Friday, 25 July 2014

CIOs should top CMOs on digital strategy

One feature of the conversation about CIOs in recent months has been about where they stand in regard to chief marketing officers (CMOs). It’s an acknowledgement that one of prime functions of an organisation’s information strategy is to support its marketing, and there have been suggestions that the CIO should be regarded primarily as part of the CMO’s team.
Accenture has thrown its voice into the debate with the publication of a report, Cutting across the CMO-CIO divide, which it says reflects a sea change as more CIOs put marketing at the top of their agendas. It’s core message is that, while they understand the need to collaborate, they don’t get on over a number of issues.
For example, a lot of CMOs think that IT teams don’t get the need for urgency in integrating new data sources into campaigns as required, and that technology development is too slow for digital marketing. CIOs complain about shifting goalposts and marketing’s lack of vision in anticipating new digital channels.
All this is no big surprise. Conflicting agendas are part of daily life in the boardroom, and it becomes more fraught when technology is involved as it advances so quickly and the two sides have a different focus. It can also be complicated by issues around data regulation; marketing teams see the opportunities in acquiring and squeezing customer data, while CIOs are aware of the legal limitations and know any transgressions will place them in the firing line.
It shouldn’t be impossible to overcome these tensions; after all, the teams are led by highly paid people who are all meant to have an understanding of the whole business. But it might need a stronger consensus over who is in overall charge of digital issues: who has the final say and is ultimately responsible for any failures.
The CIO is the obvious choice, as information is the foundation of a digital strategy and the focus of his or her responsibility. They spend more of their time and think more deeply about the digital aspects of the business, and should be the prime source of expertise.
But in plenty of organisations that is going to stir up fresh tensions. You cannot stop CMOs and their teams from keeping a sharp eye on the digital opportunities in marketing and making a noise over wanting to grab them, even if they are unproved or could bring unwelcome consequences.
A merger between the two departments – an idea that is occasionally floated – could only come to grief. You’re looking at two groups of people with different mindsets: marketers who want to excite the customer, and information specialists with a more methodical outlook on making sure it all flows as it should. It’s right that, as Accenture suggests, there should be an organisational digital vision to underpin collaboration, but they will remain separate entities.
Solutions won’t come easily and this tension is likely to rumble on for some time. But if CIOs don’t obtain the ultimate authority over digital strategies it will seriously undermine what their role is all about.
Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See www.marksay.co.uk

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A commercial opportunity in the copyright minefield

Copyright has always been a minefield, and it’s been made more hazardous by the way that sentiment over its place in the digital world has become more confused.

The rise of digital technology stoked up protectionist fears by making it too easy to copy, share or illegally re-sell content. But we’re now in an era when the ability to make something new out of existing content – moving from data mash-ups to app creation – is making copyright more of a hindrance in some eyes. Public authorities with an eye on the economic potential of the latter are feeling increasingly torn between protecting the original creators and giving the next wave the chance to show what they can do.

Neelie Krose, the EU commissioner with the digital brief, has acknowledged the conundrum with a speech crying out for copyright reform. Her language leaned towards worries that copyright is getting in the way of progress; she said the 2001 EU Copyright Directive isn’t fit for the 2010s and that there’s a risk of copyright becoming an irrelevance.

So there has to be reform. Fair enough, but what type of reform, and how is the EU going to make it all fit a landscape that keeps on changing? There are a hell a lot of details to resolve and devils in all of them. Providing a legal framework that protects the original content creators yet still gives the re-use innovators a chance to succeed is going to be a difficult and highly contentious job.

The most obvious recent precedent, the EU Data Protection Regulation, has prompted plenty of observers to claim it is unworkable and could yet be mangled by the Council of Ministers. I suspect that copyright, an issue even closer to the lawyers’ hearts, is going to create even more dissent.

This doesn’t mean that the EU shouldn’t try to deal with the issue, but this is going to be a drawn out process with a lot of grey areas. Those innovators are going to feel increasingly impatient, but also scared at the thought of being financially clobbered if they break the law.

