Be a cyborg

Features - Lawn & Landscape Tech Conference Recap

Rapidly changing technology can be frightening, unless you can control it before it controls you.

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October 6, 2021

Keynote speaker Crystal Washington says that innovation can’t happen with a fear of technology.
Photo by Alexander Garrett

At the Lawn & Landscape Technology Conference, keynote speaker Crystal Washington told attendees to be cyborgs – and to not be androids.

To illustrate her point — and the difference between androids and cyborgs — Washington asked the audience how many of them sleep with their phones. Almost all of them had the phones in their rooms at night, whether it’s on the floor, a nightstand or even the bed. This addiction to mobile devices is so drastic, Washington said people can hear imaginary buzzing or notifications in their pockets if they left their phones off for 24 hours.

For more coverage on the event, visit bit.ly/lawntech

So, Washington stressed the importance of people controlling technology — not the other way around.

“It’s all about balance,” she said. “The pandemic has exacerbated some of the issues that already exist (in our industry), but it’s also opened up some really unique opportunities.”

Though she warned attendees that technology can be intimidating, Washington also urged them to relax and be receptive to newer ideas.

“We can’t be innovative from a space of fear,” she said. “Our goal is to put you on the offensive. If you feel like you’re constantly trying to catch up, we’re trying to switch that.”

About the industry.

Washington admitted to attendees that she had spent some time stalking them, albeit in a “loving way.” In other words, the futurist and technology strategist spent time digging into issues pertinent to the green industry and how leveraging certain technologies could benefit them. Washington found commonly cited problems in the industry like the labor shortage, supply chain shortages and environmental sustainability.

Though Washington isn’t overly familiar with the industry, she said the landscaper’s impact on a client is not lost on her.

“I know many of you are busy right now,” she said, adding technology can help free up time to handle other tasks. “With all the things going on the industry right now… I wondered how often you had a chance to sit back and think about the impact you actually have on your clients. That’s not something to be missed in all the busyness.”

“You are living in a renaissance right now. We have to understand that we have to adapt.” Crystal Washington, keynote speaker

She told attendees that there’s already a present shift in human needs and desires, and that it’s time for landscapers to adapt to a new normal. Washington added that her presentation was not about the details on how to get into outsourcing or automations — the presentation was instead about getting them to warm up to or embrace new technologies.

“You are living in a renaissance right now,” she said. “Look at how many systems are broken or strained. We have to understand that we have to adapt. This is not me trying to scare anybody. We have to recognize the shift.”

Moving fast.

Washington said we’re developing digital amnesia, whereas we retain less information in the brain because we’re putting it on our phones instead. Most people can remember the first phone numbers they ever had; now, they can’t remember their friends’ phone numbers they more recently received because it’s in their phone contacts anyway.

Washington told attendees this shift has been predictable for several years now. She said the future does not just happen — it leaves us “Easter eggs,” and it’s our responsibility to find them and piece it together.

The problem is what happens when we don’t piece it together. Uber and Lyft didn’t just happen overnight to taxis, but taxis are largely out of commission because of a company that doesn’t own any vehicles. Blockbuster famously had the opportunity to purchase Netflix and passed, and now they’re out of business.

“They are eaten by a company that doesn’t even have physical inventory. (Blockbuster) had the knowledge, and they ignored it,” she said. “We’re the same way. There is knowledge that we are sitting on right now. The challenge with finding these Easter eggs is being objective enough to find them.”

Where are we headed?

Some generations are used to constant change: Millennials have had cassette tapes, iTunes, and MP3 players. Meanwhile, other generations haven’t had technology switch up as quickly, so change is a little slower to stomach.

Washington told attendees that one way to navigate implementing technology with employees who are skeptical is to present it as an opportunity for workshopping daily struggles. Getting people in a room to air their grievances and then coming back with solutions helps, Washington said, adding that using lines like “based on when you said this, I found this tech that does this” helps.

