Main | March 2012 »

February 27, 2012

Social media as a business tool. What do your employees think?

Posted by Gopal Devanahalli (View Profile | View All Posts) at 11:49 AM


It hasn't taken long for businesses to discover that viral marketing through social web sites - Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and such like can easily make or break a new product or service. Branding opportunities abound.  Chase Manhattan Bank uses a Facebook group to promote charities through community giving, for example, and to date has more than 3.6 million "likes."  Of course, there have been instances of companies getting unpleasant surprises about their business on social media. McDonalds was looking to enhance brand loyalty when its social media team decided to put out a Tweet that directed people to a story about a farmer, and how much he cared for the potatoes he was growing for McDonalds. They had not anticipated, however, that #McDStories on Twitter would provoke a widespread participation from those who had less-pleasant experiences with the fast-food franchise.  Questionable decisions about pricing can turn into a story where bad news travels very quickly over the social media networks. Bank of America decided to charge fees on debit card transactions - a modest $5 per month. The reaction was immediate.  Customers threatened to cut up their cards and take their business elsewhere.  The bank ended up rescinding the plan. Netflix tried a different approach.  They decided to change their subscription policy with a two-tier schedule, separating DVD rentals from streaming video. When their long-time users did the math, they interpreted this as a camouflaged price hike.  There was immediate blow back as most of the 29,000 comments on Netflix's Facebook page revealed an extremely unhappy fan base.

Is there a better way for companies to test-drive the social media space before implementing a plan? What if a company could try out its decisions on its own employees (mimicking the social world), so they can alter their strategy or at least anticipate the backlash and be ready with responses?

One company was way ahead of the curve on this issue, even before Facebook changed the networking world.  Red Hat, the provider of Linux and other open-source technology for the web, has an internal employee forum called "Memo List."  Red Hat has 4,000 in its workforce and on any given day, three-quarters of them visit the site posting some two to three hundred comments.  When the company has a policy issue, it is quickly discussed, debated, and resolved before it is made public.

Smart companies know that their own employees collectively comprise a huge database of intellectual capital.  Why not take advantage of it? Too many large organizations are worried about workers bringing personal cell phones to their desks and attempt to restrict their access to certain web sites. They should probably embrace the fact that employees could represent their most important "simulated buyer-base". A company that can look at its employees as smart, au courant digital consumers will discover that the benefits far outweigh any potential downside. Facebook and Twitter are not simple sell-engines. Customers aren't going to buy more of what you may have to offer just because you suggest a way to express their admiration with an "I'm lovin' it" hash tag.   However, social media may just provide you with the right tools to check with your own people internally  before making those decisions that impact your consumers...there's a good chance they'll tell you like it is.

February 24, 2012

Once upon a Jim and Bob...

Posted by Anand Prasad Arkalgud (View Profile | View All Posts) at 9:30 AM


This is a tale about Jim and Bob. Jim has spent over 5 years working his way up in a large organization setup.  When faced with constraints, he knows how to get it all sorted by talking to somebody, escalating the issue, or even concocting a solution himself. Jim is highly networked within the organization, has a clear mental model of the enterprise, and has all that he needs to get his job done either using what's available with him or somewhere easily accessible in his people network.  If a system fails, he knows how to remedy the situation, whom to contact, or even propose an assumptive stop-gap solution fully aware that that particular fix-it will not break anything downstream.  That's Jim for you.  Empowered. Willing and able to take liberties with management and processes to ensure operations don't suffer.  Everybody else is Bob.  Bob has not spent enough time in the organization to have built a network within the setup. Every day, his mental model of the enterprise gets clearer - slowly but surely. He has seen some early success, but is as yet unable to intuitively map organizational processes. Existing operational hurdles, sometimes, plague him and, on occasion, frustrate his attempts to drive business goals.
It's the Jim and Bob challenge that looms large before every large enterprise moving to a new market or setting up new operations. Their business models, processes, and in many cases, their systems and applications are developed, in their home markets, where for every 7 Jims there are typically 3 Bobs.  This equation ensures that problems don't linger when they appear, and often triggers a continuous improvement process.  Shift the same scene to an unexplored market - perhaps in the developing world. Here companies have been growing consistently at over 15-20%, making it highly unlikely that their workforce would comprise  70% Jims.  In fact, I've informally asking several business leaders to give me an idea of how many Jims they had per 100, and, in places like China, the Jim ratio turns out to be as less as 6%. 

