Will Big Data And Analytics Deliver The Promised Land?

This post got published before I intended to publish it. Sorry for this oversight. I have now completed it as intended and am republishing it. I apologise for any inconvenience and thank you for your understanding.

What do B2B technology vendors sell?

No, it is not the technology.  Think again, what do B2B technology vendors sell?  They sell dreams that speak to a fundamental human need. What dreams? Dreams of control-mastery-domination over the ever flowing, every morphing, character of a process we turn into a noun: life.

What need do these dreams take root from and speak to?  The need for safety and security. At some fundamental level we get that nature is indifferent to our survival and wellbeing.  To deal with this anxiety we embrace anything that provides the illusion of safety-security. The Greeks embraced the Gods, we embrace technology and the latest technofix.

I notice that the big data and analytics space is hot right now.  It is the latest technofix being pushed by the B2B technology vendors.  It occurs to me that this technofix is designed to speak to those running large enterprises – especially those who are higher up and divorced from the lived experience of daily operational life at the coal face.

What I find astonishing is that so few actually ask the following two questions:

1. “What kind of a being is a human being?”

2. “What kind of a culture is human culture?”

What is the defining characteristic of human beings?

Allow me to illustrate by share a story I read many years ago:

Psychologist:  John, you have been referred to me by the authorities. They tell me that you think that are dead. Is that right? Are you dead?

John: Absolutely, I died a little while back.  I am dead. 

Psychologist: How interesting! You died a little back. Yet here you are talking with me. And I am not dead.  So how is it that you are dead and I am not dead, yet here we are talking? 

John: Beats me how this works or why it is happening. I know that I am dead. 

Psychologist: John, I have an idea. Do dead people bleed? 

John: Don’t be ridiculous! Everyone knows that dead people don’t bleed! 

The psychologist suddenly reaches over and cuts John’s hand with a knife. Both of them are looking at John’s hand. Blood, dark red blood, is seeping through the cut.  The psychologist looks at John with the look of satisfaction, of victory. Let’s rejoin the conversation.

Psychologist: John, do you see that blood on your hand? How do you make sense of it? You say that you are dead. And earlier you told me that dead people don’t bleed.

John: F**k me, dead people do bleed!

This is not simply an amusing story.  It is a story that captures the experience of a respected psychologist who has been dealing with many kinds of people, dealing with many kinds of problems, over a lifetime.  This story capture a fundamental truth of the human condition.

It appears that to survive in the world as it is and as we have made it, we need to be deluded. We need to distort reality: to make life more predictable, to make our current situation lighter-better than it is, to see a future brighter than is merited by the facts, to see ourselves stronger, more capable, more influential than we are. Studies suggest that those of us who lack this ability to distort reality and delude ourselves end up depressing ourselves.

What Kind Of A Culture Is Human Culture?

Symbolic and ideological.  Why?  Because human beings just don’t cope well with the world as it is. So we get together into tribes. And the glue that keeps the tribe together is a particular way of constructing the world, a particular way of giving meaning to the world, and a particular way of interacting with the world.  And when I speak world I include human being, and human beings; a human being is always a being-in-the-world as in always and forever an intrinsic thread in that which we call world.

The next question: which ideology do members of society espouse?  The dominant public ideology. In the world of business this is that of scientific management and in particular reasoning and making decisions objectively – irrespective of the past, of tradition, of our personal interests and opinions.

A more interesting question is that about the actual behaviour of the elites, the Tops. What is it that the Tops actually do?  They do that which protects and furthers their interests: their power, their status, their privileges, their wealth, their dominance.  So insight and recommendations (whether from big data and analytics or through conventional methods) that are in line with these interests are heartily accepted and actioned swiftly and vigorously.

Any insights and recommendations that challenge the vested interests of the elite (Tops) are repressed at the individual level, belittled-disputed-ignored at the societal level.  I invite you to read this article which can be summed up as the UK Government sacks the chair of the official Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Why? Because the chair was insisting on the reclassification of drugs. What happened?

  1. The Advisory Council looked at the data (of harm to the individual taking the drugs and others affected by his/her behaviour) on drugs at the request of the UK.

  2. On the basis of the data, the Advisory Council came up with the conclusion that “if drugs were classified on the basis of the harm they do, alcohol would be class A, alongside heroin and crack cocaine.”

  3. The drug rankings, associated findings and recommendations were ignored by the UK government. Why? Because they went against the government’s stance on drugs.

  4. The chair of the Advisory Council challenged the UK government’s refusal to act on the recommendations of the Advisory Council.  So the appropriate UK Government minister sacked him.

What Does The Future Hold for Big Data & Analytics?

If past behaviour is an adequate guide to the future then it is safe to say that technology vendors will get rich. And the business folks will have another layer of technology that they have to manage. One or two organisations may reap substantial benefits, the rest will be disappointed.  Yet, this disappointment will not last long. Why? By that time the technology folks will have come up with the latest technofix!

I leave you with the following thoughts:

1. There are no technofixes to the kinds of social issues-problems we continue to face;

2. Incremental improvements lie in the domain of big data and analytics;

3. Breakthroughs lie in our ability to see that which is with new eyes – a shift in dominant concepts, dominant paradigm, dominant ideology, dominant way of seeing that which is.

Put differently, big data & analytics is a red herring for those who aspire to lead: to cause-create that which does not exist today.  Managers, those whose horizon extends to daily operations and the next twelve months, may find big data and analytics useful – as long as it does not threaten the sacred cows of the Tops-Middles and the corporate culture.

