5 Ways Big Data Will Change Lives In 2013

Siddharth Taparia

Recently, I saw firsthand how a new “universal identification” program called Aadhar is taking shape in India. It has potential to improve the lives of millions of poor people via Big Data.

Aadhar is an ambitious government Big Data project aimed at becoming the world’s largest biometric database by 2014, with a goal of capturing about 600 million Indian identities. This could help India’s government and businesses deliver more efficient public services and facilitate direct cash transfers to some of the world’s poorest people — while saving billions of dollars each year.

Many of the core ideas surrounding Big Data have been around for awhile, such as traditional data mining and analytics. But new technology enables the collection and analysis of, until recently, unimaginable data volumes at extremely high speeds.

“Big Data” refers to methods and technologies that help businesses and individuals make better decisions by analyzing large data volumes and predicting probable outcomes. The term has been around for a few years, but 2013 may be a year when Big Data moves from the technical to the practical, as real consumers and citizens start seeing its impact.

1. How we spend: Traditional and online retailers typically spent resources building huge datasets trying to understand their customer’s buying patterns using programs such as loyalty points. They offered big discounts on certain shopping days, such as Black Friday. New technologies help companies provide real-time offers to customers based on the date, the time of the day and the location of their shopping. As companies use Big Data to store and analyze more and more information about customers and competition, shopping will become more personalized and marketing more targeted. In short, you may get a better deal than someone sitting right next to you!

2. How we vote: If there was one area outside of business where Big Data had an enormous impact in 2012, it was in the U.S. presidential election. President Barack Obama’s campaign ran what has been referred to as the first Big Data-powered campaign that could micro-target individual voters most likely to be persuaded. The basic idea was to analyze every individual voter’s preferences instead of relying on traditional methods of taking polls with small sample sizes and extrapolating. This was historic because it upended traditional methods of running campaigns. Mounds of data from surveys, phone calls, external voter lists and past voting patterns drove real-time voter outreach and get-out-the-vote efforts. But Big Data was not limited to campaigns with huge technology infrastructure, as Nate Silver of The New York Times famously predicted the 2012 election outcome by applying statistical models to aggregate existing polling data.

3. How we study: A number of academic institutions are employing Big Data to address dual challenges of high dropout rates and the ensuing decline in state funding. The basic approach is to ensure that students select the majors that are best suited for them and nudging them to take classes that increase their chances of successfully graduating. Even the course material can be personalized for the students based on their interest, prior courses and the medium they find easiest to learn from (video, text, etc.). This is all made possible by analyzing vast amounts of student data, such as standardized test scores, previous grades and even real-time data points like clicks in an online class. Applying statistical models to each student’s profile and comparing results to similar students can predict the most likely outcomes (like succeeding in a class or completing a major) and offer constructive recommendations.

4. How we stay healthy: Healthcare has been a particularly difficult domain for analytics because of myriad privacy and regulatory restrictions that prevent the usage of data for research purposes. However the proliferation of smartphones and other “self-tracking” devices is fast changing the landscape. It is now possible to collect data from healthy individuals by constantly monitoring their vital information 24 hours a day, creating a very large unbiased control group that can be segmented by demographics such as age, sex and race. Analyzing large volumes of historical and real-time data can help individuals make healthy lifestyle choices, take preventive measures (e.g., flu vaccinations), predict their chances of being inflicted with a certain disease and possibly even provide personal analytics on their daily activities and how it impacts their health.

5. How we keep (or lose) our privacy: With all this data collection and analysis, privacy has rightly been a paramount concern with Big Data. Often individuals fear Big Data becoming the Big Brother (or Big Boss!)watching their every move and knowing the most intimate details about their life. An increasing amount of data — especially online and on smartphones — can be collected without the user’s knowledge or consent. Collection, analysis and sale of personal data on the Web can range from your search habits to shopping preferences to personal health issues, and it is a booming business, according to a recent Wall Street Journal investigation. Still consumers and citizens willingly share much of the data collected today.

India’s Aadhar collects sensitive information, such as fingerprints and retinal scans. Yet people volunteer because the potential incentives can make the data privacy and security pitfalls look miniscule — especially if you’re impoverished.

Big Data is quickly becoming a vast goldmine for businesses, governments and even law-enforcement agencies, but it also attracts hackers and identity thieves. Savvy consumers will understand how and where to best share their data, and what they get in return.