I expect there will be some enterprising legal minds, or even non-legal entrepreneurs, ready to take advantage of this with services that promise a quick and easy way to clarify the legality of using specific content. If they offer a reliable service in checking the origins and licensing terms of specific content they can provide the reassurance that the innovators are looking for – at a price.

These services shouldn’t be particularly complicated, and will probably involve steps that a lot of people could take for themselves. But legal matters always seem very complicated to most of us, and they’ll find plenty of takers among the digital entrepreneurs who don’t want to get burned.

There’s money in that minefield.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See www.marksay.co.uk

Monday, 30 June 2014

Augmented reality glasses face the privacy test

An adverse reaction to Google Glass is underway. It’s not just the anecdotes about it being banned from bars, restaurants and cinemas and police dishing out traffic tickets, but the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has blogged that it’s going to cause problems and warned companies that if they use the technology they have to be careful about privacy and data protection.

Even some of the evangelists for Google Glass acknowledged early on that it would run into opposition, and as more people become aware of its camera function there are going to be a lot of tetchy responses to seeing it in public.

It’s important not to talk solely about Google Glass when it comes to augmented reality glasses. As I wrote a few months back in a white paper for the BCS, there are other companies making glasses that provide data to wearers to guide them through a task, and these have already found early adopters in work from warehousing to healthcare. There is a vast potential for supporting people in their work and it would be a waste if it’s squashed by anxieties over privacy.

In fact, there are a lot of work environments in which it shouldn’t be an issue. Directing a worker in a warehouse or providing guidance for surgery takes place in a closed space where there is no threat of trawling for images through the camera on AR glasses. There’s no reason why this part of the market shouldn’t grow as the technology is refined.

But it won’t be possible to draw a clear line between a closed work environment and the public realm. Organisations are already making use of AR on tablets in fields such as civil engineering, architecture and retail, and there’s going to be strong temptation to experiment with AR glasses if there’s a big advantage in keeping hands free.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario when someone has a legitimate business use for AR glasses in a public space, receiving and feeding back information on the environment while making notes on another device, or operating a machine or vehicle. It’s just as easy to imagine someone else taking offence at their presence being recorded, especially on a device that can stream the image straight into a corporate data store.

Can you draw a clear line between the two? You can have arguments about what constitutes a public space, or if you can still violate someone’s privacy when they’ve entered an organisation’s space. And there are going to be legitimate business reasons, often around public services, for using AR glasses on the street, in a park, in a place where crowds gather. Saying these are off limits would deprive planners and emergency service teams among others of a potentially valuable tool.

I don’t think there are clear answers to this, and it’s going to take time, more familiarity and a good few arguments before a consensus on acceptable usage and a clear legal line emerges. But the ICO has been right to tell organisations to at least begin thinking about what’s acceptable, and make it clear that any information gathered through AR glasses is subject to the same laws as any other data.

Meanwhile, I’ll be interested in how people react the first time I’m in a pub and someone walks in wearing Google Glass.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See www.marksay.co.uk

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

3D printing: the business of consumer creativity

The arrival of budget priced 3D printers promises to give the technology a push into the home market, with models as cheap as £150 being affordable for most households.

But there are no signs of a clamour for the machines. If anything’s holding the market back at the moment it’s unfamiliarity and a sense among most people that they have no use for 3D printing. Most have heard of it, but to them it’s something for techies and people who like playing with gadgets, and they haven’t seriously thought about what they would do with a machine. And I’d bet that some of the creative types who have considered it have quickly retreated at the thought of having to get to grips with a complicated software package.

In the short term it could be a source of frustration for the manufacturers of 3D printers, but it points to an opportunity a little further ahead for companies that are ready to help consumers take their first steps into producing their own objects. Selling ready to print designs for products, with guidance on the raw materials to use, could provide a first step for nervous early adopters. But the real potential is in giving them the chance to stamp their own personalities on the process with customisable template designs.