“If you present it as a solution to their grievances, they feel heard,” Washington said. “Now they buy in because they feel part of the process.”

Washington proposed a few of the following solutions as ways to help with the labor shortage:

  • Virtual assistants
  • Answering service
  • Turning to work through Fiverr/Upwork/Guru
  • All-in-one business management software
  • E-learning, augmented reality, virtual reality for training
  • Software such as IFTTT and Zapier

Pulling it all together

Using the right HR management software can help you get better organized. By Jimmy Miller

Mike Heiner remembers March 16, 2020, as the day the world changed.

The vice president of human resources at Green Lawn Fertilizing/Green Pest Solutions remembers getting called into an office and being told “go home” and “take your laptop.”

While this day was a milestone in the early goings of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was also the beginning of a massive change at the company. Managing HR functions remotely was challenging enough and factoring in the fact they were utilizing a lot of disconnected system and a variety of manual processes.

“If nothing changed, we were going to continue to manage multiple disconnected systems,” he said. “Our systems were not scalable. They were not going to support growth.”

Heiner told Lawn & Landscape Technology Conference attendees that in all, they had about 15 different systems they wanted to pull into an all-in-one software management system.

The company wanted to empower employees with access to data and the ability to clock in and out from their phones, among a list of other things Heiner wanted his system to include.

When Mike Heiner first started looking for a new software, he developed a 250-item wish list and asked companies to tell him whether or not they had the capabilities to satisfy each of those needs.
Photo by Brian Horn

That “wish list” was certainly expansive — Heiner said he compiled a 250-line spreadsheet of capabilities he wanted the software to have.

Heiner outlined a step-by-step process he used to find an HR management software for attendees, and in all, he found a system that would grow with them as they grew as a company.

“We needed to make sure whatever system we came up with wouldn’t just meet our needs today,” Heiner said. “We wanted the system to scale with us and meet our needs when we become a $100 million company.”

Here’s Heiner’s process of finding that system:

  1. First, Heiner identified everything he wanted the system to do.
  2. Then, he took to Google and found a list of vendors he wanted to consider. Green Lawn Fertilizing/Green Pest Solutions started with 10.
  3. They sent out Heiner’s wish list to all 10 of those companies and asked them to come back with an answer to every demand. He asked, “Does your system have this capability, does it not have this capability?”
  4. Heiner established a task force of the company’s key stakeholders. “Pull in everybody who’s going to use that system and let them take some ownership on making that decision on what system to go to,” he said.
  5. Among the stakeholders, they completed a force ranking spreadsheet and narrowed it to a top four. They used full-scale demonstrations to score each of the systems and whittled the list down to three.
  6. After that, Heiner started to negotiate. Don’t accept that first pricing,” Heiner told attendees. “You need to become pretty clear on what you need to spend. One of the things you can get them to do is get them to start throwing things in.”
  7. Heiner then developed an implementation timeline after picking the software solution. The process began in April of 2020 out of necessity due to the pandemic, but decided to move fast so they could go live with the new software by January 2021. The vendor said that’s plenty of time, we can do this,” Heiner said, adding the warning that, “you’d be surprised at how quickly time goes by. Leave yourself plenty of time.”
  8. Heiner then found superusers — or employees who will become experts — for each of the modules they rolled out. For example, they found a superuser for payroll and a different superuser for PTO. Heiner found that most people in the company were honored and excited to be labelled superusers.

Other advice Heiner offered included figuring out how quickly software companies will respond to messages about issues in their system. No program is perfect — Heiner acknowledged this — but some companies may take 72 hours or longer to respond to problems.

Heiner wanted them to reply within four hours or that same day at the latest.

Also, ask the software company what kind of clients they work with traditionally. If their ideal-sized companies are much smaller than yours, they might not have the desired infrastructure to support your team. Heiner added that cybersecurity is a huge concern, particularly when considering HR software.

“As an administrator, you’re going to have access to all the data,” he said. “But obviously there’s a lot of sensitive data that goes into a HCM system.”

