This the final stop on the “Pre-MBA World Tour,” organized by John Shoaf '10 and members of the class of 2010.

At 5:30 a.m., we arrived on the market floor in time for the opening bell, which, to be precise, is an old-fashioned hand bell, rung by an auctioneer standing on a small stool.

We were at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market, perhaps one of the few places in a developed country where business is transacted quickly and efficiently without the aid of technology.

Every day before dawn, frozen tuna of all sizes arrive at the market and are spread across the floor of a warehouse. Buyers called “middlemen,” who wear special numbered hats, inspect each fish and take notes on quality, internally calculating value.

The auction commences as the auctioneer calls out the number painted in red ink on each fish and announces the opening bid. The middlemen use a gesture called “Teyari” to inform the auctioneer of their respective bids. The final price of each fish takes merely seconds to determine.

After each lot of fish is auctioned, assistants arrive with hand-pulled wooden carts. The fish are loaded onto the carts and moved to a nearby stall in the market for processing. The fish are then cut, packed and shipped to retail establishments around Japan.

Japan’s Central Wholesale Market Law of 1923 laid the groundwork for the country’s wholesale market system. Unique in the world, the law requires that prices be fixed on the basis of an auction regardless of the quantity of goods involved in the transaction. The law restricts transactions in the markets in order to maintain impartiality. According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the role of the Central Warehouse Market is to stand between producers and consumers, promote the smooth distribution of perishables and contribute to a stabilized diet through fair and speedy transactions between wholesalers and jobbers in clean and functional facilities.

It was refreshing to see that there still exists a public market built solely on human-to-human interaction. While technology has certainly changed business for the better, we on the Pre-MBA World Tour were reminded that business is fundamentally about people and, very often, speed to market. When participants in a transaction meet face-to-face, a personal bond forms and a sense of trust emerges. People, unlike machines, can exhibit raw emotion, feelings and perspectives, allowing us to adapt to our surroundings and strategically intuit things that machines are incapable of comprehending.

All this begs the question, what might technology-reliant markets learn from the human-to-human model? Some insight can be gleaned from specialist-style auction markets, such as the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. These markets allow for the personal interaction and expert judgment that is often cited by proponents as helping to maintain orderly markets, especially under extraordinary conditions. Most importantly, technology-reliant markets should learn that technology exists in order to aid people, not the other way around.

As we increasingly rely on technology to put business practices into effect, how can we retain the best elements of human-based systems in order to sustain optimal efficiency? In our zeal for acquiring newer and faster technologies, are we also losing something?

Photo credit: Daryl Reisfeld