From lean to agile: Harrods’ supply chain director on how the pandemic sparked a revolution

Simon Finch says the coronavirus outbreak left retailers grappling for new supply chain models and now organisations must scale new heights to put people and the planet before profit

The iconic doors of Harrods’ Knightsbridge store closed for the first time in its 172-year history in March 2020, when prime minister Boris Johnson enforced an initial lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus. But what did this mean for the supply chain of arguably the world’s leading luxury department store?

Incredibly, the London stalwart remained open throughout the Blitz and only shut for half a day following a 1983 terrorist attack. Consider the joy, for staff and customers alike, when the doors were unlocked on April 12. 

Speaking on the eve of the reopening, Harrods’ supply chain director Simon Finch reveals a “back-to-school feeling” and is optimistic that footfall will be impressive, despite the lack, for the moment, of wealthy tourists. “People are very keen to come back in and Harrods has the benefit of being 1.1 million square feet, so there’s plenty of space for social distancing,” he says.

From now on, the supply chain must be more about agility, to cope with volatility and uncertainty, and less about being lean

Finch began his career at Harrods 25 years ago as a graduate trainee. The amateur high-altitude mountaineer, who has scaled Himalayan peaks as well as the highest reaches of Africa and Europe, has climbed the corporate ranks and was appointed to his current role in October 2019, less than six months before the first lockdown.

While both his employer’s online operations and warehouse remained open for the duration of the pandemic, the 46-year-old concedes, with admirable honesty, that like so many other supply chain professionals, he was forced to grapple with unforeseen operational challenges and struggled initially. 

“We were probably all a bit too overconfident in the system, a bit like those in financial services when the economic crash happened in 2008, and when something unexpected hit, there was a lot of scrambling around to make things work,” he says.

Championing the technology-driven supply chain revolution

Like other UK retailers, Harrods has been buffeted by the coronavirus crisis and, more recently, Brexit fallout. It is the pandemic, though, that exposed operational weaknesses. 

“The pandemic has triggered a supply chain revolution,” says Finch. He argues, convincingly, that businesses were “obsessed with making supply chains as lean as possible” before COVID, moving items around quickly, with minimal stock and expense.

“Coronavirus completely screwed up that approach,” Finch continues, “as the organisations holding themselves up as having the leanest supply chains were the ones that had the most significant challenges as soon as there were global disruptions.

“From now on, the supply chain must be more about agility, to cope with volatility and uncertainty, and less about being lean. However, that agility has to be fully supported by technology and data insights. Whereas previously we have used technology to create a leaner supply chain, now the tech needs to provide the knowledge to make better decisions to drive agility and visibility.”

Data can’t get stuck in the Suez Canal, nor does it get held up at the borders with Europe

Given that Harrods was established in 1849 with the rather ambitious motto of omnia omnibus ubique (all things for all people, everywhere), the consumer behaviour trends accelerated by the pandemic forced the business to keep pace with change and embrace the digital age. Little surprise, then, that Harrods has recently employed more data scientists. 

“Understanding our customers, and how we can serve them better, and starting to use artificial intelligence, whether for our replenishment operations, to make sure we have the right amount of stock, or to manage outbound fulfilment volumes, is paramount,” says Finch. “Data can’t get stuck in the Suez Canal, nor does it get held up at the borders with Europe. And the sharing of data with our partners delivers a better operating model for the end-to-end supply chain.”

Data insights and deeper relationships driving sustainability

Technology alone, though, is not enough to drive the supply chain revolution, according to Finch. He contends that it is critical for those operating in the industry to “go retro” and forge or nurture deeper relationships with suppliers, service providers and brand partners. 

“Because the pandemic messed everything up, and we didn’t know what was happening, we picked up the phone and spoke to trusted partners and suppliers to all pull things together,” he says. “It was a return to the supply chain of the 1900s.”

Moreover, the combination of emboldened trusted relationships and data insights, plus greater diversity in terms of distribution nodes, inside and outside the UK, enables Harrods to develop a more sustainable supply chain. 

The sustainability agenda is critical to the luxury industry and we will lose sales if we don’t do this right

“As a father to two eco-conscious girls, I’m incredibly passionate about sustainability and building a brighter future,” says Finch. “I believe it’s the responsibility of all supply chain professionals and businesses to ensure we are doing the right thing for our customers. Therefore, putting the product closer to the consumer, through a decentralised supply chain and more localised distribution, is a win-win scenario. 

“Also, from a purely commercial perspective, this is the direction in which our customers want us to go; the sustainability agenda is critical to the luxury industry and we will lose sales if we don’t do this right.”

To illustrate his vision, Finch uses an example of how inefficient and harmful to the planet the supply chain and fulfilment processes can be from an ecommerce perspective. Goods might be manufactured and shipped from the United States to the UK only to be then sold online and shipped back to an American-based customer. 

“We are doing everything wrong if we create that unnecessary movement from a sustainability perspective, and also it increases costs and length of delivery time,” he says.

The COVID crisis may have sparked a supply chain revolution, but it is a work in progress for many retailers, including Harrods. Stressing the importance of diversity, data insights and developing trusted relationships for supply chains of the near future, Finch adds: “By having products that are local to customers, we can serve them more quickly, more cost effectively and more sustainably, while reducing risk, because the goods aren’t moving as far.” 

Through shifting its business model and with this smarter, tech-powered approach to the supply chain, Harrods will stand a good chance of keeping its doors, both physical and virtual, open for many years to come.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Procurement and Supply Chain Innovation report in April 2021

Dell’s digital boss on being a change agent for transformation

Jen Felch is leveraging her deep knowledge and experience from 17 years at Dell to manage change, drive collaboration and supercharge innovation

What’s the secret to achieving as smooth a digital transformation journey as possible? Taking your people every small step of the way with clear communication and, more specifically, letting them help plot the route. This insight is shared by an expert perfectly placed to offer an opinion on the subject: Jen Felch, Dell Technologies’ chief digital and information officer.

In September 2019, she took on the dual roles for the first time in the computer technology company’s 37-year history. Back then, like everyone else, Felch had no inkling of the coronavirus-induced disruption that lay ahead. 

During the pandemic, from her home in Austin, Texas, she has been at the helm to navigate the organisation’s road to recovery, driving the strategy, direction and delivery for Dell Digital, Dell’s IT arm. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Felch combines her responsibilities as CDO and CIO alongside “the emerging role of change agent for digital transformation”. No wonder the 53-year-old has taken up hot yoga to help increase her physical and mental flexibility.

Aside from an eight-month stint with Boeing in 2010, she has been employed by Dell since April 2003. Her deep knowledge of the company is hugely beneficial to steering digital transformation, particularly in a period of epochal change. Felch has access to all areas, is a trusted ally and understands various stakeholders’ pain points.

“I started my career as a software developer and spent two years working in the Dell factories as part of a development rotation, and it was a fabulous experience,” says Felch. “That hands-on operational experience is invaluable and I still leverage it today. I don’t have to imagine what it is like in a factory because I have first-hand knowledge.”

Digital transformation: a never-ending continuum

Felch boasts a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is an alumnus of the Leaders for Global Operations Program at MIT, where she earned her MBA and a Master’s in computer science. She continues: “Thanks to my 17 years with Dell, I can make use of a network of people across the company. 

“I can pick up the phone to find out what is really happening in a certain area and what people are truly thinking. By understanding what they are trying to achieve and how we can make them more effective, employees are less resistant towards technology adoption and change.”

We might have great technology, but it is having highly skilled people who are available and have the environment in which to innovate that makes the difference

Indeed, when asked about the biggest challenge to successful digital transformation, Felch is quick to answer: change management. “You need the right mechanisms – people, tools and processes – for managing and leading change. You need people within your organisation who will champion change, interact with the business and with the technical teams, and drive understanding and solutions to opportunities.” 

She posits it is “human nature” to find change daunting, hence why there is resistance, at least initially. However, Felch acknowledges the irony of IT professionals needing to be more communicative, collaborative and, well, human in 2021. Man and machine must comprehend one another and stride ahead together to enable an optimal digital transformation journey.

“Today, IT all depends on developing the right engineering culture within an organisation,” Felch says. “At Dell, we are highly dependent on how we engage with others and we have to draw out those latent needs, so we understand where we are going and innovate accordingly. 

“We might have great technology, but it is having highly skilled people who are available and have the environment in which to innovate that makes the difference.”

Little surprise, then, that Felch views digital transformation, both for her company and its clients, as a “continuum that doesn’t end”. She explains: “For us, digital transformation is much more than upgrading a server rack; it is about a mindset to keep the whole business performing and moving forward. As we look ahead, we’re finding the balance between security, privacy and ease-of use, which I believe can be accomplished with good design.”

Further, she is a “firm believer” in Dell’s lean and agile methodology concerning development that drives transformation. “Our iterative approach is delivering great results,” Felch says, lauding a more open, collaborative mindset across the business and also with trusted partners. 

“It’s incredibly powerful when you pair strong technologists with strong business partners and modern IT, like a developer experience rooted in self-service, to drive transformation. That’s where you see multiple wins of creating better experiences, improving employee satisfaction and driving out cost.”

Lean and agile development: delivering results

The outcomes are impressive. She claims that by eliminating redundant work and reducing manual tasks or testing, Dell Technologies has shifted around 10 per cent of its workforce into the development team to “be able to engage with our business partners directly to develop new solutions”.

The company has also reduced its cycle time to deploy new capabilities by 30% and the number of incidents – when a user calls for help – by 31%. It has done this, Felch says, through a focus on user experience, fixing the root cause of existing problems and driving quality in new capabilities.

“The net of it all is that we’re getting faster and more responsive, quality is improving and we have better engagement with our business partners. That’s what digital transformation is all about,” she says.

Finally, Felch stresses how business-critical it is for organisations to “embrace digital transformation”. Those that do not, and are closed to change and constant evolution, will fail – and sooner, rather than later.

“Digital transformation can drive growth opportunities, enhance customer experiences, better connect employees and continue to accelerate positive change within a business,” she explains. 

Given Felch’s wealth of knowledge and experience, it’s worth heeding her words of wisdom.

Felch’s top five tips for leading through digital transformation

  1. Start small
    Find the people who are willing to drive change and solve their first problem. Solve it, celebrate it and let that be the example that you build upon for broader transformation. Having people who can step back, see the larger opportunity or problem that could improve other areas or be replicated, and interact with designers, developers, and so on, can serve as powerful change agents within your organisation.
  2. Focus on the end user experience
    Take the time to listen and observe the problem or opportunity. This avoids the “telephone game” and helps surface latent needs that will delight the user.
  3. Invest in your own processes and team
    Create and embed common ways of working and interacting for the entire team so that it is easy for people to focus on the problem. Have common processes for tracking status and priorities so that people can bring their expertise, whether that’s in DevOps, design, or user experience, to solve the problem efficiently. 
  4. Stay connected to your teams
    Keep providing context and communicate priorities left and right, up and down, to help keep everyone pulling together in the same direction. Stay close so that you can jump in to help remove obstacles, celebrate successes and to remind people that change can be hard. Mistakes will happen but if we commit to learn quickly and to move forward together, driving real change is hugely rewarding.
  5. Be optimistic
    Stay flexible, agile and be ready to pivot. Be optimistic about the present and excited for what transformation will deliver in the future.

This article was first published by Raconteur in April 2021

Five priorities for CIOs in 2021

Trends accelerated by the coronavirus crisis present challenges and opportunities; dealing with both has increased the workload for chief information officers

1 Regulatory compliance and security

The entry might have been number one in the charts for the past few years, but the mass jump to working away from the office catalysed by lockdown has meant chief information officers (CIOs) must be on top of data management, security and compliance. 

“The shift towards remote work and digital operations has meant the information security posture of many businesses, faced with an increasing amount of threats, has had to improve,” says Federico Baldo, CIO at Eurotech, a multinational company supplying internet of things solutions.

“Security starts at the top of an organisation and, while chief executives do not need to be security experts, they do benefit from an accurate understanding of the relevance of security to their organisation. And for many smaller businesses, in particular, it is the CIO’s job to lead the internal security programmes.”

Caroline Carruthers, chief executive of data strategists Carruthers and Jackson and former chief data officer at Network Rail, says a mindset transformation is required. “My biggest piece of advice for CIOs when it comes to regulatory compliance is they need to stop thinking about security and privacy as a tick-box exercise,” she says. “It’s essential they see this as a positive opportunity rather than a hurdle to overcome.”

There are enormous advantages for the organisations that get compliance right, she insists, from increased customer trust to more secure intellectual property.

2 Modernise IT infrastructure and systems

COVID has tested the robustness of supply chains, business models and information technology systems alike. In many cases, it exposed worrying vulnerabilities. 

“After the immediate response to the pandemic, it allowed the time to look at IT systems and assess whether they remained fit for purpose,” says Jean-Sébastien Pelland, deputy managing director of Eland Cables, a global supplier of cables and cable accessories.

