Apr 102017
 
business customer service is essential in the new economy

The call centre business is very much an example of an industry driven by technological change, having only coming into being over the last 50 years as telecommunications became ubiquitous and affordable before being one of the biggest offshored industries.

In an age of artificial intelligence, web based help pages and chatbots, it’s easy to think the call centre era may be coming to a close but Acticall Sitel Group’s Australian and New Zealand managers Steve Barker, the regional Chief Operating Officer, and Sally Holloway, Director of Business Operations, believe the industry has a long way to go yet.

Miami based Acticall Sitel Group operates call centres in 22 countries with 75,000 ‘associates’ providing services to over 200 major companies so their view on how the industry is evolving is worth hearing.

Technological shifts

Naturally technology is the driving force with the increasing availability of broadband meaning more ‘associates’ can work from home rather than in call centres while cloud services are reducing the cost and complexity of call centres.

The work from home aspect is proving popular with their clients as well as businesses see retaining skilled staff and the expense of real estate driving many organisations to extend their programs. An interesting observation given IBM’s and Yahoo!’s moves in restricting home office options in recent times.

Social media has also changed the type of interactions consumers are having with organisations while artificial intelligence and robots – chatbots – are automating many call centre functions.

A broader industry

Holloway though says she doesn’t see voice services going away, “some interactions still require the personal touch”, but technology is broadening the ways customers interact with businesses.

Interestingly, both Holloway and Barker believe that the commoditization of call centres is over as companies have realised the importance of good service in competitive markets although that varies between industries.

Added to that is the stripping out of costs in areas like customer service has largely run its course over the past few decades and in most organisations there is little fat left to cut from client facing functions.

Falling prices for technology, if not labour, does offer scope for smaller businesses to engage call centre providers that were once only available to larger corporates.

Like most industries, the relationship between workers and automation in call centres is playing out in complex ways as staff get to use more advanced skills and low value tasks are given to machines.

The evolution of the call centre may well be a pointer for other industries as we all grapple with the effects of automation.

Mar 142017
 

One of the web’s promises was to eliminate the middleman – the retailer, the broker and the agent. During the heady days of the original dot com boom in the late 1990s many of us, including this writer, thought relationships between producers and consumers would become stronger without intermediaries.

As it turned out, things things didn’t quite work out that way with new middlemen like Uber and Amazon rising while some sectors, like real estate, just saw the industry evolve around new tools, distribution channels and advertising models.

Now it appears AirBnB is coming for the real estate industry with a plan to move into rental management, something that publicly bemuses the incumbents but no doubt privately worries them.

Like Uber, AirBnB is having to look at alternative revenue streams to justify its sky-high stock valuation. Particularly so given the company is looking at an IPO in the next few years.

Rental management is a pretty low margin, high maintenance business so it’s an odd choice for AirBnB and it’s not hard to think the real target is the real estate sales business which far more profitable and in many cases quite doable with algorithms.

No doubt real estate agents will retort with how they add value and how computers couldn’t do their sales job but in truth it’s like many other industries where automation can deliver cheaper and quicker results.

If AirBnB does successfully enter the real estate market the first victim won’t be the agents but the newspaper industry.

With local newspapers still dependent upon real estate display advertisements, particularly in Australia where the print media’s only real revenues come from property advertising, losing out to an app would be the industry’s killer blow.

As with many other things in the digital economy, it may be we underestimated how long it would take some industries to fall. We could be about to see two sectors fall to disruption now.

Mar 092017
 
what are the rules when asking for something for free

Last week I was asked to help a British events manager to help with their research for an Internet of Things conference in Singapore.

This is the sort of thing I would happily do for free or a cup of coffee if it were a friend or a worthy cause but this was a stranger working for a large multinational corporation who’d found me through a LinkedIn or Google search.

Knowing that tickets for their European and North American events are around two thousand dollars, I politely asked for a consulting fee.

What happened next is predictable and I discussed some of the issues on the Australian marketing and media site, Mumbrella.

 

In a content and context driven world it’s interesting how the business models of the middlemen increasingly rely on exploiting those delivering the product – be it Uber, Facebook or a big conference organiser.

How sustainable those models are remains to be seen. It’s hard to see how entire industries can survive on underpaid or unpaid workforces.

Feb 282017
 

What does the future of work really look like? Management consultant Rob Gaunt has some bad new for those looking forward to a future of leisure.

In his book Eliminate, Automate, Offshore; Gaunt looks at how the modern workplace is changing and the priorities of managements and boards in a competitive, globalised world.

Gaunt, who describes himself as a ‘corporate axe man’ warns the reader “you may not approve or like what I do, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.”

To start the book, Gaunt gives a potted history of automation in the workforce and how processes can be improved by better management and new technology. He cites his local council garbage collection service which not so long ago would have required eight or nine workers per truck now only needing two.

This trend is coming to the rest of the workforce, Gaunt warns, adding that many of those jobs that can’t be automated can be outsourced.

