A few thoughts have been crossing my mind lately about the intersection between digital technology and the human sphere, and how the technical dovetails with the interpersonal. I’ve lassoed them here into a series of observations for your edification. Enjoy …

1. Tech Trends are Visible: You Can’t Say You Didn’t Know…
For all the talk of disruption, trends (even technical ones) are generally visible ahead of time. In an interview in 2008 published in Fortune magazine, Steve Jobs said:

Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you're going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.

We know, for example, that the trend in computing has gone from desktop (PCs), to mobile (smart phones and tablets) to wearable technology. This is not a trade secret. The punchline, if you’re a conventional watchmaker (such as Seiko or Citizen) is that you better have a pretty darn good offering ready for when Apple releases its iWatch. Be afraid, be very afraid…

Likewise, we know that 3D printing is around and starting to gain ground. I expect this will have less impact on conventional paper printers than on small custom designers and niche manufacturers.

Leverage the disruption, generate a competitive counter-offering, or have an exit strategy in place.

But you can’t say you didn’t see it coming.

Key Questions: What tech trends are likely to impact your organisation? How will you respond?

2. Big Data … or Smart Data?
Speaking of trends, most people would be familiar with the trend towards ‘big data’ – that with mobile web-enabled technology vast swathes of data are now available to companies. Your buying (and browsing) history on Amazon provides the fodder for customised recommendations (‘Buyers who bought this also bought…’). Loyalty cards and frequent flyer programs provide companies with terabytes of purchase data that can be cross-matched with demographic data so that customised offers can be made based on the purchasing patterns of similar types of people.

All of this is well and good (on the assumption that the fine line of compliance with privacy has been successfully negotiated…). This form of data is large-scale, and the end-point of its application is to increase revenue from the final customer.

But in my experience, most organisations have tons of data available anyway, and very few firms have actually made use of the data that they already have, even before big data was available. And even less have used it to shape their strategic position.

How many organisations that you’ve come across, for example, have quantified…

* how the level of demand for their product or service has responded to changes in price

* the impact on absenteeism of changes in staff or HR policies

* whether unit costs have increased or decreased, and why

* whether there a trade-off between the quality of their offering and its cost, and hence if there is scope that allows them to improve both, and

* whether turnaround time (the time it takes to fulfil a customer order from beginning to end) has increased or decreased, and why.

Most organisations are so mired in internal details and bureaucracy that they’re not even aware of the benefits that could be gained from putting existing data sets together to see if there are patterns between them. A few years back I looked at two separate survey series that were done: one on customer satisfaction and another separate mystery shopper exercise. Lo and behold, with a bit of analysis I was able to isolate which factors from the mystery shopper survey were driving one particular (and important) attribute of customer satisfaction. Everyone had just been seeing two separate sets of survey results, but no-one had thought of putting them side by side and seeing if there were any patterns linking them.

So the issue is not only having large data sets, it’s whether you know the range of data already at your disposal, and whether it’s used adroitly and to good effect.

In other words, it’s less about big data, than smart data.

Key Question: What data is ready available for you, and could you use it to shed light on your organisational priorities?

3. We Live in a Highly Institutionalised World
I’m hard pressed to think of any Australian area of unfettered market capitalism. Most areas of life are regulated or subject to some kind of oversight or supervision. Cuts to public budgets generate widespread public antagonism rather than a celebration of the lifting of the ‘dead hand’ of government from the economy and society.

Other than share price or mergers and acquisitions movements, news about corporates typically focuses less on competitive or market positions, than on factors such as the representation of women on boards, or the health and well-being of employees.

Our world is highly institutionalised.

In turn, this means that stakeholders play a fundamental role in accomplishing organisational goals: influence and credibility with individuals and groups, and managing agendas are the name of the game. In such a ‘shared power’ world, identifying, analysing, engaging and marshalling stakeholders is half the battle. Having well-developed interpersonal skills is important in this light. And it’s worth thinking about how your data analysis (refer point above) plays to institutional factors.

In Napoleon’s time, strategic success depended on understanding the topographical landscape; now, success depends on understanding the stakeholder landscape. This is why stakeholder analyses are a recurring theme in these e-newsletters: they are crucial to success in an institutionalised world.

Key Question: Who are the priority stakeholders and what are the main agendas you need to manage to achieve your goals?

4. Face to Face Contact in a Digital World
As technology enables our interactions to be more removed and abstract, it’s tempting to think that face to face contact will become less important, if not altogether redundant. After all, why meet face to face if we can Skype?

I think that face to face contact will actually become more important than less, precisely because there are so many other ways to communicate. As its share of total human interaction decreases, its impact will increase: there is no substitute for the richness of face to face contact in terms of reading body language, reading an office or work environment, and incidental interactions (bumping into other people). You just can’t get those from a text message or video conference.

Those who can strike the balance between reaping the benefits of digital communication, and the richness of face-to-face contact will be well placed both to extend their reach and to leverage serendipity.

Key Questions: Who are the people you really need to meet face to face, and for which occasions? What environments do you need to physically be in? Who can you deal with digitally, and for which purposes?

*  *  *

If you’d like to contact me to discuss any of the above, or you could do with a hand analysing data or stakeholders, feel free to email or call on 0414 383 374.

Michael Carman
Director I Michael Carman Consulting
PO Box 423, Croydon Park NSW 2133 I M: 0414 383 3740414 383 374

© Michael Carman 2014