Throughout 2013 we are sure to see more and more impact of Big Data in other aspects of our daily lives, such as how we bank, watch TV and even stay safe. Consumers would do well to weigh the cost and benefits before allowing access to their data.

Follow Siddharth Taparia on twitter @siddharth31

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Siddharth Taparia

About Siddharth Taparia

Siddharth Taparia is the Vice President and Head of Marketing M&A at SAP. He is responsible for driving key strategic growth initiatives for SAP Marketing and the CMO including marketing and go-to-market (GTM) for acquired companies, marketing and branding strategy with business units and Post Merger Integration (PMI).

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Modern Competitive Analysis: Try Social Media

Arif Johari

“The importance of understanding the impact of competitors’ social footprints compared to your own can’t be overstated… You’ll be in trouble quickly if you assume your only – or biggest – competition looks exactly like you.” – Paige Leidig, CMO, NetBase Solutions.

All brands operate in a competitive global environment. Some prefer to ignore the competition. Others are obsessed, using “under-the-radar” spying to track other players. If traditional wisdom still holds – that strong knowledge about competitors’ strengths and weaknesses positions you to make smart marketing strategy decisions – then it’s time to add social media to your competitive info-gathering toolkit.

“My competitors do more for me than my friends. I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline. My friends are too polite to point out my weaknesses, but my competitors go to great expense to advertise them. My competitors are diligent, efficient, and attentive and would take my business away from me if they could. They keep me alert. They force me to search for new ways to improve my products and services. If I had no competitors, I would be lazy, incompetent, and inattentive. I need the discipline they force upon me. I salute my competitors. They have been good to me. They make and keep me strong.” – Paul Lee Tan

Social listening is a critical component to any social seller’s toolkit

Through listening, not only can reps better understand their target audience and develop insights on a particular contact, they can also develop understanding about their competitors. Through careful listening, they may be able to uncover intelligence about a competitor and its products and services.

  • Many social media users are not shy and will not hesitate to share how they felt about a particular aspect of their deployment of a product, making social media a great way to understand their business model and customer service expectations.
  • Some may argue that it may not be smart to use social media to learn the truth about a vendor, but if you weed out the obvious trolls and paid influencers, you can be left with terrific insight into your competitive landscape.
  • Reviewing these sources on a regular basis helps you to get a baseline to start from and to evaluate trends and satisfaction ratings.
  • Join the groups that your competitors belong to, follow the same spaces that your competitors follow, and you’ll be able to understand your competitors a little better.
  • If competitors’ leave negative comments on articles or blogs, it’s important to not engage in conflict online. It can get so bad, so quickly, that it’s not worth it. If you (or someone in your organization) feel you really need to respond to the comments, make sure to take it offline.
  • You may also be tempted to respond to negative comments by writing negative comments in return. If you think about the brand you want to build and how you want to be perceived by your audience, it is not likely that you want to be known as someone who “doesn’t play well in the sandbox.” Don’t bash competitors, nor make negative or derogatory comments… it only looks poorly on you and builds up the competitor in your audience’s eyes. Your solutions and expertise should stand on their own merit, without having to disparage the competition.

Practical tips for using social media for competitive analysis

Start with five to 10 competitors, depending on your market size. Every sales person should know who they really compete with (individually) and their individual strengths.

Look at your competitors’ sales team. Learn how many are on LinkedIn and Twitter. Evaluate whether the sales executives have presence, and if sales reps have strong or poor professional profiles. If your competitors’ sales teams don’t seem to be organized for social selling, you can still glean some valuable info. If they are, you’ll have to dedicate more time and go deeper in your analysis.

Some questions to ask when evaluating your peers/competitors:

  • How do they present their unique selling proposition (USP)?
  • Are they posting regularly? How many times a week or a day?
  • Does their content seem to help their prospects and clients?
  • What is the engagement level of their posts: likes, comments, shares?
  • Are they participating at trade shows, networking events, or charity events?
  • Who are they connected to?

This will help you align the type of content that seems to be of interest to your prospects. You should be able to gauge your prospects’ challenges and figure out how to stand out from your competition.

Social selling has become such a hot topic that Coffee-Break with Game Changers is dedicating an entire series to exploring its various facets and promoting best practices for salespeople. To listen to other shows in this series, visit the SAP Radio area of the SAP News Center.