“When I walk into an open plan office, I look and listen to the activity; if the overwhelming noise is of keyboard strokes rather than human voices, it’s a good clue that much of the functions being performed aren’t location dependent.”

Gaunt goes on to describe how effective outsourcing works with an emphasis on the client having to document their processes before shifting functions or departments to outside contractors as well as the importance of properly scoping and understanding an agreement.

Towards the end of the book, Gaunt examines what roles are likely to survive in higher cost economies along with the skills today’s children are going to need if they are going to avoid being ‘digital roadkill’ in an automated society.

Overall the book is a good read to understand the direction of today’s workforce and the factors driving it. It isn’t a pretty tale.

If anything; Eliminate, Automate, Offshore may be somewhat optimistic about the effects on the skilled trades, professional and managerial sectors as Gaunt probably underestimates how robotics and artificial intelligence are advancing.

Should you read the book, you may want to give your kids – and their teachers – a good talking too. The axe man is ruthless and he’s coming for many of our jobs.

Feb 272017
 
government subsidies for film industry hurt the sector

With the movie industry’s Academy Awards taking place last night, albeit not without mishaps, it’s worth reflecting on how Hollywood has defended itself against a range of disruptions over the last century.

From when the first movie was shown by the Lumiere brothers in Paris just after Christmas 1895, cinema has been both a disruptive force and one that’s been subject to its own challenges.

The immediate effect of the new technology was an explosion of new businesses, trades and techniques not dissimilar to the first dot com boom of the early days of the web as the traditional theatre industry was displaced by movie theatres.

As the  technology evolved, the movie industry itself was subject to disruption as sound was developed – ending the careers of many silent film stars – followed by colour both of which allowed new techniques and markets to developed.

Then came television and, it would have seemed, the end of the movie industry. Although that didn’t happen and it’s instructive how the industry reacted to the challenge.

In a 2007 paper, academics Barak Orbach and Liran Einav showed the movie industry’s evolution starting just after the introduction of talkies in 1927.

The shift to sound drove the movie industry to its all time heights prior to the Great Depression, however the economic downturn hit the film business hard – something to consider when people talk about the ‘lipstick effect’ -however steady growth returned through the 1930s and until the end of World War II.

Following the war, economic change and the arrival of television were tough for the movie business as attendances fell dramatically until stabilising in the late 1960s. Interestingly, the price of movie tickets went up dramatically shortly before the decline tapered off.

The graph finishes at 2002, at the end of the first internet boom and it’s notable the early days of the web, or the rise of Pay-TV in the 1970s and the Video Cassette Recorder in the 1980s had little effect on the industry’s attendance figures.

Despite those new technologies, the movie industry managed to attract audiences despite the plethora of entertainment options on offer at home.

Much of this was due to technological change with advances in computer generated graphics and recording techniques giving film makers far more creative scope while the roll out of multiplex cinema complexes allowed patrons far greater choice in movies.

Fifteen years later the effects of technology are still telling. In 2002, the average American was buying five movie tickets a year, according to the 2016 Motion Picture Association of America’s annual report this had fallen to 3.8, no doubt partly due to the success of Netflix.

However the film industry has still remained lucrative, partly through developing alternative streams of income like product licensing and international sales – China is by far the US industry’s biggest market and non-North American sales are growing by 21%. At the consumer level, movie houses increasingly make their money from concession sales and add-ons like premium seating.

So the answers to the movie industry’s success in staying profitable in the face of disruptive technologies seems to be in adopting new tech, diversifying income streams and globalising their product – although a bit of legislative protection in extending copyright probably helps.

The lessons though from a century of disruption though are clear, how well the movie industry responds to continuing disruption from the likes of streaming services like Amazon Prime, Netflix and their Chinese equivalents remains to be seen.

Feb 202017
 

Last week the City of Sydney and councillor Jess Scully came under fire for an apparent backflip about the need for a Chief Digital Officer.

Scully, who was elected at last year’s council elections, told InnovationAus “the idea of a CDO or chief innovation officer seems a little bit redundant” a day before the organisation advertised for ‘chief, technology and digital services officer’.

To be fair to Scully, the roles being advertised by the City of Sydney were not truly CDOs in the way Brisbane, which has a small business focus, and Melbourne’s city councils have appointed them however it raises the question of whether Scully is right that an organisation doesn’t need a Chief Digital Officer.

As with most questions of this nature, the answer seems to be ‘it depends’. A key part of that discussion is where a CDO sits in an organisation. If they are senior executive or even board role, then it’s likely they are going to come into conflict with other c-suite managers such as the COO and CFO.

What’s worse, such a conflict in the c-suite can mean digital issues can be seen as ‘belonging’ to the CDO and not other key business units, which can only be to the detriment of the organisation.

There’s an argument too that the changes to organisations is so great from the changing economy and emerging technologies that responsibility of understanding and dealing with these changes is the role of the CEO and the board.