Heiner also told attendees to rip off the band-aid and embrace the entirety of the new technology at once – some companies slowly adopt new software, but he said getting started early helps eliminate growing pains down the line.

“Most people don’t do that because it can be pretty intimidating, but that’s where your superusers come in,” he said. “If you’re going to do this, dive right in. I promise you, for whatever pain you experience as part of that, the benefits that you’re going to realize are going to be tenfold.”

Take on more tech

Technology officers shared how they integrate more technology into their green industry companies during the “Technology Today and Tomorrow” panel. By Kim Lux

It doesn’t matter the size of the company — every business should have someone dedicated to technology who can drive the company to make the most out of all the options out there.

Four technology leaders were a part of the “Technology Today and Tomorrow” panel at the Lawn & Landscape Technology Conference. They were: Michael Mayberry, chief technology officer (CTO) with Level Green; Janet Davoli, CTO with The Greenery; Robert Bellio, CTO with SavATree; and Travis Dyer, director of technology with Clean Scapes.

When asked what small companies can do to better embrace technology, all four panelists said the best approach is to make someone CTO or a similar position. But, regardless of what that person is called, they said there are a few key characteristics that employee should have.

“I think you’ve got to look for someone with a love and passion for technology, but who can also manage people,” Dyer said. “That person has to bridge the gap.”

Bellio said that person must be influential, as they are responsible for introducing the technology and coordinating training.

Mayberry added that this person will have to work with everyone in the company from the top down on a regular basis. “Whoever this person is has to have a seat at the table with the leadership team,” he said.

One of the most common reasons for not implementing more technology is a fear of failure.

A panel of technology experts told attendees all about their successes and warned of their failures while implementing new tech at their companies.
Photo by Brian Horn

“Every breakdown produces a breakthrough,” Bellio said. “I wouldn’t be afraid of implementing something just because you might fail.”

Davoli says most major failures can be prevented simply by being prepared and having a rollout strategy.

“It’s not the best time to implement anything in the middle of the busy season,” she said.

Instead, Davoli suggested picking a date for implementation and having everyone work toward meeting that goal. However, if that date is approaching and not everyone’s prepared to make the change over to a new system or new piece of technology, it’s best to regroup and reschedule.

“The worst thing you can do is jam it through when you aren’t ready to go live,” she said. “You have to be confident enough that you’ll be able to fix whatever’s not working.”

Mayberry said a lack of ownership and accountability also factors into unsuccessful launches. “One of the things you can do as you’re trying to implement any change is hold people accountable,” he says. By doing this, Mayberry says employees will be more apt to adjust to the technology in a timely manner.

As large companies, the panelists all said they utilize dozens of software systems. At SavATree, Bellio said they have 15 to 20 systems that are all housed on a central platform.

“We probably have 20 different softwares that have niche solutions they solve for us,” Dyer said. “I would love to consolidate that, but sometimes the all-in-ones don’t have all the solutions.”

But what happens when software is bringing in too much data that it’s overwhelming?

The consensus from the panel is separate data from information in order to track what is important to the goals you’re hoping to achieve.

“Every breakdown produces a breakthrough. I wouldn’t be afraid...just because you might fail.” Robert Bellio, CTO at SavATree

“There’s a key distinction between data and information,” Mayberry says. “Leveraging data is about gaining insight into trends, KPIs and reporting.”

And if you aren’t doing anything with the data collected through the technology, Dyer said it’s a wasted effort.

“Data visualization is half the battle,” he said. “Collecting it is one thing, but being able to absorb it is incredibly important.”

Bellio said he there’s never too much data.

“Data can be good for forecasting,” he said. “If you don’t have those, you can be flying blind at times.”

Another element of technology the panel touched on was cybersecurity. The panelists said they’ve all had to deal with scams and other cybersecurity threats.

“A lot of times landscaping companies think ‘why would they target us?’” Mayberry said.

However, it’s becoming all too common in the green industry.