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Arif Johari

About Arif Johari

He is a Communications lead, Digital Marketing generalist, and Social Selling advocate. He trains marketing and sales employees to become experts in Social Selling so that they’d leverage social media as a leads-generation tool. He is responsible for executing innovative marketing strategies to increase engagement in social media, customer community, and landing pages through content, events, and A/B testing. He is passionate in making the work processes of the marketing and sales team more efficient, so that they can generate more revenue in a shorter time.

The Promise And The Peril Of Blockchain

Andre Smith

This past year has seen the integration of blockchain technologies into businesses around the globe. Serious technology professionals regard the technology as a great leap forward for distributed computing, transparency, and security. The blockchain may well be the panacea that they envision it to be, but that doesn’t mean that it is without its share of risk.

The overwhelming hype about blockchain-based services (aided by the explosive rise in the value of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies) has created an investing frenzy that calls to mind the dotcom bubble of the late 1990’s or the more recent derivative-fueled financial crisis of 2008. The problem is that the level of excitement far exceeds the tech sector’s ability to bring meaningful and innovative blockchain products to market. This reality has resulted in a speculative vacuum.

Hype breeds fraud

As is usually the case, the first people to notice the overwhelming potential of blockchain technology as a moneymaker were those who would use it for nefarious purposes. As investors clamored to pour money into any ICO they could find, crypto pioneers and financial moguls sounded alarms that were mostly ignored. There have already been some notable red flags.

In November, the team behind a startup called Confido disappeared, taking $375,000 of investor funds with them. The company had claimed to be creating a blockchain-based escrow platform. Investors, in their rush to get involved, were duped by their false promises. In December, the U.S. SEC intervened in the ICO of a company known as PlexCoin, putting a stop to what they identified as a plot by long-time fraudsters to cash in on the ICO craze.

Secure reputation, insecure products

Defrauding investors isn’t the only trend associated with blockchain technologies that should be cause for concern. There is also the potential for the technology to be misused by criminal enterprises to hide illicit transactions, and by startups relying on the public perception of the blockchain as inherently secure as a means of selling products that are anything but. Both have already become a problem.

There are a number of ways that cryptocurrencies, underpinned by the blockchain, may be used as a conduit for illegal activity. There are already real-world examples of the technology being utilized to funnel money to terrorist organizations. Then there are companies like Privatix. Once a consumer VPN service, similar to wink-and-nod offerings like the VPN Hidemyass, Privatix suddenly rebranded itself as a blockchain VPN bandwidth marketplace. In practice, this has the same inherent risks as the Tor network, and they seem to be conflating “blockchain” with “secure” in an effort to mislead consumers.

Guilt by association

What’s at stake in these early days of the blockchain story may be the fate of the technology itself. As large financial institutions and consulting firms seek to position the blockchain in the public consciousness as the ultimate trust platform, there are no shortage of damaging incidents and examples working to undermine them. It also isn’t reasonable to expect that the public at large will draw a distinction between public and private blockchains, nor that they will even comprehend the difference.

It’s far too early to know if big business will be able to co-opt the blockchain and disassociate it from an external market that has been likened to the Wild West. The only thing that is certain is that they have great incentives to do so, since the blockchain could, at least internally, be as transformative as advertised. For now, all we can do is to stay tuned to see what comes next.

To learn more about the blockchain as a trusted platform see Blockchain: Pharma’s Answer to Restoring Trust in Healthcare.

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Andre Smith

About Andre Smith

An Internet, Marketing and E-Commerce specialist with several years of experience in the industry. He has watched as the world of online business has grown and adapted to new technologies, and he has made it his mission to help keep businesses informed and up to date.

Why Strategic Plans Need Multiple Futures

By Dan Wellers, Kai Goerlich, and Stephanie Overby , Kai Goerlich and Stephanie Overby

When members of Lowe’s Innovation Labs first began talking with the home improvement retailer’s senior executives about how disruptive technologies would affect the future, the presentations were well received but nothing stuck.

“We’d give a really great presentation and everyone would say, ‘Great job,’ but nothing would really happen,” says Amanda Manna, head of narratives and partnerships for the lab.

