Digital Transformation – A Cultural Footprint

Yesterday, I came across this fascinating story in the Mashable website. Dom Deltorto, a London based Animator loses his laptop but has installed a piece of software which tracks the stolen laptop’s location and secretly takes pictures of whoever is trying to use it. The laptop duly surfaces… in Iran! The camera starts sending pictures of a family in Iran. Not much the original owner can do, so he decides to create a Tumblr called Dom’s Laptop is in Iran. And uploads the pictures coming out of his Macbook onto the Tumblr, which goes viral. You can guess what’s coming! The family in Iran was mortified. They had no idea the Laptop was stolen and worse, pictures of their home and family were all over the internet, the contacted Dom, to return the laptop. Dom, to his credit, was duly embarrassed. He apologised, took down the tumblr and asked the family to keep the laptop.

The comments under the story are as telling as the story itself. There are those who take the stance that Dom was in the wrong all along, by violating somebody’s privacy before establishing the facts. That he should have known that these were not the original culprits who stole the laptop. There are others who take a much more black and white stance that buying goods you know are stolen is a crime and the family should have known. Then there are the mitigators who point out that you can’t get original MacBooks in Iran.

The story also highlights the challenges we face as suddenly a whole new wave of information is made available and the rules around using that information are not yet clearly established. To be clear, this method has been used before for successfully tracking laptop thieves. Only this time, the consequences were far worse for all concerned. As we hurtle into the world of digital transformation, this is an important signpost reminding us to proceed with caution.

Personally speaking I love the impact of technology on our lives. Last week, while walking through Paddington, I saw a KFC sign that reminded me of a Stephen Fry anecdote about Kentucky, which got me thinking about the Kentucky Derby and the Rolling Stones reference in the Dead Flowers song. I found myself humming the song. Got into the train, opened Spotify on my phone and was listening to the song in the next 45 seconds as the train pulled out of the station. This world was unimaginable half a decade ago, and yet now, it’s the new normal.

In fact travelling is probably the most significantly improved experience, thanks to mobile technologies. The application is obvious, the benefits easy to actualise and the number of apps are ever increasing. Google Maps is the worlds most popular mobile API, and that’s for this reason. It’s also the most popular app. I was amazed when I looked for directions to the aquarium in Lisbon and the “bus” icon in google maps told me (quite accurately) that the bus stop was about 200 meters away and that the next bus was in 17 minutes and the journey would take about 30 minutes. I have also used Google Maps to check if I’m on the right bus or train, when I don’t speak the local language. That’s how i discovered I had taken the wrong train trying to get from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, when my blue dot started to move away from the clearly drawn train line connecting the cities!

In the past week I have used Bus TImes, the London bus application to good effect a couple of times, I use the Trainline app often, and Hailo needs no introduction. But also, the Hex (Heathrow Express) app is wonderful for letting me book tickets while I’m walking to the train. And even my local cab company, whom I have been calling regularly on the phone for a few years now, are constantly reminding me to use their app. (I have, it works like a dream). They get it, it’s better for their business as well. I just wish i could combine all of the data I spread across these app experiences and create my own digital trail, to show where I’ve been and what modes of travel i’ve used, say, over the past month.

But it’s not only travel, is it? Look closely at your corner shop. It’s almost a given that they already provide mobile phone top ups, sim cards for operators, and other digital services. There are as many computer and phone repair stores in my locality as there are shoe-repair and key-cutting stores. Digital is now a woven into our daily lives in ways we don’t even notice any more.

The implications of this digital influx are many. They include a trend towards instant gratification, the creation of a very powerful digital trail of data, a re-writing of privacy frameworks and a drastically improved level of personal efficiency. And a marked shift towards the cloud, in ways that we don’t necessarily plan or recognise. I use paid versions of Evernote, Dropbox and Linked In, apart from Spotify. And unpaid versions of Flickr, Youtube, Picasa and others. Effectively a significant part of my life is in the cloud. The most significant implication of this is a reduced dependence on device choices (I get them across all my devices). I do all of this consciously, but there is a generation growing up for whom this is normal and not particularly comment worthy.

Smart businesses are already tapping into this digital lifestyle phenomenon by launching services, many of which are adjacent to their core business, but related to the services they already provide to a consumer. Whether you’re a bank, a utility company or an airline, this is something worth thinking about, because it creates a new layer of engagement, new routes to customer value and in the best case, new revenues. British Gas’s investment into AlertMe, which among other things delivers smart data, is a very good example of this, or at least a step in the right direction. The New York Times’ innovation lab generates a spectrum of digital innovation ideas, not all of which are to do with traditional journalism. The disconcerting thing is actually, the number of businesses who are ignoring this.

Yesterday, I caught up with Anu, who is in her 20s. Earlier in the day she was having a meal with a couple of friends who she has previously only met digitally, but has collaborated on a paper with one of them. This was the first face to face meeting, as one of them hails from a scandinavian country, and Anu now lives in Mumbai. Their meeting was in central London. Later this month, Anu is travelling to Germany, to spend a week with a lady who is her mother’s pen-friend for over 30 years. Think about this inter-generational bookending of relationships. Have we really changed all that much? Or is it just that our tools of engagement have morphed?

Irrespective of whether we have changed as people, it’s abundantly clear that our behaviours and tools are changing. If you’re a business serving consumers today, you have a digital transformation challenge on your hands. A key to this is to get your digital transformation initiative out of the boardroom, into the streets and lives of the people you’re serving. And to watch out for those cultural signposts, the points of inflexion and the white spaces that open up along the way.