Sunday, 11 October 2015

Contextual technology is the future of business

"Companies need to move their customers from the position of being a target, and to the heart of the business. Instead of marketing and advertising more, organisations need to use new technology to give users exquisite experiences. Organisations that treat people with kindness and show dedication to social causes such as climate change and poverty are going to absolutely kill their competitors. This is Lethal Generosity."

The sequel to Age of Context, ‘Lethal Generosity: Contextual Technology & the Cutting Edge’ by Shel Israel (pictured right) has just launched and already promises to become another popular book among tech enthusiasts. It is the result of the two intense years of research that the author has conducted into the world of technology and its impact on business and society.

As a big fan of his previous work, I wanted to speak with Israel about his latest discoveries and what to expect in the business world in the years to come. In this interview he shares some of the trends happening across the world, what leading corporations are doing (or should be doing) to stay competitive in the marketplace as well as the influence of new technology on the way we work. All subjects thoroughly explored in Lethal Generosity.

Gloria Lombardi: Two years ago, the popular Age of Context that you wrote with your friend Robert Scoble was published. What prompted you to start working on Lethal Generosity immediately afterward?

Shel Israel: There are two basics reasons. Lethal Generosity is definitely a sequel to Age of Context, where Robert Scoble and I focused on five technology trends converging: mobile, social media, data, sensors and location. In terms of business adoption, Age of Context was a sort of fake-based book in the sense that we did not see very many applications in place yet. It seemed like things started happening in the marketplace immediately after we published the book. Particularly, new technology started being adopted in places like sport stadiums, hospitals, airports, and stores. So, I felt that I needed to write a new book; the idea was to take the first book for tech business enthusiasts and extend it into the world of marketing, PR, communications and other retails business decision makers.

The second reason was the emergence of an entirely new generation, the Millennials. They are the first digital natives in the world; their relationship with technology is different; the way a company communicates with them is also different - Millennials use technology to shift the power from the seller to the buyer. Rather than the traditional promotions created by a company, people influence each other. It is not anymore the business telling us how happy their customers are; users talk directly among themselves.

GL: Lethal Generosity is about the world of technology in itself. What should businesses be aware of?

SI: One of the main points of the book is that technology is allowing companies to give customers new types of experiences to build a sort of loyalty that competitors offering the same products will not be able to steal away from you. Those customers are loyal to each other and loyal to the experiences that the company give them. To do that, organisations need to use the five technology forces that I wrote about in the previous book: mobile; wearables; social media – which is the primary place where people talk about your brands to each other; location technology such as sensors and Internet of Things (IoT); as well as data.

GL: You mentioned wearable technology. Where are we at now? 

SI: Wearables are coming slowly - slower than I thought they would - but they are coming very steadily. There are already tons of devices that we wear or wrist. Most of them help people to excise and monitor their health functions. Some wearables are becoming very refined, the Apple Watch is of course a very elegant solution; there are other solutions such as the Fitbit which are much more pragmatic and affordable.

But, there are literally millions of new devices coming in. In the area of healthcare there is a lot that is going to be done. There are already necklaces that are able to monitor and report medical problems. There are also shoes with sensors that tell you when it is time to go out – they come from Nike.

Then, there are new device-to-device technologies that go beyond the Long-Term Evolution (LTE) that we have now. 

One of them is LTE Interact, which enables mobile devices and apps to interact with the world around them and eliminates the need to go through the cloud.

GL: How does LTE Interact work? Could you give me an example?

SI: LTE Interact allows people to start asking for bids on demand. For example, if you and I were in a market square with a group of five people and we decided that we were hungry, we could probably start Facebooking where we are at and say that we are interested in a seafood dinner. Thanks to LTE Interact the restaurants within short distances from us will be able to send us offers to come in to their place and offer us discounts or whatever so that we can choose between them.

GL: The power of location and context, indeed.

SI: Location is very important in this book. The trend is for communicators to start realising that things like 30-seconds video ads to catch people attention are very slowly but very steadily dying. 

