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Magazines > Searcher > October 2003
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Vol. 11 No. 9 — October 2003
The Technological Imperative
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Many years ago, a sophisticated, though mildly technophobic, friend of mine and I got in an argument over whether she needed an answering machine. My friend lived a very full life that included occasional management consulting. What finally sold her on the concept was the argument that callers, in particular, potential clients, would be offended by her lack of an answering machine.

The other day I was offended by a technological omission. Staples had just taken a large order for office supplies from me and, after giving me the order number, told me to expect the shipment to arrive the following day. When? Between the hours of 8 A.M. and 5 P.M. Gee, thanks, guys! Now I know I can sleep till 7:45 and start shopping for dinner at 5:05. In between, I'll just stand by the door and wait.

I asked the Staples representative why they couldn't give me a smaller time window — 4 hours if necessary, 2 hours preferred. After all, these days even the cable television people — long the poster ogres for customer time-wasting — offer tight little schedules and may even call if they foresee a half-hour delay. The representative informed me that they couldn't because "we use local delivery people for your area, so no one knows who they are." Now that's encouraging! Let me get the image. Some guy in a pickup truck drives by the Staples warehouse. Warehouse staff flag him down and ask, "Hey, buddy! You going to Santa Monica sometime today? Do us a favor and drop this pile of stuff at bq's, will you? Thanks, pal!"

Obviously Staples has a tighter delivery network than that or it couldn't guarantee delivery of anything, much less next-day delivery. Staples must have computerized lists of local delivery people that it matches with records from its order and inventory systems. Unless Staples is dealing with people who shouldn't have qualified for a driver's license, much less a Staples contract, the delivery people have computers too. Staples simply hasn't worked out coordinated schedules.

The Staples representative's stigmatizing of local delivery sources indicates that sometimes more extensive schedule information could be available, but it would have to come from the computer systems built by a partnering delivery service, such as UPS' tracking systems. So now we know Staples works with people who do it right and still chooses to do it wrong.

What we see happening here is a pattern of technological penetration into the relationship between vendors and their consumers, a pattern repeated many times. Long, long before voice-mail, even long before answering machines, businesses and individuals could subscribe to answering services. Then came answering machines and voice-mail. The answering service model, formerly a small business phenomenon, morphed into a phone company service.

Look at the pattern. A product or service is developed that solves a widespread problem sufficiently to support a relatively expensive solution, expensive enough to raise revenue for a new category of service suppliers. Time and technology march on and new, cheaper technologies come along to solve the same problem. Multiple solutions now exist. The marketing of the solutions and the recognition of the problem — which came first? the chicken or the egg? — increase together until solutions are widespread. With the problem eliminated for most people by the solutions in place, anyone who has not taken steps to apply those solutions is now perceived as causing the problem — either deliberately through negligence or maybe even malice or unconsciously through laziness or stupidity. In other words, some technological advances no longer await implementation by vendors or service organizations, they demand it.

Let's reexamine Staples' scheduling situation. In the past, when only traditional businesses used office supply stores, delivery schedules were less necessary, as a business would always have someone on hand during regular working hours. But, with telecommuting growing and the SOHO (small office/home office) business sector a major part of the economy, office supply businesses now expect to deliver to "unestablished establishments." Sophisticated delivery scheduling systems are in place everywhere. People know computers can set schedules and notify customers of changes. People also know that delivery staff can notify headquarters — or even contact the customer — using the ubiquitous cell phone technology.

Again, multiple technologies solve a problem in the provision of service across a number of industries. Customers grow accustomed to getting that quality of service from many vendors. Customers know that the technologies used to supply that level of service are widespread. Vendors who apply the technological solutions early probably gain a certain competitive advantage, but after many vendors — in this case, from multiple industries — eliminate the problem, any vendor who has not applied the solutions may face losing even established customers. For at this stage, the customer has come to perceive the individual vendor as the source of the problem. The vendor who does not meet the Technological Imperative faces real danger.

How does this lesson apply to information professionals? The weight of the Technological Imperative falls on all service suppliers. The only way to exempt one's self from the burden of responding to "the revolution of rising expectations" among consumers is to admit that one cannot or will not meet the standards of other services. Reactionary librarians who basically envision themselves as servicing print collections, for example, have tacitly admitted to their clienteles that they aren't in the information service game — at least, not at a professional level. Hybrid librarians who offer digital service as an adjunct to print may create a tepid market response as, for example, the only portion of their service that delivers quickly and round the clock comes clearly marked as supplied by outside vendors. Digitally dedicated practitioners may find it hard to find managers with the vision and control of resources necessary to reengineer and rescale operations successfully.

What changing standards impact information professionals now and in the near future? What new Technological Imperatives boom ever louder? Well, 24/7/365 continues to dominate consumers, from the occasional e-commerce shopper to the all-the-time-online knowledge worker. And, as cell phones and PDAs and hand-held devices continue to spew forth, the need to build information services or restructure search results to fit the physical requirements of the new devices has moved from the status of a "nice little extra" to a "Finally! Someone got it right!" Next stop? "What the heck's the matter with you? Any idiot knows that...."

So stay alert. Keep checking the horizon. Watch your watch. Time and technology are building new Technological Imperatives even as we speak. In particular, identify what makes customers happy and how happy. Listen to their "if-only's" and their "Gee, I wish someone would...." Those are the birth cries of Technological Imperatives.

P.S. The Staples' delivery arrived at 4:15 P.M. Have a nice day!

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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