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Finding Gold in the Chaos

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on June 23, 2017 by Erika Van Noort

How IT leaders identify, convert and monetize untapped resources

The job of IT is sometimes akin to alchemy.

You take a seemingly innocuous, non-valuable material and turn it into metaphorical gold. This idea was on full display during the recent Innovation Executive Forum (IEF) stop in Halifax. Leaders from multiple industries came together to share stories and advice with peers, and much of the discussion focused on the need for IT to drive radical transformation. Whether it was turning the chaos of Millennial communications into efficient collaboration, turning the burden of providing free Wi-Fi into a business opportunity, or the ever-present need to convert mountains of data into valuable business insights, nearly everyone could relate to the idea.

1. The Platform Economy rises

Have you heard of the “platform economy?” If not, you will soon.

The term “platform economy” describes a global shift toward decentralized online marketplaces. Think shopping malls, only online and for anything. It’s one of the fastest rising trends in digital business.

Without ever mentioning it by name, three IT leaders at the IEF in Halifax had it at the top of their minds. One exhorted that the “kids these days hate the idea of going into stores…they do all their shopping online.”

Another raised a very interesting idea:

“Car dealerships will be the 8-track players of the future,” he said, suggesting they will soon become obsolete.

Augmented reality and mobile shopping experiences are growing so powerful, we will all soon be shopping for our next mini-van on a third-party VR platform, he offered.

A third IT executive on the panel said his manufacturing company recently explored letting the Chinese-based online industrial marketplace Alibaba handle its distribution and shipping operations. While this approach took a heavy load off his business, it also lowered the barrier for new, hungry and innovative competitors.

The platform economy is coming. And with it, a whole lot of disruption. Are you ready?

2. Robots and the death of the parking lot

Autonomous vehicles will have an obvious impact on individual consumers as well as industries like transportation and manufacturing.

But what about other, not so obvious industries? As we saw in Halifax, major digital disruption has a ripple effect that affects each of us in unique, unpredictable ways. And self-driving cars are no exception. To wit: parking lots at the airport.

“Parking is a key factor in our revenue,” said the technology leader at a major airport. “We count on that revenue. If people stop buying cars, how are we going to protect that revenue?”

With the airline industry already struggling with shrinking margins, our panel raised the question about whether further digital disruption to their revenue models can be withstood. While there was no clear answer, the panel provided a concrete example of how what seemed like an unrelated industry could be affected by an innovative technology in unanticipated ways.

Will self-driving cars kill the parking lot industry? It’s possible. But, maybe that will clear the way for new industries to pop up in the empty spaces left behind.

“This is a clear opportunity for disruption,” said one panelist. “What can we do about it to get ready?”

Pro tip: Start brainstorming about how artificial intelligence and automation will impact all your revenue models today, so you aren’t caught off guard when the ripple of change comes your way.

3. Turning information into intelligence

For most in the tech industry, the letters “BI” stand for business intelligence. But, as one IEF member pointed out, that’s sometimes a stretch.

“A lot of what we have, I call ‘business information,’” he said. “The intelligence part simply isn’t there yet.”

He discussed the way many companies fail to leverage the data they collect in any meaningful, business-focused way. Instead, they compile mountains of information with little practical purpose. But, that’s not always the case.

As a counterpoint, another IT leader explained the ingenious way airports compile data on the shopping patterns of travelers from different countries. To maximize sales, they taxi airplanes from high-spending regions to areas of the terminal closest to the larger, higher-end shopping areas. Increasing the right kind of foot traffic leads to more revenue.

“Using this rich data, we are able to boost the per-hour spend of our visitors,” the leader said.

Advice from the Table: How do you turn business information into business intelligence?

Step 1: Create a dedicated team whose sole job is to analyze and find business uses for data.

Step 2: Hire data experts with direct industry knowledge and great intuition.

Step 3: Profit?

4. The AI doctor is in

Healthcare facilities and retirement homes are starting to boost their patient care with a new kind of care-taker: Artificial Intelligence (AI).

One IEF member, who oversees the technology and information services at a provincial care center, discussed the way his facility and those like it around the world are starting to leverage new, intelligent technologies to improve efficiencies and enhance the health of their patients.

“We’re creating a safer, more flexible environment for our staff. But, we also save money and lives. The technology pays for itself,” he said.

Innovations include the use of sensors on beds and floor mats to automate tracking of sleeping patterns and provide insights to physicians. He also described a new thermal imaging technology that “watches” elderly patients in their rooms, keeping an eye out for anomalies or accidents (such as falling on the floor) without infringing on privacy.

Assisted living is a high competition industry, he explained, pointing out that an added benefit of improving patient care is to be able to use it as a differentiator to boost sales and attract new guests.

“We can show the family, using data, exactly how their parents are doing in real-time – and people will pay for that,” he said.


5. Turning Millennial chaos into collaboration

When you look at the way Millennials prefer to communicate, it might seem chaotic. But, as the IEF observed in Halifax, there is far more going on beneath the surface.

