We live in the age of the gadget: iPods. Palm Pilots. iPhones. It seems that our faith in technology knows no bounds. We rely on mechanical and technological solutions for nearly all of our problems. Or at least we do until we notice that things aren't going according to plan—whether it's on the distribution center floor or even on the battlefield.
"Boots on the ground" is a phrase used by generals and politicians—as well as our troops in Iraq—to describe the limits of technology and the critical need for real live soldiers in any battle or war. The phrase is likely to come in handy in discussions about the logistics trade as well.
The technical progress we've made over the past few decades, in both business and the military, is nothing short of spectacular. In distribution, for example, we've seen the emergence of bar codes, computers, RFID, and robots with vision and voice in just the past 30 years. It's the same thing with the military—think of stealth aircraft, night vision, Kevlar armor, and advanced communications devices and e-mails back home. It's just not your grandpa's army anymore—nor his distribution center, for that matter.
But the common denominator in all this is the enemy, be it insurgents in Iraq or competitors in your industry. The bottom line is that there's always somebody out there trying to steal your market share. Technology does not insulate any army or any company from competition. In fact, nearly all technology becomes available to everyone eventually, leveling the playing field.
We can have all the fancy gadgetry in the world in our DCs, and the latest ray guns and Star Wars stuff on the battlefield, but without boots on the ground, it's meaningless. Sooner or later, the competition will get its hands on the fancy technology too—or come up with creative ways to defeat it.
It's the boots on the ground that will always be the main weapons in war or in business. Managers who allow themselves to be dazzled by technology—and forget that in the end, it's just another tool—may be caught off guard by competitors who understand that it's the side with the best people, not the best technology, that wins every time.
That's not to say we need to go back to a more primitive time in terms of warfare or business. In fact, your competitors and our military enemies never stop researching ways to win. The issue is not technology but how to use it, how to enlist its support in industry or in war.
The technologies coming down the research pike promise to make our employees and our troops even more capable and efficient, but only if managers and general officers do what they're supposed to do, which is to provide training and leadership. In any battle, in any competitive situation, it's the troops and the employees that get the job done and get it done right. Success is largely a matter of well-trained, well-led boots on the ground. Top managers or general officers would do well to remind themselves of this basic truth from time to time.