“Businesses constantly evolve, requiring IT systems to adapt rather than making wholesale changes, simply due to the pace and perhaps uncertainty of the new avenues. Now is the time to make sure the systems match the business as it stands today.”

This chimes with Sharon Mandell, CIO of Juniper Networks, a multinational cybersecurity company. “As we ‘cloudify’ and ‘SaaSify’ our entire product line, Juniper also needs to update its IT architecture. We need one that’s more nimble, that brings new capabilities and that’s more user aware to enable the experience our customers and partners desire throughout their journey with us,” she says.

Like many organisations, Juniper has pivoted its offering, in part because of the pandemic fallout. “Modernising IT is a priority now as many of our systems were built around a business model that delivered hardware, with embedded software only, and traditional technical support and services,” says Mandell.

3 Ensure real-time visibility of critical data

“The world we’re living in is moving faster than ever and organisations relying on data even one week old are behind the curve,” warns data strategist Carruthers. “The nature and speed of change in 2021 will make real-time visibility of critical data the single biggest factor in winning new business across almost all industries this year.” 

She advises that “CIOs need to make sure they have insight into what is going on in their industries in real time” to make accurate predictions.

Rich Murr, CIO at Epicor, a global provider of enterprise resource planning software for the manufacturing, distribution, retail and service industries, agrees. He calls actionable data “the holy grail” of IT. “And sometimes it’s seemingly just as difficult to obtain,” he says. “The challenge is less about systems and more about the business processes that produce and consume the data. 

“CIOs need to educate their business peers, not to sit back and expect clean data to appear magically in their systems, but instead to take strong ownership and execute the hard business process improvement work necessary to create actionable data.”

4 Engage and educate the workforce

On Murr’s point of driving education and training, so employees can use all IT systems capabilities and have a good handle on data management, this is another important CIO task. “IT needs to work for the worker,” says Tim Christensen, chief technology officer at workforce communications platform SocialChorus.

Football Association CIO Craig Donald says: “Facilitating tech literacy will be central to my role in boosting enjoyment and attainment as the football community comes back to life in 2021. Particularly in non-tech organisations, CIOs shouldn’t just go in there being the mystical gurus of technology. Get a dialogue going and show how tech can directly impact relationships.”

Educating staff is particularly challenging for Jo Drake, CIO of The Hut Group, the retail and property company that in September attracted the largest initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange since 2013. “As part of a global business that is expanding at a rapid rate, it’s important to have the best team possible and the right talent to grow with us,” she says, pointing to several schemes that attract and nurture tech talent.

5 Make full use of cloud computing 

Eurotech CIO Baldo urges businesses to “go full-on cloud”. He says: “If the business gross margin is not sensitive to slightly higher costs, there are many more advanced and integrated security capabilities that smaller businesses can leverage through the use of cloud services from AWS, Azure, Google or IBM than could be achieved on-premise, within the same budget.” It is the CIO’s responsibility to manage the move to the cloud and beyond.

Dr Anjali Subburaj, chief architect of digital commerce at multinational manufacturer Mars, believes businesses can move up a level in this area. “Adoption of cloud computing allows IT teams to focus exclusively on driving business outcomes via their endeavours instead of grappling with IT infrastructure issues,” she says. 

Once the cloud is embraced, more tech opportunities become accessible. “CIOs should also be prioritising the introduction of an artificial intelligence-embedded approach,” Subburaj adds. “This will improve the accuracy and relevancy of outputs, such as supply and demand, and personalised product recommendations to consumers.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future CIO report in March 2021

The pros and cons of Bill Gates’ green premiums

Bill Gates recently published his “green manifesto”, but is it feasible for organisations to follow and, if not, what should businesses be doing instead?

You could argue it is a bit rich that Bill Gates, co-founder of technology titan Microsoft and one of the world’s wealthiest people, is calling for businesses to drive climate change. However, there is no debating that consumer and investor demand is forcing organisations to clean up their processes for the future of an endangered planet.

In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, his latest book styled a “green manifesto”, published in February, the 65-year-old billionaire introduces the concept of “green premiums” or the differences in cost between a fossil-fuel-based way of doing something and the clean, non-emitting way of doing the same thing. But how achievable is Gates’ vision?

A fresh approach to doing business is essential to avoid a climate disaster, posits Gates. This new way requires courage from business leaders to take on risks they are not used to taking and also that investors are not used to rewarding. It’s a simple problem, he suggests: we must stop greenhouse gases by the middle of the century or else.

Green premiums essentially show how much it will cost to “zero out emissions” in all sectors of the economy where fossil fuels are involved, including producing electricity, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and heating and cooling. 

There are four areas where organisations can make “a practical difference”, according to Gates. The first involves “mobilising capital” to reduce green premiums. Second, businesses should buy greener products. Next, they should expand research and development. Finally, drive down green premiums by shaping public policies.

“Working in these four areas will not always be comfortable,” Gates concedes, though he adds: “These are short-term costs required of every business leader who wants to do more than pay lip service to climate change. In the long run, these risky steps will be good for business.”

The global reaction to his green manifesto, and green premiums in particular, has been ambivalent. Molly Scott Cato, a Green Party politician, who from 2014 until last year served as a member of the European parliament for South-West England, is in two minds about them. 

“As an economist, I like and agree with the green premiums principle of using market incentives to tackle the climate emergency and the consideration of how to achieve wellbeing with minimum energy use is important,” she says.

On the flip side, the professor of economics and finance at the University of Roehampton, says: “Green premiums are too technologically focused and adopt the adage that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Scott Cato contends the planet’s systems are highly complex and ungovernable: “Many of the solutions require social rather than technological innovation.” 

Stressing the need for greater international collaboration and higher appreciation of the complexities, she says: “Gates’ proposal is also too exclusively focused on the climate and consequently risks displacement, for example where are the biofuels grown and have they destroyed peatlands for food growth?”

Oliver Bolton, chief executive of Earthly, a tech platform that helps businesses become “climate positive” through science-backed natural solutions, identifies another hurdle. “The use of green premiums is ultimately going to be driven by governments changing policy,” he says, “so it could be hard at the outset for businesses to use the model.”

Dr Jane Davidson, pro vice chancellor for sustainability and external engagement at the University of Wales, is more scathing of green premiums. “I’m disappointed at the proposition that ‘green’ is more expensive,” says the former minister for environment and sustainability in Wales. “This is classic short-term thinking, when each year the costs of us not being green goes up, contributing to climate change. 

“Green premiums are the wrong answer to the wrong question. We need a new value system that drives climate and biodiversity-led action, and drives out fossil fuels, waste and obsolescence.”

Despite the headlines and promises, there is concern that environmental, social and corporate governance strategies are largely meaningless, in part because they are not regulated and tricky to measure accurately. Moreover, could it be that by committing to a net-zero target in 29 years, as many have, businesses are delaying action on climate change, as it is not an imminent worry?

Indeed, while a search on financial data service Sentieo indicates that references to 2050 in corporate literature have doubled in the past two years, a PwC survey released in mid-March found climate change ranked ninth among global chief executives’ perceived threats to growth. Additionally, 27 per cent of the executives surveyed reported being “not concerned at all” or “not very concerned” about climate change.

Worryingly, this tallies with research from French-headquartered digital design software corporation Dassault Systèmes, published in September, that shows the coronavirus crisis caused 32 per cent of organisations to scale down attention given to environmental sustainability, while 18 per cent paused it completely.

“As organisations come out of crisis mode, it is vital they quickly return to making environmental sustainability a priority,” urges Séverine Trouillet, public sector and education director for Dassault Systèmes in Northern Europe. “This can be done by setting short to mid-term goals to help reach long-term ambitions, as well as building upon the already accelerated adoption of technology to reduce their footprint and increase their handprint, making positive impacts on the environment and communities.”

Trouillet believes those companies that act now can still achieve a competitive advantage. “Eco-conscious consumers will continue to vote with their wallets, meaning businesses failing to take it seriously will lose revenue and struggle to keep pace with rivals,” she says.

Peter Bakker, president and chief executive of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, concurs. But he says a new wave of leadership thinking is imperative. “Three radical and strategic business mindset shifts – reinvention, resilience and regeneration – are critical to realising a sustainable and inclusive society,” the Dutchman says. 

Bakker concludes: “It is time to move beyond ambition and targets and make net zero real, within the next decade.”

This article first appeared in Raconteur’s Sustainable Business report, published in April 2021

Why occupational health is now a top priority

Ethics aside, supporting the physical and mental health of employees creates a win-win scenario in the post-pandemic workplace, but there are challenges to providing better support

The coronavirus crisis has squeezed the life out of so much we previously took for granted, at home and at work. Things have changed, irreversibly. Many people express both a heightened appreciation of life and respect for mortality. But how does this translate to occupational health? 

As organisations begin to coax their employees back to the workplace, the expectation that employers should support the mental and physical health of staff, particularly in a workplace setting, has been dialled up in the past year. 

To instil confidence in employees that a return to work is safe, many companies provide COVID-19 rapid lateral flow tests, promise better ventilation, rigorous cleaning programmes and gallons of hand sanitiser. But is it enough? Should businesses take more accountability for their workers’ health?

According to employee benefits provider Unum’s Value of Help study, published in December, 86 per cent of UK employers have changed their approach to staff health and wellbeing because of the coronavirus situation. 

Moreover, 95 per cent of the 350 employers surveyed revealed the pandemic has “impacted their need to make employees feel more protected”, says Glenn Thompson, chief distribution officer at Unum UK. “Whether it is from individuals, communities or organisations, 2020 has brought the value of help and support to the front of all our minds,” he adds.

Dr Robin Hart, co-founder of Companion, which offers mental health support tools, is pleased organisations are showing a greater willingness to look after staff. “A lack of focus in this area historically has seen an increase in lost revenue and diminished productivity,” he says. “Attitudes have had to change in a very reactive way due to the pandemic. In reality, it’s accelerated a process which would have played out anyway, eventually.”

Win-win scenario

Besides, supporting staff health and wellbeing creates a win-win scenario. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) data shows that in the 12 months to March 2020, when the first lockdown came into force, approximately 828,000 workers, the equivalent of 2,440 per 100,000 people, were affected by work-related stress, depression or anxiety. This absenteeism resulted in an estimated 17.9 million working days lost. In the previous year, the cost of workplace injury and ill health was calculated by HSE at £16.2 billion.

“Nobody’s health should be worse at the end of a shift than it was at the start,” says Dr Craig Jackson, professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University. “If it is poorer, then there is something morally, ethically and legally wrong in that workplace.”

He believes there is a newfound respect for occupational health departments. “The excellent, proactive work undertaken by many professionals in preparing COVID-secure workplaces – assessing staff return to workplaces, COVID screening, testing, tracking and tracing – will lead to people realising occupational health is not just somewhere to go to when you are ill and unable to work,” he says.

Jackson acknowledges “supporting staff better than before does involve additional time and costs”, but argues such spending is a good investment. This is backed by research from Deloitte, published last year, that estimates for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they gain £5 back in business value.

“Not only is there a strong moral case for employers to look after staff health, but it makes good business sense, too,” agrees Oliver Harrison, chief executive of Koa Health, provider of mental health programmes. “Healthy workplaces attract the best talent. They also avoid the negative impact of illness on productivity, measured in staff turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism.”

Wellbeing challenges

From a legal standpoint, organisations have a statutory obligation to protect their staff from physical and mental harm. However, Elena Cooper, employment consultant at Discreet Law, reports that “a large number of employees are taking advantage of what they perceive to be their employer’s duties around mental health”.

She asks: “We know a caring and supportive employer is a good employer, but where do you draw the line between being a profit-making entity and a nanny state?” With the prospect of businesses having to afford time off to long-COVID sufferers in the coming months, if not years, it’s a pertinent question.

Ethical and legal debates aside, organisations face other pressing challenges to improve staff wellbeing. “One of the greatest barriers is ensuring healthcare support tends to the needs of all who work within a company,” says Bob Andrews, chief executive of private medical cover provider Benenden Health. 

“There is often a disconnect between what employees want to see from a health and wellbeing programme and what businesses offer. Also employees are not the same and therefore a one-size-fits-all approach is outdated and ineffective.” He advises using a range of tools, including mental health apps, as well as low-cost human management.

Luke Bullen, chief executive in the UK and Ireland at Gympass, which seeks to improve wellbeing through exercise classes, spots another issue. “One of the major challenges for a post-pandemic workforce is going to be the hybrid workplace,” he says. “How do employees ensure their wellbeing strategy works just as well for those working at their tables as though working in the office?” Empowering staff to “tailor the wellbeing offering” is critical, he suggests. 

Spurred by events of the last 12 months, occupational health will surge in importance in the coming years. “By 2025 I expect it to be available anywhere, anytime, thanks to digital advancement,” predicts Paul Shawcross, clinical lead of occupational health services at physiotherapy provider Connect Health. His company employs an artificial intelligence-chatbot as a method of referral that “triages the patient to the right support for them, 24 hours a day, seven days a week”.

