Article: What are relevant technologies?

20 July 2020

Matt Capelli, July 2020 

Specific challenges will always vary across businesses, but what does not vary is this: you don’t need tech that is cool and you don’t need buzzwords. You need a solution that works.

When you think about technology, what do you picture? If you are like most, you might envision a state-of-the-art suite of tools that fully automate your operations. You might dream of perfect, real-time insights into how to optimize your sales, smallholder outreach, and services. Drones might be flying above your fields and they are linked to satellite data that’s aggregated with weather services and disease alerts. Maybe your decision making is driven by machine learning and artificial intelligence. I’m not sure what you are seeing, but usually, the list goes on.

When we envision technology, we usually envision some type of futuristic, utopian state. Or more frankly, we dream of a silver bullet solution - tech that will seamlessly and effortlessly solve everything for us. Don’t get me wrong, cutting edge technologies are fascinating and intriguing. As they are refined and honed over time, these solutions might offer incredible promise for how we run and manage our agribusinesses, connect with smallholders, and grow into unique market opportunities opened up through new and innovative advancements. 

But in practice, technology doesn’t work the way we often dream about. Admittedly, the “modern” and “advanced” technology you see in the glossy photos of magazine covers actually leaves us feeling a bit paralyzed, as it all seems so out of reach. You might wonder, what is the technology we should actually be looking into? Do we have to have the most advanced tech to be competitive? Are we falling behind? What does this mean for the technology that we implement today?

To help answer these questions, let’s take a moment to forget about what is trendy or what is cool. We’ll ignore buzzwords and the most recent hype. Let’s talk about your business. What are your top 3 current challenges? Better yet, what is the one pain point that you wish you could solve overnight that would make everything easier? 

If you are like most businesses, you are probably picturing something that is actually fairly straightforward and simple. It might be that you need to integrate two different systems so your data comes from one aggregated source. Or a new report with some additional insights from the field. Maybe you are struggling to know where your field teams are or you aren’t sure where all of your inventory is within your supply chain. Specific challenges will always vary across businesses, but what does not vary is this: you don’t need tech that is cool and you don’t need buzzwords. You need a solution that works.

You need tech that is relevant.

So what are relevant technologies? Simply put, relevant technologies are those which are well aligned with your business. They are solutions which exist at the intersection of your current priorities, strategies, budget, and technical competencies. 

To better understand what relevant technologies are, we should first look at what they are not. When technology is not relevant, one of the following three things are happening:

  • The tech is too advanced
  • The tech is too expensive
  • You are trying to do too much at the same time
    This is a recipe for disaster.

You’ll likely end up with a technology solution that only half works, costs a ton of money and is difficult to maintain! Don’t do that!

Yet how many times do we still fall victim to this trap? We get swept away and sold on the next ‘shiny object’ of technology, only to wind up let down. It’s understandable - tech is awesome. But in the process we lose sight of our goals. Our goals are to solve the most pressing challenges for the business, as fast as possible, with as little risk as we can. 

So what does this look like in practice? Here are three simple rules you should follow: 

  • Only implement technologies you can configure and maintain in-house - Even if you are using third-party technologies, make sure you have control over setting up and configuring the changes you need. You need the ability to control how your technology is used and scales without having to call another company and hope they keep your priorities as their own!
  • Only implement technologies that (collectively) cost 20% or less of your annual profit - Technology is expensive, and you have to put enough money toward it to make sure your key challenges are solved. But let’s not bet the house on a single solution. Remember tech is a tool, not a replacement for things like boots-on-the-ground, so it should never be your only investment and it must be part of a larger strategy!
  • Only focus on the one most pressing challenge at any given time - All businesses have dozens of things to solve at any moment, but work to identify the most pressing pain point that you think can be solved with technology and focus solely on that. You might need to digitize your field operations and also work on improving smallholder access to finance and inputs. Though both of these might be pressing, it simply is not possible or practical to tackle challenges this diverse at the same time. Just choose one, solve it, and move forward from there. 

We’ve found time and time again that a lot of businesses feel stuck because they believe they need a state-of-the art system in order to be competitive. In reality, very few businesses need the world’s most advanced technologies to compete, and ever fewer have the profit margins to support these technologies anyway. Don't fall into a trap of thinking there must be a solution that will solve everything for you at once - these solutions don’t exist!

In fact, the optimal solutions are almost always so practical that they almost feel boring. Boring is good sometimes, mostly because boring often solves your problem! Consider the 80/20 rule, which usually applies to technologies - you can normally get 80% of your requirements covered with a solution that is 20% of the cost of a full solution. Compromises of this nature almost always make sense from a business perspective, as long as you have clearly defined which of your requirements and challenges are top priority. Remember that tech doesn’t have to be the coolest, most advanced, or most modern solution in the world to become the useful and practical tool that you need. And you don’t have to automate or revolutionize everything all at once to move forward toward your digitization goals and a better business. All that matters is the solution makes your business better than it was before and is a great fit for your goals and budget. 

Let’s dream about the future of tech - as a technology expert and advocate for technology solutions, I know and believe we’ll get there. But the only way to get there is to figure out what makes sense for your business today. And what makes sense for your business today are technologies that are relevant. Focus on this, and tech will become the useful and practical tool you’ve been dreaming about.  

Originally posted at Simple Data Tools.

AgDevCo’s Smallholder Development Unit is supported by the Mastercard Foundation and UK aid.