The team realized that it needed to ditch the PowerPoints and try something radical. The team’s leader, Kyle Nel, is a behavioral scientist by training. He knows people are wired to receive new information best through stories. Sharing far-future concepts through narrative, he surmised, could unlock hidden potential to drive meaningful change.

So Nel hired science fiction writers to pen the future in comic book format, with characters and a narrative arc revealed pane by pane.

The first storyline, written several years before Oculus Rift became a household name, told the tale of a couple envisioning their kitchen renovation using virtual reality headsets. The comic might have been fun and fanciful, but its intent was deadly serious. It was a vision of a future in which Lowe’s might solve one of its long-standing struggles: the approximately US$70 billion left on the table when people are unable to start a home improvement project because they can’t envision what it will look like.

When the lab presented leaders with the first comic, “it was like a light bulb went on,” says Manna. “Not only did they immediately understand the value of the concept, they were convinced that if we didn’t build it, someone else would.”

Today, Lowe’s customers in select stores can use the HoloRoom How To virtual reality tool to learn basic DIY skills in an interactive and immersive environment.

Other comics followed and were greeted with similar enthusiasm—and investment, where possible. One tells the story of robots that help customers navigate stores. That comic spawned the LoweBot, which roamed the aisles of several Lowe’s stores during a pilot program in California and is being evaluated to determine next steps.

And the comic about tools that can be 3D-printed in space? Last year, Lowe’s partnered with Made in Space, which specializes in making 3D printers that can operate in zero gravity, to install the first commercial 3D printer in the International Space Station, where it was used to make tools and parts for astronauts.

The comics are the result of sending writers out on an open-ended assignment, armed with trends, market research, and other input, to envision what home improvement planning might look like in the future or what the experience of shopping will be in 10 years. The writers come back with several potential story ideas in a given area and work collaboratively with lab team members to refine it over time.

The process of working with writers and business partners to develop the comics helps the future strategy team at Lowe’s, working under chief development officer Richard D. Maltsbarger, to inhabit that future. They can imagine how it might play out, what obstacles might surface, and what steps the company would need to take to bring that future to life.

Once the final vision hits the page, the lab team can clearly envision how to work backward to enable the innovation. Importantly, the narrative is shared not only within the company but also out in the world. It serves as a kind of “bat signal” to potential technology partners with capabilities that might be required to make it happen, says Manna. “It’s all part of our strategy for staking a claim in the future.”

Planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future.

Companies like Lowe’s are realizing that standard ways of planning for the future won’t get them where they need to go. The problem with traditional strategic planning is that the approach, which dates back to the 1950s and has remained largely unchanged since then, is based on the company’s existing mission, resources, core competencies, and competitors.

Yet the future rarely looks like the past. What’s more, digital technology is now driving change at exponential rates. Companies must be able to analyze and assess the potential impacts of the many variables at play, determine the possible futures they want to pursue, and develop the agility to pivot as conditions change along the way.

This is why planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future, rather than from the past or the present. “Every winning strategy is based on a compelling insight, but most strategic planning originates in today’s marketplace, which means the resulting plans are constrained to incremental innovation,” says Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. “Most corporate strategists and CEOs are just inching their way to the future.” (Read more from Bob Johansen in the Thinkers story, “Fear Factor.”)

Inching forward won’t cut it anymore. Half of the S&P 500 organizations will be replaced over the next decade, according to research company Innosight. The reason? They can’t see the portfolio of possible futures, they can’t act on them, or both. Indeed, when SAP conducts future planning workshops with clients, we find that they usually struggle to look beyond current models and assumptions and lack clear ideas about how to work toward radically different futures.

Companies that want to increase their chances of long-term survival are incorporating three steps: envisioning, planning for, and executing on possible futures. And doing so all while the actual future is unfolding in expected and unexpected ways.

Those that pull it off are rewarded. A 2017 benchmarking report from the Strategic Foresight Research Network (SFRN) revealed that vigilant companies (those with the most mature processes for identifying, interpreting, and responding to factors that induce change) achieved 200% greater market capitalization growth and 33% higher profitability than the average, while the least mature companies experienced negative market-cap growth and had 44% lower profitability.

Looking Outside the Margins

“Most organizations lack sufficient capacity to detect, interpret, and act on the critically important but weak and ambiguous signals of fresh threats or new opportunities that emerge on the periphery of their usual business environment,” write George S. Day and Paul J. H. Schoemaker in their book Peripheral Vision.

