, and that will create new jobs, opportunities and applications.

It’s not about technology per se, it’s the interactions with people that use them and organizational designs that drives high levels of productivity, customer service and innovation. The new, flexible enterprise also has to draw on people outside the organization more fully. We must ask what’s in it for various stakeholders, and have them contribute to further development and inventions. If they are invested in it and see joint gains, it continues a positive cycle of innovation.

As organizational structures become more flexible, corporations will need to adapt.

A flexible corporate structure will need a lot more coordination across groups and different bodies of expertise. That means the “solid,” functional firms — finance, operations, HR, marketing and so on — are really going to be challenged to work out how the discovery and deployment of new apps will involve people across functions.

That doesn’t mean the old-world corporation is defunct. We still need people who have specialized knowledge in IT and marketing, but the productivity comes in linking them. Knowledge bases won’t go away, but the people and skills most valuable in the future (and incomes already reflect this) are the ones that have hybrid skills with technology know-how and figure out how to apply to functional areas. HR people won’t only specialize in compensation and performance management, but also know how to utilize technology to better design how we do our work.

With a lot of knowledge at the edges of organizations, strategy has to keep an eye on what the business is trying to achieve and ask how to be successful on a financial and sustainable basis, as well as when it needs to ally with others outside its traditional boundaries. This remains the role of the CEO and the board. However, they also have to rely on information flowing up rather than dictating what will be. That day is over.

The relationship between companies and workers is changing, too.

Technology is leading to a more decentralized workplace, with the flexibility to work in different places at different times. But do we have the managerial wisdom to take advantage of the new norm? There’s still the legacy of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s management control thinking: “If you’re not in the office, I don’t trust you’re not at home playing computer games.” The distributed workplace calls for a mindset change in management to ensure that we work with people and don’t compensate them for the amount of time spent in the office, but for the contribution they make and the work they do. If we can get over this managerial hurdle, we can take advantage of distributed workplaces.

We have to get over the notion that it’s all about shareholder value and the shorter term, and instead invest for the long term and listen to employees. This means finding ways to expand and create value, but also discovering ways to distribute value more equitably. At MIT, we have a good companies and good jobs initiative, and are going to hold a series of multi-stakeholder forums around these broad questions: What makes a company a great place from the standpoint of financial return, but also good for jobs and career opportunities?

The reality is, if we don’t start to engage in this way and have a social contract where people feel their interests are being served, we are going to have an explosion. It happened with Brexit, it happened in the 2016 U.S. election. A new social contract must be based on trust, mutual interest and listening to each other, creating value together and negotiating how to distribute value more equitably. Use the knowledge of the workforce by all means, but we can’t have a world of winners and losers.

This article is excerpted and modified from Telefonica and MIT Sloan Leaders Consider Distributed Future

Thomas Kochan is the Co-director, MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research, where he is Professor of Work and Employment Research.