Crystal Gazing: 2018

We are almost at the halfway mark of 2017, and I thought it would be a good idea to capture some emerging trends, and explore how business will be impacted in the coming months…

Trend #1 – Chatbots

Bots seem to be everywhere these days. And, cutting-edge organizations are rushing to deploy them. Bots today are kind of what Apps were like, just a few years ago – it sounds like every one should have one. Surely, bots offer some real advantages, and chief among them is the ability to automate repeated tasks at a fraction of the cost (of a human/manual alternative). That’s a great use case for organizations that are in scale-up mode.

What role, if any, will bots play in your organization? How can your business leverage this emerging technology to reduce operational costs or improve responsiveness? How will that impact the team?

Trend #2 – Sinking Data Costs

Intuitively, we all know that data costs are significantly lower than they used to be. In India, disruptive players like Reliance Jio have already upset the apple-cart and eroded market share (and profits) of the established telcos. Worldwide, voice and messaging is rapidly being replaced by VoIP/VoLTE and web-based messaging, with data now being the primary use of a mobile phone. Broadband Data costs inside the home are also more affordable than ever.

What will this do to Internet and Mobile penetration in emerging markets? How will customer behavior change? Will users go beyond chat and e-commerce? Is your organization ready for the next phase of evolution?

Trend #3 – Aadhaar, Everywhere

In the India context, we are witnessing no less than a revolution in terms of data linkages and availability. 1 Billion+ users have already registered for an Aadhaar id, with 93%+ coverage among adults. This, naturally, establishes a strong foundation for payments via financial inclusion, but that’s not all there is to it. Increasingly, services like filing IT returns and booking air tickets are being linked to Aadhaar. The IndiaStack APIs already offer a robust platform comprising Aadhaar + eKYC + eSign + Digital Locker, reducing Customer Onboarding time from days to hours, and we have only just begun.

How will this ever-connected universe of data impact privacy and consumer protection? What will it to to service levels? How will customer expectations evolve over time? What is your organization doing to stay ahead of the curve, or keep up with the changing dynamics?

The answers will not be easy to come by, and may differ for each one of us. As we head into these winds of change, here’s hoping we ask the right questions… and embrace Change.

Building a Personal Brand

Last month, I had the pleasure of addressing a bunch of entrepreneurs at a conference called “Breaking Barriers” on ‘Building a Personal Brand’. It’s a topic that is relevant not just to entrepreneurs, but also to owners of small-medium organizations and key executives in any large enterprise.

Here are some of the key lessons shared in my slide deck, if you are looking for a primer on How to Build a Personal Brand…

 

Step 1 – Online Presence

If you are in business, you probably have a domain name booked already. If not, get one today. Then figure out how to host a basic page about what you are with relevant contact info. Then deploy an email service that maps your domain name to your mailbox so you can send/receive emails from your own domain e.g. yourname@yourdomain.com. In terms of building an online brand, there is no comparison between this and using a free email service like GMail. So, if you don’t know how to do this, seek help. But get it done.

Step 2 – LinkedIn

The minimum expected of an online presence for your professional self or your business is to have an active profile on LinkedIn – the most popular business social network today. That means including a professional-looking profile Picture, an appropriate Headline that captures what you do, a Summary paragraph of your current role and a short description of relevant Past Roles you may have experience with. Don’t start sending out LinkedIn invites to others before you get this going – it’s just unprofessional. Have a look at others’ LI profiles to get a sense of what’s good and what’s not.

Step 3 – Marketing

When you’re an entrepreneur, “Marketing” is not the name of a department. It refers to creating a basic set of collateral which captures your credentials plus describes the product/service you offer. If you are an executive (not a business), this means having an updated CV, an active LinkedIn profile, recommendations from others, etc. in place. Create templates from this material so that you are ready to respond to any requests for information in a professional, timely manner.

Step 4 – Sales

Again, entrepreneurs shouldn’t mistake “Sales” as a label or a person. If you are in business, you are in Sales. Create a system to respond to leads or prospects, and follow it religiously. Use social media to research what your customers and competitors are up to, so you can reach out to relevant folks with information that they will value, instead of simply sending out a standard note. Who should you target in an organization? Who do you know already in play? What conversations are already happening? You will need to invest time and effort in an ongoing manner to make this work.

Bonus Tip – Get Productive

The more efficiently you manage your time, the more you will be able to do what’s important (but not always urgent) to make your personal brand a success.

 

Do remember that brand reputations take years to build and seconds to destroy. Keep at it, and you will see results.

The IndiaStack Framework

Typically, when we think of government-run initiatives in India, a certain image comes to mind – one that leaves a lot to be desired. But, India is changing. And, changing fast. Yes, most of us know about initiatives like Aadhaar. But, that’s not all there is to it.

A few months ago, I wrote about India’s Digital Divide in a post that covered my visit to some Community Information Resource Centers (CIRCs) that were empanelled with the National Digital Literacy Mission. In it, I captured my experience of interacting with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEFIndia.org), and with the fine folks that work at the grassroot level, ensuring that underprivileged communities in semi-urban and rural India get access to Information Technology and to the essentials skills needed to make it work.

