Category Archives: complexity

Big Data: the new (snake) oil?

Data DollarIn God we trust.
All others bring data.

J. Edwards Deming

Data, we hear, is “…the new oil“.  It is the next big thing, the new realm of business opportunity, the them thar hills where we can all dig for gold.

Big Data, it is claimed,  shows us flu outbreaks before they happen, tells how the stock market is going to move today and knows if you are pregnant before your father does.

So does this justify the reported $125bn (or $50.1bn) (or $17bn) which is forecast to be spent on Big Data in 2015?  Perhaps, but I doubt it.

I remember another time when data promised us a brave new world. In the olden days of the mid-nineties, the story, cited by sources such as the Financial Times,  was how analysis of shopping baskets for a mid-range US store on Friday nights showed a previously unknown correlation between buying beer and buying diapers.   This story and others like it made the idea of data mining credible as it promised a whole new world of customer insight and understanding.

The beer/diaper story, it turns out, wasn’t true, but it didn’t stop the stampede.

Companies spent fortunes on things called data warehouses, invested in stuff called knowledge management and we were all supposed to make lots of money by having greater insight into customer behaviour.

And did we?

Did we heck.

But who did make money?

Consultants, vendors and the media who were all beating the data mining drum.

The consultants, who told us that this was the next big thing and that we would go out of business without it.

The vendors, who sold us the kit and the software and the maintenance contracts and the patches and who told us that the issue we were complaining about “…was a known bug that would be fixed in the next release…”.

The journalists and the advertisers, who sold ad space and wrote articles about “Making the case for knowledge management” and held conferences with titles like “Data Warehousing: A strategic imperative” or some such.

So we went to the conferences and read the articles and called in the consultants and bought the kit and installed the software and did the management of change and ran the benefits realisation exercises and employed new people with strange job titles and tried, as the dust settled, to see the step change in performance promised to us.

While the drum-majors walked away to do the same thing again with new clients.

Result? Billions of dollars siphoned out from the pockets of companies who were doing real things for customers and into the coffers of these drum-beating companies.

At the time, I recall that the consultants, tech companies and media companies in this space all posting phenomenal revenues.

What I don’t recall is reading so much about the great profits their clients made from all this knowledge management and data mining.

As far as I can tell, the promise of data mining and knowledge management was a promise unkept.

And now we have Big Data.

Perhaps Big Deja Vu might be a better term, because it all sounds very familiar.

Look: I get it. Big Data is a real thing.

The scale, depth, density and timeliness of customer data available to us is magnitudes greater than ever before.   Mobile data, geolocation, behavioural antecedents, digital payments, social media and evolution of the web are streets ahead of the consumer purchasing information upon which the promise of data warehousing used to rely.

I just feel we need to think harder about how we want to take advantage of it.  The same people are beating the drum and more and more companies are falling into step.

But the drum beat isn’t our drum beat. It’s the beat of market hype, of technologists seeking a market, of consultants seeking The Next Big Thing.

It’s not the drum beat of the customer.

What customer insight are we missing? Why does it matter? What could we do better for customers if we had it?

And (this is the kicker) what difference will it make? Really?

If we are to avoid being vendor victims, we should begin – as always – with the customer. And if we can answer these questions properly, then perhaps Big Data may really be of value to customers and to the companies that sell to them – and not just to those who are selling tickets to the Big Data bandwagon.

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Is transformation doomed?

Embed from Getty Images

The very nice folk at HP Business Value Exchange asked to me write a piece on transformation.  What emerged wasn’t really what they (or I) expected – but, very sportingly, they posted it anyway.

Transformation – to take advantage of Big Data or introduce cloud-based CRM or adopt Lean thinking or any of the other fashionable buzzword bingo terms –  is big business.  If we embark on a transformation initiative, we should be clear about whose agenda we are following if we are not to enter a world of pain.

Read more here. I’d really like to know your thoughts, so please add your comments there when you read it.

Ignoring millions of pounds – a lesson for 2014

Hugh Laurie's priority seat

Free money

A few years ago, a client told me this story.  She was the European financial director of a large global technology company. The company had a factory in a deprived economic area in the UK.  New legislation to boost employment meant that her company was now entitled to claim government grants worth £5 million.

Getting the money would involve much bureaucratic palaver and a lot of my client’s time as well as much effort from her team.

But still….

Free money?

£5 million?

Her boss, the global financial director, got wind of this jackpot and sent an urgent email to the effect of…

”…Free cash? £5m?  This has to be your top priority.  Please advise me on the actions you are taking immediately…”

To which my very capable, but very overworked, client responded:

“Delighted to make this my top priority.  Please let me know which activity I should downgrade instead: the £150 million pound organisational restructuring or the £50 million tax negotiations?”

