In 1786, the cloth workers of Leeds, the textile centre of England, issued a protest against the growing use of “scribbling” machines, which were taking over a task formerly performed by skilled labour. “How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their families?” asked the petitioners. “And what are they to put their children apprentice to?”
When disruption comes, and make no mistake, it is going to come, some of the victims of disruption will be people who are currently considered highly skilled, and who invested a lot of time and money in acquiring those skills. In the legal world, we are going to be seeing a lot of “automation of knowledge work,” with software and Artificial Intelligence doing things that used to require skills only a university graduate possessed.
So, when change comes, should people in the legal profession simply be prepared to acquire new skills? The wool workers of 18th-century Leeds addressed this issue back in 1786: “Who will maintain our families, while we undertake the arduous task of learning a new trade?” They also asked, what will happen if the new trade, in turn, gets devalued by further technological advance?
And the modern counterparts of those wool workers might well ask further "what will happen to us if?" Like so many students, we acquire the skills we are told we need, only to learn that the economy no longer wants those skills?
So, what’s the answer? To predict the future, we have only to look at the past, and we can simply look at history. We can’t pretend that change isn’t going to happen, so we can’t carry on making well-crafted arguments for maintaining the status quo because no one person can delay the inevitable.
The big question is, are we going to behave like the Luddites?
This article first appeared in Retail Week
My favourite retailer is Ikea, it's a very successful business and there's much to learn from Ikea. I’m surprised how little people talk about how they admire Ikea, across the globe it successfully sells the same products using the same formula.
I was once in Saudi Arabia on business when I saw an Ikea store, I had to stop and look inside because I couldn’t imagine Saudis buying flatpack furniture, it was actually very busy. Saudis in Riyadh must be different from those in Knightsbridge and Mayfair, it was testament to Ikea’s universal appeal. Ikea understands customers and psychology better than many retailers.
In 2009 after 50 years of using the Futura font, it switched to Verdana. This caused an outcry in the design community and a petition was even started to stop Ikea from using Verdana. Many years later, was Verdana the right font to use? Yes it was. Point of Sale, packaging, advertising and the catalogue is so easy to read – you can tell it’s from Ikea even if it doesn't have an Ikea logo on it.
Google, Facebook, Apple, Nike and the BBC are all examples of companies where design and fonts make a big difference, if a CEO doesn’t understand that, they're not a retailer. Ikea copywriting is simple and powerful, it uses very few words. For example, the instructions on the new wireless phone charger are “to charge, simply place your phone on the little plus sign," that’s it.
It all sounds simple, but as many people know, simplicity is hard to achieve. Ikea assembly instructions don’t really use any words, only pictures, this makes assemble in any country much easier. If only MFI had understood that.
People speak different languages all over the world, but the Swedish model names are the same everywhere. A ‘Hemnes’ bookcase in Leeds is a ‘Hemnes’ bookcase in Riyadh or Rio. A couple in Australia filmed themselves going round an Ikea store. The guy annoys his girlfriend with puns and uses the name of the product, since the video it was uploaded on YouTube it's had more than 8 million views – not bad free advertising.
Ikea products are well designed, all our furniture in the Freeserve office was from Ikea, it was great quality and it looked the part for our young new Internet company.
People often moan about how they don’t like having to walk around the fixed track of an Ikea store, but it’s something that they actually enjoy without realising it. The alternative of having to walk around a monster store not knowing where to start and find the products is unthinkable.
So many small things make a difference, I recently tried a mattress and as I lay there I read a message above me about how Ikea can dispose of the old mattress, what a fantastic idea. What are people reading in other bed retailers as they lie there? Probably nothing, just looking at the ceiling, what a wasted opportunity.
Did you know who’s got the widest parking bays in retail? Ikea. I could go on, but I’ve made my point.
Retail is about detail, that’s what makes the difference, unfortunately lots of people working in retail are not really retailers. Retail is not just about spreadsheets, it’s about being a shopkeeper.