What if, instead of making us smarter, the technology we surround ourselves with was actually making us less efficient? This perhaps unpalatable suggestion becomes even more surprising when made by a man entitled “chief envisioning officer” of one of the world’s largest technology companies. But Microsoft’s Dave Coplin made just this point when speaking at Santander’s Breakthrough Summit in Leeds last week. He claims that we are all using technology in the wrong way, but that small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in particular could unlock untold potential by radically changing the way they use and share information. How?
Coplin’s argument is that a deluge of data is causing us to “lose the ability to collaborate and communicate properly.” Just as individuals can struggle to work out what is significant amid the huge volumes of information online, SMEs today have access to untold amounts of data about who their customers are, how they use their products and services, and much more besides. For Coplin, if we’re to deal with this problem and actually make the growing amounts of information work for us, we need to better “identify when technology can help us, and when it can’t.”
Consider one of the main “myths” of technology-usage – that multi-tasking makes us more productive. In fact, it actually makes us a third less efficient overall than when we focus on just one task at a time. What’s more, when we’re distracted from a task – by a quick browse on Facebook or a glance at an email, say – the time it takes us to return to the original job is 23 minutes.
However it’s not all doom and gloom. Coplin says that, when used in the right way, this data deluge actually has enormous positive potential for SMEs – “data is the future fuel for your business”.
So as a growing firm, how can you be sure that you’re using data correctly? How can you harness the deluge as an opportunity for growth?
First, SMEs must start to use the data they hold to view their customers in more than one dimension – as a holistic, whole human being. “The [data] deluge allows us a different way to see customers – it has clues about your customers.”
Instead of simply selling to people based on the fact they’ve come to you, or have bought something from you before, Coplin explains that data now affords us the opportunity to sell to your customers in a much more personal way, by understanding nuances in their personalities or behaviours.
Add to this the impact of social media and what Coplin calls the “power of the connected customer”, and the way SMEs must deal with their customers begins to change completely. “Piece together all this data and you’ll create a better interpretation of who your customer is today.”
Customers are also more powerful when they are connected to each other and their own access to data is influencing their decision-making. In short, dealing with customers is no longer black and white.
But even if we know that the data exists, how can SMEs be sure they are using it effectively?
“Most organisations are aware of the fact they have data, but don’t use it in a commercial way. Most SMEs don’t realise they are sitting on data that has a financial value to someone else.”
Instead of only using it to look at the past, or analyse previous activities, SMEs must now “be entrepreneurial with data”. They can do this by “connecting it to other data sets.” This might mean collaborating with other companies, or simply selling your data to people who have a stake in that information.
To illustrate his point, Coplin provides the example of an insurance company using data about consumer spending. “If they know someone is the kind of person that buys floor protectors for their furniture, they can make an assumption about whether they’re a risk-taker.” Most data has a value, but only by using it in creative ways will SMEs begin to unlock this potential.
Creating a “data culture” is the first step towards doing this. To do so, Coplin argues that SMEs need to “free up knowledge” in their organisations.
This new means of handling data will require people running SMEs to think differently about the way their organisations are structured. “Businesses need to start behaving like networks, by sharing information and unlocking existing knowledge.”
Coplin accepts that this may not sit well in traditional organisations, where “knowledge is power”, but argues that in order to be “transformational for your customer, you have to be transformational yourself”.
“We need to stop thinking about businesses in the way that we do. Businesses should behave like intelligent organisms which change and evolve. You have to be agile if you are going to survive.”
This will in turn require SMEs to think differently about people. “Give employees the space to be creative… begin looking at outcomes instead of processes. Instead of how long something took, consider whether the output is any good.”
So while technology can create risks for SMEs when handled incorrectly, it can also enable them to be transformational for their customers. And “when you see the real capability of technology and see it working in that way, that is a breakthrough moment,” says Coplin.