Whether it is bot therapists, wellbeing apps or human professionals, employers need to prioritise occupational health in the post-pandemic workplace. Support, of any kind, is what staff truly want and need right now.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future of Healthcare report in March 2021

How can purpose support growth targets?

Company culture is central to achieve staff engagement and motivation, and the coronavirus global crisis has provided an opportunity to pivot and rewrite business models

A happy worker is a productive worker, goes the oft-repeated business aphorism. It is incredibly challenging, though, to keep the workforce motivated through periods of significant change, such as during the early stages of a digital transformation journey or while a startup is experiencing rapid growth. However, change is something most organisations have experienced in 2020, as the coronavirus chaos has touched every part of our lives.

Business leaders should be sensitive to this current climate of uncertainty and potential bad news. Further, they must be careful not to become fixated on the bottom line and drive staff to hit growth targets. Taking this myopic view, and not paying due consideration to staff wellbeing and happiness, runs the risk of alienating the workforce.

Focus on your culture and the business will take care of itself

Organisations that foster and communicate an inclusive, company-wide culture driven by a clearly defined purpose are likely to find scaling more manageable. And now, following the global crisis, is the time for organisations to seize the opportunity to reset their culture.

“Focus on your culture and the business will take care of itself,” says Eissa Khoury, executive director for culture and engagement at Landor, a global branding and design agency. “Having a strong culture often translates into fewer checks and balances, and boosts efficiency as employees have much better clarity on what is expected of them, and how they’re meant to work collectively towards a common goal.”

Good communication and positive contributions

David Mills, chief executive of technology giant Ricoh Europe, goes further and posits an organisation looking to attract and retain top talent while scaling, and also appealing to consumers, must lead with a purpose that benefits society.

“Financial margins are no longer the sole indicator of business success or growth, sustainability must be at the centre of a modern business,” he says. “People are looking to employers to set an example and make more positive contributions to the communities in which they operate.”

Indeed, for positive contributions to permeate throughout an organisation’s culture, they must come from the top down, says Khoury. And leaders have to be transparent and communicate plans and progress, as well as setbacks, to staff.

Company news, he says, ought to be disseminated regularly and through various channels, particularly when people aren’t physically in the same space. Moreover, leaders should engage employees by encouraging their ideas and acting on them, so staff become more emotionally invested in the project.

“When scaling and growing a company, stress and long hours are often unavoidable,” says Khoury. “The essential advice for leaders is not to lose their sense of humanity and to appreciate that pushing teams too hard for too long is a terrible long-term strategy.

“If companies want their employees to be ‘bought in’ to the strategy, then they need to have a sense of ownership. The easiest way to accomplish that is to keep employees aware of how the company is doing, warts and all.

“Should companies try to push the company line to make employees think everything is rosy, they will see right through it, which creates mistrust and disengagement. Treat employees with respect, let them know what’s happening and make them feel like their contribution matters.”

Transparency breeds trust

Abbie Walsh, chief design officer at Fjord, an Accenture-backed design and innovation agency, agrees. “A focus on financial growth means companies risk losing sight of the very culture and values their brand was built on,” she says. “And if employees aren’t already feeling like a cog in a machine, the new hires, team restructures, redefined roles and a mountain of new processes that come with business expansion is sure to lead to levels of dissatisfaction.”

Walsh believes having a clear purpose will increasingly become critical for organisations, small and large. She points to the Fjord Trends 2020 report that suggests we should care more about our impact on the planet.

“In 2019, questions about capitalism’s trajectory of endless growth with profit as the sole measurable moved from shouting on the streets to conversations in the boardroom,” she says. “There is an urgent need for businesses to redefine value, reassess their goals and scale in a way that serves the interests of investors, society and employees at the same time.”

This article – sponsored by Nespresso – first appeared on Raconteur’s Return to the Workplace for SMEs report in March 2021

How can a coffee break help the bottom line?

Communal coffee breaks, whether working from home or in the office, are an increasingly important way to relax and unwind, and boost productivity

In Sweden, they call it fika. Essentially it is a coming together where staff take a break and time out to socialise and promote wellbeing. York-based staff management software company RotaCloud introduced fika to the workplace in 2018, to “help make people’s days better”, according to co-founder James Lintern. “It’s a time when everyone can make a cup of coffee, have a snack and talk,” he says. 

“We don’t force people to take a break, but we strongly encourage it and we use automated alerts on Slack to remind people.” Lintern says the practice has had a positive impact on staff and, in turn, productivity. 

“Having this time set aside within the working day is very important,” he continues, “because it creates an environment of sharing and learning, and helps employees build a support system within the office. This is about fostering a mentality that makes it OK to stop, slow down and reflect.”

While the coronavirus has driven new ways of working and triggered an initial exodus from the office, this practice is even more important for both people and businesses. The stress of having to work away from the office, possibly juggling family commitments in addition to the uncertainty of the future, has led many people to work harder than before. This approach is counter-productive, says Dr Argyro Avgoustaki, associate professor of management at ESCP Business School.

“The more the employee is working, especially if there is no break or resting time, the more the productivity decreases, because they do not get the chance to recover physically, mentally or emotionally,” she says. “Working constantly without taking any breaks between or within working days may result in employees who are exhausted, fatigued and stressed.”

Healthy body, healthy mind

Given the sudden shift to mass home working, where conditions might not be optimal, there is even more reason to take regular breaks, argues Mark Fletcher, clinical director at occupational physiotherapy provider Physio Med. 

“Sitting for longer than 20 minutes has negative effects on your body, including an increase in musculoskeletal problems such as back and neck pain, while extended periods of sitting can affect the spine, neck and shoulders. This, in turn, can also affect the arms, elbows and wrists,” he says, suggesting employees should move away from their desks every 30 minutes, even if just for a few paces.

When it comes to better managing remote-working teams, regular check-ins are vital, to ensure employees are happy with their work and also, arguably more importantly, that their mental health is supported. Business leaders should view this as an opportunity to show their human, compassionate side, says Susan Hodkinson, chief operating officer at Canadian accounting firm Crowe Soberman in Toronto. 

“Communication should be frequent and transparent,” she says. “We have a virtual coffee event, which replicates the kitchen coffee chat with co-workers. You’re trying to have those touchpoints you would have in the office.

Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Facebook, agrees that virtual coffee meet-ups help keep colleagues connected, even virtually. She enjoys “coffee roulette”, using videoconferencing tools. “You enter your name and then play coffee roulette with colleagues. The random nature of it creates surprise. It’s a great way to get to know people in 15 minutes,” says Mendelsohn, adding it’s especially good for people joining the company.

Benefits of informal catch-ups

Tania Garrett, vice president of international employee experience at Adobe, says relaxing coffee breaks, whether in the office or while remote working, with other members of the team are essential for boosting morale. “One of the things we hear a lot from our employees is that they are missing their colleagues and the informal catch-ups,” she says. “As such, we have strongly encouraged our people managers to create opportunities for non-work catch-ups like ‘coffee chats’ or team events.” 

For the more introverted employees, Garrett encourages small groups for coffee chats so “everyone can feel safe and included in conversation and managers can ensure everyone’s voice is heard”. She adds: “These informal moments are critical for our teams to take time out from work and connect on a personal level.”

Organisations seeking to make their offices more welcoming to staff should think about the provision of quality coffee, says Beth Hampson, commercial director of The Argyll Club, which offers more than 35 flex-work spaces in London. “Coffee at work isn’t just for the caffeine-fanatic anymore; most professionals now want a quality hot beverage every day so offices can no longer afford to have below-par coffee,” she says. 

Coffee at work isn’t just for the caffeine-fanatic anymore; most professionals now want a quality hot beverage every day

Members of The Argyll Club can now take advantage of Nespresso on offer at their workplaces. “We’ve even had all of our teams retrained on how to make an exceptional cup of coffee,” says Hampson.

Ultimately, it’s people who power any business, so looking after them, in the office or at home, and providing them with ample opportunity to take coffee breaks creates a win-win situation. And as employees do return to the office, those workplaces that can offer quality coffee on-site will claim the hearts and minds of staff.
“After months at home, members told us they miss the city’s quality coffee shops, bars and restaurants as well as their offices and teammates,” adds Hampson. “So bringing all these much-loved elements together in one safe destination is the future of work for us.”

This article – sponsored by Nespresso – first appeared on Raconteur’s website in March 2021

Virtual onboarding: the new reality

Having to join a company virtually is likely to outlast the coronavirus pandemic as many companies shift to more permanent remote working. But this raises challenges over how to get new starters up to speed and feel part of a company

The deep trepidation felt by Jeevan Singh when she was appointed finance officer of influencer marketing platform Fanbytes in September is relatable for those who have endured a remote onboarding process in the past year, especially workers at the start of their career.

“Starting a new job in lockdown was terrifying,” says the 23 year old, who in 2019 graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London. “I thought I’d feel like an outsider and lack the essential team-working environment. Above all, I was worried that I’d miss out on training and be left to figure out how to do things.”

Fanbytes’ suite of online collaboration tools and a “fantastic culture” of frequent, virtual meetings and social events soon allayed her fears, though. “For anyone looking to start a new job remotely or for businesses wanting to create a more inclusive culture, regular face-to-face calls and chats should be at the top of the agenda,” recommends Singh. “While I haven’t met any of my colleagues in person yet – and they may all turn out to be catfishing [creating a fake identity] – I nevertheless feel like I know them well.”

Charlie Johnson, founder and chief executive of BrighterBox, a London-based recruitment firm that places graduates with startups, agrees that for younger talent beginning a full-time job virtually is particularly daunting. His organisation’s research reveals that more than a third (36 per cent) of respondents feel less confident about starting a role remotely, although 44 per cent say it would make no difference.

“Ultimately, what new starters are looking for in 2021 is plenty of contact time: one to ones with their direct managers as well as the wider team and virtual socials to get to know teammates on a more personal and less formal level,” says Johnson.

Managing a remote team by example

What about remote onboarding as a new manager? Having amassed 16 years’ experience working in financial services, Cedrick Parize was perhaps not as terrified as Singh when, last March, he joined MUFG as Europe, Middle East and Africa head of internal audit for the bank’s global markets. However, 12 months after he took up his position, Parize is yet to meet any of the eight-strong team, two of whom he hired, in the flesh.

“Initially, with it being the start of the first lockdown, it was a challenge to get a feel for the team,” he says. “So much human communication is performed through body language and experiencing a person’s energy.”

From the outset at MUFG, Parize was open minded and flexible, even agreeing to reschedule meetings so they didn’t clash with Joe Wicks’ workout sessions, and keen to display his human side. 

Ultimately, what new starters are looking for in 2021 is plenty of contact time.

“I encouraged video calls and switched my camera on, no matter how bad my outfit was,” he says. “There was no pressure for others to do the same, but I was happy to see that through leading by example, and slowly building up relationships, my team began to feel more comfortable, turning on their cameras. This change helped enormously to gain a sense of each individual.”

Clearly, the coronavirus crisis has transformed hiring practices and talent management. While organisations are struggling to keep pace with the change necessitated by government-enforced remote working, the direction of travel is evident. “Virtual recruitment and onboarding are undoubtedly here to stay,” says Jon Addison, vice president at professional social network LinkedIn. 

Indeed, 84 per cent of the 1,500 human resources and talent professionals surveyed from around the world for LinkedIn’s The Future of Recruiting report predict virtual recruiting will outlast COVID-19.

Winning the war for talent in 90 days

Addison argues that as the war for talent intensifies, organisations must sharpen their remote onboarding, career development and training capabilities. “The first few days in a job are extremely important in setting up new joiners well,” he says. “Remote onboarding can make that challenging, particularly for younger generations joining the workforce who may not know what to expect.”

The most progressive organisations will start the experience well in advance of the new hire’s first day. Addison says this is achieved by connecting them to their team, ensuring home office equipment arrives, if remote working is possible, and sending a welcome package that includes information about company culture and explaining what the coming days and weeks might entail.

As vice president of people and operations at ClassPass, the fitness and wellness network that hit a $1-billion valuation last year, and with almost 400 employees distributed across 30 countries, Hollen Spatz has had to ensure her organisation’s remote onboarding runs smoothly. 

All hires join a programme coined “the 90-day warm-up”. The onboarding process starts with “a few surprises in the mail, including some company swag” and a personalised note from the ClassPass leadership team. The programme consists of a series of sessions introducing new team members to various aspects of the organisation over a three-month period.

“Onboarding and staff retention go hand in hand,” says Spatz. “An employee’s experience in the first 90 days of their role will have a massive impact on their happiness, productivity and longevity with a company.”

To accelerate the assimilation, ClassPass has also created a series of virtual check-ins with managers so beginners are clear on their role expectations and have ample opportunity to raise questions.

Finally, Spatz acknowledges that the remote onboarding process requires continuous tweaking. “We used to send out gift cards for a welcome lunch over Zoom, but quickly realised people might not feel comfortable eating in front of new colleagues on camera,” she concedes. 

With remote onboarding and virtual training set to remain, there’s plenty for business leaders to chew over to improve the recipe for success.

