Dear Uber, It’s Time For a Man To Man Talk.

 
Dear Uber, 
 
I feel it’s time to have a man to man talk. Or, to put it more pedantically, a human being to voraciously ambitious young company focused on world domination on other people’s money, at the significant cost of human dignity talk. 
 
I mean, wtf people? You launched a taxi service in New Delhi, in India, a city where women till recently balked at the idea of getting onto public transport for fear of being groped or touched. Where carrying a safety pin was considered prudent in case of the need for self defence. Where most women think many times about taking any form of transport alone, after dark. A city that has witnessed horrific crimes on women in frighteningly recent memory. Into this environment, you dropped your oh-so-convenient taxi service which makes no more than mandatory background checks and takes little responsibility. Did you really think this was going to go well? 
 
I am a huge supporter of your technology. I’ve written about it here and here. I’m also a huge supporter of your service, in general. I’ve even compared it to impressionism, and that’s pretty high praise. So this is not some disgruntled rant by somebody who doesn’t get technology and wants to stand in the way of progress. Just wanted to get that out of the way before we go any further. 
 
Because the problem is obviously not limited to New Delhi or any specific place, as this terrible incident from Boston suggests. Let’s face it. If, hypothetically speaking, I had evil intentions, becoming an Uber driver may just give me the kind of opportunity my imaginary dark side craves. After all, you take no liability so you naturally are more carefree with your background checks. 
 
The irony is that technology could actually make it much safer to take a cab. To start with you might consider using blackboxes instead of consumer grade mobile devices, as these guys do. These would be much harder to turn off. Second, and even with your current set up, the moment a GPS device gets turned off for more than a minute, a red flag should go off, triggering a call to the driver and the customer. If they don’t get answered, that should be a call to the police. You should also be able to track if the car has gone significantly off the path indicated by the customer, and you’d probably be able to mark off busy and lonely spots on a map. I mean there must be a hundred other ways for smart technologists like you to make your journeys safer. 
 
I’m sure world domination is within your reach, but it seems like you are your adolescent worst enemy right now. After that ill-advised rant against a woman journalist, and that completely over the top idea to track down another journo, with carefree ignorance about privacy, you’d have thought that you would have battened down the hatches and focused very hard on doing the right thing. 
 
But apparently not. 
 
May I suggest that you seriously consider appointing a Chief Ethics Officer? I appreciate that this may cause some confusion with your existing CEO, but from where I stand, your Ethics Officer may just be the most important person in the company right now, given that he/she stands between you and implosion. I get that you’ve hired a Chief Privacy Officer, but I think that ship has sailed. I also understand that you’ve got helpful lists for customers such as this one. But isn’t that a bit like a giving out road safety instructions whilst dishing out licenses to dangerous drivers? 
 
I sincerely hope you go from strength to strength and I will likely be availing myself of your service at certain moments. There is simply no better way to get home from Heathrow at the end of a long day. Btw, the Spotify integration was cool, and fun. 
 
However, I will be advising all my women friends to stay away from Uber for a while until you’re able to demonstrate that you do really care. And there will be all those other times when I could use your service, or not. And I probably won’t. And you do realise that you can’t aim for world domination by being a last resort. 
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Enterprise Social: Your Future Neural Network

If you’re reading this in the last months of 2014, it is likely that you belong to a company which has pondered enterprise-social platforms. And it’s likely that many head scratching moments have occurred and that the answers so far fall into broadly two camps.
 
External use and mining of social media is now well understood as a means to build customer engagement and feedback. Plenty of people still get this wrong but tools like Clarabridge are strong players in this area.
 
The more perplexing piece is the use of social platforms inside the business and here, most businesses have explored rolling out Yammer or Chatter and are often wondering ‘what next’? Many are actually struggling to justify what it is that they are getting out of this?
 
In the rest of this piece, I’d like to suggest that the Enterprise Social Platform is an idea whose time has come and that in 2015 we will all be flipping to the new model of enterprise social.
 
