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To benefit from disruptive technologies such as AI and blockchain, businesses need to experiment with them, learn from failures, adapt, and start over, says Barb Renner, Deloitte US consumer products sector leader.
“Sometimes employees are either nervous or afraid of the technology. What we need is to allow the machines and the skilled manpower to work together to harness the data driven-insight and create the desired impact.”
—Barb Renner, vice chairman and Deloitte US consumer products sector leader
Tanya Ott: Disruptive technology. It’s all around us, and it can make life and work whole lot easier. That’s what we’re talking about today on The Press Room.
I’m Tanya Ott and I want to start the show today by painting a picture for you.
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We’re in a suburban home in Somewheresville. Sarah’s alarm has just gone off and she’s making her way into the bathroom to start getting ready for work. Sarah’s a supply chain executive at a food company. She’s really busy all of the time, so she relies on technologies that will make her life easier. She uses a smart toothbrush that can record how frequently and how long she brushes. It can even make sure she’s using the right amount of tooth paste and remind her when she needs a new toothbrush head.
She heads to the kitchen, where she’s got a smart refrigerator that’s connected to her phone and will tell her when she’s running low on something—say, creamer for her coffee. It also suggests recipes for things to pack for her kids’ school lunches.
And it’s not just at home. When she gets to work, she’s got technologies that help her track the food her company produces, so if there’s a problem—say, some contaminated meat—she can more easily figure out the source of the contamination.
Blockchain, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, the cloud—these are the things that help Sarah’s home and work life run more smoothly. They’re the things Barb Renner spends a lot of time thinking about. She’s vice chairman and US consumer products sector leader at Deloitte. She’s been in the field for about 30 years, which means she’s seen a lot of technology come and go. I reached her on a somewhat scratchy phone line to talk about the big disruptive technologies of today.
Tanya Ott: Let's start with blockchain. First of all, can you explain what it is, because there are going to be people listening to this who go, “Yeah, blockchain, I've heard of it. I really have no clue how it works.”
Barb Renner: Blockchain is very difficult for people to visualize what it is. What it does is it increases the transparency in tracking and monitoring on product information flows, services, and money. What that will mean is, from origin to throughout the blockchain, there will be [a way to] access information based on where a transaction was started or where a product was actually originated. So, every step along the supply chain, the blockchain will be able to keep that original data in a trusted source—so, that is a true view of the process.
Tanya: What are some of the really exciting applications for blockchain right now?
Barb: For example, from a food safety perspective, we would be able to source where either meat or produce originated from, where it went, how it was shipped, how it went through a material storage area, and then be able to monitor to make certain that the temperature, etc., was kept at the right level until it ended up at the consumer's residence or food service location.
Tanya: So that's one example as it pertains to food service and things like that. Are there other things that are exciting, that maybe aren't necessarily being widely deployed right now with blockchain, but [if] you look five or 10 years out, [do] you think this is where it is going to have the most potential?
Barb: Looking at a registry for workers worldwide for large consumer products companies allows [companies] to mitigate risk [to their reputation] from a sustainability or other social impact perspective.
Tanya: Moving to artificial intelligence (AI): First of all, explain what it is and give us a sense of how companies are deploying it.
Barb: Artificial intelligence drives automation. It also helps drive innovation in decision-making. It lets companies look at product personalization and being on time for services. A couple of good examples: One is, there's a cosmetic company that has deployed a patented AI-based facial recognition program to develop a chatbot that helps online customers choose and purchase their ideal color of lipstick. So, personalized shade recommendations.
Tanya: I could use this app or whatever it is and try on different shades. Do I still have to make the decision about what looks best or does the technology [make it for me]?
Barb: It'll make recommendations for you and then you can choose. You don't have to go to the store and try on those five shades of foundation. You can now do it online.
Tanya: That could solve a lot of problems for me! And then of course we have digital reality, augmented reality—all of those technologies as well. Even folks who aren't in business have a sense of what that is, particularly those who are gamers and other folks. But tell us some of the interesting applications that you're seeing in that realm.
Barb: [These technologies can] create a much more effective marketing campaign for consumer products companies. You interact with the product and get the visualization, so you're able to buy something that's meeting your personal needs and gratification. There's a toy company that uses AR [augmented reality] to allow consumers to preview its toys and allows them to make an informed purchase without needing to spend the money first and [then] deciding if the toy is going to be highly used by the child or the adult.