Now, just consider the implications of taking systems and processes that work very well in a 70% Jim scenario and applying it to a 6% Jim environ.  A number of things start to fail. Mentoring doesn't work as effectively because there isn't even one Jim to support 10 Bobs! Continuous improvement practically vanishes with Bob struggling to solve problems and not feeling empowered to provide solutions.  Then, the systems that Jim designed often work best with components that are not always as accessible as the systems themselves. These components typically reside in the form of stored information (like that tell-all excel file on Jim's laptop!)  either in Jim's accumulated work repository  or with someone in his network.  Bob has no tacit knowledge to fill these gaps, and the same system that worked smoothly enough for Jim does not support Bob adequately. The end.

Moral of the story: While we try to replicate our businesses in new markets, what we really want to do is replicate our success in these markets.  This means we need to see what components of the factors driving success in our home markets is available as-is in the changed scenario. We must begin, either by ensuring the replication of these success factors or by innovating to adapt to its unavailability. Not recognizing the void can lead to a struggle with an issue that can possibly be addressed faster and in a relatively hassle-free manner.

Epilogue: Think of what this might imply when challenged to address situations created by an aging workforce, when expanding to emerging markets from the developed world, when building global templates for technology-led transformation, and all the other interesting puzzles that make business leaders reach out for that extra shot of caffeine.

February 20, 2012

Is market research breathing its last? Well, the smart phone isn't helping.

Posted by Anup Uppadhayay (View Profile | View All Posts) at 3:22 PM

If technology has influenced anything, it has perhaps had its greatest impact on our patience. A Google research team recently has confirmed that we humans cannot stand waiting. And our patience is wearing thinner every nanosecond. People will visit a website less often if it is slower, than a close competitor, by more than 250 milliseconds (a millisecond is a thousandth of a second).

The mobile phone, or rather the smart phone, with all its apps, and all its capabilities has contributed to this phenomenon. We're checking for directions on our phones; we're looking for the nearest gas station or restaurant; we're shopping; we're banking, and we're even buying and selling stocks. And we are only getting started.

What we call the anatomy of demand has shifted into a simple directive for most businesses.  Today's customers want everything now.  So we've seen a tectonic shift in demand that requires understanding three distinct elements:  "Sensing" demand, "Influencing" demand, and "Fulfilling" that demand.

To sense demand, companies are no longer relying on market research and focus groups - not because they are unreliable, but because they are not producing results fast enough.  Customers, with mobile phones, are so adept at exchanging information at such a rapid rate that demand can become viral before a vendor even knows it.

When that 17 something high-schooler buys a gadget, he does not rely on vendor literature. He makes his decision without "speaking" to anyone. He, instead, goes online, consults friends, reads reviews from peers and experts. He makes up his mind before he actually sees the phone. To check for deals and discounts he goes to a Milo local search on his mobile to get the best possible one. Instantly, he announces his deal to the world at large.

Business can get instant real-time feedback in ways they never dreamed because customers are "checking in" to locales with mobile apps like Foursquare.  With Foursquare, friends share information about everything from restaurant menus to sporting events to retail outlets.  Companies can get feedback from "instant reviews."  They can feel the pulse of their customers and potential customers at almost any time.

Traditional methods have no opportunity to influence the behavior of consumers and markets, before or after the product or service launch. What must we do differently to "influence' the markets of tomorrow?

Businesses have discovered they can use social media to target market their products and services in ways that increase sales.  Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn - almost every influential website - now is easily accessible via mobile technology.  Smart markets can choose special outlets to make sure their message is getting to the right places.  A lot of thought must go into the first point of customer contact - the "home screen" - because it can make or break a new product.

In fulfilling demand, we normally think of logistics and supply-chain management on a global basis.  But the smart phone has done this in ways that have astonished end users.  Doctors can transmit important test results - blood pressure, blood sugar levels - to their patients in minutes rather than days. Who would have thought you could use a cell phone to get access to cash?  But, we provide cash -with ATM-like security - to the half of the world's customers that do not have access to banks.