First though, let me highlight some of the problems of communications inside large organisations:
 
 
Information flows in big companies typically represent hierarchies. So information typically flows much more smoothly up and down hierarchies and quite poorly across these lines. This is just a truism of corporate cultures and represents a significant inefficiency.
 
Second, reward systems in most companies are typically not aligned to avowed corporate values. Many companies try to enshrine values such as collaboration into their work culture but have no means in place to recognise or reward such behaviour. Consquently, collaboration, or other such values, are often a road-kill in the stampede of those behaviours which are actually rewarded – often to do with sales targets and hard numbers. This is arguably detrimental to the business in the longer run, and this is specifically the problem that WorkAngel, one of the start-ups in this space is seeking to solve.
 
And how exactly do we measure the internal transaction costs of doing business? For example to create a proposal or to deliver a project, you might need to work with up to a dozen people from different teams and departments. Often the two kinds of transaction costs you encounter are (a) time to locate the right person and (b) the time and effort-cost of the transaction, given that the said person may have no idea about who you are and may have no motivation to support you. Again, start-ups such as ProFinda and WorkAngel look to solve these everyday problems.
 
 
Another challenge you face as you grow larger and more global, is the tendency of localised problem solving. Would you even know if the problem you’re trying to solve (say, a branch specific problem in a Bank or a retail outlet), has been solved somewhere else in the organisation? Or that the expertise exists elsewhere? Also known as the re-inventing the wheel syndrome.
 
Many people have written in recent times about the role of culture – often more important than strategy as a critical contributor to success of an organisation. Where does your culture reside? Where is it rooted? How do you create a crucible for capturing this?
 
Even more so when you go through mergers or acquisitions and you are trying to quickly forge a new culture, and all the earlier challenges reappear in starker ways.
 
And what about all the soft information that you increasingly need to hold and manage but have no repository of? Somebody in the team worked as a volunteer at a hospital and has the insight which could make a big difference to your healthcare project. But it’s not in her CV, or in your corporate systems. And all the conversations between people that hold ideas and sparks for new products. And that brainstorming session that could have been a product, but everybody got busy with a bunch of other projects? Where is all of that intellectual capital?
 
And a last but important challenge: we are today in the world of bring your own self. This is a term I first heard used by Ade McCormack while we were discussing BYOD. But the idea is ubiquitous – increasingly we are blurring, in positive ways, the line between personal and professional. We no longer have to leave our personalities and hobbies at home because increasingly those can represent pools of capabilities or knowledge that can add value to our work and to our businesses. We are being encouraged to bring our whole selves to work. And our information systems are inadequate to reflect and represent our whole selves.
 
So Where Do We Go From Here?
 
We know that we’re moving from systems of record to systems of engagement in most businesses. Implicit in this is a move from structured to unstructured information. And from data and transaction centric to relationship and conversation centric information. It also implies the move from desktop to mobile and from process based to context based information. John McCarthy and his colleagues at Forrester have a report on this.
 
Seen in this context the enterprise social platform is that new and complementary layer which holds this new conversation centric, context based, relation and human oriented information which seeks to address the problems we outlined earlier. There are two key words here. (a) Complementary – nobody is suggesting we junk our transactional and structured data in favour of the warm and fuzzy. and (b) seeks – there is no guarantee. A lot will still depend on that pesky notion of implementation.
 
Social platforms are inherently non-hierarchical. Although there are some like Loyakk, which are designed around certain types of hierarchies, most are designed to engineer those serendipitous or interest based discussions, or perhaps around specific problem domains which are independent of hierarchy. On a social platform it’s not just the HIPPO who get’s his/her way. (Highest Paid Person in the Organisation). So cross hierarchical and also cross departmental conversations become quite common on social platforms. I have found Yammer perfectly good for this kind of discussion. For example when I wanted to know how to create an internal enterprise blog, I had 3 good answers in about 30 mins of posting a 1 line question.
 