As it turns out, there is lot more where that came from. While leading dailies are busy covering Karan Johar’s adoption on their front pages, the government – yes, the government! – has been quietly working on a digital framework over the past several years, to enable a variety of “digital services” for its citizens.

The “IndiaStack“, as it is now known, is a collection of APIs that “allows governments, businesses, startups and developers to utilise a unique digital Infrastructure to solve problems towards presence-less, paperless, and cashless service delivery”. The seeds were sown way back in 2009 with the creation of UIDAI (Aadhaar), but the form it takes today is a robust, interoperable framework that works across devices and service providers. The IndiaStack APIs include Aadhaar, eSign, eKYC, Digital Locker, Unified Payment Interface and a host of other services ranging from Electronic Toll Collection to Bharat Bill Payment System – all designed to make it easier for the common man to go about their business. It even includes a specification for Electronic Consent that puts the user at the center of the data flow as well as content flow. Imagine, a government initiative doing all this!

The benefits of adopting such a framework are immense for the urban as well as rural masses. To take an example, a large bank can use a combination of Aadhaar + eKYC + eSign + Digital Locker to reduce Customer Onboarding time from days to hours, thereby reducing drop-offs, minimizing branch operation costs and practically eliminating the need for a backoffice. Reliance Jio used such a setup recently to onboard 100 Mn+ customers in less than 3 months, with less than 10 minutes per customer (vs 1 day or more for other telcos), and at a cost of less than Rs. 3 per new customer (vs Rs. 40 or more for other telcos). “Walk Out Working” is the new benchmark for the user journey, and it’s great news for all customers.

The technology is not just for the mass affluent customers in Top 10 metros, though. As more and more service providers build services around these APIs, the unbanked and underserved communities of India will be able to use elements of the IndiaStack to push & pull payments (UPI), share their own data (e.g. prepaid recharge history) with relevant entities, and access lending credit (e.g. a one-day or one-month loan) that was unavailable to them until now.

Aadhaar is not just another identity card – it offers a platform that can verify more than 100 Mn transactions a day, in real-time. UPI is not just a fun way to build a virtual payment address – it can enable push/pull transactions from any stored value account to any other store value account. And, Digital Locker is not just another storage service – it is a full-fledged data exchange platform to offer secure access to users in a multi-provider ecosystem. Finally, many of these tools work across devices, not just on smartphones- making them available to the audiences they were designed for.

If understood correctly, and used efficiently, this digital framework has the power to transform lives at the grassroot level, bringing hundreds of millions of people within the ecosystem, and offering them the tools they need to improve their socio-economic reality. And, the technology is available today, in the form of interoperable, scalable APIs, ready to plug-and-play.

After all, India is more than a tony suburb in Mumbai or a startup hotspot in Koramangala. India does not always speak English or get 24×7 electricity. But, India is eager to learn… hungry to grow. And thankfully, these new tools are a step in the right direction, in making India data-rich and well-connected.

Is Digital a Mindset or a Skillset?

I recently attended the AWS re:Invent 2016 event online, which offered some fascinating insights into the world of Technology by folks who manage business (in the cloud) on an enviable scale. One such insight was: “Software is a mindset, not a skillset.” That got me thinking about how the same truth applies to Digital as well.

ThinkShop works with clients that need help in translating their business vision into reality, through the design and delivery of Technology-based initiatives. However, the challenges we most often encounter are rarely “technical” in nature. More often than not, an organisation struggles to bridge the gap between the “old way” of doing things and the “new way” it wants to so keenly embrace.

Its constituents – its people – who are often said to be its biggest asset, are the ones who are at the frontline of various functions, be it Sales, Operations or Customer Service. And, it is human nature that we humans find it difficult to accept change. That’s what the struggle is really about. That’s why we end up with a less-than-optimal Customer Experience. That’s why customers take to social media to warn their friends and family about their unpleasant experiences, so that they may not suffer the same fate. That’s why we have returns, and refunds and complaints, and all the costs that come with it.

Yes, modern Technology has made it all easier than it has ever been. We are no longer confined to our city, region or country – the world is our playground. We no longer have limited choices – the options are infinite. We no longer need to silently suffer a bad product/service – we can shout out our message to millions in the online world through the megaphone of our social networks. And this has significant implications for Business, regardless of the industry in which you operate – make no mistake about it.

Imagine you are shopping online for a gift. Your budget is about five thousand bucks, so you don’t mind signing up on a new website that specializes in that category (say, jewellery), if it means a better product range to choose from. You register on the site after finding one that seems well-designed, and has the funky designs you were looking for. Then, you zone in on a specific product, and are delighted to find that it even offers some options to choose from. Finally, you select the variant options you really want, hit the Buy Now button and proceed to the payment page… Transaction error!