Five tips to improve remote onboarding

1. Divide and conquer interview duties

Moneypenny, a global outsourced communications provider, has recruited more than 350 new staff members since March 2020, and group chief executive Joanna Swash believes the secret to a successful hire is to divide and conquer. “We have two people to carry out remote interviews,” she says. “This allows each person to ask different questions and enables them to watch body language while the other person is talking.”

2. Use technology solutions to ease the load

Alexander Nicolaus, chief people officer at Paysend, a UK-based international money transfer fintech, urges business leaders to embrace technology solutions to improve hiring and training efficiencies. “We built an onboarding intranet that acts as a self-service toolkit for new joiners,” he says. This facility relieves the pressure on the business and allows employees to access a wide range of information.

3. Build a remote culture

GitLab is a fully remote technology company that has 13,000 employees spread across 67 countries. Head of remote Darren Murph says the key to successful remote onboarding is instilling a company culture. “The three key aspects are our commitment to working handbook first, being outcomes focused and having intentional communication,” he says.

4. Buddy up new hires

Being assigned a work buddy is vital for remote hires, according to Nicole Alvino, co-founder and head of strategy at SocialChorus, a workforce communications platform. “We added ‘sidekicks’ early on in the pandemic to ensure every person would have a personal connection. The sidekick is a person who can help navigate the culture.”

5. Introduce the CEO

In many ways remote onboarding has improved efficiencies, not least when it comes to including the C-suite in the process. “It has offered an opportunity for our chief executive to join the new hire training sessions,” says Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign. “Booking in time to lead a Zoom session is much easier than clearing his schedule for a face-to-face orientation session.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Employee Engagement and Wellbeing report in March 2021

Tech, humanity and humour: meet the new CFO

When Govia Thameslink Railway suffered a 95 per cent drop in footfall, chief financial officer Ian McLaren drove recovery by being open to innovation and investing in staff

Drag queens, diversity and inclusion, and data-driven decisions are unlikely to be among the first words you would associate with a typical chief financial officer (CFO). However, Govia Thameslink Railway’s Ian McLaren is far from a stereotypical CFO, although he argues no such thing exists in 2021.

As the 52-year-old cycling enthusiast, who took up his position at GTR in December 2017, can attest, the tumultuous events of the past year have elevated the role of CFOs and significantly expanded their list of responsibilities, across the board. “When I started at GTR, my remit was a lot simpler and I was focusing on a narrow scope of my skillset, whereas now I’m using a much broader range,” he says.

“Today, it’s more about the human side of things, thinking about very practical stuff: keeping almost 8,000 colleagues safe while being able to carry out their duties, alongside supporting the varying ambitions of stakeholders and looking for opportunities to create value.”

The inference is the train has left the station for those who still believe a CFO’s primary journey is counting the beans. Business continuity has been paramount through the coronavirus crisis and those in McLaren’s position, at their respective organisations, have become more central to steering strategy.

Considering GTR, which handles 250 locations and some of the busiest train stations in London, went from “moving over a million people” in and out of the capital on a normal day, pre-pandemic, to footfall crashing by 95 per cent when the first lockdown was enforced in late-March, it has been a mighty challenge to get the business back on track. 

Broader range of skills required

Connecting with, and looking after, customers and staff alike has enabled McLaren to navigate a quicker route to recovery. “As an organisation, we are looking to build back better, greener and faster,” he says, “and part of that is drawing on the ability to listen and adapt.”

Today, it’s more about the human side of things, keeping colleagues safe while supporting the varying ambitions of stakeholders and looking for opportunities to create value

A good handle on technology also augments modern CFOs and, most importantly, their employers. McLaren has this in spades; his curriculum vitae lists two-year stints as CFO and head of finance at Nomad Digital and Digital Barriers, respectively. Indeed, he has been in the driving seat for GTR’s digital transformation journey, which began in 2017, and it “came into its own” last year, allowing colleagues to “work with technology in an untethered way”.

Further, through utilising products provided by technology partner Microsoft, McLaren and his fellow GTR strategists can gain “real-time insights that have led to data-driven decisions”. He says: “These insights have meant our colleagues can optimise their time on the ground and it has empowered people to do the job we’ve required of them, which has been ever-changing.”

Dealing with the pandemic has taught us that our ability to change can move at lightning pace, so over the next five years we need to become very good at rethinking everything we think we know

Since the first lockdown, that agility and flexibility, following the data, has been vital for GTR’s service operation and particularly for hospital staff and those they aid. “We realised there are nearly 70 NHS trusts across our network, and first-responders and critical workers relied on the train service, so we adapted our timetable predominantly for them,” says McLaren. “We became more of an off-peak rather than a commuter service. The old rush-hour peak has disappeared and now travel patterns are more evenly spread throughout the day.”

Value-creation officers: open to innovation

A suite of new digital applications has minimised disrupted running of services. These include an app, introduced in May, that indicates to train drivers and station staff how recently a long-lasting virucide, designed to stick to surfaces and kill viruses, including COVID-19, for up to 30 days, has been applied. 

“It has given all our colleagues confidence about going into a clean workplace,” says McLaren. Another app allows GTR staff to access the latest Public Health England information about the pandemic and report sickness and absence from work, thereby limiting potential bottlenecks.

“Technology has helped us all throughout the pandemic and understanding technology is increasingly important for CFOs and others in executive positions,” he says. “I’m lucky because tech has been my background, but it’s essential to know the risks associated with technology and cybersecurity especially. I would encourage all organisations to think more like technology companies, but being technology-savvy certainly raises a CFO’s stock.

“Dealing with the pandemic has taught us that our ability to change can move at lightning pace, so over the next five years we need to become very good at rethinking everything we think we know.”
McLaren, who has thrice cycled from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, owns ten bikes of various vintages, the oldest being a 1935 “speed racer”, and regularly clocks up 200 miles a week, finds strategy brainwaves often hit him when pedalling.
The secret is being open to innovation and new ideas. “Some might think the finance director is there to say ‘no’ and it’s all about cost-cutting. But to me, it’s more about value creation; we are becoming value-creation officers,” he says, suggesting that adopting a “beginner’s mindset to everything” helps in the current CFO’s role.

Invest in employees

“If you consider yourself an expert then you are closed to many things,” he adds. “I try to approach things with novelty and understand the art of the possible.”
Ultimately, the success or failure of an organisation is down to its employees, argues McLaren. “You have to understand the business and, more importantly, what makes its people tick.” Hence, he is passionate about diversity and inclusion, and keen to invest in and join events that “demonstrate my more human, fun side”. 

For example, he and his daughter have recently enjoyed tuning in to virtual drag queen shows, featuring the amusingly monikered Annabelle Lecter, put on for GTR’s LGBT+ Network. “Spending a tiny amount on a diversity and inclusion event is nothing compared to the huge value it generates to us as a business,” says McLaren. 

“It’s intangible, but you know you are creating something quite special when you see the brilliant reactions from colleagues, which then resonates with their service to customers.”

The anatomy of the modern CFO

The chief financial officer’s role has evolved somewhat since Ian McLaren gained his accountancy qualification over three decades ago; finance credentials alone are no longer sufficient.

“Today, finance roles need to be augmented with many more skills,” says Govia Thameslink Railway’s CFO. He suggests, in addition to being good with numbers, the modern CFO must understand legal and broader governance issues, and be technology savvy, not least to manage cybersecurity risks and data. On top of being able to structure commercial deals, they ought to be excellent negotiators too. 

In terms of personality traits, the best CFOs are armed with “a good sense of humour, can understand and show humility, and have tenacity”, says McLaren. Further, given the business agility necessitated by the pace of change, they require a certain amount of creativity, plus an openness and a “growth mindset” that enables them “to question, listen and rethink” strategies and business models.

Being a courageous leader, who can communicate with and energise colleagues and those across the business, is increasingly valuable for a CFO. “Having good people skills is essential,” McLaren concludes. “This skill helps with negotiation and, if you can be authentic and intentional, it will inspire those around you.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future CFO report in March 2021

Why companies are struggling to build a ‘single customer view’

Investing time, resources and money to create personalised and valuable customer experiences can reap big rewards, but there are challenges in aligning data for a business-wide strategy

Organisations that invest heavily to build a data-driven “single customer view”, enabling personalised experiences, are likely to reap huge rewards. And I can vouch for that.

At the risk of offending family and friends, by far the greatest highlight of a recent birthday was receiving a personalised celebratory email from the captain of the football club I have supported since I could kick a ball. 

While it was a surprise to see his grinning portrait and accompanying message landing in my inbox, it triggered a giddy response. The feeling of being unique and valued overpowered any rational scepticism that my Premier League team’s superstar skipper had taken the time to congratulate my age milestone. 

This nifty, cost-effective note, made possible because the club somehow knew my birth date,  emboldened my trust and loyalty. I duly spent hundreds of pounds in the online shop on kits, mugs and hats, and marked with a flag the email, which I often click on when needing either a mood lift or guidance.

Businesses will score if they use real-time data to communicate with customers at appropriate times, and it comes across as sincere and authentic, says Adam Spearing, chief technology officer for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Salesforce. “Brands can build trust through meaningful interactions with their customers, anticipating their needs and delighting them,” he says. 

“Having a 360-degree customer view is crucial for enabling brands to have more personal and contextually aware interactions with customers. The more valuable an interaction is for a customer, the more inclined they will be to continue to trust a brand to use their data appropriately.” 

Spearing warns there is “a fine line”, though: “Only if brands use the data respectfully will they gain that trust.” Herein lies the main challenge with building a single customer view.

Slow and steady wins trust

There are myriad benefits to investing in digital identity specifically to build a single customer view by unifying all relevant data into a centralised profile. Done well, aside from improving all-important customer trust and loyalty, it can guide marketing, boost customer service, better model consumer habits and, therefore, generate more accurate predictions and increase revenue.

Yet there are many pitfalls to dodge to obtain this view. For instance, brands need to connect all historical data with real-time behavioural data, which means digital identities should grow organically over time.

“Achieving a single customer view remains a huge challenge for many businesses due to the multiple touchpoints the average customer faces when dealing with an organisation and the rapid rate at which data is generated,” says Gavin Laugenie, head of strategy and insight at dotdigital, an omnichannel marketing automation platform.

He points to a recent Experian study that found 92 per cent of companies do not have access to a single customer view. Laugenie says this “staggering” figure is mostly because the many touchpoints result in fragmented and siloed data. “The key to getting around this is by adopting technology that not only allows you to communicate with all of your data touchpoints, but pool the data and enable you to use it quickly and easily,” he says.

A single customer view will provide the foundation from which an organisation can “easily read the data and plot the right messages to send individuals as they navigate their unique journeys with you”, says Laugenie. Once armed with the data, it is crucial not to bombard customers, though.

“It’s a continuous process and that mutual sharing process will generate trust, which is essential, especially for older online shoppers,” he adds. “Slow and steady will win the race.”

Rising appetite for personalisation

Benoit Soucaret, group creative director at LiveArea, a global customer experience agency, concurs. “Good personalisation shouldn’t appear personalised at all,” he says. “Instead it should appear fortuitous, delivering value to a consumer at the right time, in the right place, in the right way. 

“It is less about selling consumers products and more about complementing their life experiences. At no point can it appear disconcerting, intrusive or annoying.”

There appears to be a rising appetite for personalisation, according to research published by the Data & Marketing Association (DMA). Some 39 per cent of consumers are “personalisation fans”, a group whose members prefer offers to reflect their interests instead of being surprising. A further 33 per cent appreciate both personalised offers and those that are more random. Only 28 per cent do not favour personalisation. 

“This strong desire for personalisation is encouraging for brands wanting to strengthen their relationship with existing customers,” says Tim Bond, head of insight at the DMA. But he identifies something else brands seeking to build a single customer view must beware: poor quality or misused data. 

Consider how, in January 2020, Aviva addressed its entire email base as “Michael”, proving that mistakes can creep in, even with basic data. “The assumptions, errors and insults will be amplified with each step more personal,” says Tom Kennedy, M&C Saatchi’s senior art director.

Bond agrees: “For a centralised profile to have meaningful value, businesses must have a system in place that can analyse data on previous interactions and combine it with insights from real-time user journeys. Only then can businesses truly understand a customer’s preferences and values.

“Having the right data, consent and preference management processes in place is imperative for businesses that want to guarantee and gain the maximum value for and from their customer data.”

Connecting online and offline data

In particular, marketers understand the merits of a single customer view, according to another recent DMA study. Such a system enables brands to offer more personalised experiences (45 per cent of respondents recognised this as a benefit) and increased transparency (44 per cent gave this the thumbs up). “These are two key factors in fostering long-term customer loyalty and trust,” says Bond.

Consumer expectations in this area are also rising. Some 78 per cent now expect consistent interactions across departments and four in five won’t buy from companies they don’t trust, a report from Salesforce shows.

Given the uptick in demand for customer personalisation, there is an urgent need for businesses of all sizes to evolve for the digital age. “The growing prevalence of ecommerce and multichannel customer journeys through 2020 only increased the importance of understanding your customers’ digital identity,” says Matthew Avery, enterprise sales manager at Infinity, a cloud-based call-tracking platform. 