I’m excited talking to next generations social platforms, such as ProFinda and WorkAngel because they go to the core of the social challenge outlined above. WorkAngel, for example has a mechanism for explicitly identifying and rewarding those behaviours which align with the avowed organisational values, through a social feedback mechanism. What’s more the rewards can be quick and even financial. ProFinda’s secret sauce is the algorithm that goes to work on all your data both structured and unstructured, internal and external, to create relationship patterns which tradition tools don’t or can’t get. Both of these are softwares you license and install, so we mustn’t confuse Social Technologies with Social Media. Both of these have strong mobile platforms and analytics, so critical to today’s needs. As does Broadvision, with it’s Vmoso mobile solution which sits on top of the Clearvale social platform.
 
Beyond Platforms To Results
 
Needless to say, the best platforms will not be good enough to deliver success if you just treat them as the answer, by themselves. Some of the key, and often obvious guidelines:
 
It’s always useful to have clear and measurable business objectives. Following a discussion with one of our clients who wanted to implement a well known social tool, but didn’t have a clear business case, we drew up this mind map. The idea was simply to identify the different types of problems that could be solved by the tool in question, from providing support on HR issues or driving cross functional teams.
 
 
 
I would urge taking this further till you can see a clear path to money – either money earned or saved. You may not get clear answers but it will still provide clarity of thinking and enable you to get the right data going forward.
 
What we should avoid, is what the authors Macdonald and Bradley, in their book “The Social Organisation”, call ‘provide and pray’. Don’t just invest in the platform and hope some good will come of it.
 
But Can’t We Experiment With New Models?
 
Does this sound contradictory with the notion that with new technologies, you don’t always have a clear business case, and you need to try stuff? The key here, I believe, is that if you’re trying it out, it should be (a) a controlled experiment and (b) with specific learning objectives. So the learning becomes the business objective and backed by an understanding of the metrics of that learning.
 
Things To Avoid
 
(1) This is not an IT solution
(2) The product/ platform is not the answer by itself
(3) Avoid buzzwords like ‘gamification’ if they are not delivering your business objective.
 
Some Other Issues To Think About:
 
Can social experiences truly be engineered? Probably not a hundred percent. But they can be curated. And the right platform, with the right implementation underpinned by clarity of goals, will go a long way in getting you there.
 
Can true collaborations across hierarchies actually take place in large companies? Probably less so in high power-distance cultures. How you enable the voice of the junior most people in the business is definitely a part of the answer.
 
What about the work/ non-work balance?
This goes back to the point earlier about bring your own self. This is going to be one of the key debates as we move away from traditional office environments with clear time and place separation of work and personal. New mores and guidelines will evolve. It is entirely possible that people in err in both directions. This space needs watching and again, it won’t harm to gather data which can help to create those guiding principles.
 
In Conclusion:
 
Unless there is a specific need for point to point communications between people who need it, the publish subscribe model is a far more efficient way of communicating. Facebook has made us comfortable with the notion of a feed and thanks to social media platforms, we are all able to post, follow, engage and respond as we feel best. No education is required here.
 
If done right, the social layer will be the neural network of your enterprise. Not getting it right, though, will lock your business into the past and history is very unkind to anybody who doesn’t evolve.

Teach Your Children Well – The Real Value of Social Media

A common refrain we all hear nowadays is how technology is creating a generation incapable of human interaction. Your kids spend all their time with their noses stuck in a phone or laptop and you’re worried (or should be) that they aren’t building the skills to interact with real people in the real world. Books such as Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together” – (which I’ve tried to read), paint this view all too grimly.

This is a misplaced fear at best, and downright wrong at worst. This post will try and explain why. 

