The Amazing Case of the Disappearing Technology

BranFerren

BranFerren

Technology is stuff that doesn’t work yet.

— Bran Ferren

Bran Ferren’s words echo across the wifi to us like a premonition. The former President of R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering’s deep understanding of the way people use and engage with technology is only starting to play out in the devices that we so readily take for granted. The fact that we can call a piece of technology, a “device” at all shows how far we have come; after all, a device is something personal, knowable, intimate. And it was only twenty-odd years ago that carrying a “mobile phone” could put your back out. Personal technology is shrinking at a considerable rate.

Big Machines, Small Data

For decades, technology has driven business innovation, resulting in the rise of professional services firms, technology companies and most recently, software platforms. Until the early 90s, we designed systems around single business functions – like purchasing or order management. While this was a huge improvement on previous systems, it entrenched departmental silos and required duplication of work – put simply, the same information had to be entered into completely separate systems. Occasionally, the IT teams were able to integrate systems – connecting some pieces of data together, but this also required governance, standards and compliance – which added cost and complexity to already complex systems.

At the centre of this data frontier were the CIOs – vital drivers of innovation and productivity in almost every business. And held tightly in their grasp was information.

We realised that the faster we could crunch business information, the faster we could make decisions. Accordingly we built electronic supply chains, implemented ERP systems and automated what we could. We brought disparate systems together with a single package providing a reliable flow of data from one department to another. We had massive computers pumping relatively small amounts of data through relatively small, connected pipes. In some cases, remote controllers would be hooked up to servers via dial-up connections – and these ran multinational businesses!

The focus for all this innovation was the “back office” – far away from the prying eyes of the customer.

The Rise of the Front of House

While ERP innovation was driving efficiencies within the hardened arteries of businesses, the sales and marketing folks were still working from the same trusty rolodex and dog-eared business cards they had used since the Great Depression. But Tom Siebel had other ideas. His company was to do to customer relationships what SAP had done to finance and enterprise resource planning. The vision was – as it remains today – a single view of the customer. Like many grand visions, the reality remains tantalisingly out of reach.

But this focus on customer facing business functions, brought sales and marketing into the connected enterprise. Customer billing systems, processing, pipeline and opportunity management and a range of other functions were all digitised – and the field of business re-engineering flourished. Consultants had learned through the ERP years that return on investment lies in business users actually using these systems – and that meant customisation, training and change management. In large enterprises, this task was enormous – but was largely contained by the limits of the business. The focus was on engineering the business not extending beyond the safety of the firewall.

After all, even the top of the range, slimline laptops were clunky, heavy and slow in performance. And the business systems were ugly, hard to use and the data networks were notoriously unreliable. It appeared that innovation was always going to stop at the dizzy limit of a thin blue ethernet chord. And everything from the design of the software and hardware through to the challenges of remote access served to remind us that we were always operating out of our comfort zones – that we were dealing with technology that could both help and hinder us.

Outside-In Innovation and the Crowd

While most businesses were licking their wounds after the dotcom bomb, a new generation of tech entrepreneurs flew below the radar to create a whole new way of connecting the dots around businesses. These emerging social networks skipped the B2B market and launched direct to consumers, corralling vast swathes of the population into tightly bunched, loosely connected groups.

Similar to the way that dolphins collaborate to feast on an abundance of school fish, fast moving digital platforms like Google, Facebook and Yahoo skirted around our flanks and drove us together. Overwhelmed by the speed but excited by the possibilities, we willingly handed over our privacy, location and even identity in order to join with others who were “just like me”.

These platforms, working at warp speed, innovated at the speed of customer experience. They were unencumbered by years of process, archaic business systems and entrenched ways of working. They pushed out new features to the delight or disgust of their members, changed as necessary and moved on.

Sensing a fickleness in the consumer landscape, these fast growing startup enterprises blitzed past the “sense-and-respond” mantra proffered by management consultants the world over and created “lean” businesses that responded to changing conditions through automation, strategic outsourcing and peer-oriented customer service. The suggestions of the crowd – the paying customer – drove changes in business models, product features and even business strategy.

And all this outside-in innovation was happening from the comfort of our homes, with the convenience of technology we could hold in our hands.

The Internet of Things Gives Way to the Internet of Me

The real revolution in all this is three-fold:

  1. Consumers have built their own ecosystems around the experience that they want to create and curate for themselves
  2. “Technology” is disappearing from our lives, shrinking to a size that can be incorporated into our daily fashions
  3. Data is proliferating and permeating devices, systems and everywhere in-between

At the moment we are seeing the Internet of Things gaining traction in our homes, workplaces and public spaces. Connected by low bandwidth protocols like bluetooth, devices like Withings weight scales function like an analogue machine, displaying your weight – but add an additional dimension powered by the web and big data. Not only is your weight captured, your profile is queried in real time, and your height details are returned. Then your BMI is displayed while your latest reading is transmitted back to the cloud.