“(There are) three types of attacks – spoofing, false unemployment claims, and domain stealing,” Dyer said. He added that Clean Scapes has had hackers set up nearly identical websites to theirs with very similar domain names.

To prevent employees from falling prey to common email phishing scams, Bellio said SavATree is taking a proactive approach.

“User education is important,” he said. “You can have the best of everything, but if you have a user clicking one of those links, it doesn’t matter. You have to educate them.”

The company has been holding virtual training where employees can learn more about these scams and are tested on what is and isn’t a scam. Bellio said he reviews the results of the training and has further discussions with those who need more assistance.

So, whether it’s learning a new piece of equipment, a new software or education on cybersecurity, the panelists said advancing with technology always comes down to training.

The new AI

Artificial intelligence is only going to increase in popularity. Erica Orange gives strategies for incorporating the technology when the time comes. By Kim Lux

Erica Orange, executive VP and COO with The Future Hunters, knows thinking about the future can be scary. She equates it to skydiving.

“It might feel as if we’re free-falling headfirst, but we also have to know that we’ll always be okay and we’ll have that safeguard of a parachute. Change has been with us since the beginning of human history. It’s part of our reality,” Orange said during her keynote session “Technology and Beyond: Reimagining the Future Landscape from a Macro Perspective.”

COVID-19 has been an accelerator of change, Orange said. She added that people tend to think of the future as having a limited number of options, but it’s more complex than that.

Erica Orange said thinking about the future is a lot like skydiving, and being prepared to use more technology is like having a parachute.
Photo by Brian Horn

“We have to get more comfortable with this,” Orange says of the unknown. “We need to be comfortable with it and adaptable.”

Part of that comfortability is recognizing the rise of AI (artificial intelligence) and the new AI (augmented intelligence).

“85% of customer of interactions will be managed without a human,” Orange said.

Orange predicts the implementation of AI-serviced jobs will occur gradually.

Phase 1 is the reduction of manual labor through the disappearance of manufacturing, retail, assembly line and similar jobs.

Phase 2 is the disruption of cognitive labor. This includes careers such as insurance agents, accountants, etc.

And Phase 3 will alter emotional labor — including caretakers, companions and therapists.

As AI advances, Orange says it will transform more into AGI, or artificial general intelligence.

“AGI is AI that has personality and even some emotions embedded into it,” she says. “It feels truly human like and can solve problems in more creative ways.”

Embracing AI will allow for more efficiency not only for businesses but the people they serve as well.

“When you think of implementing some of these things, think about how can you enhance customer experience with time-saving solutions?” Orange said. “How can you make things easy for the customer? That will win you their business.”

Yet one of the dangers of AI and AGI is the loss of human connection. Orange gave several tips for how to enhance automated communication of all kinds.

“When it comes to automating communication, you have to make it feel organic,” she said. “You have to make it feel natural. And to do that, you have to humanize it. Make it thoughtful, considerate and timely.”

“We have to get away from thinking of it as us versus (artificial intelligence).” Erica Orange, keynote speaker

And Orange urged attendees not to fear advancing technology like AI.

“We have to get away from thinking of it as us versus them,” she said. “Think of it as us and them. They are augmenting our own intelligence.”

The days of backbreaking physical work are nearly gone, according to Orange. But she adds that landscaping companies should not panic. Instead, pivot their mindset when it comes to labor.

“The role of the human is going to change,” she said. “We have to start thinking of new ways to employ and harness minds. It’s less about the brawn and more about the brains.”

Being able to think creatively and outside the box will only help companies make it through the tech-driven future ahead.

“Smart is being automated,” Orange said. “We have to think in terms of intelligence. Intelligence is critical thinking.”

While it may be tempting to start diving into several new technologies, Orange said that decision is futile if companies are prepared ahead of time and aren’t ready to utilize it to its fullest potential.

“Ultimately, technology is just a tool,” she said. “It’s about what we choose to do with it. We need to develop a strategic plan.”