Avery argues that many businesses are not taking advantage of the technology now available to connect online and offline data, including telephone calls and point-of-sale systems. “If you’re currently only monitoring the touchpoints where customers finally convert, you risk neglecting your understanding, and optimisation, of pivotal engagements higher up the sales funnel,” he says. 

However, Megan Jones, senior strategist at R/GA London, worries that some larger companies, where departments work in silos, are simply not set up to maximise the potential of a single customer view. “Legacy organisations struggle to execute these grand visions,” she says. “This failure can be caused by many reasons, including a lack of digital talent or poor data proficiency. Ultimately, it comes down to a lack of strategy and understanding.”

Clearly, for those who have their sights set on crafting a single customer view, the road to glory is fraught with challenges. To help guide the way, perhaps business leaders can make use of an inspirational personalised email from their favourite football team’s captain, too.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Digital Identity report in February 2021

Why content is king – especially now

If business leaders have learnt one thing this year it is that good, authentic communication is critical – both for employees and customers. Trust is essential to attract and retain staff, consumers, and other stakeholders – including investors – alike. And to drive good communication and build trust you need excellent content.

Much in the same way many companies have had to pivot – or at least adapt their business strategies – in 2020, the content needs to evolve to keep pace, and celebrate those changes. It’s all about storytelling, and being honest – don’t try to be something / someone you are not, as when you are found out it will erode that all-important trust. It’s also easy to see through. Equally, if there have been bumps in the road it would be of interest to people to learn how you overcame them.

Thankfully these days there is a range of content you can utilise to tell your story, set out your goals and articulate your purpose and key messages – and none of it is expensive, if you know where to look.

great content drives communication and engenders trust

Often a variety, or suite of content, works best, and this might include ghostwritten thought leader website blogs (which can be filleted for social media platforms, including LinkedIn), videos (the rawer, the better), infographics, roadmaps, data-driven articles, listicles, newsletters, podcasts, and much more. And content can be proactive and reactive – the main point is to keep the content tap open, so that people want to keep coming back.

Good content can help you find your voice and your business’ voice, and trigger change by uniquely expressing ideas and showcasing your goods or services in a way that interests, informs, influences and inspires readers (or viewers).

However, often it is tricky for business leaders to whip up winning content in-house. There might be time-commitment issues, and usually the process of telling the business’ story to an outsider (with expert content production skills) can help articulate the important messages and unearth the nuggets that will appeal to a wider audience. This is true for companies of all sizes – indeed, the biggest businesses certainly understand the value of outsourcing content to freelancers.

Many times I have been parachuted into a business when there was a clear goal: to produce better content. But they no real idea of how to reach that point. And that’s fine – and understandable. It takes some time to research and interview key stakeholders and perform a kind of content audit, to understand what has already been produced (and what can be reused / updated) and tease out the interesting use cases and stories.

Indeed, content production is often elevated by freelancers whose task it is to better understand the business and ask questions you might have not thought of, or think of ways in which the content might be presented.

Ultimately, great content drives communication and engenders trust, and together those two factors are paramount to business success in 2020 and beyond.

This article was originally published on YunoJuno in December 2020

Fighting fraud in times of crisis

Cybercrime is always distressing for those affected, but when the resultant losses come from the public purse, it must be taken even more seriously

Coronavirus has coursed through every facet of our lives, and society and business have already paid a colossal price to restrict its flow. We will be counting the cost for years, if not decades. And while people have become almost anaesthetised to the enormous, unprecedented sums of support money administered by the government, it was still painful to learn, in October, that taxpayers could face losing up to £26 billion on COVID-19 loans, according to an alarming National Audit Office report.

Given the likely scale of abuse, it raises the question of how authorities should go about eliminating public sector fraud? Could artificial intelligence (AI) fraud detection be the answer?

Admittedly, the rapid deployment of financial-aid schemes, when the public sector was also dealing with a fundamental shift in service delivery, created opportunities for both abuse and risk of systematic error. Fraudsters have taken advantage of the coronavirus chaos. But their nefariousness is not limited to the public sector.

Ryan Olson, vice president of threat intelligence at American multinational cybersecurity organisation Palo Alto Networks, says COVID-19 triggered “the cybercrime gold rush of 2020”.

Indeed, the latest crime figures published at the end of October by the Office for National Statistics show that, in the 12 months to June, there were approximately 11.5 million offences in England and Wales. Some 51 per cent of them were made up of 4.3 million incidents of fraud and 1.6 million cybercrime events, a year-on-year jump of 65 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.

Cybercrime gold rush – counting the cost

Jim Gee, national head of forensic services at Crowe UK, a leading audit, tax, advisory and risk firm, says: “Even more worryingly, while the figures are for a 12-month period, a comparison with the previous quarterly figures shows this increase has occurred in the April-to-June period of 2020, the three months after the COVID-19 health and economic crisis hit. The size of the increase needed in a single quarter to result in a 65 per cent increase over the whole 12 months could mean actual increases of up to four times this percentage.”

In terms of eliminating public sector fraud, Mike Hampson, managing director at consultancy Bishopsgate Financial, fears an expensive game of catch-up. “Examples of misuse have increased over the last few months,” he says. “These include fraudulent support-loan claims and creative scams such as criminals taking out bounce-back loans in the name of car dealerships, in an attempt to buy high-end sports cars.”

AI fraud detection and machine-learning algorithms should be put in the driving seat to pump the brakes on iniquitous activity, he argues. “AI can certainly assist in carrying out basic checks and flagging the most likely fraud cases for a human to review,” Hampson adds.

John Whittingdale, media and data minister, concedes that the government “needs to adapt and respond better”, but says AI and machine-learning are now deemed critical to eliminating public sector fraud. “As technology advances, it can be used for ill, but at the same time we can adapt new technology to meet that threat,” he says. “AI has a very important part to play.”

Teaming up with technology leaders

Technology is already vital in eliminating public sector fraud at the highest level. In March, the Cabinet Office rolled out Spotlight, the government grants automated due-diligence tool built on a Salesforce platform. Ivana Gordon, head of the government grants management function COVID-19 response at the Cabinet Office, says Spotlight “speeds up initial checks by processing thousands of applications in minutes, replacing manual analysis that, typically, can take at least two hours per application”. The tool draws on open datasets from Companies House, the Charity Commission and 360Giving, plus government databases that are not available to the public.

“Spotlight has proven robust and reliable,” says Gordon, “supporting hundreds of local authorities and departments to administer COVID-19 funds quickly and efficiently. To date Spotlight has identified around 2 per cent of payment irregularities, enabling grant awards to be investigated and payments halted to those who are not eligible.”

We need to watch how the technology fits into the whole process. AI doesn’t get things right 100 per cent of the time

She adds that Spotlight is one of a suite of countermeasure tools, including AI fraud detection, developed with technology companies, and trialled and implemented across the public sector to help detect and prevent abuse and error.

Besides, critics shouldn’t be too hard on the public sector, argues David Shrier, adviser to the European Parliament in the Centre for AI, because it was “understandably dealing with higher priorities, like human life, which may have distracted somewhat from cybercrime prevention”. He believes that were it not for the continued investment in the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the cost of fraudulent activity would have been significantly higher.

Work to be done to prevent fraud

Greg Day, vice president and chief security officer, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Palo Alto Networks, who sits on Europol’s cybersecurity advisory board, agrees. Day points to the success of the government’s Cyber Essentials digital toolkit. He thinks, however, that the NCSC must “further specialise, tailor its support and advice, and strengthen its role as a bridge into information both from the government, but also trusted third parties, because cyber is such an evolving space”.

The public sector has much more to do in combating cybercrime and fraud prevention on three fronts, says Peter Yapp, who was deputy director of incident management at the NCSC up to last November. It must encourage more reporting, make life difficult for criminals by upping investment in AI fraud detection and reallocate investigative resources from physical to online crime, he says.

Yapp, who now leads law firm Schillings’ cyber and information security team, says a good example of an initiative that has reduced opportunity for UK public sector fraud is the NCSC’s Mail Check, which monitors 11,417 domains classed as public sector. “This is used to set up and maintain good domain-based message authentication, reporting and conformance (DMARC), making email spoofing much harder,” he says. Organisations that deploy DMARC can ensure criminals do not successfully use their email addresses as part of their campaigns.”

While such guidance is welcome, there are potential problems with embracing tech to solve the challenge of eliminating public sector fraud, warns Dr Jeni Tennison, vice president and chief strategy adviser at the Open Data Institute. If unchecked, AI fraud detection could be blocking people and businesses that are applying for loans in good faith, or worse, she says.

“We need to watch out how the technology and AI fit into the whole process,” says Tennison. “As we have seen this year, with the Ofqual exam farrago, AI doesn’t get things right 100 per cent of the time. If you assume it is perfect, then when it doesn’t work, it will have a very negative impact on the people who are wrongly accused or badly affected to the extent they, and others, are fearful of using public sector services.”

There are certainly risks with blindly following any technology, concurs Nick McQuire, senior vice president and head of enterprise research at CCS Insight. But the public sector simply must arm itself with AI or the cost to the taxpayer will be, ultimately, even more significant. “Given the scale of the security challenge, particularly for cash-strapped public sector organisations that lack the resources and skills to keep up with the current threat environment, AI, warts and all, is going to become a crucial tool in driving automation into this environment to help their security teams cope.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Public Sector Technology report in December 2020

Creating a culture of change

Legacy infrastructure and outmoded ways of thinking can trip up digital transformation projects in the public sector

Private sector organisations that began digital transformation before the coronavirus pandemic suffocated business as usual were equipped and agile enough to revamp their strategies and operations, and thrive despite the chaos.

And laggards quickly realised that to keep pace they needed to invest in digital technologies and accelerate digital transformation plans. Meanwhile, those operating in the public sector, lumbered with legacy systems unsuitable for the digital age, looked on with envy, twiddling their thumbs.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but it is a truism that the public sector is notoriously slow to embrace technology. There is a pervading sense, though, that COVID has necessitated a levelling-up across the sector.

Given the mass shift to remote working, the strain on public services, especially the National Health Service, and the immediate need to streamline operations and reduce spending while improving efficiencies, digital transformation is critical. As private sector business leaders can attest, change management is paramount when deploying new technologies and ways of working.

While there is great urgency for speedy improvement, it’s appropriate to acknowledge digital adoption within the UK public sector is well behind other countries. Johnny Hugill, head of research at PUBLIC, a govtech venture firm, notes that although many public services have been moved online, to, the harmonisation of digital services has much ground to make up. For instance, he says, around 60 per cent of citizens fill out online forms to public authorities here, while digital front-runners such as Denmark, Norway, Estonia and South Korea enjoy rates of up to 80 per cent.

Constrained by legacy infrastructure

The coronavirus fallout served to expose the UK public sector’s woeful lack of readiness to operate in the digital era. Indeed, a meagre 6 per cent of public sector workers said they were “extremely prepared for the pandemic”, according to research published in mid-November by Pure Storage, a global data storage solutions firm.

More than two-thirds (67 per cent) responded that “legacy infrastructure is holding up digital transformation progress”. This hindrance leads to “increased operational costs, reduced efficiency, and reduced operational agility”, says Shaun Collings, Pure Storage’s director of public sector in the UK.

The organisation’s research suggests eight out of 10 public sector workers believe agile methodologies and design-thinking are more important now than before the pandemic. “Clearly, many are constrained by legacy infrastructure,” says Collings. “The challenges and upheaval that public sector organisations have been faced with should act as a catalyst for reviews of supporting infrastructure and consideration of what is needed for the future.”

This advice is supported by new data from SAP, which indicates that 28 per cent of UK civil servants say they still lack adequate IT systems to support remote working. Leila Romane, the enterprise software provider’s head of SuccessFactors in the UK and Ireland, says: “Public sector organisations often operate independently and many are burdened by old and siloed technology infrastructure, which has made digital innovation more challenging.

“In the private sector, however, technology is increasingly seen as a tool to drive efficiencies by sharing data across departments and geographies.” Romane urges public sector organisations to be more collaborative, digitally focused and flexible, not least because they will otherwise find it harder to attract and retain top young talent, she warns.

Collaboration with suitable tech partners is vital

While public sector leaders may realise the need, and show a willingness to upgrade their digital capabilities, there are, frustratingly, many hurdles to overcome. Professor Julie Hodges of Durham Business School lists them. Of the many barriers, budget constraints and legacy infrastructure is a big one. Lack of leadership and vision also ranks highly, as does a reluctance to change among managers and frontline staff. Possibly most limiting is a culture that does not support transformational change, says Hodges.

PUBLIC’s Hugill agrees. “Together, culture, skills and practice form a fairly significant stumbling block to getting the public sector on board with projects,” he says, making the case that tech companies and startups should be considered over traditional partners that might not be best placed to drive digital adoption.

“Public sector officials have fallen into a routine of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ when choosing preferred suppliers. The truth is that these suppliers were often chosen because they were good at what they did 30 years ago, but then became better at winning contracts than they were at innovating.”