She heard no more about it being a ‘top priority’…

Don’t do it

Most organisations are rubbish at prioritisation. This is because most people think that prioritisation is about deciding which things are most important.

It isn’t.  Any fool can do that – and I’m sure that most people reading this have worked for such a person.

Prioritisation is, instead, about moving the less important stuff to the bottom of the list and then choosing not to do anything about it.

Doing this allows us to  apply our finite time and resources on the things that make the biggest difference, rather than frittering away our time – and more importantly, our attention – on the stuff that is, yes, important, but not as important as the big stuff.

As my client showed, we don’t want to waste time on £5m if we have £150m and £50m to worry about.

The price of success in 2014

In this, I am with Tim Ferriss, author of the Four-Hour Work Week.  As he points out in his article, The Art of Letting Bad Things Happen:

“…oftentimes, in order to do the big things, you have to let the small bad things happen. This is a skill we want to cultivate.”

Most of us are terrible at letting bad things happen.  We worry that important stuff doesn’t get done, that key things will get missed, that we will disappoint some customers.

But the alternative is that we continue to muddle through, to try to do everything, to keep wading through the corporate treacle – and end up doing the really important stuff badly, because we can’t give it the time and attention it needs.

But if letting bad things happen is the price we have to pay to deliver the really critical stuff, if this means that the big, big breakthroughs happen, if this is what it takes to transform the experience of all our customers – then isn’t it worth it?

Many of us are thinking now of our goals for 2014. Perhaps we should also be thinking about the things that are indeed important but which we won’t deliver this year – so that we free ourselves instead to work on the big things that will really make this year a success.

What won’t you do this year so that you meet your most important goals for 2014 ?

(Image credit: Karva Javi  under a creative commons license. His Flickr stream is excellent.)

How Big Data will change marketing (part 2)

Big Data imageBig Data is coming. It will change Marketing, but not necessarily in the ways we might expect.

In an earlier post (How Big Data will change marketing (part 1)) I wanted to introduce the idea of Big Data in practical terms. My take on Big Data is not in terms of volume, velocity or variety, (as coined by Gartner analyst Doug Laney) but in terms of what it is in practice and how it might encourage action.

In my view, Big Data has seven characteristics:

  1. Big Data is not (just) big data.  Big Data is more than data warehouses and structured data repositories.
  2. Big Data is unstructured data. Big Data is messy, error-strewn and has fuzzy edges.
  3. Big Data is behavioural, not attitudinal.  Big Data is about what people do, not what they think
  4. Big Data is about small interactions. Big Data comes from the simple stuff we do, often without realising it
  5. Big Data changes.  All the time.  Big Data is never still. It is always being added to.
  6. Big Data is online, mobile and the real world.   Big Data is coming from all kinds of activity, on- and offline.
  7. Big Data is informational debris. Big Data is a side-effect of other activity – it is mainly not the information we as customers enter consciously when we think we are sharing personal data.

For marketers, the looming presence of Big Data is likely to change many things, including these:

Scientific method  The scale and nature of Big Data are making marketing a rigorous, experimental discipline.  We are getting the means to interrogate very complex data sets very quickly to decide which marketing idea works best.  This is already happening online.   Disciplines such as A/B testing and the thinking embodied by Eric Ries’ excellent Lean Start-up are already in action in many places. Examples include Amazon offering A/B testing as a free service to android developers and Barack Obama using it to raise $60m.  (See also my post, ‘Let’s go hippo hunting‘). This thinking is rapidly moving offline.   Marketers will have to master strict, efficient scientific method to succeed in this new world.

Attitudinal marketing is dead  Well, if not dead, then it’s about to enter life-support.  The  quantity and predictive value of behavioural and activity data means that what people think or feel about a product or brand will become increasingly irrelevant.  We are already finding this on the web.  If A/B testing shows us that consumers prefer to press a red button, and not a blue one, then we are better served by changing all our buttons to red than spending a fortune trying to understand why. This thinking will soon apply everywhere.

Prepare for the segment of one   Big Data will enable us to direct contextual, customised marketing directly at individuals based on such things as (say) their mobile GPS history, online and social media activity, and offline behaviour.  In effect, a marketing campaign for one person.  One implication of the segment of one is that a consumer marketing operation may well need to deliver a million tailored campaigns a year.

This is not just an automation problem.

To run at this level, with minimal errors, cost-efficiently, means the winning marketing operations will be those which adopt and implement the Lean manufacturing disciplines which enabled car manufacturers to deliver a batch size of one, with a cycle time approaching zero. (See my earlier post – SMED: The secret sauce of customer experience, for a related discussion).

We are all going to become Lean, people.

