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Why play is the secret to keeping up with business tech

Jonathan Crossfield
Business and Technology Journalist

Jonathan is an award-winning journalist, blogger, writer and editor, locked in a daily fight for the keyboard with two very impatient cats.

Jonathan Crossfield
Business and Technology Journalist

Jonathan is an award-winning journalist, blogger, writer and editor, locked in a daily fight for the keyboard with two very impatient cats.

Highlights
  • The cost of adoption for new technologies is less of a barrier than ever
  • Virtual reality and Amazon Echo are the next big technologies for small business
  • Jeff Cole’s advice: don’t be afraid of technology

“Since the ancient Greeks, every generation has said that the pace of change has never been so fast. They’ve always been right but I think this time it is especially true.” Technology futurist Dr Jeffrey Cole talks to Smarter about how small businesses can cope with rapid change.

man with cardboard VR headset

Jeffrey Cole’s fascination with media and communication technology began with television – still “the most powerful medium ever invented”, he says. Over the past 30 years, his research into emerging media and technology has seen him serve as the director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy, testify before the US Congress, and advise presidents.

In June 1999 he helped set up the World Internet Project longitudinal study, which draws on more than a decade of user data to examine how online and digital technologies are transforming our social, economic and media lives. “Sixteen years in, we can really see trends,” he says.

So what can small businesses learn from the impact of the internet and other technology, and how can they navigate whatever comes next?

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Smarter Business:

Does each new technology or innovation change behaviours or do the most successful technologies simply enable or amplify the behaviours that were already there?

Jeffery Cole:

It’s always circular. Television took an audience that was used to listening to radio and watching movies, and it amplified that.

Part of the internet continues that tradition. We do watch a lot of video on the internet, but it’s different in a couple of ways. There was always news, but this is a technology that transforms how we work, how we communicate, how we play. Maybe its most important long-term impact will be on how we learn.

The internet has done something that no other medium has done before – it’s become 24/7 [in our lives]. We know that 90 per cent of teenagers sleep next to their mobile phones. We’re now communicating in our cars. We’re communicating walking down the street. If you and I are having lunch tomorrow and you’re 10 minutes late, I’m answering my email hoping that you’re 20 minutes late. This technology is filling in all the moments of our lives, and that’s something we’ve never seen before. I think this is changing behaviour more than behaviour is changing it.

Smarter Business:

Should small businesses be paying more attention to the rapid pace of change and the various new technologies and trends?

Jeffery Cole:

Since the ancient Greeks, every generation has said that the pace of change has never been so fast. They’ve always been right but I think this time it is especially true.We’re seeing industries that disrupted established industries 10, 15 years ago now being disrupted themselves. Digital photography totally disrupted film, and now digital cameras are dying. We really are seeing an extraordinary pace of change. What I say to big businesses and small businesses is you have to accept that.I think it’s incumbent on businesses, on parents, on citizens, to have a very steep learning curve; to experiment, to go online, to play with things, to try Amazon Echo [Amazon’s voice-controlled smart speaker which will be in Australia very soon], to try different kinds of programs, to be paying attention to virtual reality (VR).I happen to think virtual reality is going to be very important to supermarkets, retailers and travel companies. I don’t think companies have to go out and spend millions of dollars on virtual reality glasses. Go out and spend $100 and start playing with it.

Smarter Business:

Does the hype around some of these technologies make it easier for small businesses to dismiss them as a bit too magical or sci-fi and be blind to their concrete business applications?

Jeffery Cole:

Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. I mentioned the Amazon Echo with its Alexa Voice system. People putting it in their homes are beginning to understand that you can really have an intelligent conversation with a machine.I think you’re going to go into the supermarket, you’re going to go into hardware stores, and you’re going to start communicating with the products. You’re going to ask questions about, “How do I use it?” If it’s food, “What recipes can I make with this?”Fifty years ago, they were saying that virtual reality has a great potential. Now we’re seeing that potential really moving quickly. I’ll give you one simple application in a business.I work with Bunnings. We’re very close to the point where you will design your kitchen in the store, or you could do it at home. You’ll walk through your kitchen [in VR] to understand how you want things placed before you spend a penny. Then you will adjust the glasses to walk through the kitchen at the height of your children to see if it’s functional for them. Then you’ll adjust it to the height of a wheelchair to see if you can use that kitchen in a wheelchair.That’s a real life application. You’re going to see hundreds of things like that.

Smarter Business:

Is there a difference in the rate of adoption in Australia? Are we behind what you’re seeing in the US?

Jeffery Cole:

No. In some ways being a smaller country, you’re a little more nimble than we are. You’re only behind in a couple of areas; for example, Amazon Echo hasn’t been marketed in Australia yet because they haven’t been able to build them fast enough. In some places, you’re ahead.Incidentally, the cost for an early adopter of virtual reality is $50 for a pair of glasses. An early adopter of Voice or Amazon Echo is $180. Thirteen years ago, an early adopter of a DVD player was paying $1000. We’re not seeing these extraordinarily high prices at the beginning. To be an early adopter now doesn’t take thousands of dollars. 

Smarter Business:

If the cost of adoption is less of a barrier, is the new challenge for small business having the time and resources to understand, experiment with and implement all of these new trends and technologies?

Jeffery Cole:

The issue is how do you make room in your head to be able to understand all this stuff.Six years ago, I was telling every company and every government that would listen to me, “Pay attention to Twitter,” even though I thought Twitter was frivolous. I wasn’t recommending that they devote people or a lot of money to it. I was saying, “Get on Twitter. Play with it. Understand it. Ask yourself, ‘Does it have an application for me?’”Very quickly, Twitter became an indispensable news source. Twitter is now arguably the best customer service tool we’ve ever seen, where companies can deal with customer problems in real time, in front of other customers. It’s changed how Hollywood releases movies.Six years ago I was saying, “Understand Twitter.” I would say today, “Understand virtual reality. Understand [Alexa] Voice. Understand driverless cars. Without investing, but learning.”

Smarter Business:

What’s your one piece of advice to small businesses that still want to be around and growing in 2020?

Jeffery Cole:

Don’t be afraid of technology. Your core mission is to still do what you do better than anybody else and really make your customers part of the process.

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