“There’s a shift to more casual ways of communicating,” said one senior IT leader. “They don’t even want to talk to you. Which is frustrating, because most problems can be solved with a quick phone call!”

Instead of traditional face-to-face, phone and even email communication methods, Millennials and younger workers are increasingly attracted to asynchronous and fragmented social applications. Slack, Yammer and Wunderlist are just a few.

But as business enablers, it’s not IT’s job to shut down new methods of collaborating in the enterprise. It’s rather to make sense out of all the chaos and harness its full potential, as another IEF member articulated.

“There is a ton of unstructured data being created here — and there is gold in all of that. We need to uncover it,” he said.


6. Creative strategies for preventing ransomware

Knowledge is power. But sometimes, knowing isn’t enough to prevent dangerous behavior. You need something far more effective: emotion.

This was a tack taken by one of our IEF technology leaders when confronting ransomware. While several people around the table discussed formal educational approaches to warning users about the pressing dangers of the security breach, he described a far more devious approach.

He says his team leaves an infected USB stick around the office or in the parking lot, waiting for an unsuspecting passerby to pick up the dongle and plug it into their work station. The USB contains a script that locks the computer out. A message then appears on the screen commanding the victim to sulk their way to IT and admit their crime.

“It’s pretty drastic, but the whole executive team endorsed (this strategy),” he gleefully added.

Another IT director at the table shared a useful ransomware tip. She discussed how her firm ran a recent multiple-week test to tempt her workers to open innocuous-seeming but insidious email scams. Doing so allowed her team to “catch” a few people clicking on bad links. With that information, they established a baseline to measure ROI and progress with future security initiatives.


7. Make free Wi-Fi great again

When it comes to ensuring customer satisfaction at airports, travelers are looking for two things: clean bathrooms and Wi-Fi access. At least, that’s what one IEF member who leads up the IT services at a domestic airline shared.

While keeping the loo fresh and clean seems straightforward, providing access to fast and free wireless to thousands of passengers, each with multiple devices is an enormous technological and financial burden.

“The expectation is ‘give me free Wi-Fi,’” he said. “But that comes at a huge cost.”

If this were your business, what would you do to make customers happy? “The real question is, how do we get value from it?” summed up the thought leader.

One approach is changing how you look at the free service being offered. Maybe Wi-Fi doesn’t have to be a give-away. Perhaps you could make it work for you in other ways. One pro discussed potential strategies around asking for customer data, perhaps with a survey, every time you give them access.

“At least that way, there is value there for the business,” he said.

Another IT leader said creating distinct levels of service and letting the customer choose is the right approach. You could offer travelers a free tier that allows them to check emails. But, if they wanted to eat up bandwidth streaming videos or downloading images, they would need to pay a fee.


8. What IT leaders really want

If you could do anything with your time as an IT leader, what would you do?

When asked that question, two IEF members in Halifax had what seemed to be contradictory responses. Yet, after a closer look, both answers shed light on the same challenge everyone in this industry faces: constant pressure to deliver right now.

One senior technology expert said he wishes he had more time to hit pause, go back, and review a previous project delivery. So much time is spent on the planning and delivery and not nearly enough focus is afforded on analysis.

“So much technology has been created. Yet, the returns we are getting back from them are so poorly measured,” he said. “We have no time to figure out what is worth continuing or shutting down.”

On the other hand, a different executive said he wishes his company simply gave him the freedom to pursue projects with no defined outcome.

“I’d love to just get out there and play around,” he said. “If we find something good, great. We keep it. If not, if we make a mistake, that’s OK too. That would be beautiful.”

One clear connection here is something all of us can relate to. IT leaders don’t seem to have enough time to do everything they think they could to bring added value to the company. Our advice: continue to focus on technologies that help free up your time to innovate, and push hard on building the business case that help explore creative practices, like those described.

CIO Table Talk: The Cheat Sheet

At the IEF in Halifax, we unearthed plenty of lessons about the role of IT as a transformative leader in the organization. Here is your cheat sheet summarizing the key lessons:

Digital Customer:

  • Get your business ready for the platform economy today. This is where your competition and your customers are headed.
  • Major disruption affects businesses in unanticipated ways. Plan today for the potential impacts of innovative technologies to your business.
  • Assisted living and healthcare will benefit tremendously from artificial intelligence. Customers are happy to pay for value-added services. Can you find a new way to bring value in your own industry by leveraging AI tools?
  • When your customers expect free Wi-Fi, find the business case. Turn every IT burden into an opportunity for the business. Be creative!

Disrupting IT:

  • Information without action is worthless. Your job is to help turn that information into “intelligence.” Start by building the right team.
  • Millennials communicate in new ways that often seem chaotic. A solid IT leader will know how to find the gold buried beneath. How do you structure chaos to your advantage?
  • IT leaders want more time to evaluate their mistakes and their successes, and to anticipate and experiment for the future.

Modern Security:

  • Want to prevent ransomware? Get creative. Education alone is not enough. Try emotional tactics.

Join the conversation: #CIOTableTalk



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