In The Technological Society, the French theologian Jacques Ellul wrote that the technological age is defined by a mindset that says what is technologically feasible becomes accepted as technologically desirable.
In other words, because it can be done technologically, it should be done. Too often, technology companies take this approach and find themselves with technologies in search of markets and consumers, unwittingly falling into the trap Ellul described.
The best technology companies take a different approach. For them, what is technologically feasible is lifeless until it intersects with what is technologically desirable in the eyes of consumers and business customers. In that intersection, innovation is born and technology is transformed into a solution, not simply more technology.
A compelling example of technology-as-solution is automotive telematics, wireless technology that allows real-time communications between an automobile and an information system. Ironically, telematics is also a good example of technology simply being more technology and less solution — falling short of its promise in the eyes of consumers.
The typical applications of telematics technology have been limited to toll-free numbers for assistance, in-car entertainment and concierge information, and global positioning features. Telematics remains more technology-focused than consumer-focused. The results, predictably, are limited consumer appeal and a narrow business model.
Telematics technologies exist that collect and deliver real-time automotive diagnostic and location data across a wireless network. These technologies help change the way consumers think about car service, maintenance and protection in case of an emergency or theft. Telematics also can change the way automotive retailers think about serving consumers because it provides a new technology and business model that can help build customer loyalty.
Vehicle performance data and location information are today being collected continuously, communicated over a wireless network to an information system, and delivered to car owners over the Internet on a personalized, secure Web page. The consumer's dealership service department also simultaneously receives information about the vehicle's operation and potential trouble spots. Now, technology and data are applied in a consumer-centric way as the following benefits of automotive telematics prove:
Remote diagnostics continuously monitor engine performance, which can trigger an e-mail alert about a failing part or scheduled maintenance. The diagnostics also perform engine-emissions testing.
If a car breaks down or is stolen, GPS-accurate location information can lead to immediate assistance. Plus, data collected on engine performance can help in understanding the engine failure and required repair.
In telematics, a brave new world has emerged that connects consumers and automotive retailers. It is a world in which technology (what is feasible) is aligned with the consumer's true needs (what is desirable), and applied in a new business model (what is viable). It also is a world that has existed all along, but most technology companies have missed it.
Technology companies need to get better at simplifying. Too often technological solutions are still technologically driven, not truly customer-driven, despite company mission statements. Companies step into Ellul's dilemma because it is technologically feasible, they convince themselves that it is also technologically desirable for customers.
It's the intersection of the “technologically feasible” in the engineer's world and the “technologically desirable” in the consumer's world — the Eureka! factor. The best companies strive to institutionalize the Eureka! factor in a company's culture and maintain equilibrium, balanced delicately between the engineer and the consumer.
Technology's impact can be truly momentous when it changes how people work and live. The point of technology is not to stop at technology, but to take the next step and ease the work of everyday living.
Dave Dutch is president of Networkcar Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Reynolds and Reynolds in December 2002.