Don’t be seduced by gadgets

New communication technology has changed the world, and will continue doing so. Are you its master or its slave?

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

We seem to have lost the plot with the smartphone. Using it has become a reflex as natural as breathing.

At the slightest digital twitch, or triggered by some other compulsion, the smartphone user instantly disengages from the task at hand and reaches for the phone.

The task is forgotten, sometimes forever. If it is resumed, many minutes will pass before the person has refocused properly on it.

In their 2007 paper, ‘Technology and Information Worker Productivity’, Sinan Aral and Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Marshall van Alstyne of Boston University, found that while modern information technology initially increased productivity, there was eventually a decrease in performance and a higher incidence of error.

The deluge of information and constant interruption creates a mental fog that drives out knowledge and judgement.

These findings lend credence to a growing body of evidence that, since mid-2000, productivity in developed countries has been falling, due partly to the distraction caused by modern communication technology and social media apps.

Think about it. Do you know of any great achievements from people who didn’t give themselves regular, quiet, uninterrupted thinking time? Is it not true that those of your personal circle of friends and colleagues who clutch their smartphones obsessively and give precedence to them over all else are the least effective and productive?

Making the best use of new technology
I’ve been wondering how this mindless obsession with technology will work against the huge opportunities that new technology is bringing to the agricultural world.

Will our bad management of technology such as artificial intelligence, big data, the Internet of Things, and robotics mirror the unproductive obsession with smartphones, and eventually drive productivity down, not up?

Will we become the masters of these technologies, or will they, like smartphones, turn us into slaves, driving out common sense, knowledge and good judgement?

Two years ago, agricultural economist Dr Koos Coetzee warned that many of these gadgets are highly seductive, and unless used correctly, they draw attention away from other more important aspects of managing a business (FW, 8 July 2016).

While pondering these increasing challenges for managers, I was bemused to read a headline in the popular press: “Farming from your stoep at the touch of a button”.

It reported on the success achieved by a new South African business founded by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer. Using drone technology and data analytics, they help farmers manage disease and pest control “at the touch of a button”.

Farmers fly a drone over their lands, taking images of the crops. These are then uploaded and analysed to detect pests and disease.

“Eventually,” says Meltzer, “farmers will farm from one place, using data as opposed to having to go out into the lands. It’s farming from your stoep.”

Only the hands-on farmer will succeed
As Coetzee said, this is highly seductive stuff. Certainly, it’s powerful new technology, and used correctly will bring great advantages.

But if you take Meltzer at his word and sit on your stoep drinking coffee and playing with your smartphone, you won’t be farming for long!

These incredible new technologies provide us with tools with the potential to drive up our profits significantly.

But don’t be seduced. Exercise great care in selecting the appropriate technology for your specific business, and then make sure you have the skills to manage it well.

And take it from me: there is no technology, now or in the future, that will enable you to farm from your stoep.

Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant with 30 years’ farming experience.