Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Discussing the relationship between innovation and customer satisfaction, Henry Ford famously said, "If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Couple that with another oft-quoted remark from his autobiography -- "Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it is black" -- and you get the sense that Ford would not have been a big fan of consumer focus groups.

But he was a big fan of technology and efficiency, and one wonders what he would make of the marriage of technology, efficiency and customer satisfaction today, particularly as they manifest in social media and Big Data. These twin phenomena deeply impact even the lives of consumers who eschew willing participation in either.

Social media and Big Data pull and push information at speeds so fast that what they gather can only be reasonably monitored, sorted and comprehended by other machines, which either respond quickly and autonomously or process and package results for human consumption and consideration.

We're not so different from pre-automobile Americans, except that today we pursue faster machines rather than faster horses. But to Ford's point, is the singular pursuit of speed preventing us from seeing ways of moving forward that are very, very different?

The gathering and manipulation of data and the ability to reach out through social media are significant marketing tools and give businesses phenomenal advantages over previous generations. But the universal availability and use of these technologies is a double-edged sword.

Reliance on programmatic activity often gives people a false sense of control and becomes a crutch, a replacement for the type of truly creative and innovative thinking that results more from reflection than from quick reactivity.

I was recently asked by someone writing a book for hoteliers to provide a quote about how senior managers in hospitality might approach strategies for technology. After emphasizing that I am not an expert on hotel technology, I said if I were a hotelier, I would likely want to look for innovations that simultaneously reduce costs, drive revenue and improve customer satisfaction. And I thought of one example that is finding increasing use in hotel operations and fits all three criteria: radio frequency identification, or RFID.

Disney is deploying it brilliantly with its My Magic+ bracelets, which resort guests can purchase and then use to gain speedier entry to parks and FastPass lines as well as to make purchases. They improve park and resort flow for all guests, reduce staffing expenses and encourage spending. The Trifecta.

Unexploited -- or unpublicized -- RFID also would enable Disney, if it chose, to monitor individuals as they move though its hotels and parks. Tracking MyMagic+ bracelets could reveal a lot about both individual and aggregate preferences, leading to insights that could result in customized outreach to specific guests and revealing Big Data trending patterns that could shape Disney strategy and inform development teams.

Does RFID represent just a faster horse, or is it another leap to a car? I think its application to hospitality is more evolutionary than revolutionary; the technology has been around for quite a while, but advances in related technologies have broadened its possible applications.

Likewise, it seems that social media's commercial potential is increasingly dependent upon its pairing with Big Data. In fact, it would seem that the common denominator to technological advances on many fronts is Big Data. It's the vehicle to facilitate development in commercial technologies, even ones that were initially developed without clear commercial strategies.

In other words, yes, it's another car.

While the ultimate impact of Big Data on society might indeed be no less significant than the development of the assembly-line-built automobile, it differs in an important way. For all its power and societal impact, it is somewhat invisible to consumers. It's more like an operating system than a computer. And, after all, it wasn't initially apparent to many people -- not even to those employed by IBM in the 1980s -- that operating systems are ultimately more central to computing than the commoditized hardware in which they reside.

So, the development and exploitation of Big Data can take its rightful place as a paradigm-shifting event.

And next? Part of the difficulty in envisioning the car when everyone was riding horses was that horses were deeply integrated into consumers' world view, and there was a significant infrastructure and system of commerce built to support the horse-riding public.

Similar, certainly, to the role cars play in society today.

But I got some insight into the dramatic changes that await us when listening to a speaker from the World Economic Forum (WEF) discussing, interestingly, transportation issues. The WEF, aware of the trend toward denser urbanization and the critical transportation challenges that will result, asked auto manufacturers, airplane designers and rail companies to imagine and report back on what their vehicles will look like in the future.

Each came back with wildly inventive variations on what they are doing today.

The WEF then asked technologists not associated with transportation manufacturers to come up with solutions to predicted urban transportation issues. Their consensus was: Why will urbanites need to commute? Since everyone's office looks the same no matter what they do (i.e., a desk, chair and computer) and connectivity will only get better, these technologists could envision that one generic office building on every block could serve everyone who lives on that block, regardless of what company they work for.

Henry Ford might have taken some satisfaction in knowing that this particular vision for the future would not have come out of a 2015 consumer focus group. But it's doubtful he could have predicted that a little more than a century and a decade after Ford Motor Co. was founded, the world's top technologists, rather than dreaming of faster cars, dreamed of no cars.

Does Ford have a better idea?

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