But that’s exactly where effective future planning begins: examining what is happening outside the margins of day-to-day business as usual in order to peer into the future.

Business leaders who take this approach understand that despite the uncertainties of the future there are drivers of change that can be identified and studied and actions that can be taken to better prepare for—and influence—how events unfold.

That starts with developing foresight, typically a decade out. Ten years, most future planners agree, is the sweet spot. “It is far enough out that it gives you a bit more latitude to come up with a broader way to the future, allowing for disruption and innovation,” says Brian David Johnson, former chief futurist for Intel and current futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “But you can still see the light from it.”

The process involves gathering information about the factors and forces—technological, business, sociological, and industry or ecosystem trends—that are effecting change to envision a range of potential impacts.

Seeing New Worlds

Intel, for example, looks beyond its own industry boundaries to envision possible future developments in adjacent businesses in the larger ecosystem it operates in. In 2008, the Intel Labs team, led by anthropologist Genevieve Bell, determined that the introduction of flexible glass displays would open up a whole new category of foldable consumer electronic devices.

To take advantage of that advance, Intel would need to be able to make silicon small enough to fit into some imagined device of the future. By the time glass manufacturer Corning unveiled its ultra-slim, flexible glass surface for mobile devices, laptops, televisions, and other displays of the future in 2012, Intel had already created design prototypes and kicked its development into higher gear. “Because we had done the future casting, we were already imagining how people might use flexible glass to create consumer devices,” says Johnson.

Because future planning relies so heavily on the quality of the input it receives, bringing in experts can elevate the practice. They can come from inside an organization, but the most influential insight may come from the outside and span a wide range of disciplines, says Steve Brown, a futurist, consultant, and CEO of BaldFuturist.com who worked for Intel Labs from 2007 to 2016.

Companies may look to sociologists or behaviorists who have insight into the needs and wants of people and how that influences their actions. Some organizations bring in an applied futurist, skilled at scanning many different forces and factors likely to coalesce in important ways (see Do You Need a Futurist?).

Do You Need a Futurist?

Most organizations need an outsider to help envision their future. Futurists are good at looking beyond the big picture to the biggest picture.

Business leaders who want to be better prepared for an uncertain and disruptive future will build future planning as a strategic capability into their organizations and create an organizational culture that embraces the approach. But working with credible futurists, at least in the beginning, can jump-start the process.

“The present can be so noisy and business leaders are so close to it that it’s helpful to provide a fresh outside-in point of view,” says veteran futurist Bob Johansen.

To put it simply, futurists like Johansen are good at connecting dots—lots of them. They look beyond the boundaries of a single company or even an industry, incorporating into their work social science, technical research, cultural movements, economic data, trends, and the input of other experts.

They can also factor in the cultural history of the specific company with whom they’re working, says Brian David Johnson, futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “These large corporations have processes and procedures in place—typically for good reasons,” Johnson explains. “But all of those reasons have everything to do with the past and nothing to do with the future. Looking at that is important so you can understand the inertia that you need to overcome.”

One thing the best futurists will say they can’t do: predict the future. That’s not the point. “The future punishes certainty,” Johansen says, “but it rewards clarity.” The methods futurists employ are designed to trigger discussions and considerations of possibilities corporate leaders might not otherwise consider.

You don’t even necessarily have to buy into all the foresight that results, says Johansen. Many leaders don’t. “Every forecast is debatable,” Johansen says. “Foresight is a way to provoke insight, even if you don’t believe it. The value is in letting yourself be provoked.”

External expert input serves several purposes. It brings everyone up to a common level of knowledge. It can stimulate and shift the thinking of participants by introducing them to new information or ideas. And it can challenge the status quo by illustrating how people and organizations in different sectors are harnessing emerging trends.

The goal is not to come up with one definitive future but multiple possibilities—positive and negative—along with a list of the likely obstacles or accelerants that could surface on the road ahead. The result: increased clarity—rather than certainty—in the face of the unknown that enables business decision makers to execute and refine business plans and strategy over time.

