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Human spirit tops technology at Rio 2016

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After two weeks of Olympic madness, the games are over and South Africa has done very well. Wayde Van Niekerk broke the 400m world record, but how much technology was involved and how much was human spirit, asks LEE NAIK, MD of Accenture Digital in South Africa.

It’s over. After two weeks of intense Olympic madness, the Rio games are over and I’m left catching my breath and dissecting what happened. One of my (and most other South Africans’) favourite moments was watching local boy Wayde Van Niekerk break the 400m world record.

Provided you haven’t been living in solitary confinement, you already know the story. After a mediocre qualification, Wayde was banished to the far outside lane. Everyone agreed that he had no shot.

Except it didn’t quite work out that way. Despite “running blind”, Wayde managed to do the unprecedented and win a gold medal – something no Olympian has ever done from the outside lane – breaking a world record that previously stood for over 17 years.

What strikes me most about this story is that Wayde was effectively running against himself. With no line of sight to the other lanes, he had no competitors against which to pace himself. It’s a dilemma that should resonate for any high performer in business: How do I consistently beat my best?

And with researchers speculating we may be pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible in sports, is there anywhere else to go from here?

Building the superhuman

In many ways, professional athletes are the perfect example of lean principles at work. With the difference between winners and losers often coming down to the tiniest of margins, their entire career is dependent on shaving off literal fractions of seconds. Teams of scientists, nutritionists, doctors and physiotherapists all collaborate on training regimes, designed to hone athletes into machines of superhuman efficiency.

Naturally, technologies that can enhance these performances play a big role in this hypercompetitive world. Innovations in everything from clothing to training techniques have always generated plenty of discussion – not all of it positive, as the controversy over the swimming bodysuits four years ago shows.

If you’ve been following the technological side of this year’s games, you’ll have heard all about the latest digital tools Olympians are using to help them get the edge. There are the omnipresent wearables that track everything from heart rate variability and skin conductivity to sleep patterns. By tracking every nuance of an athlete’s body activities, trainers can fine-tune their training regimes to account for strain, injury and overstress.

And that’s just a small taste. Look at almost any sport and you can see an example of a fascinating new technology being deployed. Gymnasts like Simone Biles use LumiWave technology in their uniforms to alleviate aches and strains, allowing them to recover faster from training. Cyclists are taking to the track wearing smart glasses that display key metrics like speed, power and distance as they ride. The Australian Sevens Rugby team instantly know when it’s time to substitute a flagging player, thanks to data-capturing GPS units sewed into their shirts.

Beyond the wearables, you have the more surprising examples. The US swim team uses BMW taillight technology to monitor swimmers’ paths underwater and measure their movements more efficiently. And with the Americans having dominated the swimming competition, it’s clearly having an impact.

So perhaps the answer to recreating Wayde’s performance in the business world lies with investing in this advanced technology? Making yourself or your business into an unbeatable digital superma

Almost… but not quite.

Tech is just the starting block

Other Sevens teams may have had more advanced technology on the pitch, but it was Fiji – a nation where plastic bottles are frequently used in the place of balls – that took home the gold. Imagination and discipline is what carried them to the podium, not high tech.

BMW’s motion tracking technology might help Michael Phelps refine his technique, but it’s the swimmer himself breaking records and winning medal after medal. And Simone Biles certainly isn’t making those incredible leaps because of what she’s wearing.

As for Wayde Van Niekerk, when asked how he made that blistering 400m run, he says he doesn’t remember a second of it. You’re more likely to read about his 71-year-old trainer than you are about his advanced training technology

Because while the tech does undeniably have an impact on how you prepare, how you build up your skills and capabilities, it comes down to the performance on the day itself to bring home the gold. Wayde did the business when it counted, and that’s ultimately what sets apart the medallists from the rest.

So for me, the biggest lesson from the Olympics is not to get so fixated on the technological side that you forget the human element. Because when the gun goes off, it is creativity, drive and the desire to excel that will win the day.

What do you think? How do you believe businesses can emulate the performance of Phelps, Van Niekerk and Biles?

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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