The language of retail


The jargon-filled technology world outdid itself in 2017 with talk of artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, mixed realities, neural networks and edge computing.

These words were heard a lot in 2017 and they will be heard even more in the coming year. And for good reason. Each is incredibly important and speaks to how technology is dominating the future of the retail and consumer goods world. A world where connected devices anticipate shoppers’ needs, voice shopping becomes common, supply chains fulfill orders faster and faster and physical stores search for new ways to remain relevant.

It is an amazing time to be part of the incredibly dynamic retail industry, something we are reminded of again this holiday season. Retailers have never offered such a high level of physical and digital integration, with many well along the path of delivering the seamless vision talked about for years. As the industry continues to move forward in new and interesting ways the language of retail has undergone a major shift. It is dominated by talk of technology and all its current and future potential. For those without IT degrees it can be hard to make sense of the acronyms and phrases mentioned at the start because they get tossed around a lot. They also tend to be used interchangeably by speakers at conferences, in articles and in casual conversations. This creates confusion and can be unsettling for anyone (me) who feels compelled to define the various technologies as a baseline for understanding the most important forces affecting retail.

Turns out, precise definitions in the tech world are hard to come by. Ask 100 retail executives from merchandising, supply chain and marketing to define AI, for example, and you’ll get 100 different answers. Attend a tech conference and ask 100 data scientists, network engineers and CIO’s the same question and you will still get 100 different answers. The difference is the tech folks will have a reasoned debate about the variances of their definitions. That explains why even when there is a definition of AI, it can be very convoluted and sounds like a committee wrote it. Here’s how AI was described in a recent research study funded by a major tech firm:

            “AI is the ability to automate enterprise decisioning using human-to-machine

 cognitive interactions where machines are able to augment and assist human

capabilities by sensing and continuously learning, reasoning and inferring, and

deciding and acting to drive a business outcome.”

Not to pick on AI, definitions of other tech terms are equally squishy, but the point of the study was to explore the state of artificial intelligence. The research included 260 IT and business decision-makers at the VP level or higher from organizations with global revenues of more than $50 million. Definitions matter for these folks because they are defining the scope of projects, hiring consultants to advise on strategy, directing internal staff and allocating ever larger budgets.

Roughly 80% said that “some form” of AI is already in production in their organization and one third report plans to increase spending on AI technology in the next three years. In the next two years, 61% said their companies expect to fill the position of Chief Artificial Intelligence Officer. So in addition to all the other acronyms we have the new title of CAIO.

One of the key responsibilities of this position should be communications so the conversation can shift to what AI, or any of the other tech buzzwords, “does” from what it “is.” Making any technology conversation more about the use case than the underlying technology is how IT folks help their organizations win. They can continue to enjoy professionally stimulating discussions about nuanced definitions with peers at industry conferences, but don’t clutter the minds of business users focused on applying technology to create value. This bifurcation becomes more important in the future with technology becoming more sophisticated and powerful. Organizations who exploit it most effectively will be those that bring extreme simplification to the user experience.