What?! You entered your credit card details correctly. It was a valid card. Must be a website issue. Hey, there’s a chat window? A few minutes and chat messages later, the Support team says they will look into it and call you back in a few minutes, since there is no apparent error at the site’s end. 30 minutes later, you get a call from the Support team that informs you that the product you had chosen is out of stock, but can be sourced and sent in 10 days. They have no clue that you’re awaiting a call-back on the failed payment, nor do they seem to know anything about the variant choices you had made. You try for a few minutes to explain the problem, but they respond by saying they can email you a link for payment if you’d so like. To which product? What about the variants? Never mind…

What’s going on, here? Does this e-commerce enabled business inspire confidence in you? Does it seem like they have processes that actually work? Is there a probability you will land up with no product or the wrong product or one that comes in too late? Would you do business with such an enterprise again? I’ll tell you what I did – I cancelled my order and asked them to delete my account. Turns out that needed Tech Support intervention too, since there was no easy way for a customer to delete their own account. I’m still awaiting a call back on that. Sigh.

Today’s business enterprise needs to operate on the assumption that its customers know what global standards mean, when it comes to Design and Quality. Today’s business enterprise needs to acknowledge that its customers have the means to easily compare its product with that of its competitors, and therefore can cut through all the Marketing propaganda it puts out. Today’s business enterprise needs to understand that the always-on tribe it calls its customer is now part of a community that talks to each other – through reviews and ratings, by voting a thumbs up or down, by sharing relevant insights with others on your product/service. Finally, today’s business enterprise needs to embrace this world as the new world order, instead of resisting its tools and devices, pretending that they won’t talk about you if you don’t have an official Twitter channel.

Digital is a mindset, not a skillset. And this mindset needs to permeate down from the very top – the leadership of the organisation – all the way down to its foot soldiers. And I do mean, the foot soldier in every function. Yes, Legal & Compliance included! Only then will the enterprise truly be able to serve its customers in a world-class way, and compete with a sustainable advantage.

Let me end with another AWS insight for perspective – “You no longer get points for using servers, you only get points for serving users.”

Why Most Projects Fail

Do most projects really fail?

I know, I’m starting with a bold assertion that is probably not in sync with the positive write-ups you see all around you, as you resolve to adopt a few healthy resolutions at the beginning of the New Year. But, the fact is that most new projects either fail to meet the original objectives laid out for them, or at best, see only a partial degree of success, especially in the Services context. These “projects” may take a variety of shape and form – re-designing your online presence, creating an automated sales-tool for your field force, or designing a communication plan to engage with your customers through their lifecycle – though, they share common challenges.

So, let’s try and understand why most projects fail…

 

New and Strange

When an organisation first heads down the path of a new initiative – a project – it has little experience to bank on. Yes, it knows its own business, understands the industry in which it operates, and often has the advantage of trained resources which it can deploy. But, the project itself is a “new” initiative. And, as such, the team has to contend with the discovery and management of a plethora of issues and obstacles which it will encounter along the way, fixing them one by one as it proceeds towards the finish line. This includes known unknowns, as well as unknown unknowns.

 

Reinventing the Wheel

An obvious but surprising fact to contend with is that new projects may be new to the team working on it, but are not “new” to the world at large. Of course, “moonshot” projects like the ones undertaken by SpaceX are the exception that proves the rule. In most organisations, the Project Team will often try and “figure out” a lot of the stuff along the way, including basics of Project Management, User Experience, Customer Engagement and Communication Design. Each of these sub-specialities is an art and a science, and its mastery requires experience and training. Naturally, the Project Team’s first brush with these disciplines will not always include the best way to go about it. In essence, many new projects have a dimension of “reinventing the wheel” that is completely avoidable and provides a significant obstacle to success.

 

Limits of Specialisation

The world is probably divided into those who value specialisation (the majority) and those who value the merits of taking an integrative, holistic approach that transcends domains (the minority). Even if we don’t agree on which side we align with, in most organisations, projects are (rightfully) undertaken by a cross-functional team that includes representation from various functions like Sales, Operations, Marketing and Business Strategy. This necessarily means that the project should benefit tremendously by an integrative, multi-disciplinary approach. But, most organisations hire specialists for specific roles, and then map them to respective departments that work in silos for the most part of the year. Therefore, structurally, most organisations are ill-equipped to address the unique requirements of a cross-functional project, and the project suffers as a result.

 

Is there a way out?

There is no substitute for experience and training, when it comes to addressing complex challenges. However, there are a few things organisations can do to accelerate the Learning Curve, avoid foreseeable problems and improve the chances of success of the projects it undertakes:

  1. Identify the Gaps – Map out the needs of your project and map out your resources to assess where the gaps are
  2. Foundation of Training – Train your resources in the disciplines they are weak in before the project begins
  3. External Support – Supplement your internal teams with consultants and vendors that have the experience you need, either in specific domains or to integrate the effort
  4. Internalise the Solution – Create a plan to strengthen your organisation with the skill sets needed to manage future endeavours
  5. Learning from Mistakes – Despite all this, mistakes will happen. Don’t forget to review the process at the end, and learn from the mistakes made

It goes without saying that much of the above can only be done if the organisation provides the right culture and context in which its employees can grow and thrive. If you don’t have such a culture, start building it today. After all, your success will depend on it!