Culture, skills and practice form a fairly significant stumbling block to getting the public sector on board with projects

Thankfully, there is a growing list of case studies where public sector bodies have teamed up with tech organisations to great effect. For instance, the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS), a completely mobile and essential frontline organisation with 2,500 staff covering 32,000 square miles, uses Workplace from Facebook’s communication platform to enable employees to connect and communicate better with each other.

“When the pandemic hit, I wanted a safe and secure space for staff to ask questions, challenge each other, share stories and help us build a stronger team and supportive culture,” says Helen Ray, chief executive of NEAS. “Workplace has helped us move away from having conversations behind closed doors to more openness and transparency. The social media platform has helped to bring us closer together and instil a sense of belonging.”

The last word of advice for public sector leaders seeking to navigate their digital transformation journey, which once started should never stop, comes from Romane at SAP. “To drive change in any organisation, leaders need to first listen to their employees, especially those who are on the frontline,” she says. “Then empower them with the tools and training to manage the change effectively and efficiently. Finally, create a mechanism for them to collaborate and feedback any learnings about their experiences.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Public Sector Technology report in December 2020

Taking a peek at the new retail calendar

What happens to Black Friday when customers can’t jostle in the aisles? Or Christmas shopping season when we can’t hit the high street? Experts think these dates will become part of a whole new online retail calendar

Will it be a happy Christmas for UK retailers? After the coronavirus pandemic squeezing the life out of the high street, they certainly deserve some cheer. Data shows their fortunes could be resurrected by ecommerce. But given the shift to online, and the evolution of shopping habits, what does it mean for the traditional retail calendar?

New data from Adobe indicates activity around key retail dates will begin earlier, and peak retail occasions will be higher and more prolonged. According to the software giant’s international president Paul Robson, online holiday sales will “shatter all previous records”.

This is supported by Adobe’s projections that, in America alone, Black Friday will generate $10 billion (£7.5 billion) in online sales. “That’s a 39 per cent year-on-year increase,” says Robson. “Cyber Monday will remain the biggest online shopping day of the year,” he continues, adding that $12.7 billion (£9.6 billion) is expected to be spent in the United States, up 35 per cent on last year.

Robson says: “Our research into the online shopping habits of UK consumers during lockdown found that while they were up to four times more likely to buy from marketplaces like Amazon, it’s not always at the expense of smaller independent retailers. Where marketplaces may have the edge when it comes to convenience and speed, shoppers have also shown they are keen to support local, independent retailers where they can.

“The extended shopping period, coupled with the ability of independent retailers to deliver great, personalised digital experiences, could see them have a happier Christmas period than many might expect.”

Looking beyond traditional retail peaks

Google data also implies the retail calendar needs updating. “As a direct result of COVID-19, we have witnessed heightened search queries for online retail this year that will lead to a new baseline for Black Friday,” says Becky Power, director of consumer retail and technology at Google UK. “Google searches for ‘early Black Friday deals’ were up by 150 per cent versus November 2019.” Further, Google searches for “Christmas shopping” are up 1,800 per cent compared to the same period last year.

“The message is clear: consumers are looking beyond traditional peaks in the retail calendar as they continue to enjoy the flexibility of browsing online,” says Power, who points out that Enders research estimates there will be an additional £4.5 billion-worth of online sales in 2020.

Retail owners must keep pace with customer expectations and arm themselves with technology that enables multi-channel personalisation and improves data analysis. “Given that a continually growing number of consumers are already shopping online for traditional peaks, retailers will have to adapt to be ready for this rise in demand,” says Power. “Digital tools are imperative for applying product promotions easily and quickly, boosting retailers’ visibility to new customers, and can uncover meaningful insights from their performance.”

Kyle Harbinson, of global technology consultants REPL Group, agrees. “To reduce the impact of the troughs, retailers need to connect with and understand the circumstances of their customers, in a dynamically changing environment,” the consulting partner says. “We are in uncharted territory, so retailers need to pivot from instinct-driven decision-making to a data-driven culture.”

Taking steps to bolster the online offering

Warnings are being heeded. Capgemini’s annual Holiday Shopping Survey reports that while more than a third (36 per cent) of UK retailers expect an increase in holiday sales compared to previous years, 91 per cent have taken deliberate steps to bolster their online offering. Almost half (47 per cent) have improved their ecommerce propositions and 52 per cent will offer more generous discounts both online and in-store.

The benefit ecommerce brings allows you to create and build your own peak retail event

However, Dr Rajesh Bhargave, associate professor of marketing at Imperial College Business School, cautions that one issue retailers will face post-COVID-19 is the dilemma of “sticky prices”. “Consumers tend to remember what they would have paid previously for a product, so would view price increases as unjust in poor economic conditions,” he says. “Similarly, cutting prices would erode pricing power.”

No retailers should be discouraged from embracing ecommerce, however, stresses author and business consultant Erica Wolfe-Murray. “The hype surrounding traditional retail peak days has a halo effect across the board whether you are actively marketing or not,” she says. “But the benefit ecommerce brings allows you to create and build your own peak retail event. Think ‘Founder’s Day’, ‘Dress-Up Day’, or whatever.”

Embracing technology is business-critical

Technology can also help with the morphing of traditional peak retail periods, from dealing with stock management and the supply chain, to predicting when more staff might be required. Or with improving the delivery process, posits Mike Hancox, chief executive of UK couriers Yodel. “The five months stretching from November to the end of March have long been the busiest period for those in logistics as they encompass retail’s traditional peaks of Black Friday, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day,” he says.

“This year we’re expecting Christmas to be higher in intensity and longer in duration than previous years, but a greater increase in overall volumes means the fluctuations seen in previous years could be less pronounced in the future.”

Yodel has developed a parcel-scanning app to streamline the delivery process. “It gives more flexibility to the growing numbers of self-employed couriers out on the road who can download the app on their own devices rather than having to get up to speed with a handheld terminal.”

Striving to reduce touchpoints and frictions through tech is now business critical, argues Professor Laurent Muzellec, founder and director of Trinity Centre for Digital Business. “Big digital players such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple use artificial intelligence to produce an effortless experience; this should be a source of inspiration for all retailers,” he says.

Retailers that act on this advice and tailor their offerings, both online and offline, look set to have a happy Christmas and beyond.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future of Retail report in November 2020

Brexit and COVID-10 accelerate move to digital

The United Kingdom European Union membership referendum was inevitable when David Cameron won the 2015 general election, having promised such a vote during his campaign. Coincidentally, 2015 was when branchless challenger banks Monzo and Revolut were founded, with Starling launching a year earlier. 

While the direction of travel was established five years ago, the combination of Brexit and now COVID-19 has quickened the drive for older financial institutions to transform their business and operating models, because it’s clear: the future is digital.

Technology is enabling fintechs to enter the banking market, and thrive. Experts predict traditional banks will have to partner with tech organisations to keep pace with developments. 

A study of 200 UK and European banking executives by Marqeta – an open-API card issuing and processing platform that MasterCard has recently invested in – found that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic over three-quarters (78 per cent) of banks have been forced to change their future banking strategy. 

Some 72 per cent of those surveyed are planning to grow the number of in-branch digital services, and two-thirds will invest more in digital banking and services. Further, nine in 10 respondents (89 per cent) says the COVID-19 situation has “drastically increased” the speed of change in banking from years to months.

Max Chuard, chief executive of Geneva-based banking software fintech Temenos, says: “Uncertainty is a catalyst for innovation. The 2020s were already set to be the decade for digital banking transformation. But now the coronavirus crisis has accelerated this process. It has made the need for advanced banking technologies – like artificial intelligence, cloud and SaaS – even greater.”

Defining moment for the banking industry

The Temenos CEO points to his organisation’s global survey that shows almost half of the respondents (45 per cent) say their strategic response to the rapidly changing banking landscape is to build a “true digital ecosystem”. He adds: “It’s a defining moment for the banking industry, and those who can harness the potential of digital technology will shape the future.”

Michael Plimsoll, industry head of financial services at computer software giant Adobe, thinks the same. “Banks have to ensure they keep pace with digital-first challenger banks, such as Monzo or Starling, to deliver new experiences that both enhance and complement their bricks-and-mortar branches,” he says. “This has included implementing new technologies within apps and websites that enable customers to perform tasks previously exclusive to the branch, like cashing cheques or remote meetings with advisors.”

This need to evolve banking operations provides an opportunity to streamline typically time-intensive tasks, such as setting up an account or applying for a loan, Plimsoll says. “As an example, TSB implemented digital signature technologies using Adobe Sign to allow customers to carry out important processes from their own home, moving over 15,000 account sign-ups that would normally require a trip to the branch,” he adds.

That convenience will be central to winning customers, believes Aaron Archer, chief executive and founder of London-headquartered challenger bank Finndon. “Digital banks will see a major increase in their market share compared to high street banks, due to their lack of flexibility to adapt to market conditions, and customers will be seeking greater opportunities to save.” 

He wouldn’t be surprised if big tech firms, including Apple and Google, begin to “offer banking products to their customer base to create a robust ecosystem”. Archer adds: “You will see an increase of mergers and acquisitions between tech firms and traditional banks looking to stay relevant.” 

Sophia La Vesconte, a fintech lawyer at Linklaters, agrees. “With increasing digitalisation, we are likely to see a growth in outsourcing arrangements between the financial sector and technology service providers.” However, she warns: “Regulators across the globe are quite concerned about the sector becoming overly dependent on a small number of – unregulated – technology companies.”

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Banking report in November 2020

Are boring jobs a thing of the past thanks to technology?

Technology has the ability to rid employees of repetitive, mind-numbing tasks, but it will be up to organisations to ensure workers’ adapted roles are challenging and rewarding enough to keep them engaged

Will it soon be impossible to have a wholly boring job, given the gallop of automation and artificial intelligence? Already, technological capabilities enable workers, across the gamut of business sectors, to relinquish repetitive, menial tasks and use that clawed-back time to focus on more exciting and engaging endeavours.

Perhaps it was a surprise when, in June, a French court ruled that Frédéric Desnard’s former employer, a perfume business, should pay him €40,000 after his mental health deteriorated due to “boreout”, the antithesis of burnout. Under closer inspection, though, Desnard’s unfortunate mismanagement was the result of strict legislation that complicates the redundancy process in France. French employment law needs updating, evidently.

Consider that by 2030 up to one fifth of the global workforce, or 800 million people, will see their jobs replaced by robotic automation, according to an oft-quoted McKinsey & Company report from November 2017.

This headline figure fails to account for all the new, and more exciting, roles that technology will create in the coming decade. The key takeaway for business leaders, though, should be that it is crucial to invest in employees or risk paying a higher price for not evolving boring jobs. Employers that narrow the digital skills gap and help human and machine work side by side will gain a competitive advantage.

Autonomy is critical to interesting jobs 

Psychologist Portia Hickey, co-creator of the Smart Collaboration Accelerator, posits the model presented in the mid-1970s by organisational psychologists Greg Oldham and Richard Hackman still remains the blueprint for job design today. “They identified the significance of the job, being able to see the outcome of their work, variety, autonomy and feedback were all key,” she says.

“Jobs are generally becoming more interesting, partly because organisations are more aware of job design, but also because technology can take over highly repetitive, lower-skilled work. However, what makes a job more enjoyable is autonomy.”

The gathering of knowledge allied with autonomy is the perfect combination to motivate workers, according to Karthik Krishnan, chief executive of Britannica Group. “Learning happens when one is stretched outside one’s comfort zone,” he says. “Dopamine is the brain’s reward system and is secreted when accomplishing a challenging task. If the task is too challenging or not challenging enough, negative emotions set in, such as stress, apathy and boredom.”

Krishnan, who lists TikTok content creator, drone operator and driverless car engineer among the most exciting jobs spawned by tech recently, also notes that people’s boredom threshold has never been lower. “The ‘always-on’ mode, the 24/7 information flow and stimulation lead to constant distraction and craving for newness,” he says.

Employers should “design jobs and identify the right talent to be successful”, says Krishnan, adding that it is vital to understand a worker’s ikigai – a Japanese expression that translates loosely as “reason for being” – to keep them engaged and happy.

How tech is improving employee happiness

He says the ultimate goal is to create a culture where employees feel inspired, challenged and empowered. “The good news is that today, technology increasingly performs jobs that are well-defined, regimented and repetitive, thus reducing boring and risky jobs. From taxi drivers to shop workers to soldiers, the range of traditional jobs that will decline or disappear is huge,” says Krishnan.

Research published in September by multinational software company Pegasystems suggests intelligent automation has a critical role to play in crafting a new, tech-enabled, post-pandemic future of work. The global study surveyed more than 3,000 global senior managers and frontline IT staff, and 76 per cent agreed that increased use of tech is improving employee satisfaction, says Pegasystems’ chief technology officer Don Schuerman.