In some retail stores, sensors like iBeacons track your movement and signal your identity based on the apps running on your phone. Store assistants are proactively updated on your current status, interests and so on, and are ready to more readily assist you. Sound creepy? It’s already happening.

This is no longer the internet of things, but the internet of me. We are creating personal versions of the same kind of ERP networks that were developed in the 90s – linking our payment systems (banks) to our supply chains (shops) through sensors, apps, profiles and devices that we carry or wear at all times. And all of this is happening largely out of our view. It’s invisible. And once it becomes invisible it becomes “the way of life”.

Twitter Kills More of Its Darlings-Tweet Analytics for All

TwitterAnalytics

In writing, you must kill your darlings.
— William Faulkner

Ever since my first reading, I have loved William Faulkner. His genius leapt through the page to punch the reader in the throat. And while this quote about murdering your darlings – your favourites, your supporters, your most dearly treasured – can truly be attributed to him is doubtful. But when it comes to creativity, there is a certain dramatic logic to it. After all, it’s easy to learn to love something that you have struggled to bring to life. And for the reader, that struggle – in the reading – is also acknowledged. We read in struggle or defiance as much as we read in love. So when an author kills her darlings, the characters, situations etc that she created, the reader also shares in the loss. The drama. The agony. And the surprise.

And this is the great reward.

But when I see this approach applied to businesses – especially to startups – I baulk. In this always-connected world, it’s a struggle to create something new, useful and easy to adopt (unless it’s a puppy). It is hard to “cut through”. Hard to build an audience and generate traction with a cynical community. And it is hard to attract customers, scale through your technical challenge, attract funding and talent, and build a culture that empowers employees, attracts customers and satisfies stakeholders.

In short, the challenge is in creating a participatory ecosystem with enough value to go around.

TwitterAnalytics

With this in mind, I greet the release of Twitter Analytics with a smile AND a shrug.It is great for Twitter users who have an interest in data, impact and so on, but it is yet another anti-ecosystem move. It’s like LinkedIn’s recent decision to close off API access to sites such as Nimble. On the one hand it makes sense. “Consolidate. Be all things to all people. Own the platform.” But on the other hand, it’s limited and limiting. It’s an attempt at monetising without an ecosystem vision. And it is an affront to the users who have invested not just in the platform (Twitter, LinkedIn and yes Facebook too), but in the ecosystem as well.

In some cases our investment has been made in dollars, but that usually pales into insignificance when we evaluate our time, effort and process commitments.

Now, there is no doubt that Twitter Analytics will be useful because it provides people like myself with access to powerful data analysis tools. I dare say, eventually, it will evolve into a suite of tools that I can pay for too (more ways to monetise).

But the release of Twitter Analytics will stop external growth and investment in the Twitter ecosystem. It means that the plethora of businesses (large and small) that have sprung up thanks to the goldmine of real-time data available through social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and yes, even Google+ have one less reason to be. And thousands of less customers to attract. On that list will be everyone from Tweetreach to Hootsuite.

But the bigger challenge that comes with killing your darlings, is that they are not yours alone. And when you turn on something your customers love, you lose a little bit of that love that we had for you. And eventually, as with all disruptions, there will come a time when something or someone newer and shinier will come along. That’s when you – Twitter – will want every ounce of loyalty to play out. But by then you’ll have squandered it.

If I have learned anything from the world of software, it is that ECOSYSTEMS WIN in the long run. And if you really do want to change the world and be part of every person’s digital life, the likes of Twitter and LinkedIn would do well to think big – not just for themselves, but for all their stakeholders. Kill your darlings by all means, just make sure your aim is true.

Disruption from the Medieval to the Digital World

vatican-library

vatican-libraryOne of the most exciting and interesting projects I came across during my time working with IBM was the digitisation of the Vatican Library. A great humanist project, the Vatican Library was created during the Renaissance when books were literally hand crafted. Scribes, illuminators, binders and printers would work together to create objects that were as beautiful as the content.

It was Nicholas V (1447-1455) who decided that the Latin, Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, which had grown from 350 to around 1,200 from his accession to the time of his death (March 24 1455), should be made available for scholars to read and study.

On his death, Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) gifted his extensive personal library to the Vatican. Containing Latin and Greek codices as well as secret archives of the Popes, these three collections formed the basis of what would become the Palatine Library under Nicholas’ successor, Sixtus IV. A dark and damp space accommodating shelves, desks, benches and a growing collection, the knowledge contained in these spaces soon burst forth.

VaticanLibrary Under successive popes, the collection grew. Sixtus V rebuilt the library, adding frescos, large bright windows and benches. Of course, as was the custom of the time, each volume was held fast by a solid chain. There were strict rules about reading and copying but books were also loaned. The records of these loans are still in existence. They’d make fascinating reading in their own right.

