I recently had a personal experience that perhaps illustrates the power and limits of technology. I was grocery shopping when I noticed an employee using a hand-held wand to scan the shelf bar code for out-of-stock items. It surprised me that a person had to walk the aisles, look for empty facings (the supermarket term for each column of goods), determine if the empty facing meant the item was out of stock, and if yes, then scan the bar code. I asked the employee why this was necessary given that the store knows or should know how many units of each item it receives and the check out system keeps track of every item sold. I would have thought that by subtraction, a supermarket could determine when an item goes out of stock.

Of course, asking the person doing this job how the whole system works is not the most promising way to obtain a conclusive answer, meaning he had no idea. I suspect that several factors prevent this approach from working: the number of items delivered to a store’s loading dock may not be the number ordered, check out clerks do not always properly scan items (so that my mix of yogurt flavors may be scanned as all one flavor), and shop lifting is obviously not tracked by scanners.

Bar codes and scanners have had a tremendous impact. Arguably, the data supermarkets have collected has shifted the balance of power from manufacturers to retailers. And clearly, scanning has sped the check-out process (and is now enabling self-service in some stores). In spite of tremendous investment and tremendous benefits, bar codes and scanners simply do not solve all the problems a supermarket faces.

The lesson here for the legal market is that one should have reasonable expectations about what technology can do. I don’t know if the supermarket industry even expected bar codes and scanners to track out of stock items automatically. But my expectation about the power of that system was clearly overly ambitious. Lawyers and law firm managers need to be realistic about what problems technology will solve and what problems will remain, even after significant investment.