Technology increasingly performs jobs that are well-defined, regimented and repetitive, thus reducing boring and risky jobs

Further, more than half of the surveyed UK businesses (51 per cent) say intelligent automation currently saves them over ten working hours per person a week, freeing up roughly a quarter of their time. And with that available time, the top-three activities are working alongside machines, engaging more with customers and innovating. “What this study makes clear is that technology is one of the top trends shaping the future of work,” says author and futurist Jacob Morgan.

Research presented by robotic process automation (RPA) leader UiPath supports this insight. “Some 35 per cent of UK workers believed that automation would deliver more interesting and creative jobs for future generations,” says Chris Duddridge, UiPath area vice president and managing director in the UK and Ireland. He offers UiPath’s work with Brent Council’s housing benefits departments as an example to highlight how RPA “cuts out the dull parts”.

Making ‘mind-numbing’ tasks history

Before embracing RPA, all rent adjustments had to be uploaded manually on to the system. “It was described as ‘mind numbing’,” says Duddridge. “A single rent change that could take a staff member over four minutes manually now takes fewer than 40 seconds. The council estimates that this automation alone has saved it over £32,000 in the overtime costs needed to ensure deadlines were hit.”

Having the right tech is paramount for workers’ happiness. In a new Freshworks study, some 82 per cent of business leaders around the world acknowledge that how their workplace tech performs is imperative to engage employees. “This is especially true now in the time of home working,” says Arun Mani, president of Freshworks Europe. “Not having the necessary IT services on hand in the same building means businesses need to ensure their technology works and provides a flawless experience for users.”

Alarmingly, the Freshworks research also found 77 per cent of employees will look for a new employer if their current job does not provide the tools, technology or information they need to perform.

Workplace tech

It’s not all about tech, though. A balance must be struck and leaders have to understand what motivates individuals. “You have to foster a culture where employees feel comfortable talking about what they need and want,” says Nabila Salem, president at Revolent Group, who recommends holding regular one-to-one meetings.

Organisations unprepared for mass remote working when lockdown was enforced in March are playing catch up in terms of engaging staff, particularly new hires, says Charlie Johnson, founder and chief executive of BrighterBox, a London-based recruitment firm. “A lack of contact time or on-the-fly coaching has left a few joiners feeling lost, unable to ask simple questions,” he says.

Creating the best environment for employee success

Janine Chamberlin, director at LinkedIn, agrees and points to her company’s research that shows 75 per cent of UK C-level executives say workers now expect greater availability and transparency from leaders. “This closer connection is a great way to engage employees, motivate them to achieve their potential and keep them focused on business goals,” she says.

You have to foster a culture where employees feel comfortable talking about what they need and want

“Great employers recognise the importance of change and present opportunities for internal mobility and skills development so employees can benefit from a new experience and progress in their career.”

This chimes with Erica Brescia, chief operating officer of leading software development platform GitHub. “Forward-thinking companies have found new ways to drive employee engagement beyond activities and modes of working that are tied to physical offices,” she says. “They adapt how they operate to support a distributed team, from changing how they communicate to how they track, manage and report on projects.

“They move from highly synchronous ways of working to more asynchronous and collaborative work. And they encourage team camaraderie through virtual activities, such as quizzes, scavenger hunts, cooking classes and happy hours.”

Looking ahead, Brescia concludes: “The new future of work is not dependent on office locations or physical workspaces, but rather on adapting to new ways of getting work done to provide employees with the best environment for their success.”

The article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Work and Collaboration report in September 2020

Is London still king in post-Brexit banking?

The EU referendum may be a distant memory, but as the end of the transition period approaches, global banking hubs are gearing up for a post-Brexit world

Will it be a happy new year for the UK banking sector? When the transition period of Britain’s exit from the European Union ends on January 1, business leaders and bankers alike will tiptoe into a post-Brexit reality. Enmeshed by confusing and in some cases yet-to-be-determined rules, they will be entering a new global banking landscape.

But given that financial institutions inside and outside Europe have been preparing for this day since the EU referendum on June 23, 2016, will things be markedly different?

Whatever happens, British banks and their European counterparts have had enough time to ready themselves for post-Brexit life. Admittedly, some details still need to be finalised, though Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey has been warning the largest UK lenders to plan for a no-deal Brexit since June.

Legally, there will be changes, if only slight to begin with, on a global scale. “As of January 1, banks located in the EU and the UK will have to operate in two separate regulatory and supervisory environments,” says Yves Mersch, a member of the European Central Bank’s executive board. “Providers of financial services between the EU and the UK will no longer enjoy the benefits of the single market.

“Many euro-area banks doing business across the Channel, as well as UK banks operating in the euro area, have made considerable progress in view of this event.” Mersh adds that most are “on track to finish their preparations” this year, but others “have much work to do”.

For the latter, the coronavirus fallout has disrupted post-Brexit plans. “Broadly speaking, the main priority for banks over the past few months has been tackling the multi-faceted consequences of the pandemic,” he says.

No excuse for banks to be unprepared

Indeed, the “C” word has obscured the “B” word since March, and although COVID-19 may provide a reason for the sluggish progress of Brexit negotiations, it is not a just excuse for banks to be ill-equipped. Many big players lined up their moves long ago.

EY calculates that banks and fund managers have committed to moving £1 trillion of assets out of the UK and into the EU because of Brexit. US lender JPMorgan Chase & Co., for 

instance, is expected to shift around £180 million in assets to Germany. Further, it has ordered 200 staff to move out of London to other European cities including Paris, Milan, Madrid and Frankfurt, in the expectation that the UK and the EU will not firm up an agreement on financial services.

The UK has always been, and continues to be at least for now, a world leader in financial services

Considering the UK exports more than £26 billion in financial services to the EU, according to the Office for National Statistics, perhaps the global post-Brexit banking landscape may transform quicker if no deal is reached.

However, James Butland, vice president of global banking at cross-border fintech Airwallex, argues the “mass exodus” from London “has not happened to the extent so many were sure it would”. He says: “London remains an attractive place where people want to live and work. Equally, the ecosystem in London is truly global, like New York or Hong Kong, and has always been regarded as a crucial financial hub.

“The UK has always been, and continues to be at least for now, a world leader in financial services, eclipsing many of its EU rivals across the sector. And despite uncertainty around Brexit, one thing is clear: Europe will remain a leader within the global banking industry, mainly due to the strength of the euro as a currency.”

London has critical role to play

But Butland says ”a new leader needs to take London’s crown” within the region. He continues: “The European banking community may start to face geographical fragmentation, as the position to become the epicentre of the eurozone opens up. The race to become the financial capital of the EU seems to be between Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels and Amsterdam, with no winner yet in sight. Wherever this location may be, it should look to London to continue Europe’s legacy as a leader within the global banking economy.”

Alastair Holt, financial regulations partner at global law firm Linklaters, agrees. “Other European cities will not be as influential as London, at least in the short to medium term,” he adds. “London can play a critical role in bridging the East and the West, particularly given the increasing tensions we have seen between the world superpowers in those regions.

Brexit and London

“The UK will still be a leading global financial centre, boosted by its language, time zone, the legal system, and the pre-existing ecosystem of financial institutions and suppliers, the vast majority of which will remain in the UK.”

Professor Brian Scott-Quinn, director of banking programmes at Henley Business School, is more cautious and believes the global banking landscape has been fragmented since the 2008 financial crash.

“Just as trading relationships between the major blocs – the United States, Europe and China – have been damaged in recent years, as well as the relationship between the UK and the rest of Europe, so globalisation of banking and finance has been in low gear now since the financial crisis,” he says. “Most UK banks that had plans for internationalisation or for building up their investment banking capabilities have since abandoned such plans.”

Contingency plans needed for uncertain year

Regardless, Holt argues that coronavirus is more of a threat to the banking sector’s future. “COVID-19 is clearly a worry, more so than Brexit,” he says.

Chris Ganje, chief executive and co-founder of Cardiff-based fintech AMPLYFI, which focuses on developing artificial intelligence for banking, expands upon this theme. “The banking sector should have already dealt with Brexit over the past two years with robust models in place to move on,” he says. “The fallout of COVID-19 is a major unknown. For example, any FCA Section 166 notice into how a bank handled crisis-related loan applications could cost it tens of millions of pounds to review.”

Additionally, Alessandro Hatami, co-author of Reinventing Banking and Finance, says it is hard to quantify the effect of Brexit at the moment. And he points out: “The impact of leaving the EU financial passporting scheme, making it harder for UK fintechs to serve European customers from the UK, is also not clear and won’t be until the final deal is negotiated.”

Butland at Airwallex concurs that 2021 will be pivotal in shaping the global banking landscape. “The next 12 months will certainly be interesting, as both the pandemic continues and the repercussions of a potential Brexit deal loom ahead,” he concludes. 

“Whatever happens over the coming year, disruption lies ahead. Financial institutions will be making contingency plans for every possible eventuality.”

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Banking report in November 2020

What’s holding the 5G rollout back?

A quotation attributed to American-Canadian science-fiction writer William Gibson surges to mind when assessing the scarcity of active use-cases of the fifth-generation mobile network and the associated technologies and industries required to enable 5G at scale. “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed,” the father of cyberpunk commented decades ago.

Evangelists promise 5G will provide super-speed broadband connections, up to a hundred times faster than 4G, and flash the green light for autonomous vehicles, among a panoply of other pluses. It will start the internet of things (IoT) revolution and make cities truly smart, finally. What needs to happen, then, to improve the distribution and adoption of 5G?

“The opportunity to take advantage of advanced cellular technologies to drive digital transformation across the board – industrial and robotics, automotive, aerospace and defence, smart cities and more – is unprecedented,” says Rob Jones, the UK-based strategic alliances regional director at multinational software and services provider PTC. “Advanced cellular capabilities have the potential to fuel the fourth industrial revolution, but only if the ecosystem co-operates to enable 5G.”

It’s a sizeable “if”, given there remain concerns around the readiness and reliability of supporting industries and services, including collocation, big data, cybersecurity and edge computing, to deliver and enable 5G en masse. Indeed, the financial and ecological cost to build the necessary infrastructure is colossal, says Thomas Spencer, telecoms lead at software firm R3.

“Mobile network operators (MNOs) face an uphill battle to enable 5G,” he says. “It is estimated they need to invest up to $1 trillion in upgrading network infrastructure for 5G, while already having to manage sprawling networks of towers, cables and switches just to support their ongoing operations.”

No ‘big-bang’ moment for 5G

There are further complexities. “The challenge of how to finance and optimise infrastructure usage extends to MNO plans for 5G rollout and in particular how to roll out small cell sites,” says Spencer. Next year in the United States alone, there will be some 400,000 small cell sites located on public infrastructure, restaurants, offices and homes. “Determining who owns, operates and finances these sites poses a significant and operational challenge,” he adds, hinting that blockchain might provide a solution.

Richard Carwana, Dell Technologies’ UK telco and service provider director, is similarly ambivalent about what must happen to enable 5G. “We are still joining the dots on how this will be built out,” he concedes. “There won’t be a ‘big bang’ of 5G that some had expected, rather a gradual introduction of services and operators moving into the telco space. Partnership and collaboration will be pivotal to make significant progress and drive implementation.”

He points out that “5G requires dense fibre connectivity to underpin use-cases, whereas 4G and 3G did not” and calls for “telecoms providers, industry leaders and governments to come together to understand requirements and build solutions for specific use-cases”. As an example, Carwana notes how the German government is collaborating with telco providers to build new motorways with autonomous-only lanes.

Partnership and collaboration will be pivotal to make significant progress and drive implementation

Closer to home, the UK government has acknowledged the ban of China’s trailblazer Huawei is likely to delay widespread 5G rollout by at least two years, notes Robert Pocknell, intellectual property partner at Keystone Law in London. “European Union research shows Huawei is the number-one leader for patents that are fundamental to 5G rollout,” he says.

Strong cybersecurity measures needed to enable 5G

Politics aside, cybersecurity readiness is one of the fundamental issues holding up the advancement of 5G. Is it any wonder, when achieving 5G’s lofty goals relies on billions of interconnected devices, remote workers and the growth of cloud infrastructure? “Add to this the increasingly heavy compute and network infrastructure that is needed to support 5G applications, devices, data and services,” says Martin Rudd, chief technology officer at Telesoft Technologies. “Security, 5G and IoT are inextricably linked.”

The recent AT&T Cybersecurity Insights Report: Security at the Speed of 5G highlights the considerations that stakeholders must address. “A key takeaway is that 76 per cent of the respondents expect wholly new threats to emerge as a result of 5G and the increased attack surface,” says Theresa Lanowitz, head of evangelism and communications at AT&T Cybersecurity. “The remaining 24 per cent of participants expect a volumetric increase in existing threats.”

Shahzad Nadeem, head of smart cities at design and engineering consultancy Plextek, agrees and says: “On top of security, there are concerns around the ownership of data, along with compatibility and interoperability with existing systems.”

Security and trust issues – spooking investors?