But first, let me state that I do find it odd when I meet with young people and neither they nor their parents find it necessary to make any attempt at conversation. They slink into a corner with their phones and the inter-generational equilibrium (read: uneasy truce) is reached. I’m not defending the lack of real life social engagement skills. But is technology really to blame for this? In my book, this is a debate about parenting, which is best kept for another forum. 

But social media has a bad rep in many circles. I occasionally hear people say with a lot of vehemence (or pride?) “I don’t have time for cr*p like Facebook”. Others will say “I don’t get the point of Twitter”. Without disrespecting opinions, let’s get a few simple assertions out of the way.

Social media is first, a marketplace. It’s a market for opinions, emotions and connections. As with any market, there are buyers and sellers. Thus it is that on any platform, including the ones above, there are people who have the need to express, and those who have the desire to listen. 

Second, many of us live in a post-national world today. Our families, friends, colleagues and professional relationships all comfortably span countries and continents. On a given day we interact with people all over the world. Isn’t it amazing that we can do this? Have we forgotten already how magical this is? And how far we’ve come from the days of having to pre-book International Trunk-Calls and start conversations with “What time is it there?”. 

Most importantly, in the world today’s children will grow up in, it will be natural to have as many conversations with people across the world as with the persons next to us. No, this is not sad, or a decline in human communication. It’s the death of distance. I want to have a coffee with my colleague at work, and dinner with my friends who live in my city, but I also want to share the private joke with my college friend who happens to be working in Africa currently, and debate the pros and cons of the changes in the Indian political climate with my friends in India. I want to hear from my friends caught in the Polar Vortex in America, that they are safe and warm and to continue the debate I started with my mother about whether or not the US Dollar is a artificially held up by oil-negotiations. I want to do all of this in a single day. And I can. Isn’t that great? And if it isn’t already for you, this will be the new normal. Inability to manage in this world will be a huge challenge. 

Remember, the are entirely new skills being learnt here. Your average teenager is adept at holding multiple parallel conversations; is part of an ongoing language evolution, and is learning about an entirely new way of running trust relationships without physical interaction. All of these are life-skills for tomorrow. 

So while not decrying the value of human interaction as we know it, lets not forget that these technology enabled means of human communication are as important. Knowing one should not mean losing the other. Just as gaining a friend shouldn’t mean losing another. 

10 Talking Points from Our Innovation & Social Media Panel

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a panel discussion on Social Innovation, at the Cognizant Community for Women. On the panel with me were Pete Marsden from ASOS, Clara Bermingham from Rentokil and Clare Brown, from Coke. We didn’t plan it this way, but it turned out that each of these 3 businesses use Social technologies in a very different way. For one of them it’s a route to market, and a way to drive a global sales model. For another it’s a service delivery issue and a way to connect colleagues and frontline staff. For the third, it’s a brand engagement model. I’ll leave you to figure out which is which. 

 

Some really interesting themes emerged from the discussion. Here are a few of them: 

 

1.   As highlighted by the introduction, the starting point is to be clear about what your objective is, on social media platforms. The three companies above were all essentially clear on what it meant to them and importantly, what it did not. 

2.   There are vastly different levels of control in Social media from traditional communication channels and this is something organisations need to get used to. However, many organisations are using social media as formal channels. This typically calls for putting the right processes in place for managing communications on social media. As it turns out 140 characters can be very long paragraphs in some languages! 

3.   The structure and staffing of social media platforms is a specific challenge where there are no precedents to follow. New skills may be required, and it may not be as simple as hiring a ‘bunch of millenials’. You may need to collocate communications and development teams so that they can create faster. Hub and spoke networks are advised for localisation challenges, and needless to say, the multilingual nature of the internet is a given requirement. 

4.   One specific problem that you cannot avoid is that the internet is a 24×7 environment and the social sphere. Whether you have customers wanting to speak with you, or consumers talking about you, you have to be listening and responding. The ability to set up and run a 24/7 operation is a key aspect of running a social operation. This may not sound like a big deal, but typically, service teams are set up for 24×7 operations, where as sales and marketing teams are not. So if the social play in your organisation is the domain of sales and marketing, this might be a challenge. 