It’s a half-way step that would hold consumers’ hands through getting to know the software while allowing space for them to show their creativity. It’s similar to enabling people to design their own websites using templates, and would add a ‘home made’ dimension to some sizeable consumer markets, such as jewellery, clothing accessories, tableware, models and toys.

Those early steps would familiarise people with the technology and help them get used to the idea of creating their own objects. Then it’s just a little further to those first efforts in fully mastering the software to create from scratch. That’s when the full potential for 3D printing in the home really takes off, as it becomes a tool for consumer creativity.

This is where some enterprising companies can plant an early stake in the market over the next couple of years. Even if the early adopters move on to doing their own thing others will follow, and the prospect of millions of children getting to grips with 3D printers provides the promise of a big market that will thrive in the long term.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See www.marksay.co.uk He has previously written a white paper on the future of 3D printing for the BCS.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Ethical robots would be good for business

It’s easy to chuckle at reports that the US Navy is funding research into creating ethical robots. No doubt the first response among many movie fans will be to mimic Arnold Schwarzenneger at the climax of ‘Terminator 2’ – “I know now why you cry, but it’s something I can never do.”

The fact that the military is taking a lead prompts ideas about how a machine driven by artificial intelligence could behave in warfare, or any scenarios in which they would take decisions that could mean life or death to a human. But there’s also a lot of potential for everyday business in the idea of an ethical robot.

Despite robotics having an established place in manufacturing, we’re still a long way from robots – something that looks and behaves more human – making much of an impact in the workplace. But there are plenty of convincing prototypes out there and it isn’t difficult to envisage their descendants carrying out human functions in the next 10 or 20 years.

It’s scary to some, but enticing to businesses that think about the long term effect on labour costs. Installing robots to interact with humans is a natural progression from using voice recognition systems in contact centres or self-service check-outs in supermarkets. Some could also make a case for robots removing the scope for human error, although it would be interesting to see how that would stand up to the first robot malfunction.

No doubt it will kick off new arguments about technology replacing people at work, and agonising over how to resolve that tension while hanging on to the idea of capitalism working for the common good. But plenty of businesses will be ready to go for it, and the more forward looking are going to want their robots to have some ethical capability.

It’s a step towards resolving the problem that faces businesses using those voice recognition systems and self-service check-outs – they annoy the hell out of customers. People resent dealing with machines rather than other people, and usually put up with it because it’s too inconvenient to go elsewhere. Imagine how that can intensify when they’re faced with a robot that tells them their train is late, or takes a customer complaint, or decides they shouldn’t be allowed on a flight. You’re looking at serious anger.

This is where the better staff prove their worth to an employer, in showing they empathise with the other person and doing what they can to alleviate a problem, and even deciding when there’s a decent case to bend the rules. And this usually comes back to a sense of ethics – when it’s right to do what would usually be wrong. It’s the show of empathy and evidence that they are being treated as people that can keep customers on board.

So if a robot can draw on an ethical capability, and convey some sense of empathy with the human, it can take the sting out of any tension and resentment that builds up. You might get a customer who, while not absolutely happy, isn’t going to walk away. It’s not perfect from the customer’s point of view, but if it’s good enough to keep them walking away it will good enough for many businesses.

It’s conceivable that within 20 years some businesses will be marketing their services on the basis that their robots have been created with an ethical capability that makes them more responsive to a customer’s circumstances. It may not convince everyone, but they can sell it as being better than leaving decisions to a machine that doesn’t know when to bend the rules. Ethical robots could give a business an edge in its market.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See www.marksay.co.uk

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

A messy move to contactless payments

I’ve discovered that in a few weeks’ time I won’t be able to pay a bus fare in London without an Oyster card. Transport for London announced earlier in the year that from June it won’t accept cash on the buses, although if your prepaid Oyster card runs out you have the option of paying with a contactless debit or credit card.

Last week I got around to contacting my current account holder, the Nationwide, to ask when it’s going to make swipe cards available. The guy from the contact centre was helpful, but said the building society didn’t know for sure when it would launch the cards, maybe some time next year. It’s aware of TfL’s plans, but swipe cards aren’t high enough up its agenda to prompt any urgent action.