Additionally, erroneous claims that 5G is connected to the spread of the coronavirus has further hampered its progress, says Amelia Westerberg, associate strategist at R/GA London. “Conspiracy theorists are the biggest threat to the uptake of 5G,” she argues. “Anti-5G attacks on phone masts and general national security and health concerns have caused 5G rollout to be delayed in most markets.”

As of mid-September, just shy of 300,000 people and organisations from 220 nations had signed the Stop 5G on Earth and in Space appeal, and investors might be getting spooked. It’s a tricky sell in the first place, with all the moving parts. As Nadeem says: “Because the technology is still evolving and its value potential split across its different uses in different domains, there are difficulties in justifying the business case and return on investment.”

Also in September, it was reported that in Grenoble, France’s answer to Silicon Valley, mayor Éric Piolle, a rising star in The Greens political party, is in no rush to provide access to 5G, questioning the impact it will have on the environment, especially if millions of new handsets are required.

While it is evident that to maximise 5G’s vast potential there is a reliance on a confluence of upgrade technologies, as well as multi-stakeholder collaboration and enormous investment, could it be there are more basic hurdles to overcome first? “For people to adapt and trust 5G,” Westerberg concludes, “it needs to establish itself as a positive contribution to culture as well as the economy.”

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of 5G report in September 2020

Six steps to building a strong ethics and compliance programme

In today’s globalised business world, organisations are under increasing pressure to comply with an ever-growing framework of regulations – or risk the substantial threats to revenue, operations and reputation that compliance failures can lead to.

At the same time, investors, employees and customers are now looking beyond traditional measures of corporate success, placing increased emphasis on issues of sustainability, ethics and social responsibility.

As global enforcement of regulations increases, punitive fines continue to swell and public demand for ethical business grows, the question of whether to develop an integrated ethics and compliance programme is an easy one to answer. 

In short, it’s not a question; it’s an imperative strategic decision that offers numerous benefits: a better reputation, greater transparency, a stronger legal defence, more robust processes and better use of data, for starters.

Yet we are navigating strange and challenging times, and implementing an ethics and compliance programme can be an intimidating, if not overwhelming, experience – especially if starting from scratch.

“The coronavirus pandemic has helped to build a strong case for compliance and ethics,” says Vera Cherepanova, ethics and compliance consultant at Studio Etica and the lead author of NAVEX Global’s Definitive Guide to Ethics and Compliance. “Our wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others, depends on how compliant we all are. In the same way, the wellbeing of organisations depends on our individual and collective conduct.”

Ahead of the launch of the new guide, which will help organisations develop and implement their own ethics and compliance programme, here are the six key steps to consider as you pursue your own plan.

1. Get board buy-in

The first step lies in gaining support from organisational leadership; admittedly, no easy task. “This step is the most important,” says Cherepanova. “Without leadership buy-in, the other steps probably won’t happen.”

Those seeking to implement an ethics and compliance programme must push for time with the C-suite and stress the vital role it can play within the business, from growing the organisation’s reputation to facilitating transparency and mitigating risks posed by both internal actors and external third parties.

Equally, paint the alternate reality: without a robust programme, the organisation is playing a high-risk game likely to end with costly fines, ongoing legal and remediation fees, unhappy employees and a reputation forever tarnished in the eyes of prospective customers and the wider public. 

Ultimately, align the programme with the board’s overarching business strategy and you’ll stand a better chance of piquing their interest. Gaining this top-down support will help mitigate potential challenges that surround participation, engagement and understanding of the compliance programme down the line.

2. Create the right framework

Once that critical first step has been taken, project leaders need to create a suitable framework for the ethics and compliance programme. Take the time to consult with stakeholders across the business to better understand how compliance relates to different functions because not everyone will understand its value right away. 

“Depending on how the organisation is structured – how many offices it has, in which countries and so on – the decision must be taken where the compliance function will sit, where it will report to and what status it will have in the organisational hierarchy,” says Cherepanova.

Jon Green, company secretary and general counsel of Essentra, a global provider of essential components and solutions serving 34 countries, agrees. “Compliance needs to be embedded as part of everyday business management and thinking. It’s not a standalone box-ticking exercise, which doesn’t add or preserve any value,” he says.

Alongside such internal considerations, you should also factor in the jurisdictions your organisation operates within, as well as the relevant legislation to abide by, as this will impact regional implementation of the programme.

Understand how compliance relates to the daily life of the business internally and externally, and you’ll be better able to identify the most suitable framework for your programme, whether centralised, decentralised or independent.

3. Establish governance structures

When establishing your compliance programme framework, you’ll engage with a wide range of stakeholders across the business, including representatives from legal, risk management, human resources, procurement departments and even further afield. 

During these conversations, it’s important to discuss the potential programme framework and listen to feedback. In the long run this will result in a much smoother process. The more key people who understand and want to contribute to the vision, the better.

Cherepanova explains: “There are many compliance and ethics-related risks facing a modern organisation. Obviously, the compliance function can’t have expertise in every area and that’s why collaboration with other functions is key for a holistic coverage of all risks.”

As part of these collaborative discussions, look to clarify and define each stakeholder’s role and responsibilities. Establishing clear procedures and timelines will ensure a more robust governance structure, minimising crossed wires and mixed messages, which will be central to the programme’s long-term success.

4. Conduct a risk assessment

The successful completion of a risk assessment depends upon both the business-wide participation and appropriate oversight granted by departmental stakeholders, as well as a coherent plan of execution. Leveraging the expertise of individual functions will quickly highlight the specific risks facing the business.

“There is no one-size-fits-all programme,” says Essentra’s Green. “It is important to have something that works in the context of your business, your risks and your people, otherwise the investment is wasted.”

This is precisely why risk assessments are so essential. To underline their value, NAVEX Global’s 2020 Definitive Risk & Compliance Benchmark Report shows industry professionals responsible for the most advanced ethics and compliance programmes use the results of risk assessments to aid decision-making more frequently than any other information source.

Embrace a position of utmost scrutiny when assessing the risks and you will ultimately create a more robust programme that offers better protection against the unique threats your organisation faces.

5. Implement appropriate compliance controls

Once the organisation’s risks have been identified, either through the initial assessment or as part of an ongoing review, they must be mitigated through the implementation of appropriate internal and external compliance controls. 

This will typically include establishing rules and policies for employees and stakeholders, training employees on the rules and regulations they must adhere to, providing a means of reporting breaches of those rules, and putting procedures in place to measure and mitigate external risks, such as those posed by third parties.

It’s also critical to bear in mind that with the actions you take, you can demonstrate the “how” and the “why” to regulators, should you be required to. This means leveraging accessible, easy-to-use technology and embracing clarity when communicating the programme across the organisation. Being able to demonstrate appropriate controls can lead to greater leniency from law-enforcement agencies should the worst happen. 

6. Establish effective integration, reporting and measurement

With legislation continuously being updated and refreshed, it is vital to keep abreast of changes while also ensuring the compliance programme you’ve developed is respected and adhered to across the organisation. This may present challenges if the value of compliance is not fully understood, but the new programme must be integrated into all business units, even those that may perceive it as a hindrance.

Therefore, building relationships to combat those perceptions is essential. Knowing how to tailor the narrative to each stakeholder and business unit will help you to gain support more quickly, making it easier to establish effective monitoring and review processes. 

Yet this is only the first step. Once results start coming in, you must impose effective tracking of the programme, and the data insights it generates. This will not only justify its level of efficacy, but also identify areas of opportunity. 

“Implementation was simple,” says Green. “Our current challenge is continuing to develop [our tools and programme] to keep up with the pace of change in compliance thinking and working practices. Technology plays a major role in helping us to do that.”

Do the right thing

Ultimately, most employees want to do the right thing. The goal of any ethics and compliance programme should be to enable them to do just that. Much of the time, compliance isn’t difficult; it’s simply common sense. 

Green concurs: “Don’t burden or confuse people with what they don’t need to know. Tell them in simple terms what they need to know and how they should react if they spot a red flag or are otherwise uncertain.”

Organisations need not be intimidated by the prospect of creating and establishing an ethics and compliance programme. By breaking it down into a series of key steps, you too can implement a manageable and effective programme that will protect your people, reputation and bottom line. 

This article was first published by Raconteur in September 2020

Should you bother with real-time data?

Real-time insights are essential to adapt to a changing consumer landscape, but companies that ignore trust and transparency as part of the process are risking it all

The advice that “trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair” is attributed to an anonymous sage, which is good news for the sage because the dearth of real-time data means they’ll escape an endless stream of personalised ads.

But it’s wisdom that brands would do well to heed. Now more than ever, given that consumer trust is so difficult to earn and easy to lose, and organisations are becoming increasingly reliant on customer data to manage sales.

The Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report, published in late-June, found that, after price, the most critical factor in a customer’s purchasing decision is trust. “If trust is a key consideration for consumers, it must be a key consideration for brands,” says Henk Campher, vice president of corporate marketing at social media management platform Hootsuite.

However, consumer trust has been eroded in the last six months if engagement from brands has been lacking, or tone deaf, according to new Pegasystems research, which reveals the extent of damage the coronavirus pandemic has caused for businesses’ relationships with their customers.

More than a third (36 per cent) of respondents say they lost existing customers during the pandemic due to failings in their communications. And a similar number (37 per cent) admit to communicating at least one message that was poorly received and dented brand reputation.

It’s not easy for brands, though. The January State of the Connected Customer report from Salesforce highlights a rise in consumer expectations, while stressing four in five consumers won’t buy from companies they don’t trust.

Timing is key to real-time data success

The research shows almost three quarters (73 per cent) of customers think companies should understand their needs and 78 per cent expect consistent interactions across departments. And to make that work, real-time data is required.

“Brands that deliver connected, multichannel and personalised experiences will earn consumers’ trust,” says Adam Spearing, Salesforce chief technology officer for Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Personalisation perhaps feeds from trust as much as it drives it

“Having a 360-degree customer view is crucial for enabling brands to have more personal and contextually aware interactions with customers. For retailers, this may be understanding the most appropriate time to offer customers in-store or online discounts. Whereas manufacturers can get ahead of demand based on what customers usually order at a specific time of the year, based on decades of data intelligence.”

And if companies can use real-time data to communicate with customers at particular times, and it feels sincere and authentic, then brownie points will be won. “Brands can build trust through meaningful interactions with their customers, anticipating their needs and delighting them,” says Spearing. As an example, he lauds Premier League football clubs that send personalised messages from star players to supporters on their birthdays.

Personalisation is a risky business

“The more valuable an interaction is for a customer, the more inclined they will be to continue to trust a brand to use their data appropriately,” he says, though warning there is “a fine line” to walk. “Only if brands use the data respectfully will they gain that trust.”

Andrew Hood, chief executive of data analytics consultancy Lynchpin, is equally ambivalent. “Personalisation perhaps feeds from trust as much as it drives it,” he says. “While I might be happier to share my data if I receive a better, more relevant experience in return, if I don’t trust you as a brand with my data in the first place, I might not feel confident enough to make the first move.”

M&C Saatchi’s senior art director Tom Kennedy is treading carefully and acknowledges the risk that comes with data-driven personalisation. “In January, Aviva addressed its whole email base as ‘Michael’, proving that with even the most basic data, mistakes can happen,” he says. “The assumptions, errors and insults will be amplified with each step more personal.”

Increased awareness of data privacy

Hunting for real-time data can be viewed as insidious and creepy, and there are many instances where organisations crossed the line. Cassandra Moons, data privacy officer at navigation technology firm TomTom, recalls how in 2012 American retailer Target supposedly worked out a teenager was pregnant before her parents through data mining. “Knowing intimate details about your customer that they have never told you can make people very uncomfortable,” she says.

More recently, consumer trust has been chipped away by serious data breaches. “Using data to personalise communications could be the tool that destroys people’s trust in advertising if not used smartly and respectfully,” says Megan Jones, senior planner at R/GA London. She points out that record numbers of people are using internet ad blockers and search engines protecting privacy, such as DuckDuckGo.

“This shift is symptomatic of greater public understanding around data due to Cambridge Analytica’s influence in the Vote Leave Brexit campaign, as well as greater awareness of data privacy through the launch of the General Data Protection Regulation two years ago,” says Jones.

Trust second only to price

Don’t rely too heavily on personalisation

Because customers arguably cherish personal data more than before, she questions a market strategy founded on real-time data. “Almost a decade ago, easyJet stopped investing in Google search terms and moved that budget into more traditional media to deliver phenomenal results. The company saved £6 million a year and there was a 95 per cent rise in seat sales,” says Jones.

“Similarly, last year adidas’ econometric analysis showed they’d been relying on ‘personalised’ communications too heavily as it was the broad brand-building communication that got them the majority – around 65 per cent – of their sales. And let’s not forget that Amazon, hailed as an exemplary data company, was the fifth-highest investor in traditional media in the UK in 2019, with a spend of £114 million, £26 million more than the year before.”

Lynchpin’s Hood concludes: “Ultimately, privacy and personalisation, using real-time data, go hand in hand. And brands that are transparent with the former are more likely to be able to deliver on the latter effectively to their, and their customers’, benefit.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future Customer report in September 2020