Plotting the Steps Along the Way

Coming up with potential trends is an important first step in futuring, but even more critical is figuring out what steps need to be taken along the way: eight years from now, four years from now, two years from now, and now. Considerations include technologies to develop, infrastructure to deploy, talent to hire, partnerships to forge, and acquisitions to make. Without this vital step, says Brown, everybody goes back to their day jobs and the new thinking generated by future planning is wasted. To work, the future steps must be tangible, concrete, and actionable.

Organizations must build a roadmap for the desired future state that anticipates both developments and detours, complete with signals that will let them know if they’re headed in the right direction. Brown works with corporate leaders to set indicator flags to look out for on the way to the anticipated future. “If we see these flagged events occurring in the ecosystem, they help to confirm the strength of our hypothesis that a particular imagined future is likely to occur,” he explains.

For example, one of Brown’s clients envisioned two potential futures: one in which gestural interfaces took hold and another in which voice control dominated. The team set a flag to look out for early examples of the interfaces that emerged in areas such as home appliances and automobiles. “Once you saw not just Amazon Echo but also Google Home and other copycat speakers, it would increase your confidence that you were moving more towards a voice-first era rather than a gesture-first era,” Brown says. “It doesn’t mean that gesture won’t happen, but it’s less likely to be the predominant modality for communication.”

How to Keep Experiments from Being Stifled

Once organizations have a vision for the future, making it a reality requires testing ideas in the marketplace and then scaling them across the enterprise. “There’s a huge change piece involved,”
says Frank Diana, futurist and global consultant with Tata Consultancy Services, “and that’s the place where most
businesses will fall down.”

Many large firms have forgotten what it’s like to experiment in several new markets on a small scale to determine what will stick and what won’t, says René Rohrbeck, professor of strategy at the Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences. Companies must be able to fail quickly, bring the lessons learned back in, adapt, and try again.

Lowe’s increases its chances of success by creating master narratives across a number of different areas at once, such as robotics, mixed-reality tools, on-demand manufacturing, sustainability, and startup acceleration. The lab maps components of each by expected timelines: short, medium, and long term. “From there, we’ll try to build as many of them as quickly as we can,” says Manna. “And we’re always looking for that next suite of things that we should be working on.” Along the way certain innovations, like the HoloRoom How-To, become developed enough to integrate into the larger business as part of the core strategy.

One way Lowe’s accelerates the process of deciding what is ready to scale is by being open about its nascent plans with the world. “In the past, Lowe’s would never talk about projects that weren’t at scale,” says Manna. Now the company is sharing its future plans with the media and, as a result, attracting partners that can jump-start their realization.

Seeing a Lowe’s comic about employee exoskeletons, for example, led Virginia Tech engineering professor Alan Asbeck to the retailer. He helped develop a prototype for a three-month pilot with stock employees at a Christiansburg, Virginia, store.

The high-tech suit makes it easier to move heavy objects. Employees trying out the suits are also fitted with an EEG headset that the lab incorporates into all its pilots to gauge unstated, subconscious reactions. That direct feedback on the user experience helps the company refine its innovations over time.

Make the Future Part of the Culture

Regardless of whether all the elements of its master narratives come to pass, Lowe’s has already accomplished something important: It has embedded future thinking into the culture of the company.

Companies like Lowe’s constantly scan the environment for meaningful economic, technology, and cultural changes that could impact its future assessments and plans. “They can regularly draw on future planning to answer challenges,” says Rohrbeck. “This intensive, ongoing, agile strategizing is only possible because they’ve done their homework up front and they keep it updated.”

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the future, but companies can help to shape it, says Manna of Lowe’s. “It’s really about painting a picture of a preferred future state that we can try to achieve while being flexible and capable of change as we learn things along the way.” D!


About the Authors

Dan Wellers is Global Lead, Digital Futures, at SAP.

Kai Goerlich is Chief Futurist at SAP’s Innovation Center Network.

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based business and technology journalist.


Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation. Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

About Stephanie Overby

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Human Is The Next Big Thing

Traci Maddox

One of my favorite movies of 2016 was Hidden Figures. The main character, Katherine Johnson, and her team of colleagues had an interesting job title: Computer. Here’s what Katherine said about her job: “On any given day, I analyze the binomial levels of air displacement, friction, and velocity. And compute over 10 thousand calculations by cosine, square root, and lately analytic geometry. By hand.”

That was the 1960s. It was amazing work, but work that took hours to complete – and something an in-memory computer could do in a fraction of a second today.