5.   What about governance, quality and errors? Well there are divergent streams of thought. Of course, you need to have the right level of governance in place, but because of the less formal nature of the medium, it’s all right to make the odd mistake. It actually presents a more human side of the company. Needless to say, this should not be taken to it’s extreme.  

6.   Talking about which, Social platforms offer a way to tap into the sea of external energy, but this does imply a journey to more porous organisational boundaries, where internal and external communications start to merge. This may require a re-learning and a change in the way organisations traditionally communicate. As somebody pointed out, you might state on your personal blog that this is just your opinion, but that may not prevent it influencing perception about your organisation. 

7.   In fact, there is a great opportunity here, to address some of the non-financial objectives that most businesses have. This is a great way to address the obligation that most businesses have, to become a socially valuable organisation, whether it’s by participating in causes that appeal to the organisation or by mobilising effort on a cause that you actually own and drive. 

8.   It’s not easy to make all these changes. All the attendant challenges of change management apply here. But within that there are opportunities social platforms themselves, as an agent of change. One of our panellists was a designated ‘Chatterazzi’ for the company’s change program. Critically, adoption of social platforms is a significant step towards the de-hierarchialisation of the enterprise. It’s a way in which the CEO can engage in active dialogue with employees, or with consumers. These are all agents of change. 

9.   The underlying technology landscape is vastly diverse, and in many organisations, a questionably high number of tech platforms and tools may already be in use. A rationalisation may well provide value. What is perhaps more significant, is that this is leading to a model of ‘loose coupling’ of technology, a different way again, from how traditional enterprise technology is configured. 

10. Finally, of course, all of this makes sense only insofar as the underlying analytics are delivering the metrics which have been agreed upon. Only in this case, the metrics may be less obvious, and in some cases both the metrics and the meaning may be a part of an evolutionary process. Hence, this is not a design once and run forever kind of model, but rather one where even the analytics team needs to stay engaged in the evolving model and contribute to the universe of possibilities, and help uncover unfolding patterns. 

 

I could go on, but I’ll stop at 10, hopefully these will have made sense to you. 

Many thanks to the excellent panel for helping illuminate this challenging topic, and looking forward to more conversations, and new thinking. 

Understanding The Triggers for Digital Transformation

Digital Dominos? 

Domino’s is not an internet company. It’s not web2.0, or social. The product serves one of the oldest needs in the book. The business model depends on humans for both creation and delivery. Yet, the company can claim to be a digitally transformed company. Some 60% of Domino’s UK revenues comes from digital platforms. Of which about 20% comes from mobile devices. This is not to say that everything about Domino’s digital experience is perfect. I personally find the mobile app difficult to order from. But the numbers don’t lie, Domino’s have clearly made giant strides here. 

 

You might argue whether just changing the sales/ order process is good enough for being called a digital transformation. This is why the tired cliche of the blind men and elephant is still valid when one tries to define digital transformation. Recently, I was in a room with colleagues trying to create a single phrase for defining digital transformation and very quickly you could see how each of us was struggling with the limitations or connotations of each phrase. Should it include just customer engagement? Or supply chain as well? Does it matter if the transformation doesn’t explicitly lead to better financial performance, in the short term? What magnitude of change actually qualifies as “transformation”? And why does your business need to transform, anyway? 

 

Rather than the semantics of the phrase itself, I find it more instructive to focus on the causes and effects of this transformation. 

 

The world wide web has been around for about 20 years now, so it’s safe to say that the web itself is not the source of transformation, except for Rip Van Winkle companies who may have been asleep for a couple of decades. Domino’s is successful because it’s already made that transition. So what’s the new challenge? I think there are six actually six! 