Putting people back into the customer experience equation

One of the biggest issues that I have with the customer experience movement is that the process, technology, efficiency and standardisation mindset that is appropriate in the manufacturing environment is being applied to the services industries and the service environment. And in the process the very best of what people have to offer (the human touch, flexibility, improvisation, creativity…..) is being taken out of the picture:  the opportunity to create that emotional bond is sacrified for efficiency.

At the same time, today, I have not been able to do much today (back is playing up) and so I spent some time re-reading an old book (published in 1999) and called “Market Leadership Strategies for Service Companies”.  As I have spent the bulk of my life working in, delivering and advising companies with a heavy service orientation the following passages speak to me and I want to share them with you:

Employees are not the problem, management is the problem

” Over-engineered employees desperately need to once again pursue the most personally satisfying work goal: doing things that make a difference in the eyes of customers.  Employees intuitively know that their core mission should be to provide the kind of help to customers that is truly needed …..Their company’s seeming indifference to being perceived by customers as unique frustrates them……..The net effect is that millions of employees feel robotic in their daily execution of quality, cycle time reduction, re-engineering and a host of other operational activities that perpetuate rather than improve the company….”

Employees are incredibly important and yet misunderstood, under-utilized and over-structured

“Employees are often the most misunderstood, underutilized, and over-structured assets of a service companies.  But next to customers they are the second most valuable asset that companies have.  The problem lies in the perception of the role that employees play in the customer experience.  Many service companies view their employees simply as part of a process that produces an end output – a physical product to be delivered to a customer.  If a customer’s primary focus is on functional performance of the physical product, the employees generally do not need to be involved with the customer experience.  But with services the situation is different.  In fact, in service companies the employees are very involved in the customer’s experience.”

Big mistake: dehumanizing people all in the mistaken (manufacturing) view of quality

” The mistake made by well meaning and well schooled managers is to dehumanize their people – all in the name of quality control.  Service managers attempt to make employees interchangeable.  Although industrialising the service may be important and even necessary, taking the “performers” out of the equation leads to a neutered, indistinguishable experience for customers. ”

Product and quality through people – not by replacing them with self-service technology, standard processes and scripts

“Productivity and quality improvement come from having people involved with customers – people who want the responsibility, can manage themselves, respond well to pressure from customers, and who are highly motivated through skills, job opportunities and pay advancements.”

My conclusion, my interpretation

People – customers, employees, contractors, suppliers, partners matter.  In fact they are critical to business success in service intensive operations and industries.  If you are worthy and you have the know how you can tap into the very best of what they can offer: energy, enthusiasm, passion, creativity, flexibility, discipline, intelligence, wisdom.  And that in itself is ultimately the source of competitive advantage, ongoing renewal, new product development, great customer experience, growth and profitability.

Yet as a very wise French teacher told me when I was about 10 years old: “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink”.  I believe that is the case with many companies, many CEOs and many management teams.  If they do not value their employees, you cannot make them value them.  Which means the door is wide open to those that get the message and are willing to blaze the trail. For example, John Lewis – who recently delivered a great set or financial results when many other retailers are struggling and blaming the weather.

How about thinking and talking about business in customer terms?

It strikes me that organisations can take a big step forwards in becoming customer centric simply by measuring, reporting and talking about the impact of their actions on customers and the value that customers represent to the business.

Allow me to illustrate this by using a consulting experience at a brand name telco.  One of the things that really matters to customers is how easily, quickly, effortlessly, conveniently they can get a replaced handset if they have an issue with their existing handset.  The functional department that is charged with this task is the Device Logistics.

What do you think the focus of the typical Device Logistics function is?  The focus of the function is, typically, on devices, operating cost and service levels.  As a result management talk about and measure the no of devices that needed to be shipped, no of devices on back order, lead time between ordering and receiving handsets, no of devices shipped, no of devices delivered to the customer address within the SLA, productivity and cost of operations.

Not once did I hear conversations about customers, nor the impact of policy and practices on the customer’s life or attitude towards the company.

Now imagine thinking about the Device Logistics function in terms of impact on customers.  If such an approach was taken then management would be measuring and talking about the following types of matters:

  • How many of our customers have been impacted by our delivery process in the last month?
  • How many customers have we lost as a result of our policies and practices?
  • How much revenue, profit, lifetime value has walked out of the door as a result of these policies and practices?
  • What kinds of customers – Gold, Silver, Bronze, Young, Professional, Older – are we losing?
  • What will it cost the business to replace these customers with new customers so as to replace the revenue, profits and lifetime value that has walked out of the door?
  • How many potential new customers have we lost as a result of the bad word of mouth from existing customers who have been disappointed by us?
  • What is the cost associated with this bad word of mouth?
  • How many customers ended up calling the contact centre to ask questions and/or make complaints about the handset replacement process?
  • What cost did the business incur in dealing with these customers – their questions, their complaints?
  • How many hours did customers spend waiting for us, at home, to receive their replacement handsets?   What is the cost to our customers of this waiting?
  • How can we do away with the biggest cost and inconvenience – making them staying at home all day – we impose on our customers?
  • What would be the impact on customer retention, customer loyalty, as a result of designing the handset replacement process from a customer perspective?
  • How can we engage our customers in the handset replacement process so that we all come out as winners?

Thinking in terms of customers and impact on customers – in terms of customer satisfaction, customer retention, customer loyalty, word of mouth, brand reputation – can be applied to every single function that touches the customer.

My assertion is that organisations will only make the transition towards becoming customer centred, designing and delivering better customer experiences, when the organisation as a whole and silo’s in particular think about operations in customer terms.  Specifically, the impact of operational practices on customer retention, customer loyalty and word of mouth.

What do you think?  Have you seen this in practice? If so where?