How Target Used Less Tech to Succeed—Data Sheet

August 22, 2019, 12:21 PM UTC

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The innovation game has its limits. Companies are so desperate to find the next new thing, the silver bullet that will uplevel their way out of their incumbency blues, that they forget the basics.

Witness one aspect to a stunning turnaround at retailer Target, as recounted in the current issue of Fortune by Phil Wahba. Newish CEO Brian Cornell, a PepsiCo guy who knew his way around merchandising and marketing, decided the company’s efforts to find “moonshots” had become a distraction. For example, Wahba writes, “electronically lowering the price of an apple as it aged in a produce bin didn’t fit Target’s new mold.” Instead, Cornell wanted Target to focus on, you know, retailing, including sprucing up its stores. Imagine that. “Sometimes you have to turn down the volume,” Cornell told Wahba.

Wahba tells me Target hasn’t completely abandoned innovating or experimenting. But it decided to take the best of its learnings, the ideas that could be applied quickly, and jettison the maybe-one-day plans.

Incidentally, Wahba says the first time Cornell communicated Target’s intention to refocus its efforts was in an interview at Brainstorm Tech in Aspen, Colo., in 2017. Wahba’s article about the interview was titled, “Target CEO Sees Risk in Innovation for Innovation’s Sake.” Outstanding reporter that he is, Wahba remembers exactly where he was when Cornell was speaking in Aspen. “I was watching from a Target in Trenton, New Jersey,” he tells me. He had an interview nearby with another retailer but went to Target “because they have reliable Wi-Fi. While you guys were in Aspen, I was in Trenton, New Jersey. Not that I’m bitter.”

Streaming an interview from a mall while on assignment to do another interview: Now that’s an innovative commitment to the basics. Thanks, Phil!


Speaking of great journalism, I urge you to pour another cup of coffee and dive into a story Fortune is publishing on Thursday morning with ProPublica, the non-profit investigative news organization. It’s called “How Amazon and Silicon Valley Seduced the Pentagon,” a riveting blow-by-blow account of how the 21st-century military-techno complex works. The article is about JEDI, the Pentagon’s effort to shift its data management to the cloud. If you’re of the mind that billionaires and their behemoth companies have an unfair advantage in crafting policy alongside ethically well-traveled public servants, you’ll find plenty of confirmation in this just-the-facts, rigorously reported article. Diehard Fortune fans also will recognize two of the three bylines, our old super sleuths James Bandler and Doris Burke.

Adam Lashinsky

On Twitter: @adamlashinsky



Mystery move. The co-founder of Google's DeepMind artificial intelligence lab, Mustafa Suleyman, was placed on leave for undisclosed reasons. DeepMind has drawn criticism for improper use of hospital patient records in the United Kingdom.

Love the way you lie. The co-owner of rapper Eminem's song publishing rights sued Spotify on Wednesday. Eight Mile Style said the streaming service had not properly licensed Eminem's songs and challenged the constitutionality of provisions of the Music Modernization Act adopted last year.

But don't try to walk and chew gum at the same time. Singapore and Fitbit are teaming up in an effort to enroll at least 1 million citizens of the Asian country in a new healthy living program. Participants get a free Fitbit Inspire HR.

Crosseyed and painless. Much data online is encrypted for security while stored or when sent from place to place, but a new effort from major tech companies is seeking to add encryption to data while it's being used by applications. The Confidential Computing Consortium, which includes Google, IBM, and Microsoft, says its efforts are "the third and possibly most challenging step to providing a fully encrypted lifecycle for sensitive data.”

Guess my pa$$w0rd. Speaking of sensitive data, an investigation by Fast Company found that the Wi-Fi networks at many WeWork locations have the same, easy-to-guess password and rely on outdated security standards. WeWork says it offers customers upgraded security features for an additional fee.

Violence must end. A group of seven women sued Lyft, charging that they were raped or attacked by Lyft drivers. The company said it would not "tolerate harassment or violence" and has added features to its app to improve rider safety.

Get off of my cloud. On Wall Street, data analytics specialist Splunk announced results that beat analyst expectations and said it would pay $1 billion to acquire cloud monitoring service SignalFX. Quarterly revenue rose 33% to $517 million. Splunk's stock price, previously up 23% in 2019, lost 3% in pre-market trading on Thursday.


As facial recognition technology spreads as a tool of surveillance, often in countries with authoritarian tendencies, so, too, comes the rise of anti-recognition tech. Like something out of a William Gibson novel, protesters in some places are moving way beyond masks. The Economist surveys some of the research to thwart the A.I. systems:

Training one algorithm to fool another is known as adversarial machine learning. It is a productive approach, creating images that are misleading to a computer’s vision while looking meaningless to a human being’s. One paper, published in 2016 by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, and the University of North Carolina, showed how innocuous-looking abstract patterns, printed on paper and stuck onto the frame of a pair of glasses, could often convince a computer-vision system that a male ai researcher was in fact Milla Jovovich, an American actress.


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The whole blimps-as-transportation concept pretty much ended 80 years ago when the German zeppelin Hindenburg burst in flames. But with improvements in materials and propulsion, plus growing concerns about how current transportation networks are harming the climate, maybe the zeppelin will return. A researcher at Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis is proposing mile-long blimps that would ride the jet stream and carry cargo around the world. But it would still need to be filled with potentially explosive hydrogen gas. I'm not holding my breath.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.

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