Create platforms, not campaigns  The role of the creative will change. Increasingly, we will need our creatives to design communications platforms, rather than individual campaigns. These platforms will have to flex in innumerable ways to meet the contextual demands of the segment of one.

Brand as algorithm   Brands will be formulated into heuristics – rules which can drive real-time decisions to enable real-time marketing.  The automated brand is coming.

Source, don’t build, your data  By definition, Big Data is a mix of different data sources.  Very few organisations have the capability to assemble, structure and support such heterogeneous sets of data and stay sane (and profitable).  Ignore the Big Data hype about the need to build Hadoop clusters and recruiting data scientists. This isn’t how it is going to go.

Here is how it might.  Companies are going to realise soon that they will be better off working with trusted data intermediaries rather than trying to build their own Big Data. They will pose questions to these intermediaries, such as “….what is the best way to segment the market to identify the people most likely to buy our stuff?…”, or “…when in the customer’s day are we most likely to get positive attention for our proposition…?”  or “…who could be our next customers….?”

These intermediaries will orchestrate data sources quickly to get the best answers to these questions. They may already own some data, some data they may rent, some they may commission and some will come from their clients – but such tasks are best left to specialists.  There is no need to build your own data engine. Spend your time instead trying to understand the questions you need to answer to get to market most effectively.

Of course, for companies which specialise in data harvesting, brokerage, mashup and orchestration, this intermediary role will be a lucrative opportunity. For the rest of us, being able to use such services intelligently will become an increasingly important skill.

Big Data is going to change marketing. But those marketers who do embrace this change will become hugely more effective, productive and  influential.

It will be marketing, Jim, but not as we know it.

Ryanair’s customer experience revisited

Ryanair passenger numbers
Ryanair passenger number growth, CAPA Centre for Aviation

I wrote Ryanair: Kings of the Customer Experience to challenge the blind orthodoxy that offering a perfect customer experience should be the aspiration of every business.

This may be true if you run a seven-star hotel complete with customer butlers, but it does not apply, I believe, for most companies. Most of us need to trim our ambitions to focus on things which cause customers most pain or friction and on those things which customers most value.

An excellent response

Jim Lucas of Lucavia read my post about Ryanair, the Irish-based European budget airline,  and wrote an excellent article in response: The Real Ryanair, Please Stand Up.

Jim and I violently agree that Ryanair have set out strategically to offer a service based on the core things which their customers value: “…Low cost, on time, with bags, that’s it.”

Jim, however, then goes on to say:

‘…To me, Ryanair hasn’t, “…Designed a customer experience to compete strategically.” Their customers don’t care about it and they know it. Instead, Ryanair has chosen a low-cost, high-efficiency strategy vis-à-vis their competition to meet the needs of the utilitarian traveler. (Jim’s emphasis)  In that space customer “service” is all that is required and an experience isn’t a consideration.’

I think Jim’s view is one that many customer experience practitioners share: that customer experience is something separate from the service a company designs and offers.

The whole of the experience

I don’t share this view. I believe that everything that we do which affects the customer is part of the customer experience.  This includes offering the service, yes, but also the things we do which affect how this service is perceived: (I refer to this in another post when I refer to the qualia of customer experience).

Hence my use of Ryanair as an example. What they seem to do, explicitly and intentionally, is manage the customer experience to diminish expectations around anything which lies outside of their core offering.

Get you there on time? Sure.

Cheaply? Yes.

Refunds? Don’t bother.

This setting of expectations is, I believe an absolute part of the customer experience, which Ryanair actively manage in order to support their highly successful business model. This is a strategic choice which, judging by Ryanair’s business success, seems to be working very well.

Good is better than nice

From this choice came the other point of my earlier Ryanair article: “Customer experience is not about being nice, it is about meeting strategic goals.”

Talking to some marketing folk the other day at the IQPC CMO Customer Exchange Event a couple of weeks ago, I found myself reframing this statement so that it became:

Customer experience is not about being nice; it’s about being good.

I think this is profoundly true. Customer experience is not simply an offshoot of the customer service skills industry, as many people seem to believe.

As an air passenger, for example, I value getting to my destination on time, with my bags, more than I value a customer agent’s smile if my bags have been lost.

Yet many organisations, judging by the way they run their services and where they direct their investment, seem to put this the other way round. Yes, being nice is, well, nice – but it is less important than being good at the things for which the customer is paying.

What Ryanair do, better than any other organisation of which I am aware, is to deliver on the stuff that matters to their customers while at the same time actively managing down customer expectations – and delivery – of other stuff.

They are, I believe, managing the customer experience, and doing so very well.

Which is why, while I may not like Ryanair,  I have to admire them.

(My thanks again to Jim for his cogent and considerate response to the original article. His blog is well worth a read).

