Monday Sep 30, 2013

Standards Accelerate Innovation

At the beginning of the US Civil War there were over 20 different railroad gauges in use across America. That meant railroad cars could only travel on the track with a matching width thus limiting how far cars could travel.  For example, in 1853 there were three different gauge tracks leading into and out of Erie, Pennsylvania where a booming business grew for workers to unload cars on one track and transfer cargo to cars on a different track.  It was clear this approach wouldn't scale in our westward expansion so in 1862 Congress specified a standard gauge for railroad tracks.  During the spring of 1886 the standard was adopted across the US thus freeing minds to solve more important problems.  Instead of researching ways for cars to adjust their wheels to fit different gauge tracks, the industry focused on other aspects of improved transportation. Standardization frees capital for additional innovation.

The Association of Retail Technology Standards (ARTS), takes a similar approach.  One of its goals is to standardize the way in which we handle data so retailers can focus their limited resources on innovations that more directly impact consumers. Retailers spend far too much time integrating systems instead of adding features.  (Sometimes integration can be the innovation, but often times its just the cost of doing business.)

There's a three-stage cycle I've observed.  Typically an idea emerges, adoption begins, its standardized, then we move on to the next idea.  Its a cycle where the idea gets optimized and standardized for mass consumption.  Standardization reduces costs thus freeing resources to work on the next great idea.  In the case of the railroad, we don't really care if the gauge is 3 feet or 6 feet.  The important thing is that we all agree on a standard (by the way, the standard is 4ft 8.5in or 1435mm) and move on.  The earlier we agree on a standard, the less rework that must be done down the line (11,000 miles of track had to be fixed in the South to match the standard).

The Technology Adoption Lifecycle depicts how new ideas are adopted by the masses. (This was extended by the book Crossing the Chasm by adding a gap between the Early Adopters and Early Majority.)  The graph is depicted below along with ARTS inputs.

ARTS provides whitepapers, blueprints, and webinars that inform retailers and help the industry cross the chasm.  When its clear the industry is interested in adopting an idea, ARTS creates database and XML standards that lower the cost of adoption thus making the idea more affordable for smaller retailers.  To help the late majority, ARTS creates Request for Proposal (RFP) templates, training, and appears at conferences to tout the idea and best-practices for its use.

As you can see, ARTS helps retailers take advantage of emerging technologies at various stages of adoption.  Membership and participation in ARTS is open to both retailers and vendors that want to be on the forefront on innovation.  I've certainly found it a valuable resource over the years.

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David Dorf, Sr Director Technology Strategy for Oracle Retail, shares news and ideas about the retail industry with a focus on innovation and emerging technologies.


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