But the flow and accumulation of knowledge could not be stemmed. This new, beautiful library was soon flooded, with books washing out of the main rooms and into hallways and adjoining rooms. The torrent could not be stopped. In fact, it was bolstered by the Pope himself. Pope Clement XI (1700-21), for example, actively acquired manuscripts and volumes from all parts of Asia, effectively establishing the Oriental Collection.

But not all these acquisitions were completely free of drama or controversy. One of Nicholas V’s first contributions to the library was the secret archives of the Vatican. Now covering over 1000 years of history, the Archivum Secretum Vaticanum separately houses  a treasure trove of precious documents on 85km of shelving. Furthermore, some of the acquisitions have raised eyebrows over the centuries:

For example, the first 6 books of the ‘Annals of Tacitus’ were known to have been stolen from the Monastery of Corvey. In the early 16th century Pope Leo was able to acquire them, and fully knew the circumstances. In 1515 he made printed copies of the manuscript, and ‘graciously’ sent a set of the ‘printed’ books, specially bound, to the Abbot of Corvey. [You can now see translations of these on Wikipedia.]

This, of course, raises questions around ownership, copyright and ethics. But it goes deeper – to the root of power, knowledge and human experience. It impacts identity and community and touches our foundational institutions no matter whether they are educational, political or cultural in nature. Understanding the flow of this far reaching impact is how we identify the fact that we are living in a state of disruption. Elizabeth Eisenstein, in her discussion of the impact of the invention of the printing press outlined five impacts of this “new media”:

  1. Experts coming under pressure from new voices who are early adopters of new technology
  2. New organisations emerge to deal with the social, cultural and political changes
  3. There is a struggle to revise the social and legal norms — especially in relation to intellectual property
  4. The concepts of identity and community are transformed and new forms of language come into being
  5. Educators are pressured to prepare their students for the newly emerging world

Today, we face this same torrent of disruption. This time, instead of hard, physical and space-consuming books, the disruption is driven by the accumulation of data. But we don’t have the hand-picked curatorial power of the Vatican Librarians. We don’t have a carefully crafted, focused collection. We have a vast sea of bits and bytes loosely connected by strings of relevance, some social cohesion and meaning and an electricity and data grid that spans the planet.

Eric Schmidt from Google famously stated that we now create as much information in two days as we did from the dawn of civilisation up to 2003. A princely figure worthy of any Pope. The Vatican Library pales by comparison:

In September 2002 the new Periodicals Reading Room, where the most important material is available to readers on open shelves, was opened to the public. At present the Vatican Library preserves over 180,000 manuscripts (including 80,000 archival units), 1,600,000 printed books, over 8,600 incunabula, over 300,000 coins and medals, 150,000 prints, drawings and engravings and over 150,000 photographs.

The Vatican Library was conceived as a vast humanist initiative. And it is one that has stood the test of time. But in this push to digitise every aspect of our lives, I wonder whether we are missing something important. As Ben Kunz suggested, there is somethind deeply personal and decidely human about our relationship to books and knowledge.

After all, our memories are deeply tied up with these dusty old objects that haunt our lives. And no matter how many blog posts or videos we produce, they never have as much impact as a table thumping tome. Just think, for example, how many businesses have disappeared or merged over the last 20 years. How many of them will still be here in 1000? Amazon may rise and fall, but I’d lay money on the fact that the Vatican Library will still be there in 3014.

The Rise of the Social Prescription

The Rise of the Social Prescription

For decades, many industries have resisted the shift to digital. Retail, pharmaceutical, financial services, healthcare and even the media have fortified themselves against the changes taking place in the global consumer marketplaces. But one-by-one, all industries must, sooner or later, engage with those customers who have already made the digital transformation or risk losing businesses to more nimble and digitally focused competitors.

Over the last half dozen years, social media has been the more publicly acceptable face of the digital revolution. And while it is wrapped in positive terminology (friends, likes, hearts), these mask a deeper and more profound shift – the shift from analog to digital. It is this shift that is sweeping all before it, impacting all aspects of business.

In the healthcare industry, peer-to-peer recommendation is giving rise to social health – and what I am increasingly calling the social prescription – diagnosis and product recommendation via social networks. For better or worse, the social prescription is a reality that healthcare specialists now must also contend with. People are now consuming health information, content and services like they do any other product – and have expectations more in line with retail experience than the traditional doctor-patient relationship.

This infographic from the alliedhealthworld site shows how this plays out:

  • More than 75% of consumers expect a response within a day after requesting an appointment through social media (note the use of the word “consumers” rather than “patients”)
  • 20% of consumers join online health forums
  • 25% of internet users watch health related videos

But the real challenge is not in understanding the shift, it is in applying that understanding to the strategy of your business. How do you:

  • Transform your healthcare or pharmaceutical business while navigating government regulation?
  • Combat misinformation and uninformed recommendation?
  • Compete for the mindshare of the connected consumer?
  • Integrate your business strategy with the demands for a digital future?

Contact me to learn how I can help.

Infographic-How-Are-Consumers-Using-Social-Media-for-Health