“Technology is capable of doing great things. But it doesn’t want to do great things. It doesn’t want anything. That part takes all of us.” — Tim Cook, CEO, Apple

I found Tim Cook’s insight on the promise and limitations of technology in an article by Gerd Leonhard with a critical message for distributors: “2020 Will Bring A New Renaissance: Humanity Over Technology,” MIT 2017 Commencement Address.

Leonhard explains that our future is to be more human, not less. Reading his article and translating it for distribution reveals a critical insight. While technology is disrupting incumbent business methods by addressing legacy frictions and inefficiencies, the most revolutionary uses of technology are powered by the attributes that make us human: intuition, imagination, empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence.

Our work for Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series reminds us that distributors can win by being human. Virtual marketplaces may open real-world stores as their businesses extend from clicks to bricks, but their origin, brand, value and reputation all flow from mastery of technology forces. If business is ultimately about people working and living, then distributors can draw on their historical precedent to win by being human. Success is not about clinging to the past; it’s about embracing human endeavors and looking forward in the digital age.

After many brainstorming work sessions with distributor leaders, we identified and documented several specific human-centric innovations that distributors may pursue. One involved creating a new “data wrangler” position that could combine customer data with a distributor’s data to help the customer solve previously unsolvable problems. This new position requires an in-depth knowledge of the customer’s goals and operations, as well as benefits that can be created through a distributor’s products and services. It also requires a robust data and analytics understanding, combined with emotional intelligence applied in a business setting. It is not enough to be a master of technology and data; a data wrangler must help customers overcome unease and self-doubt about applying data and artificial intelligence to find breakthrough solutions. Four additional distributor innovations are explored in the fourth chapter, “Reboot the Real World.”

Distributors can lead the way toward human-centric innovation because, despite disruption, distributors are inherently local businesses with a culture of helping customers and communities to succeed. Working on the front lines of business, distributors can help achieve Tim Cook’s vision by finding out what we want to achieve as humans and then marshaling the efforts of customers, suppliers, experts and communities to work together as the “us” that is essential for change.

As a Fellow for the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence, I am committed to creating awareness and advancing the practice of B2B innovation in distribution. My new report, Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series, is a roadmap for innovation by distributors. It is much more than a report on trends; it is a foundation for distributor leadership with customers and for revitalizing the value chain. I welcome your feedback, direction and questions. Please feel free to reach out to me at any time on [email protected].