Erica Orange, executive vice president and COO at The Future Hunters and Crystal Washington, technology strategist and futurist, will be keynoting the Lawn & Landscape Technology Conference and Tradeshow Aug. 31-Sept. 2 in Orlando. We caught up with them to get the latest on technology and how to get past roadblocks it can pose to your business.
What are some trends you are seeing when it comes to technology and business, especially in service- based operations like landscaping companies?
Erica Orange: For starters, we first have to understand that the world is experiencing something we call Templosion. Templosion refers to the implosion of the biggest of events happening in shorter and shorter periods of time. It’s the idea that everything from corporate lifespans to strategic planning cycles to the way in which we communicate is becoming more truncated. We are experiencing time like it is on steroids. One of the biggest ways in which this Templosion effect is playing out is through the exponential rate of technological development…which is leading to the creation of entirely new business efficiencies.
Yes, artificial intelligence (AI), smart systems, robotics and the rise of deep learning/the neural net will be responsible for automating an increasing number of global human workers in the future. But it will also free up time in new ways. It will allow employees to perform tasks faster, more accurately, more consistently, at greater scale. And it will allow them to act on insights from external data and user behavior, thereby better meeting the needs of customers. In an age of AI, humans will remain critical to the future of work. All aspects of the human job function will not go onto software. It is simply that the role of the human worker in this new ecosystem is going to change and evolve – and so, too, will the required skills and competencies.
Crystal Washington: Well, we're finding that as millennials are aging, the oldest millennials right now are about 40, they're wanting to book services in a more efficient manner. We're seeing a lot of companies that may have been a little apprehensive about leveraging apps, online payments, things like that – they're having to make the jump because they're seeing that they're losing out to the organizations that do make it easy for clients to book and pay and put down deposits immediately without having to call someone and wait for a call back.
What is the main roadblock to companies embracing technology and what is the key to getting past this roadblock?
EO: One of the critical things to remember when implementing any new technology is that technology ultimately is a tool. So, before that tool is leveraged, leadership needs to create and develop a strategic knowledge of how that technology will be used, who will benefit from it, and clearly articulate why this new capability is being implemented. Focus is also a key component of this. A common problem is that company leaders can move too quickly and in too many directions thereby fractionalizing efforts to meaningfully integrate internal digital technology solutions.
CW: I think there might be two. The first roadblock is it might be an attitude of the owner sometimes where they kind of rest on their laurels and they think things have been done a certain way. And so why do we need to shift things now? If there's a lot of resistance and this inability to get past that resistance, that's a major roadblock. One of the keys to that is just looking at Blockbuster and Yellow Cab and looking how both of them were disrupted by organizations that didn't have stores or that didn’t own cars, and just understanding that, you know, we can take the things we were really good at in our businesses and leverage technology to help us continue to do them well.
When I encounter that, I try to appeal to their reason first, but honestly, I try to scare them a little bit because I need them to understand that it's only a matter of time before the competitors that do embrace the technology that improve the customer's experience, they're going to eat them. It's only a matter of time before it happens. If you're someone who has these types of services and maybe you can get government contracts for some things as well. I know you might have some people that are in the B2C and B2B space, they're going to lose out. So, at the end of the day, do you want longevity or do you not? If you don't, we can keep our heads in the sand.
I mentioned Blockbuster and Yellow Cab. People knew blockbuster, knew the people were having issues remembering to return videos. They didn't care because they were making money off of it. So, Netflix comes along and eats their lunch. Yellow Cab knew that there were people that would keep calling and saying, “where's my cab. I ordered it 30 minutes ago?” They didn't care because who was going to take their business. Well, turns out, Lyft and Uber would. We have to get past that fear. Sometimes our fear is wrapped in distain, or we belittle what we fear. But at the end of the day, it really is fear.
The other roadblock Is this kind of shiny button syndrome that people develop. They think just because a piece of technology is new, they should immediately leverage it. This is the complete opposite end of the last roadblock I was talking about. And so, what happens is they find technology and then they find ways to insert it in your business, whereas really to go the other way around, if you see that there is a deficit in your business or an area where there could be improvement internally or externally with user experience and customer service, then you find a technology that addresses that.
Otherwise, if you're bringing in just technology because it's new and flashy, what happens is, is sometimes it's really not a good fit, so you're wasting money. You're trying to find ways to fit it into the company. Employees aren't using it properly because it doesn't really have a true purpose in your business.
How can companies keep a personal connection with customers/potential customers while also using technology for communication purposes?