Just as in-memory computing transformed calculating by hand (and made jobs like Katherine’s much easier), digital technologies are transforming the way we work today – and making our day-to-day activities more efficient.

What’s the real impact of technology in today’s workplace?

We are surrounded by technology, both at home and at work. Machine learning and robotics are making their way into everyday life and are affecting the way we expect to engage with technology at work. That has a big impact on organizations: If a machine can do a job safely and more efficiently, a company, nonprofit, or government – and its employees – will benefit. Digital technologies are becoming increasingly more feasible, affordable, and desirable. The challenge for organizations now is effectively merging human talent and digital business to harness new capabilities.

How will jobs change?

What does this mean for humans in the workplace? In a previous blog, Kerry Brown showed that as enterprises continue to learn, human/machine collaboration increases. People will direct technology and hand over work that can be done more efficiently by machine. Does that mean people will go away? No – but they will need to leverage different skills than they have today.

Although we don’t know exactly how jobs will change, one thing is for sure: Becoming more digitally proficient will help every employee stay relevant (and prepare them to move forward in their careers). Today’s workforce demographic complicates how people embrace technology – with up to five generations in the workforce, there is a wide variety in digital fluency (i.e., the ability to understand which technology is available and what tools will best achieve desired outcomes).

What is digital fluency and how can organizations embrace it?

Digital fluency is the combination of several capabilities related to technology:

  • Foundation skills: The ability to use technology tools that enhance your productivity and effectiveness
  • Information skills: The ability to research and develop your own perspective on topics using technology
  • Collaboration skills: The ability to share knowledge and collaborate with others using technology
  • Transformation skills: The ability to assess your own skills and take action toward building your digital fluency

No matter how proficient you are today, you can continue to build your digital IQ by building new habits and skills. This is something that both the organization and employee will have to own to be successful.

So, what skills are needed?

In a Technical University of Munich study released in July 2017, 64% of respondents said they do not have the skills necessary for digital transformation.

Today's workplace reality

These skills will be applied not only to the jobs of today, but also to the top jobs of the future, which haven’t been imagined yet! A recent article in Fast Company mentions a few, which include Digital Death Manager, Corporate Disorganizer, and 3D Printing Handyman.

And today’s skills will be used differently in 2025, as reported by another Fast Company article:

  • Tech skills, especially analytical skills, will increase in importance. Demand for software developers, market analysts, and computer analysts will increase significantly between now and 2025.
  • Retail and sales skills, or any job related to soft skills that are hard for computers to learn, will continue to grow. Customer service representatives, marketing specialists, and sales reps must continue to collaborate and understand how to use social media effectively to communicate worldwide.
  • Lifelong learning will be necessary to keep up with the changes in technology and adapt to our fast-moving lives. Teachers and trainers will continue to be hot jobs in the future, but the style of teaching will change to adapt to a “sound bite” world.
  • Contract workers who understand how businesses and projects work will thrive in the “gig economy.” Management analysts and auditors will continue to be in high demand.

What’s next?

How do companies address a shortage of digital skills and build digital fluency? Here are some steps you can take to increase your digital fluency – and that of your organization:

  • Assess where you are today. Either personally or organizationally, knowing what skills you have is the first step toward identifying where you need to go.
  • Identify one of each of the skill sets to focus on. What foundational skills do you or your organization need? How can you promote collaboration? What thought leadership can your team share – and how can they connect with the right information to stay relevant?
  • Start practicing! Choose just one thing – and use that technology every day for a month. Use it within your organization so others can practice too.

And up next for this blog series – a look at the workplace of the future!

The computer made its debut in Hidden Figures. Did it replace jobs? Yes, for some of the computer team. But members of that team did not leave quietly and continue manual calculations elsewhere. They learned how to use that new mainframe computer and became programmers. I believe humans will always be the next big thing.

If we want to retain humanity’s value in an increasingly automated world, we need to start recognizing and nurturing Human Skills for the Digital Future.

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Traci Maddox

About Traci Maddox

Traci Maddox is the Director of the North America Customer Transformation Office at SAP, where she is elevating customer success through innovation and digital transformation. Traci is also part of the Digital Workforce Taskforce, a team of SAP leaders whose mission is to help companies succeed by understanding and addressing workforce implications of digital technology.