There is a lot of power and influence within our cell phones.  They are indelibly etched in our lifestyles.  What we do next with them is only bound by our imagination.  So let's keep imagining...and fast... because the world is in a hurry.

February 17, 2012

Data - structured or unstructured - means business

Posted by Akash Bhatia (View Profile | View All Posts) at 11:33 AM

This post is co-authored with Chantrelle Nielsen.


It's estimated that last year, the world created four exabytes of data - that's four quintillion bytes, or more than the combined knowledge base of the last 5,000 years.  I don't know how much an exabyte is. But it seems like a lot of information to me.  So what do we make of it?  Here's one story:

Frank Eliason, a lone customer service manager for Comcast, was sitting in his living room fielding customer service calls on his headset when he saw an article about a new "status messaging" service. He thought it might be another way to reach the customers who called him daily with service problems. So Frank logged into the service, registered under the handle @comcastcares, and began to make history. Frank turned around Comcast's image almost overnight by monitoring Twitter behind the handle "@comcastcares," and responding to complaints on a timely and personal basis. Although it was labor-intensive for Frank, Twitter users were vocal about his quick response to their issues and they sang praises of Comcast. But even more than being a new vehicle to reach and serve customers, Twitter data taught Comcast what kinds of problems its customers were having, so it could tweak its products and eliminate the problems. It also made Frank into something of a social media star. Frank was a pioneer in a new form of business - social business - wherein customers expect to talk to brands, and expect to be answered, often in near real-time. He got information about Comcast customers that was not available before the arrival of social media.

Now, imagine if you could get that kind of insights into your prospects, your customers, your competitors, your products and what customers like and dislike about your product without all that manual monitoring. People today are leaving a vast "digital data trail" on social media sites, in customer call center issues logs, and in emails. But most companies don't know how to tap this data and use it to improve their business. Although it's impossible to know for sure, some estimates say 80-85 percent of the data handled by modern businesses is unstructured.  We call it "unstructured" because we gathered it, sort of, by accident with no real idea of what we are going to use it for.  Even as the volume of structured data explodes, unstructured data grows even more quickly because of the shift to social business. Customers never talked back to the brand before. Now they can, and they do.

The "structure" in structured data comes from an abstract model that is created to describe the data. The model gives names to each field in a database and defines the relationships between the fields. Take, for example, an automobile manufacturer. From the structured data, we can learn that "2010 Model X" is a car model, "Navigation System" is a component, and "defective" is a condition: we can define the relationships between those three fields so we know that the navigation system in a particular 2010 Model X is defective.  Unstructured data, on the other hand, is not stored in a relational database, or at least not one in which the data model is relevant to the meaning of the data. For example, someone posts to an automotive forum on the Internet: The GPS in my 2010 Model X is constantly getting me lost! It stops receiving any signal for minutes at a time, and when it finally decides to tell me where I am, half the time it's wrong. The same basic information is contained in this paragraph. But the database that stores the text cannot tell us so. This database is organized around different pieces of text, dates, times and the users who post to the forum. Examples of unstructured data also include e-mails and notes from call centers. The best way to get a good view of your business is to look at a mixture of unstructured and structured data.

Let's return to the example of the defective GPS to demonstrate how both kinds of data are important. Assuming that the defect is present across multiple vehicles, the automaker will find out eventually from service center records (structured data), that there is a flaw in the component. It will then launch an investigation into the root cause, craft an appropriate, cost-effective process for handling the defective part, and then communicate and train its service centers on this process. The sooner this process can be developed, the lower the overall cost of the defect will be to the automaker. Hence the earliest warning benefits the automaker the most - especially if this warning comes before customers even start showing up to have the defect repaired (unstructured data). For certain vehicle components, it may be more cost-effective to simply replace a defective component than try to diagnose the problem and fix it. Hence, the service center records (structured data) may contain very little data about the symptoms of breakages, while the online forum postings (unstructured data) may contain a lot of detail - and this information would be necessary to determine the root cause of the problem.

Comcast has Frank Eliason to thank for understanding the value of unstructured data.  Do you have someone like him in your team?

Search InfyTalk

+1 and Like InfyTalk

Subscribe to InfyTalk feed

InfyTalk VBlogs: Watch Now

Infosys on Twitter