EO: One of today’s biggest luxuries is trust, and that is because trust is something that is in high demand and short supply. As AI, smart systems, advanced software, robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT) increasingly permeate everything around us, people are getting swept up in a digital undertow. And, within this context, there will be a growing vacuum of trust. Trust will become one of the most valuable currencies of the future. Within this context, customers will pay a premium for trusted human interfaces. Technology may do the lion’s share of operational and administrative work, but human oversight and judgment will be key for fostering trust.
CW: I think it's little things, even in how they do their messaging. Prior to COVID, I took minimum of a hundred flights a year for business, and I immediately noticed when United changed the language of your text. Instead of it sounding like a computer saying, “Your flights depart at this time,” it was, “Hey, you might want to make it over to this gate. We're looking forward to seeing you in a few minutes.” It was very conversational. It's like a friend giving you advice.
Then you could still always do those little touches. You can still send them hand-written, thank you cards in the mail. You can still put little smiley face messages in their mailbox after you do the service outside of the house.
Can technology negatively affect company culture as less face-to-face interactions are happening? How do you minimize this?
EO: The hybridization of work – where workers can split their time between working from home and going into a physical office – is here to stay. As leaders navigate this evolving new work landscape, the one critical piece ripe for redefinition is organizational culture. Many attempts to rethink remote work culture have centered around technological solutions, particularly those aimed at enhancing employee productivity. But at a time when people feel more socially disconnected and physically isolated, technological band-aids will only get organizations so far.
Key questions to consider for the future of company culture include:
- How do we measure, reward and drive true human resources?
- How do we create new metrics to measure human output?
- How do we empower human value creation?
- How can organizations reimagine human capital?
Companies that treat their people with greater fairness and consideration will emerge among the winners. This ultimately could correlate with a rise in a more empathetic workspace culture and style of leadership. In sharp contrast to the competitive business philosophies that marked traditional corporate culture decades ago, empathy has emerged as a powerful driver of culture and will become more critical as work continues to be distributed.
Rituals and well-established routines from the workplace will also shift and be ripe for redesign, particularly when it comes to recreating those rituals digitally. In times of uncertainty, rituals provide structure and a sense of control by imposing order – illusory or not. An extension of this is fostering a culture in which spontaneous casual interactions can occur. Organizations will be increasingly tasked with revitalizing that feeling of serendipity across distances.
CW: I think that it can be negatively impacted, but I think it can be a positive thing as well. Technology is actually very neutral. It's all in how we leverage it, right? Like you can use a microwave to make something yummy or you can use a microwave to put an animal it and hurt it, right? It's terrible. When it comes to your company, having your employees and your team involved in technology decisions, polling them, seeing what issues are at hand, just having a listening session saying, “Hey guys, we're actually considering these two different solutions and these solutions are going to fix these problems.” The team doesn't actually need to know how the sausage is made. They don't need to know how the technology works, but how it will it make their jobs better? Get their buy-in and listen to their suggestions. It doesn't mean you have to use all of them.
Then, when you decide to implement something, come back and say, “Hey guys, after our conversation, based on what everyone was saying, we decided this was the best decision. Thank you so much for your input. James, when you said this, Sharon, when you said that,” let them see how they're part of the process and they’ll be more likely to utilize it properly without grumbling.
I'm a millennial. When I was in corporate America, there was nothing that I disliked more than meetings. That's because most of them really were totally waste of time. And my little young millennial mind, there were a few that were productive and that we needed to have. But a lot of them were just people talking and it just wasn't helpful.
When we talk about less face-to-face, we can be more efficient and taking some of the meetings that maybe don't need to happen face-to-face (and make them virtual). But then making sure that we plan for in person on a regular basis, whatever that looks like for your team. Is that monthly, every two months, every two weeks? It depends on the business and the culture. But having some type of thing where people do see each other and meet up and just have that comradery and build activities into that. In some ways you can get rid of some of the things that maybe your team really doesn't need to meet on.
If there is one thing you would want the lawn care and landscaping industry know about technology, what would it be?
EO: Technology can augment and streamline your core business offerings. That is certain. But it cannot take the place of what really matters and that is the heart of a company. Keep your overall long-term vision – these are your guiding principles and declared set of goals. But keep the strategies with which to achieve that vision flexible. Do not stay wedded to your strategies because they will be ever-changing in an increasingly fast-paced world. If the future requires you to abandon a strategy, do not hold onto it…let it go. Do what serves your vision. A key part of that will be finding and implementing the most appropriate technologies to get you there, while also placing an even higher value on the people that get you there, too.
CW: We can leverage technology to make us not only more efficient, but also more appealing to our customers and prospects. All we have to do is be open to filtering what technology makes sense.
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