Nick's Notes

Digital Diversity

CIO Connect ran the final workshop before the summer break a couple of weeks ago on the topic of diversity. We invited our largely male membership to bring a female colleague with them. Although this was slightly awkwardly done – it’s hard to word such an invitation effectively – we had, probably for the first time, an audience roughly split 50:50 by gender.

During the session we discussed people’s experience of unconscious bias still very much evident even in 21st century Britain. We run under Chatham House rule, so I will content myself by saying that I was shocked by one person’s experience as a senior executive, who is black, British and female regularly being mistaken for the cleaner.

There is no doubt that thinking differently from “old, white males” brings business benefits. Alignment with the way your diverse customers see the world bring insight to service businesses and allows products to be designed and positioned more effectively to fit in with the life-style of consumers today. Having a team that sees the world through different experiences and with different perspectives allows wider debate and ultimately better business decisions to be taken.

Yet through this great discussion I was thinking, slightly distractedly, that as the world moves to buying services and doing business digitally, it will be hard to maintain any differentiation to the outside world. Thirty years ago Tom Peters, the American Business guru, talked about increasing commoditisation of products and services – long before the digital services we see today. His answer in “In Search of Excellence” was to be clear that a commodity service with added personality will win the day. In an interesting experiment the personality add on worked with people retrospectively. The ratings for a particular dentist (never a great experience in the first place) were far higher from those patients selected for a follow up call with a message basically saying “I hope it wasn’t too painful and everything is OK now”. Even when those patients were randomly selected after the treatment had occurred they rated the treatment as being more effective and the quality of the experience at the dentist’s premises more highly than those who weren’t contacted.

I guess that experiment is partially responsible for the avalanche of “how was it for you” emails after any trivial transaction these days. But it doesn’t work for me. Getting an email saying that my log on was noticed and asking if I was able to achieve what I set out to do annoys me. Getting a call to ask if the order I placed is what was needed (and especially then trying to flog me extended insurance – AO you know who you are) makes me inclined to pay more to avoid that in the future. I’m a Brit, very few things are awesome, and I’ll complain if it is bad enough, otherwise it’s OK.

This is not adding personality to a commodity transaction. It adding another commodity transaction to the one already undertaken. And I think that encapsulates a deep seated problem with the digital world. It drives commoditisation, it strips expertise from people and it has no inherent personality. Brand may go a small way to overcoming that, but not much. I may be happy to carry my MacBook Pro around secure in the knowledge that Apple are not using my usage data to sell on to third parties, but someone next to me using a Chromebook at one third of the price if they bought the most expensive model can do exactly the same work as I do – even if they have sold their soul for the privilege. I guess you could say there is diversity in the payment methods, but that is about it.

We need some diverse thinking around making digital services more differentiated. It is not sufficient to have billionaire US entrepreneurs deciding what their version of utopia will look like in the not too distant future.

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