My first job, when I was 15, was helping out at a clothing store during a deep discount sale.
I loved the idea of earning some money, but was less keen on having to stand in high heels for 8 hours a day guarding the change rooms. (I still don’t understand why they make the attendants stand instead of sit. And stiletto heels? Really?!)
So when things slowed down, I wandered towards the nearby racks of clothes and started organizing them. One rack per colour, and within each colour, by size. Made sense to me: if you are shopping for a pair of pants, you probably know what colour you need, right?
My mother, however, was appalled. To her, the logical arrangement was to have the racks by size, and then within each size, by colour or style.
I’m not sure if it was my decision to rearrange things without permission or just that the sale wasn’t as busy as predicted, but I was let go after three days. To this day, I don’t know if there is any definitive research showing which arrangement leads to more sales. I suspect it has a lot to do with your target customer. Are they likely to be coming just to browse and see what’s new? Or are they on a mission: get that pair of navy pants and get out!
People Vanishing From Stores
Thanks to digitization, the answer to that question is becoming irrelevant.
Soon your phone will know exactly what’s in your wardrobe, what types of events you have coming up and what clothing items you might need and not have yet. It will direct you to a relevant website (or websites), and automatically show you the most relevant clothes, taking into account style, colour and size. Even if you want to go to a retail store to try a few outfits on, your phone will have signaled to the store exactly what you are most likely to be interested in, and those clothes will be set out and waiting for you when you walk in.
So what is the role of humans in all of this? Do we even need them any more?
As we enter the era of the Internet of Things, with wristbands or watches telling us when to sleep, what to eat, and how many more steps to take today; with fridges sending orders to the grocery store to deliver milk when we are almost out, it seems like less and less depends on humans. And yet, that is precisely what makes humans so critically important now.
People More Important Than Ever For Businesses
As more becomes automated, more becomes standardized. People are the only way you can really differentiate your offerings. The only way you can stand out in a sea of sameness.
Humans are complex. So far computers haven’t even come close to being able to replicate the subtleties of human learning,communications and behavior. In 1950 researcher Alan Turing posed a challenge to computer scientists: could they develop a computer so good that, after five minutes of conversation “an average interrogator will not have more than a 70% chance” of realizing that it was a computer on the other end of the conversation.
To date, no computer has yet passed the Turing test. (One claimed to have passed in June 2014. The “Eugene Goostman” program, which did manage to fool 10 of 30 testers, artificially lowered expectations by pretending to be a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy. As a result, awkwardly phrased or inappropriate responses were chalked up to his youth and lack of English as a first language.)
The Trouble With People
That complexity of the human brain poses huge challenges to businesses. Ask any entrepreneur and odds are they’ll tell you the part of the business they like least is dealing with staffing issues. Despite the best efforts of people like Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of “time and motion studies” aimed at getting the maximum production levels out of factory workers, humans do not perform the same way that machines do. Simple, repetitive tasks are almost always better handled by machines. Humans get bored, lose focus, get tired, and suffer repetitive strain injuries that take longer to heal than it takes to fix a worn out machine part.
As less of the work required of people in businesses is rote and repetitive more of it calls for complex collaboration within and among teams. That is far harder to manage and control than it was to supervise Taylor’s factory workers. Not only do you have to contend with worker boredom and fatigue, there are a whole host of psychological and sociological issues that come into play. Competition, rivalries, friendships, trust issues, varying analytical capabilities, communication styles, … The list of complicating factors is almost endless.
Add to that the fact that staff are not the only people businesses need to worry about. Far from it. They have to be equally concerned about the people who work for their suppliers, about their customers, investors and the public at large. Thanks to social media, the number of people whose views and comments can be relevant has expanded exponentially.
Think about all the possible permutations and combinations of these human elements that can affect your business results. It quickly becomes obvious that it is impossible to control. It is also impossible to completely predict and program.
The Enduring Need for People in Business
So when we get to the point where we no longer need the teenager in the stiletto heels guarding the changing room, we will still need humans. They will be the ones who need to understand and program in the subtleties of what your customers are likely to want. They will be the customers themselves. And without a fundamental change in human nature, they will still be needed to provide the experiences and human connections that we so crave.
[This is an excerpt from Tema Frank’s forthcoming book, PeopleShock: Solving the Dreaded People Problem, For Customer & Business Success. Want to be 1st to know when the book is about to come out? Sign up for the Frank Ideas newsletter and we’ll be sure you hear it first.]