 

 

6 Forces of Digital Transformation

 

The device switch is a first and important one. The PC market declined over 10% year on year in 2013. The mobile phone market grew 6%, while the smart phone market grew over 50%. In Q2, 2013, 76 million PCs were shipped world wide, compared to 432m smart phones and almost double that number of mobile phones, worldwide. Clearly there is a massive shift in the devices people are using, to access information and services. Mobile devices require a different user experience, have a different set of use cases, form factors, operating systems and constraints. This itself requires a significant rethink of how you deliver your digital services. 

 

Even as mobile devices take over from PC’s as the preferred environment, connectivity is changing too. We are now in a world where WiFi is ubiquitous, 3G is also on the verge of being usurped by 4G networks in many parts of the world. The number of internet connected devices surpassed the world’s population in 2010. Fibre to the home is available for millions of clients across the US and UK and Google threatens to reach 8 million households with fibre by 2022. Yet, arguably more important is the availability of the internet outside the house. The mobile internet. As this creates entirely new behaviour patterns. 

 

One such behaviour for example is the “always addressable consumer” (Forrester), which refers to the way in which consumers are always connected and hence reachable, by service providers. But everywhere you look, there are new behaviours, which are becoming mainstream. Checking your bank account on your mobile phone before you shop, checking Facebook first thing in the morning, along with news, checking twitter as a reliable source of breaking news, or comparison shopping using your mobile phone from inside a retail store (otherwise known as showrooming). And it’s increasingly clear that companies have to start equipping themselves for these new behaviours, of customers, employees and all other stakeholders. TruZign tries to take advantage of this by enabling 3 factor authentication for e-commerce transactions using a mobile phone. 

 

One of the biggest changes in the influences of behaviour over the past few years is the role played by social platforms. By providing a ready access to the opinion of crowds, or of our friends and families, we are now making choices in very different ways. I was recently warned off an airline by an overwhelming majority of about 25 responses to a question I posed on Facebook. We are increasingly hearing about how people turn their TV on in response to something they read on a social media platform. People are increasingly exploring platforms like “Kickstarter” rather than a bank loan, to start a business. 

 

Lest we forget, it’s not just people connected to the internet, but machines connecting directly and sharing actionable data, which is happening all around us. Sensors and smart appliances are exponentially increasing the number of connected devices as well as the volume of data. The energy industry is set to be transformed over the next 5 years through a combination of smart grids, smart appliances and the use of sensors through out the supply and consumption chains. Healthcare, too, is likely to look very different over the next decade thanks to the emergence of digital healthcare, and the evolution of streams of medicine such as pharmacogenomics

 

All this connectivity, behaviour change and new data is meaningless if it stays as anecdotes, as there are always counter-examples, and individual perceptions about what works or doesn’t. Yet, as our work on Code Halo’s shows, the reason why Blockbuster stumbled while Netflix grows, or why Amazon sprints while Borders stutters, is the ability to make sense of all this new data. Analytics is not new, but the ability to make sense of this deluge of data in a way that is bigger, faster and more meaningful than before is arguably the biggest trigger for digital transformation, as it seeks to reshape how decisions are actually made in your business. 

 

In Sum

 

In sum therefore, we have new devices, new connectivity, new behaviours, social influences, machine to machine and internet of things, and finally analytics, as some of the key drivers of digital transformation. They may collectively influence your business in different ways, depending on your industry, business model, legacy challenges, and your vision. There may well be other factors, such as regulatory change and step changes in computing itself, and the whole sale move of computing and data infrastructure to the cloud, which could be additional influences.

 

Next up: how to deal with digital transformation. 

Surviving The Information Age

I was recently asked (as I often am), “what devices will we use in x years?” Usually, in this kind of question,  x can be 2 years, 5 years or 10 years, depending on the ambition of the question? This is often a cue for animated debates on Google Glasses, Apple Watches and the next big thing in wearable computing and whether you would want a phone chip installed in your ear. This kind of argument, whichever flavour of device your rooting for, misses the point completely about the real challenge facing us – how to survive the information age. In fact, to stretch a point, this is like being faced with an energy crisis and arguing whether the batteries we use should be square or round. 
 