Tanya: The cloud is so important to this. Why?
Barb: The cloud creates an environment that allows you to have rapid implementation of hardware, software, and disruptive technologies. The consumers benefit in the form of online shopping, blogging, and emailing, and companies benefit from getting access to information. That used to take hours in the day. When someone came into the office they would have people run reports for them. Now, when you get into the office in the morning, you have those reports readily available and are able to get insights and react to them on a more real-time basis.
Tanya: And that's a great benefit to companies because they're not investing all that manpower in time. It happens faster and more efficiently. How actively are most companies embracing, investing in, and deploying these kinds of technologies?
Barb: Just about every company is in some form of consideration or implementation of cloud computing right now. Some of the more forward companies are leveraging it and using it in their computer systems, for example. There's an example of a consumer products company that was able to [realize a] 75 percent reduction in time required for their software deployment and updates using cloud computing.
Tanya: That's quite a bit.
Barb: It's quite a bit and it also allows them to really use the time to get insights instead of trying to get the job done.
Tanya: What are the biggest obstacles that they face in fully implementing and leveraging the power of these technologies?
Barb: Every company is talking digital. The question is, are they really implementing it and really thinking digital throughout the day. There's not really one disruptive technology that is better [than another]. It's more that you use them together to then create a customer journey that is most impacted, and leveraging these disruptive technologies, you're making the journey with the customer the most favorable [it can be].
Tanya: So, it's about making digital systems and infrastructure a priority and really driving decision-making within your organization.
Barb: Correct. Being digitally minded in everything you do even though a [single] digital solution may not be the answer, that is where you're thinking first.
Tanya: One of the big challenges that I've heard from lots of other folks I've talked to is, sometimes, the culture of an organization. For instance, [sometimes] there are cultures where experimentation is really risky because people feel failure is a bad thing, or that their bosses would feel failure is a bad thing. But I would imagine in implementation of these kinds of technologies that you're talking about, you really do have to be able to experiment.
Barb: You have to be able to experiment, but you have to be comfortable with not getting the right solution always the first time .So, it's testing, getting success or failure, and then moving on and adapting so that you are getting to an end state [and] that is what the business needs. What's interesting, though, is there seems to be no end stage. We will continue to expect the technology to be disruptive and be changed, and that companies will be on this long-term journey of just keeping moving throughout the cycle.
Tanya: One of the challenges that continual evolution and moving that you're talking about presents is that employees have to have the skills to be able to deal with it. Companies might face a challenge with upskilling their existing talent, [and] getting everybody moving the way they should.
Barb: True. Sometimes employees are either nervous or afraid of the technology. What we need to work with is to allow the machines and the skilled manpower to work together to harness the data-driven insight and create the desired impact.
Tanya: For corporate leaders who are listening to our conversation right now, where do they start? What advice do you have for them if they're just starting to really wrap their heads around this?
Barb: Often digital sits in many different places in the organization and it needs to be elevated to sit in a place that you will get the organization to think digitally throughout the day of the executive. You'll have digital maybe sitting in supply chain, as well as purchasing, as well as finance and other parts of the organization. They should have a common feel in their digital journey. And you do want to have it centralized, at least at some level, so that you're allowing your organization to think digitally at the top.
Tanya: What you're saying is, don't have it all completely siloed so that you've got to various things happening in various departments but there's no captain of the ship.
Tanya: Barb Renner, thank you so much for your time today.
Barb: Thank you very much. Have a good day.
Tanya: Barb Renner is vice chairman and US consumer products sector leader at Deloitte.
If you’re hungry for more smart conversation about technology, I’ve got a suggestion for you. A few months ago, I talked at length with Anh Phillips and Jerry Kane about their new book The Technology Fallacy: How people are the real key to digital transformation. Here [is] a taste of what we covered in that conversation:
Anh Phillips: In an age where there’s so much change and uncertainty and disruption, there’s more of a need for leadership now than there ever was before.
Jerry Kane: Talking about digital is not enough. Thinking about digital is not enough. Action is what’s necessary …
Anh Phillips: Begin to understand the technologies that are out there. Understand the impact they can have. And this doesn’t mean go out and take a coding class. This means understanding, in a practical, functional way, the possibilities that it can offer for your organization.
Jerry Kane: I’ve often said digital transformation is much more about will than it is about skill.
This podcast is provided by Deloitte and is intended to provide general information only. This podcast is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to deloitte.com/about.