I was the investment advisor to one of the world’s biggest retailers. During a summit we’d arranged with their CEO, President, and CTO, there was a presentation by one of our Vice Presidents. It showcased a beta product that had a minor impact on our client, built on the substantial data sharing commitment our client made.
The presentation concluded, and our clients graciously thanked this VP for his time. When prompted for questions, one of the executives asked the following [paraphrasing]:
“You mentioned that to deliver this beta, you’d need access to [extensive] data from all of our stores, at all times, which we provide you. Is that correct?” It was confirmed that this was the case.
“You also have real-time insight into the specific products consumers want to buy, including those that we carry online and in each store, correct?” This was again confirmed.
There was a pause. “I wish you the best of luck with this beta, however you should know that I start every fiscal year with a multi-billion-dollar inventory liability. You have access to the two datapoints I need to predict and eliminate this liability. If you were to focus on solving this problem for me, I’d happily give you a heck of a lot more than the [$XXX MM] I give you every year.”
To this seasoned retailer, it was plainly obvious we were sitting on the mother lode – the potential to solve retail. Our VP hadn’t seen this so clearly. But it wasn’t just this tech executive. There were hundreds of tech executives – all paid to grow relationships with retailers – who had never thought of this before.
When an innovation has such broad impact – what has had a better impact on the world in the last 20 years than Google Search? – people ascribe a broad set of expertise to those associated with that innovation. I learned that is a poor assumption. Technological genius might not mean very much when it comes to solving problems from other domains. At the time, I knew almost nothing about how digital data could transform the retail business, but the executive exchange I witnessed taught me a key lesson: most people discovering how technology will solve the world’s biggest business problems don’t work in technology. I was sure I wanted to learn how tech and data could solve some really big problems. I needed to get closer to non-tech business people.
Tech's Missing Potential
Information and marketing technology drives a fraction of it’s potential value because an environment has emerged where customers, businesses and industries are asked to change their operating models to fit technology. Technologists are mainly familiar with problems facing technologists – they are not so well acquainted with the problems other industries need to solve. Non-technologists, sadly, have accepted the notion that technologies are beyond a non-technologists comprehension. What does this produce? Something I’ve been calling the K-Shaped problem.
It is true that technology benefits all industries, steadily increasing growth, efficiency and progress across the entire economy [the lower line]. As technological horsepower accelerates, technology businesses accelerate rapidly [the top line]. This funds increased tech innovation, which re-invests in solving problems facing technology businesses.
But since technologists don’t solve general business problems as well as they solve technology business problems, and domain experts from other industries are increasingly required to purchase and implement technologies they don’t understand, even as their business steadily improves, they fall further and further behind their tech-enabled potential.
A New Perspective
It is astonishing how few businesses are focused on better digital data and technology utilization while prioritizing a strategic perspective. Most that do approach the problem as something solved only with additional technology. There are far more solutions available selling advanced artificial intelligence than there are ones capable of capturing basic business intelligence.
We believe closing the K-Shaped problem requires different thinking. We see our expertise in a broad range of data technologies as a tool in our toolbelt, not our central identity. We started Bonsai because first and foremost, we are business people. We believe tech should serve all industries, and that’s why we started Bonsai.