I am personally petrified of how ill equipped I am in dealing with this information driven era we are increasingly finding ourselves in. By all apparent measures, you would think I’m reasonably§ information savvy. All my files are on dropbox and accessible over the cloud. My phones are always backed up. My photographs are on Flickr, Picassa or on Apple’s photostream. My music is on Spotify or on iTunes. I use Google docs extensively to collaborate professionally. I maintain 4 different levels of passwords to keep my data safe. And yet, I would give myself a 3 out of 10 in terms of being ready for the information world. 
 
In my last blog I touched about the problem of “Dom’s MacBook in Iran“. That was just one example. Professor Gerd Kortuem of the Lancaster University’s High Wire program spoke at a session I attended a few years ago about an example where they added little meters to the drills used by roadworks teams, in order to measure the levels of vibration and to alert the supervisor if it was above safety limits. This created a huge problem for supervisors, as they now had new information they needed to act on. Earlier, they just took a gut call and that was it. Now they had to review the information and decide what to do if the readings were too high. Stop work? Look for alternatives? Inform the office? Increasingly, we find ourselves in possession of information which actually creates new challenges for decision making.  
 
On the other hand, this superabundance of information creates a responsibility of it’s own. It is an act of negligence today to not do the “due diligence” on any important decision. Whether it’s researching a hotel you want to book for a holiday, or perhaps the person you are going to meet. Whether you are unwell and need to know about the symptoms and possible causes, or whether you’re checking nutritional values of the things you’re buying at the super market, small and big decisions are now made much easier by information availability. The bottom line is you can make better decisions and a series of better decisions should lead to a higher quality of life and work. 
 
Which brings us to the first of my list of three key survival skills, which collectively explain why all of us aren’t yet equally good at handling and using this information. I’m talking about the ability to find information effectively. How to use Google (or any other) search effectively. How to find information on lean thinking without being flooded by results for lean meat. Information search skills should be taught in primary school. 
 
A personal peeve of mine is the phrase “new research shows…” a term often heard in television news programs. Usually it’s accompanied by fresh perspectives on whether something is or isn’t good for health, and runs contrary to previously held ideas. However, very rarely are we told the source of the data, and more critically the source of the sponsorship of the research. We know well that it’s easy for interest groups to “create” research with favourable outcomes. So if research suggesting that broccoli can cure the common cold is backed by the Broccoli Growers Association, you would do well to dig deeper into the evidence. Mostly this kind of “newsworthy” research suffers from the sponsorship bias or often just the news bias – the need to make a story. The recent story in the BBC about surviving on £ 1 per day is riddled with palpably bad research and poor homework,  as well documented herebut it made for a good story. Of course if you aren’t up to date with the Daily Mail’s ongoing obsession with things that cause and/or cure Cancer, you can get a quick summary here.
 
The second information survival skill therefore, that every 10 year old should know today, is to be able to validate the source of data. It’s likely that you can get a slew of answers to almost any question, on the internet. But which one do you trust and how do you establish the quality of the source? Or remove sponsorship bias? Equally, when the fall back option for most people is Wikipedia, it’s important to note what is and isn’t best crowdsourced. To put it simply, in a quiz show, if you were asked a question about a character on a soap, it’s a good question for an audience poll. Not so much if the question refers to, say, the isotopes of Neon. 
 
Sooner or later, that pesky question pops up again – what is information, and how does it differ from data? My favourite answer is context. Let’s take 2 people – Mary and Max. Max is navigating his way through a jungle, with no access to provisions except what he can find and eat in the jungle. Mary is playing football in a tournament and about to take a penalty. Both are given 2 pieces of data each. First, that most goalkeepers tend to dive to the left or right, so statistically, hitting a penalty straight down the middle has the highest chance of scoring. Second, that if you dig a hole in a muddy area, it takes 20 minutes for the sediments to settle, and the water to become drinkable. Now, clearly for Max and Mary, one of these pieces of data is information. The other, irrelevant. To see the ludicrousness of information without context, see this Fry & Laurie sketch)
 
But Max and Mary might find themselves in each other’s shoes at some point of time.  Will they still retain the “irrelevant” information they were given? 
 