It’s not a massive inconvenience, but it prompted thoughts about whether a move away from cash for smaller payments will be a smooth process.

It will happen. People are already making a lot of smaller payments with chip and PIN cards, and making it possible with a swipe rather than punching in numbers will make it easier for the consumer, and the people in the queue behind. But when? And will it happen without a lot of teeth grinding and complaints?

The UK Cards Association, the country’s leading flag waver for cashless payments, points to a bunch of major retail chains on board and lists seven banks that have issued the cards; but it also acknowledges that a number of big names have no immediate plans to do so.

It’s not urgent for them because there’s no immediate incentive. It can make life a little more convenient for their customers, but the ‘little’ is crucial; a minute punching a PIN number into a card reader once or twice a day won’t be enough to make them want to change their bank or building society.

Retailers are not going to force the issue by refusing to accept cash as they don’t want to turn away customers. Remember that there is a minority, largely older people, who still pay cash for everything. TfL can make it mandatory because it has a monopoly of London’s public buses, but even in this case it has made a concession of one extra journey for people not having enough money on their Oyster cards.

As for leapfrogging swipe cards to payment by mobile phone, it hasn’t really gathered momentum in the UK and there’s a factor working against making it a priority – millions of people who have got used to cards but don’t own smartphones.

There will eventually be a tipping point when so many people are paying by contactless cards that it becomes expected, and all current account providers will have to respond. But this is going to come gradually, by increments, and there’s going to be an awkward period, probably of a year or two, when some people pay with a swipe, and stand in queues grumbling about those who want to but cannot.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See www.marksay.co.uk

Monday, 28 April 2014

Chief digital officers step into CIOs’ shoes

A buzz has building up around the emergence of the chief digital officer (CDO) in large organisations. It’s strong enough for communities such as the US based Chief Digital Officer Club to have emerged, and to have prompted organisations to ask what the role involves and what it can do for their prospects.

The second is easier to answer: it should provide a competitive edge as the world moves towards carrying out most of its business digitally. The first is more difficult as the role is still emerging and precise definitions vary; but in general it’s about shaking up the business to ensure that its IT infrastructure and information management are lean, mean and properly aligned to raise the game in operations and dealing with customers.

Sound familiar? A few years ago people were talking about the chief information officers (CIO) as the hot new job in similar terms.

Commentators are making a distinction between the roles of CDO and CIO, which generally refer to the latter as a head of technology and the former as someone who knows the technology but also ‘gets’ the whole business and understands its market. Again, this is close to how people were talking about the CIO role a few years ago, but reflects the fact that in many organisations it has now been shoved back into a technology box. There are CIOs who are up there at board level, helping to shape the strategy of a business and with the authority to make a difference, but plenty are confined to jobs that are much closer to the traditional head of IT.

This came up at a recent BCS Digital Leaders’ Summit, with talk about the fact that, after the aspirations of the mid 2000s, many CIOs haven’t got close to the boardroom. A background in IT, for all the strengths it brings, was almost seen as a disadvantage. Some blame was attached to a traditional failing of IT professionals in keeping their minds on the technology, and not getting to grips with the broader business issues or learning the language of the boardroom. But it can work with the other way, with board members and senior managers too keen to see a techy as no more than a techy. Whatever the reasons, it has left a gap that some are looking to CDOs to fill.

They may well fill it in some organisations, but in the space of 10 years will they go the same way as the CIO? The fact that a CDO needs to know the technology means a lot of candidates will come from an IT background, but this could make those at the top quick to place them in the same techy box.

Or can CIOs change, adding a few more skills to take on the CDO role? Maybe, but it won’t just be about skills, but a more assertive approach and different attitudes from other C-suite leaders.

Then there’s always the possibility that in a few years the gap will still be unfilled and someone will invent a new title for the same job. I hope not.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See www.marksay.co.uk