Lessons From a Broken Business


by Samuel Greengard

A quick glance at the coupon business shows how and why so many companies fail with technology.

Every week a slew of retailers barrage me with coupons via snail mail or e-mail. In many cases, I have to print and carry them to the store, where they're scanned back into a digital system.

Digital-analog-digital wastes time and it's about as un-green as it gets. Kudos to Best Buy for at least letting users send a text message and convert a paper coupon to an e-coupon for their smartphone. Yowza!! and Groupon have the right idea though they're geared more toward getting me to discover new stores and restaurants than connecting to the retailers I actually do business with.

Supermarkets, home furnishings stores and an array of superstores need to get with the program and begin offering ways to put coupons on smartphones. Half the time I leave the house without the paper coupons I need. In some cases, I wind up postponing the trip to that store indefinitely...or buy the same product elsewhere. With a coupon on my iPhone, it's a moot point. I carry the phone with me always. I have the coupon with me always.

How does this have anything to do with why good companies fail?

It's obvious that organizations--and people--get stuck thinking in a familiar and structured way and can't remap their mind or processes to fit the dynamics of a different era. In some cases, it doesn't even occur to anyone that there's a better way to do things. True, technological and practical hurdles sometimes exist, though people frequently spend more time explaining why something can't be done than figuring how to do it and make it work.

Eventually, the old way of thinking gets pushed aside as younger and more connected workers see the light and use it to illuminate the path to innovation.

But in the meantime, it's wise to spend some time really thinking about how to improve IT and business processes rather than coasting on autopilot and doing the same semi-useless thing--until you wind up hopelessly behind the competitive curve and gasping to catch up.

Reinvent the coupon and reinvent business.