Which means that the third key survival skill is an ability to continuously build and reference your data gathering so that your personal library and signposts enable you to marry information to context all the time? Our education system was historically built to provide information you had to store in your head and use for the rest of your life. That has obviously changed, but do you have a reliable library system to replace it? Plenty of tools (such as bit.ly) for example enable tagging and marking of content and a combination of ubiquitous access and smart devices make this library always accessible. You are your own librarian. Pay attention to your filing system. 
 
To put this in the enterprise perspective, the role of all systems is to deliver the right information in the right context. Whether it’s customer data to a sales person, or risk information to a project manager. This is the bottom line. Once you strip away all the IT jargon and the systems-speak, this is the simple objective. Every time your business doesn’t deliver the relevant information at the point of decision making, it’s an area of improvement for information technology. 
 
But of course, you can only deliver the data you have, so data capture becomes the next challenge. The best source of enterprise data is transactions (and the worst are probably areas where employees are expected to make an extra effort just to provide the data). What’s very interesting is that as more and more activities go digital, we’re seeing the emergence of the digital trail that comes straight out of the transaction. 
 
Increasingly every activity, from using an oyster card in the tube, to a meter reading and from checking your bank account to measuring your blood pressure is a digital activity and leaves a digital trail. This is a trail of data which is is currently divergent and disaggregated. But if harnessed, they could be extremely powerful. Even within your business, the ability to mine the digital trail creates a new source of information. The HBR article Exploiting the Virtual Value Chain is a must read to understand how this could work. 
 
Sometime in the late 90s, I read a very interesting story about a transport company in India which was having trouble tracking the vehicles as they made their way across the vast hinterland of the company, with no real communication system in place to track them. Some of the journeys were over 7 days long each way. The company hit upon the idea of doing a deal with a specific set of petrol pumps where in exchange for a the volume of business, the company got some benefits and information on every truck that refuelled at any of the stations. In one step, the company had created an information network, which would report back on each truck whenever they refuelled. A great example of the digital trail at work. 
 
The Hailo taxi application is another great example of this. Hailo digitises the process of calling a taxi and even paying for it. But it creates a digital information trail which allows you track which taxi you used and when. The company now markets as a feature that you can always trace back if you left something in the cab. 
 
However, one of the great unanswered questions which is sure to be debated hotly over the next few years is about ownership of the information. As we generate digital trails about our purchases, our health, our travel, our energy consumption, this creates a huge and valuable information cloud. Who owns this?
 
In case you’re not convinced about how valuable information can be, consider the fact that smart meters can reveal detailed information about all devices and appliances being at home, including when and for how long. Which in turn provides very meaningful clues into the lifestyles of people in the house – including the number of people, when they are at home and what they do at home. Clearly this is a gold mine for marketers. 
 
So is it us as individual owners of our own data? Is it each service provider? Will there be a role for an information intermediary who can hold our data and monetize it on our behalf? Who should this be? Google? The Government? Cooperatives? Richard Seymour, founder of Seymour Powell has an idea about a digital surrogate who is on “our side of the glass” who is the repository and identity manager for us. But there is also aggregation value of the information which needs to be realised. 
 
To summarise, we need to individually build the 3 basic skills of finding information, verifying the source and creating our own reference & library system. We also, as companies need to tap into the digital trail of transactions and find creative ways of extracting value and meaning from the digital trail, and delivering information in the right context. Finally as a society, we need to answer questions about the ownership, curation and exploitation of data at an individual and collective level. For me these are the basics of survival in the information age. 

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.