IBM’s chief innovation officer warns against working in silos at #Dx32017

warren tomlin

“As consumer expectations evolve, the ability to innovate well is at the core of business success,” Eric Mercer, director of content for Dx3, announced before the retail and digital marketing conference kicked off on March 8.

The fact that the room for day one’s keynote was standing-room only was no small feat considering it was 8 a.m., but the keynote address from IBM’s chief innovation officer Warren Tomlin was clearly, and rightfully, a huge draw.

Dx3 is all about understanding the role technology can play in creating memorable and differentiating experiences for consumers, according to Canada Post influencer marketing general manager Jennifer Campbell. The event features multiple stages and workshops over two days, focusing on how to engage consumers using technology.

When Tomlin got on stage for his talk, he echoed the statements made by Mercer and Campbell with stories and research to back up the lessons. However, he ended with a warning of the perils of siloed innovation and an over-focus on what he calls “Random acts of digital.”

Experience is your north star

Often a synonym for truth, the North Star is understood to be the brightest star in the sky and thus the one to follow towards truth – or business success.

With terms and conditions, people used to go as far as printing these out and getting legal notes on them. Now, you click the ‘I agree’ button and move on.

Instead, Tomlin reasons that the North Star was followed not because it was the brightest (it’s actually the fourth brightest, he says), but because it is unwavering. It does not move from its position in the sky and thus is a reliable navigation tool.

In order to truly move towards constant innovation and “restless reinvention,” as Tomlin calls it, businesses must identify their innovation goals and position it as their North Star, remaining steadfast in their pursuit of it.

Learn a new language

“Let’s look at Windows 95 as the commercial birth of the internet,” Tomlin said. “As you began to install your software, you had to agree to terms and conditions. People used to go as far as printing these out and getting legal notes on them. Now, you click the ‘I agree’ button and move on.

“Then think about ecommerce. It used to be weird to put your credit card information online for fear of fraud. People also took time to get used to letting apps know their precise location.”

What do these examples have in common? Taboos and discomfort are alleviated by a basic exchange of value. You accept the terms and conditions because you want to use the app. You use your credit card online for easier shopping. You allow location services so your Uber knows where to pick you up.

“All consumers have their own feelings about things,” Tomlin notes. “And it’s up to business leaders in every area to learn the language of the other departments and communities, so they can get a holistic view of their consumers’ feelings and understandings of a certain product.”

Follow the leader

Learning the language of technology is not enough for business leaders want to appoint someone who can bring a more formal process and structure. “We are seeing the rise of the chief digital officer,” he said. “But very often, the company is simply told to find a CDO without a proper understanding of what they will be doing. This, more often than not, just creates another level of governance.”

“We have indexed on experience for customers and consumers, but we also have think about our people – employees and communities.”

The second challenge is that, given the pace of innovation in the 21st century, the CDO role will likely be unnecessary in a short period of time. Many CDO roles that Tomlin sees being created, for instance, are told to focus on mobile. In Tomlin’s mind, mobile will be a basic expectation, so a CDO role will be obsolete in this context. The good news for all aspiring CDOs, though? “Research says that the CDO is often the heir-apparent to the CEO, since they understand the digital context of a business.”

If you want to learn about innovative customer experiences, he says, look outside your industry and into your consumer’s world. He gave the example of a banking client who, seeking to understand the customer experience, went to the Apple Store. Not because Apple is an IBM partner (they are), and not because Apple is a global company (they are that, too), but because his research suggested that their customers might go to both the bank and the Apple Store. In a world where “Your last best experience becomes your minimum expectation,” understanding how the Apple Store cares for their customers can offer serious insight to a bank.

Light a fire

A ‘random act of digital’ happens when individual departments try to create their own North Star. There’s so much going on that you can get lost, says Tomlin, and innovations rarely scale.

Tomlin recalled a global airline that he’d worked with. Their customer experiences team decided that they needed a North Star around passenger knowledge and they were incredibly successful. Their passengers had to-the-minute updates about their flights, upgrades, and all other areas of the passenger experience like booking or itinerary edits.

It was good, but almost too good.

When a passenger went up to the Desk Agent at an airport with a question about rebooking a flight after hers had been cancelled, the Desk Agent replied that the flight had not been cancelled and she didn’t know what the passenger was talking about. After a frustrating back-and-forth, the passenger showed the Desk Agent the airline’s app.

As it turns out, the app was more up to date than the Desk Agent’s computer. A random act of digital gone wrong, the customer experience team had done their job flawlessly, but the siloed nature of their innovation meant that other areas were lagging behind.

Tomlin’s insight: customer journey mapping. This, he says, helps tear down silos because you understand your corporate work through the lens of your customer’s needs, wants, and pathway.

Burn the boats

“An adventurer arrives on a deserted island with 11 boats,” starts Tomlin. “After they check out the island, the adventurer asks his team if they could make a go of living on the island. His team laughs, stating that they’ll be leaving tomorrow.”

“Then the adventurer burned all the boats. He looked back, and asked again if the team could make a go of living on the island. Suddenly, everyone was much more willing to try.”

While Tomlin is not suggesting that you burn down your whole company, metaphorically or physically, in order to innovate, the story is meant to be an allegory of encouraging commitment.

No organization can be successful in innovation without a commitment to innovation. Sometimes innovation presents itself like a deserted island with no immediate potential, but a commitment will keep you sharp and looking for the next move.

Without this commitment, argues Tomlin, it’s simply too easy to hop back on your big, seemingly safe boat and accomplish nothing.

Forge your path

When it comes to innovation, a company must look at customer experience in a holistic way. Too often, notes Tomlin, millennials have amazing technological experiences at home. Their Uber picks them up right outside their door, they can talk to their friends around the world with the touch of a button, and order food at the same time. However, they go to work and find old technology with clunky user experiences.

This is another example, similar to the airline client Tomlin mentioned earlier in his talk, of understanding random acts of digital and siloed environments. “We have indexed on experience for customers and consumers, but we also have think about our people – employees and communities.”

hen it comes to finding the pathway of innovation for your company, beyond identifying your North Star and taking insight from other industries, Tomlin notes that you have to look inward and find your source of “restless reinvention.”

BetaKit is a proud media partner of Dx3

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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