Image credit: Ryanair passenger growth numbers: CAPA – Centre for Aviation

The bank customer experience that’s 3 times better than Apple

Red TapeBanks offer a specific customer experience three times better than that offered by Apple, because, it seems, Apple have let lawyers dictate it.

Red tape redux

I want to buy a house. I need a home loan for £250,000.  I approach First Direct, a direct retail bank in the UK, owned by HSBC.   I know that I will have to accept from them a comprehensive and rigorous set of terms and conditions.  After all, I am borrowing a quarter of a million pounds and mortgages in the UK are highly regulated.

First Direct’s terms and conditions for my mortgage are a comprehensive, rigorous and exhaustive 4,480 words.

To have some music to play while I move house, I want to download Our House by Madness, on iTunes.

And here is where things get cockeyed. To download the nutty boys’ masterpiece, I have to read and accept iTune’s terms and conditions.  These run to 14,451 words.

Apple expect me to plough through 3 times more verbiage than was needed for my £250,000 mortgage, just for a 99p song.

This can’t be right.

A novel experience

Legally, I am supposed to read Apple’s terms and conditions before I can install iTunes. But, like most of us, I haven’t.

Who has the time to read lawyer-speak that runs almost the same length as the first third of Kurt Vonnegut’s great novel, Slaughterhouse 5?

If I have that kind of time available, I’ll read a book.

It gets worse. Every time Apple updates iTunes, every couple of months or so, they require that I read these conditions again. This is neither practical nor reasonable.

Lawyers: enemies of customer experience

So First Direct, a UK retail bank, is offering a customer experience three times better than Apple’s. What’s going on?

The most obvious explanation is that Apple has let their lawyers off the leash. This is bad for the customer experience because most general counsel are required to think of the customer as the enemy. Corporate lawyers stay awake at night making sure customers don’t sue or rip-off or defraud or have grounds for compensation.

Giving the customer a good reading experience is not top of their insomnia list.

Something better

Someone, however, is doing something to make this particular experience better for customers of a range of companies, including, they say, Apple.

Terms of Service: Didn’t Read (ToS:DR) offers a free plug-in to browsers that rates terms and conditions on a five point scale (A- Green to E- Red) depending on the degree to which a particular set of terms and conditions require us to sign away our rights. It ‘s like a Reader’s Digest version of the terms and conditions to which we have to agree.

This seems to me to be an eminently sensible solution to this problem. I will sign up to ToS:DR straightaway – just as soon as I read their terms and conditions (409 words)…

So it goes.

PS Some may think that I am singling out Apple unfairly.  Perhaps, but by way of comparison, Google’s terms and conditions of service come in at 2,966 words, Facebook’s are 4,643 and Amazon, 5,269. (Word counts come courtesy of my browser’s cut and paste function and MS Word’s word count facility).

PPS This post comes in at 539 words.  If this was iTune’s terms and conditions, you’d be only 5% of the way through by now…

Image credit: Rosser 1954, released into the public domain.

Big Data is already here

vorratsdatenspeicherung-540x304In my earlier post, How Big Data will Change Marketing (part 1),  I offered a definition of Big Data.  Here is a brilliant example of what it looks like.

A life revealed

Malte Spitz is a member of the Bundestag, the German parliament.  He sued mobile operator T-Mobile to get their records of his cell phone activity for a six month period in 2009.  It came in an Excel spreadsheet with 35,851 rows.

Zeit Online, the digital imprint of Germany’s top-selling weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, combined this data with other information about Hr. Spitz’s life which they gleaned from social media and publicly available online sources.

The result was illuminating.

To quote Die Zeit:

“Each of the 35.831 rows of the spreadsheet represents an instance when Spitz’s mobile phone transferred information over a half-year period. Seen individually, the pieces of data are mostly inconsequential and harmless. But taken together, they provide what investigators call a profile – a clear picture of a person’s habits and preferences, and indeed, of his or her life.

This profile reveals when Spitz walked down the street, when he took a train, when he was in an airplane. It shows where he was in the cities he visited. It shows when he worked and when he slept, when he could be reached by phone and when was unavailable. It shows when he preferred to talk on his phone and when he preferred to send a text message. It shows which beer gardens he liked to visit in his free time. All in all, it reveals an entire life.”

To model what they mean, Zeit Online produced this interactive map.

This is Big Data in practice.

I will leave it to other commentators to discuss the political, legal and ethical issues raised by Big Data.  I am going to assume, instead, that it is here to stay and that it will increasingly affect our lives.

In my next post, I will develop further some ideas about how Big Data will affect Marketing.

Tip of hat to Roland Harwood of 100% Open for the original Die Zeit article.

Image credit: Zeit Online