Strong Innovation Has To Come From Your People

You know all those fantastic gadgets and gizmos that are currently all over the tech news space – TV screens you can create with your finger, shoes you can print, watches which can send your heartbeat to another person, phones that work as a PC and PCs that work as a phone, and lifts that can tell you when they’re about to break – I think they’re all fascinating and a sign of how powerful technology has become.

But as for the exact impact they will make (on me or anybody else) I haven’t been able to completely get to the bottom of it. For a lot of new technology, there seems to be something missing in terms of being able to translate how it will actually change our lives on a day to day basis. Or why we should replace what we’ve already got.

Microsoft’s Future Decoded event was a big step towards addressing this (for Microsoft technologies – I’m pretty sure they’re going to allow the ambiguity of the Apple Watch to continue).  And I was fortunate to have a front row seat 🙂

There was a lot of focus on the new (and brilliant) Microsoft tools coming into the market. But with every “it has this feature” line, there were two more to explain the fundamental impact for the person who will be using it.

For a while now Satya Nadella has been plying Microsoft’s mantra into every article, memo and speech attributed to him:

“Microsoft seeks to empower every person in every organisation on the planet to do more.”

I have to admit, this time last year, that was all very much just mere rhetoric to me. I wrote a blog following Future Decoded 2014 entitled ‘The Bane of the Buzzword: Why Can’t Microsoft Say What they Mean’.

This year, we started to see some of the substance behind the message. And Satya even acknowledged the challenge companies like Microsoft must address:

“Human attention and time still lacks amongst the abundance of technology.”

This is the reason behind Microsoft’s aim to ‘re-invent’ productivity – by encourage people to use technology in such a way which allows them to make better use of their time.

And apparently we are not using our time well at all at the moment. According to Steve Clayton, Chief Storyteller for Microsoft, a whopping 83% of UK workers say they are not engaged at work. It’s Microsoft’s vision to change that.

Enter Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Smoothies and now JamJar, a venture capital investment firm.

Reed stated that Innocent employees are 95% engaged at work. Part of their success formula is to recruit entrepreneurial people. People who will advocate risk (“If you’re 70% sure, then go for it!” was a memorable line I took from him), and have the right values and vibe to want to make things better for everyone in the company.

Richard also talked about their recruitment process – they would only hire “Type A’s. Because Type A’s will always hire Type A’s. Type B’s will only hire Type B’s. And Type C’s will only hire Type C’s”. Before quoting from Dan Jacobs, Head of Talent at Apple who famously stated on the subject of getting rid of dead weight – “I’d rather have a hole than an asshole!”

How does this marry up with technology? Well, not a lot. But also a lot…

Allow me to explain.

In one of my favourite keynotes from Future Decoded, Craig Kreeger, CEO of Virgin Atlantic (who clearly loves his job!) explained that, “Innovation doesn’t have to be technology driven”.

He gave the example of a two-month test of boarding through Heathrow’s holding areas. It was ‘like Ellis Island’ according to Craig. But by calling customers to the gate 15 minutes later, it enabled customers to board the planes right when they arrived at the gates. Satisfaction scores increased 25 percent.

It was a risk as it was essentially getting rid of the holding area – which nobody has done before. But then again Richard Branson did have a ‘screw it, let’s do it’ philosophy. Which has continued on.

That was a bit of a contrast to Steve Clayton’s opening line of, “Your company is only as innovative as your technology is” – but I tend to agree with Craig. Technology is the enabler. Strong innovation comes from listening to your customers, and creating the right solution for them. And strong people within your organisation who can make the necessary changes.

Virgin are, of course, using new technology too. In something called ‘The Immersive Digital Adventure (IDA)’ Virgin are using Microsoft software to intelligently analyse data. This then allows the airline staff to offer personalised messages to customers. So rather than saying, “Thank you for flying Virgin” as passengers exited the plane, they can now say, “Enjoy your holiday in Disneyworld” or, “Have fun with your family in Dallas.” All using Microsoft Hololens – augmented virtual reality.

A really interesting keynote came from Arsenal Football Club’s IT Director, Hywel Sloman. He said that he had to think of himself as a business leader first; an IT leader second. A recent Computer Weekly article (also featuring Hywell) suggested that, “CIOs need to become top marketers to sell the benefits of IT for digital initiatives…they have to move from being considered as operational managers to IT business leaders.”

It’s true – IT has a fundamental impact on business performance, and yet, as a department, too few IT Managers are part of discussions at board level.

Hywel’s experience at Arsenal demonstrates just how much of a correlation with customer experience IT does have. For example, he said that putting WiFi in stadiums offers very little value in itself. What customers care about is finding the shortest queue for the loo. Or getting beer quicker.

He also spoke about the fact that the Armoury, the retail store at Emirates, will do more transactions on a match day than a Saturday at the whole of Marks & Spencer, the whole of Gap and the whole of Argos. But for many fans, this was going to be a one off, special occasion, so the experience within the store needed to reflect that. By investing in technology, the average transaction time has been reduced by 50% to 30 seconds.

This of course has a direct impact on the wages of footballers, and being able to afford the talent that Arsenal seek.

Furthermore, Arsenal have got rid of 27 separate purchasing systems and invested in a Microsoft CRM solution which meant that “when people call in, we have a pretty good idea of what they want” according to Hywel.

Coming back to this argument about technology vs. innovation, whilst I’m very much of the opinion that people are the biggest factor, and technology is secondary to them (technology can’t have the idea in the first place, or sell it into the board), it’s still important to get the mechanisms right, to allow the innovation to take full effect.

Making use of the ‘intelligent cloud’ will provide a platform for bold decisions to be made, according to Microsoft. It’s the notion of capacity, or ‘thinking big’ which is where Cloud technology really comes into its own. This video does a good job of visualising that:

Also announced at the event: Microsoft are expanding their data centre regions in Ireland and the Netherlands, and are also opening their first UK data centre for commercial cloud services in 2016. So there is a real commitment to building the right tools here in the UK, to allow productivity to flourish.

Seb Coe, in the middle of a very interesting week for him, came on stage at the end of the day and spoke about the London Olympics. He said, “The Opening Ceremony set a tone for the London Olympics that stayed, because everyone bought into the vision.”

You can have the greatest tools in the world that do all sorts of clever stuff, but unless you empower people and get them to understand the reason they are doing something, those tools will just stay tools. People are what matter.  

And I’m incredibly proud to work amongst some of the best here at TSG.