Where a CDO can be very effective is being an advocate for change and a trusted adviser to senior management, however even there risks lie as identified by Paul Shetler who found the siloing of agencies within the Australian Public Service meant it was very hard to effect any change in the face of resistance from an organisation’s vested interests.

It seems from the story that the City of Sydney has chosen an advocate and support role for the digital officer position, rather than formalise a CDO position who becomes a figurehead for the organisation’s digital evolution.

For a CDO or any technology advocate to be effective, there has to be support from the board and senior management. A technologist can only drive change if they have a mandate from the top.

Even then in some organisations the culture may be so factionalised that the response to change and drive for digital transformation has to come from the existing powerbrokers and a CDO could be at best a hindrance and even obstruct the process.

So the City of Sydney and Jess Scully aren’t wrong in not having a Chief Digital Officer, and neither are Melbourne and Brisbane for having one, it’s a deliberate decision by the various managements to choose the structure and roles that works best for their organisation. Driving change though always remains the responsibility of the board and the CEO they appoint.

Feb 032017
 

Last year the Committee for Economic Development, Australia (CEDA) warned over 40% of the nation’s jobs were at risk from automation over the next 15 years.

While that focus was on the risks to workers, it’s equally threatening for small business. Many companies and sole traders are facing the same disruptions from technological change.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, in the Twentieth century the motor car displaced thousands of small businesses that catered to the horse drawn economy and family run corner stores were displaced by the arrival of supermarkets in the 1950s.

Beyond the personal computer era

At the end of the last century the personal computer’s arrival revolutionised small businesses as suddenly tools that were previously only in the reach of big organisations were suddenly accessible to the most modest venture.

One of the early beneficiaries of that shift to desktop computers in 1990s was the bookkeeping industry which took off as a legion of home based contractors catered for local small businesses.

As the internet and smartphones came along, the bookkeeping market changed as features like bank feeds and receipt apps automated many previously manual tasks.

Despite those challenges the bookkeeping industry has survived and continues to grow with IBIS World estimating the overall accounting industry, which includes bookkeepers, grew 2.6% per year over the past five years.

Close to customers

The success of bookkeepers and accountants in navigating change is probably due to industry being close to their clients along with being early adopters of new technology, two things that caught the taxi industry out when Uber arrived.

Uber’s success in upturning the taxi industry illustrates just how important understanding emerging technologies is for smaller businesses. One industry currently facing massive disruption from robots is the construction sector.

The trades were thought to be relatively immune from automation – after all, who’s going to build a robot plumber? But now robots are moving into trades like bricklaying, as Australian startup Fastbrick Robotics shows.

Fastbrick are building a commercial bricklaying machine, Hadrian X, that automates the trade’s physical work and integrates with 3D printing technology.

In one respect the robot bricklayers are bad for the trade’s employment prospects but for older brickies with bad backs having a machine to help you is a godsend while for employers it improves productivity and reduces workplace accidents. It won’t be the end of the trade but the contractors who survive will have adapted to a very different construction industry.

Restructuring industries

That Fastbrick integrates with design software shows how the dynamics of the construction are changing. In 2014 Chinese company Winsun demonstrated how they can build ten houses in a day with large scale 3D printers.

While we may not see that particular technology in Australia, aspects of it will be used and they are going to change all the trades and professions related to the building industry.

Architects are one building industry group that have long dealt with technological change. Like bookkeepers, the arrival of personal computers completely changed their profession and those who adapted thrived.

Now with cloud computing services plugging into builders’ supply chains like Winsun and machines like Fastbrick’s, architects are closer than ever to the worksite and their customers. The ones who are adapting are the earlier adopters who are getting into these technologies further.

Disrupting the professions

Accountants and architects aren’t the only professions being affected, lawyers are facing a new wave of services using artificial intelligence to do many legal tasks ranging from a chatbot that appeals traffic fines to a program that predicts US Supreme Court decisions.

Like other sectors, it’s the early adopters in the legal sector who are adapting to a very different industry with much of the manual, lower level work being automated out.

The wave of technology we’re now seeing appear – including robots, autonomous vehicles, machine learning and artificial intelligence – are going to change our industries and workplaces dramatically in the next few years.

What the accounting industry and the architecture profession teach us is the businesses closest to their customers and those adopting technology early will be the ones who thrive in a very different industries. Researching, experimenting and paying attention will be the keys to business survival.

An open mindset

Even for the trades, survival during this wave of technological change will be a matter of watching the marketplace closely while being open to new methods and technologies.

Assuming it won’t happen to your industry is probably one of the riskiest things of all. Ten years ago the idea of smartphones revolutionising the taxi business or that robots could replace bricklayers was unthinkable. Now it’s almost expected.

The forces that are changing the workplace are also changing industries and markets, so small businesses will also be affected. It’s going to pay to be smart and curious.