The truth is that all sorts of places are being 'uberized'. For example, to compete with Airbnb, many hotel chains have just started adopting contextual technology to improve the experiences of customers. Similarly in retail, the trend is to use sensors in stores to know which customers are in, what are they buying, what are they looking for so that to be able to anticipate what they will want during their next visit.

GL: Fascinating or concerning? It, of course, poses many questions around the future of privacy.

SI: Yes, it does pose many questions. Yet, two years after Age of Context - where we examined the concerns around the future of privacy - we find that people are less worried. Again, this is particularly true with the Millennials who think that is good to trade some of their personal data for an improved shopping experience. This is a huge difference from what we were predicting a couple of years ago.

I do not know the repercussions of this. I think that there are a lot of reasons for concern around privacy; but I see no trend that says that the use of contextual technology is slowing down in any way. In fact it is accelerating rather quickly.

GL: What can you tell us about the impact of technology on the world of work?

SI: Technology is changing the way most people work across the world, and not just in the developed countries. Even street vendors in Sub-Sahara in Africa use technology to move money around through contact-less banks.

Almost all our jobs involve the collection and use of data today. But, ultimately it is about how we use that data to help end users. In this Age of Context, superior experiences are what matters the most – communicators should stop focusing just on sending out marketing messages.

GL: Given all the technology trends you have examined in Lethal Generosity, what can we say about the leading companies of the future?
 
SI: Most leading companies understand that their leadership position has being threatened. If you are a successful leader let's say in the hotel industry, right now you will be looking at the Sharing Economy. There has been a lot of talk around this topic such as what the ‘sharing’ is in the 'sharing economy'.

The truth is that companies need to see a future of competition that uses software as a platform. The only way to move forward is to join the movement and use the same types of technologies to modernise the organisation. 

Going back to the hotel industry example, many businesses have started to adopt apps to let people check into a hotel without even going to the registration desk, and open a room by typing a four-digit code in their mobile device. So, the trend here is to use contextual technology to give people a better and easier experience.

"Companies need to move their customers from the position of being a target to the heart of the business. Instead of marketing and advertising more, organisations need to use new technology to give users exquisite experiences. Organisations that treat people with kindness and show dedication to social causes such as climate change and poverty, are going to absolutely kill their competitors. This is Lethal Generosity."

GL: Could you give me a concrete example of an organisation that is leading that way?

SI: Lethal Generosity is filled with case studies. For instance I write about the San Francisco 49ers football team. They have installed a combination of industrial Wi-Fi and sensors that allows people to order food and beverages which are delivered to their seats at any time during the game. Fans can also pool out their own instant replay of some particular moments of the match on their devices.
Surely, 49ers are demonstrating how those technologies can transform people experience. However, that is happening not just in American football, but in almost any sport - from soccer, to baseball, rugby, and cricket – companies can now use technology to improve how individuals consume an event.

GL: This is a good example, which perhaps not so surprisingly comes from Silicon Valley. But, how about companies in Europe, Asia or Africa? How is this type of innovation showing itself in those parts of the world?

SI: That is an interesting question. I live in Silicon Valley where a great deal of this innovation is happening. But, the rest of the world is catching up very quickly. In many ways, Tel Aviv is the closest – see for example the autonomous cars movement: while it has started in Silicon Valley, the technology that most probably is going to be used is coming out of Israel.

In the last two years, I have also noticed a great deal of interest, adoption and excitement coming out of Asia.

I would add that, among the places where we will see lots of business emergence over the next five years, are the developing areas: I mentioned Sub-Sahara Africa earlier; but also South-America, particularly Brazil.
 
Europe at present is more concerned about issues like privacy; they trust the government to protect them from businesses – whereas in my country we tend to trust businesses more than we do government. I’d say, and I write this in the book, that Europe has gone far too behind Japan, Singapore, some parts of India as well as of China during the last couple of years. Partly, this is due to their reluctance to adopt new ways of doing things; partly the business culture seems to be more resistant to change than anywhere else.

In fact, my honest advice to Europe is to really try to understand those new technologies and how they are changing the structure and nature of businesses so that they can really compete in a global marketplace.