We held Engage, our annual conference a few weeks ago. The significant change this year was that we’re now a much larger company having been bought by Vista, a private equity firm and we then merged with Lithium, who build and host online communities. And we’re collectively a different company, having been rebranded as Khoros.
From my point of view of a digital strategist the merger is wonderful news as the box of toys just got a lot bigger. And in some significant ways it takes me back to the roots of digital and why I first got excited by it more than 20 years ago. As social media rapidly consolidates into a paid medium the idea of reengaging with communities and the concepts of the digital commons and social capital comes as an exciting reboot.
These developments in our company gave me the opportunity to think more expansively about what I might welcome our guests with at the rebranded Khoros Engage conference and to go back to fundamental principles. I wanted to go back to the reason that so may of us entered digital marketing; because we saw it as being a revolutionary disruptor and to remind us all of what the fundamentals of what that disruption should be.
I have recently been doing some volunteer work as an advisor to the Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery in Ealing, West London. As a venue its a gorgeous building with a contemporary gallery (the current exhibition is of Anish Kapoor) and a good bistro style restaurant all located in a lovely park; perfect for a day out and you can book ticket here.
Beyond that, the Pitzhanger sits in the sweet spot of my interests; as a gallery and museum I’m able to draw on my time as a non-exec director at the National Gallery Company: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/about-us/organisation/national-gallery-company and as the country home of Sir John Soane it’s been an opportunity for me to scratch my itch for design that’s been with me since my architecture degree, but which rarely gets a chance to be activated.
Discussing Soane’s legacy with the team at the gallery I’ve re-looked at Soane as an architect and a creative force. What is fascinating about Soane is that his incredibly innovative architecture was built upon foundation of rigorous knowledge of the fundamentals of his discipline. There’s a wonderful essay here that explores this in more detail; but put simply it was because he was so fluent in the language of classical architecture that he could successfully transmute it, play with it and in the view of some, pervert it.
Soane had been steeped in the rules and traditions of classical architecture, having been apprenticed to the architect George Dance, attended lectures at The Royal Academy and topping it all off with grand tour of the canon of classical architecture of Europe. Yet, rather than being constrained by that classical education, he used it to innovate and develop his own unique architectural language and approach.
Soane’s innovations were not just aesthetic, he was also technically innovative and in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the world’s first purpose built art gallery, he created what has become a lasting innovation in gallery design; the top lit gallery. By building what is essentially a conservatory along the roof of each of the gallery wings Soane flooded the walls of the gallery spaces with natural light as well as obviating the need for windows and so leaving as much space as possible for hanging. Alexander and Ng in their essay cite the ongoing influence of this innovation on galleries such as the Kimbell Art Museum, Texas and the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles.
The more I looked into this apparent dichotomy; that visionary and revolutionary innovations come from a grounding in the classical fundamentals of a discipline, the more examples I found.
A more contemporary example is Alexander McQueen. McQueen was known for his gravity defying costumes and ground breaking catwalk shows. Frequently the reason given for his ability to design those creations was because he had been classically trained as a tailor during his apprenticeship at Saville Row tailors Anderson and Sheppard. It is said that the understanding of the mechanics, physics and processes behind constructing the classic English gentleman’s suit that he learned at the Savile Row tailors enabled McQueen to be the avant garde designer that he eventually became.
Without laboring the point I’d offer one last example; in preparing for the Q&A with keynote speaker Dr Hannah Fry, I watched her BBC documentary on Ada Lovelace, widely credited with writing the first ever computer algorithm in 1843.
Ada was the daughter of Lord Byron, the quintessential bad boy of romantic poetry. Having been abandoned by Byron shortly after the birth of Ada, her mother tried to inoculate her daughter against a similarly disastrous creative, impulsive life by having her tutored from an early age in logic and mathematics. Lovelace proved to be a more than able student and her talents found her working with Charles Babbage, one of the leading mathematicians of the age. Her visionary insight was displayed in the now famous ’Note G’ of the appendices Lovelace wrote for Babbage’s paper describing his Analytical Machine. While Babbage saw the Analytical Machine as an extraordinarily advanced calculator capable of immensely complex calculations, Lovelace took it to a whole new level;
“The engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.[
It was in Lovelace’s own view that she was able to make this leap as a result of the combination of her the creative abilities she inherited from her father and the mathematical abilities and grounding she received from her mother. Having her father’s creative flair wasn’t enough; to be truly visionary she needed both the flair and the grounding in the fundamentals.
Which brings me to the subject at hand; how are we to carve out our place as revolutionary visionaries in the world of customer engagement? What are the fundamentals we need to master and how do we then innovate on top of these to deliver truly visionary outputs in our organsiations?
A helpful handbook is available thanks to the work of Venezuelan economist Carlota Perez. Perez has looked extensively at technological revolutions and understanding the preconditions required for a new technology to move from being novel to being visionary and revolutionary.
In her 2009 paper “Technological Revolutions and Technological Economic Paradigms” Perez makes this observation “the space of the technologically possible is much greater than that of the economically profitable and socially acceptable.”
Those in the audience responsible for any aspect of on-boarding new technologies at their companies will no-doubt appreciate the fundamental truth of this; just because there’s software that can do it, doesn’t mean its worth doing it or that anyone wants to do it!
While a new technology can be innovative and exciting it will not succeed in creating a visionary and revolutionary change in the business unless it meets this test of being ‘economically profitable and socially acceptable’. In business terms, I believe that ‘economically profitable’ means; does it provide value by driving up revenue or driving down costs and do we have the data to measure and substantiate that value? And to be socially acceptable in a corporate environment means; do we have the people, processes and governance in place for this to permeate the organization and to provide that value sustainably over time?
Considering any kind of technology we’re bringing into a business we need to ask these fundamental questions; Does it provide value; driving up revenue or costs down? Do we have away to measure and substantiate that? Do we have in place the people, processes and governance need for that value to be be sustained?
There is a further test that Perez uses to separate “random collection of technology systems” from a true technological revolution which is; “the strong interconnectedness and interdependence of the participating systems in their technologies and markets”.
We need to ask ‘How is the customer engagement technology being applied inside our business? Does it feed into areas such as customer engagement, CRM, programmatic and content marketing? Is it integrated and interconnected to enable a revolution across the business? Or is it sitting in a silo as a ‘random piece of technology’?’
Perez asserts that if a technology is integrated and interconnected in this way, it has the capacity to transform profoundly the rest of the economy (and eventually society). From a business perspective we should ask if our customer engagement technology is interconnected so that it is transforming profoundly the rest of the business.
This is not as wild a test as might first appear. Surely the point of gathering knowledge and insights from our customers is to do exactly that; transform our business through product range, service design, and the pricing and positioning of our offer.
This is the eventual promise of customer engagement technology; to have an impact so visionary and revolutionary that it creates transformation deep inside the business, not just in the marketing department where it has most likely originated, but across the whole organization. We know what this looks like already; ASOS, Net-a-porter, Netflix, Spotify, Amazon and other ‘born digital’ businesses are created and grown this way. The challenge is for legacy businesses to embrace customer engagement technologies in away that enables transformation. And to do it at pace.