From punch cards that logged workers’ hours in early factories to the basic computers that powered the space race, it’s evident that we’ve been living in a data-driven world for more than a century. But changes in technology in the last two decades mean we now need to use data in more inventive and innovative ways if we want to be genuinely disruptive.

The era of emerging technologies is changing the way we live, work and connects with and relate to one another. At the same time, businesses face changing expectations from their customers, and governments have to contend with new demands from their citizenry.

We are at an inflection point where emerging technologies are on the cusp of becoming mainstream, and the borders between physical, digital and biological technologies are becoming harder to delineate. Neurotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics have begun to bleed into one another. So, too, have 3D printing, bioprinting and rapid prototyping.

Neurotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics have begun to bleed into one another. So, too, have 3D printing, bioprinting and rapid prototyping

In a little more than half a century, we’ve moved from computers that occupied huge rooms to cloud computing and artificial intelligence. At the same time, the scope, quantity and quality of data being generated by the systems embedded in our lives are unprecedented. The annual rate of data generation, meanwhile, will grow from 16 zettabytes (or a trillion gigabytes) this year to 160 zettabytes per year in 2025, and of that data, more than a quarter of it will be created in real time, with 95% generated by Internet of things devices.

Human data generation is going to grow exponentially in parallel to machine-generated data, and ubiquitous connectivity is going to become more than expected; it’s going to be demanded. Because of this, there’s an expectation from customers around what they expect companies to offer them. One-size-fits-all solutions will no longer be sufficient.

Harness data to offer bespoke solutions

For consumers, exclusivity now lies in customisation, and in some industries, like luxury fashion, in scarcity. The growth of personal data about customers also means sectors that wish to be disruptive need to successfully harness that data, make sense of it, and deliver desirable products or services on the back of it.

Some of the industries successfully using data to drive disruption include security, surveillance and defence (China’s mass surveillance systems, military drone tech and airport security), medicine, biology, and agriculture (seeding, drone assessments, and doctors performing or guiding surgery remotely), and education and training (augmented and virtual reality as teaching tools).

Others also benefiting include autonomous vehicles (Tesla owners can summon their vehicles via an app, or use its screen to watch Netflix while it’s parked), and building and construction (architecture and design, AI-generated floor plans, or digital quantity surveying). The lesson in all of these is that, if you want to create a different future, you have to use data in a different way.

Disruption versus innovation

A culture of disruption is more important than one of innovation. Innovation alone is iterative. It expands on existing solutions, rather than totally upending or reinventing them as disruption does. Innovation, by and large, makes existing things better. Disruption makes entirely new things.

When people talk about “disruption”, they often actually mean innovation that derives from first principles thinking. That is, the sort of innovation that stems from going back to the drawing board. Jeff Bezos incorporated first principles into his business model, urging entrepreneurs to “resist proxies” like established processes or market research and instead strive toward more fundamental truths, like real outcomes or customer needs.

Steve Jobs, meanwhile, got his designers and engineers to “think different” (sic) and rework Apple’s systems from scratch. The result wasn’t a phone; it was the entire Smartphone category.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy:Elon Musk perfected reusability and slashed costs

Another example is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket compared to the classic Saturn V used by Nasa. The assumption with the Saturn and its kin was that the rockets used for space launches necessarily had to be disposable. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk thought that reusable rockets might be possible. He’s been proven correct, and drastically reduced the cost of getting payloads into orbit as a result.

One of the key differentiators that allowed SpaceX to undercut conventional solutions is its use of 3D printing in engine manufacture. Reducing the cost of fabrication while simultaneously increasing the lifespan of its hardware means SpaceX is able to execute launches for 10% of the cost of the Apollo space programme, this could be the difference between merely visiting space and inhabiting other planets.

SpaceX’s ability to achieve Apollo-like results for cutting costs by 90% is the result of the culture of disruption Musk has fostered. The Apollo programme could only make incremental cost reductions through design by analogy. A breakthrough of SpaceX’s sort required fundamentally rethinking the problem of moving objects from the Earth’s surface into orbit.

Iterative thinking (or “design by analogy”), is the other dominant model for innovation, though some — like Musk — might argue it barely constitutes innovation at all. Iterative thinking means applying new solutions to old problems. For example, in the US banking system, because cheques remain an acceptable means of transferring value between individuals, many banks now let customers take photos of cheques with their smartphones to remotely cash them.

The danger of using new solutions to do what you’ve always done is that, because the inputs are the same, your outputs will be similarly homogenous. That’s why more than 80% of companies fail at digital transformation: They see the shift to digital as evolutionary, when in fact it’s revolutionary.

Think globally, thrive locally

If you need further convincing that data is fundamentally altering the business landscape, consider the growth in unicorns (that is, companies with a valuation in excess of US$1-billion) over the last decade. In the early 2000s, there were a handful of unicorns minted each year. Between 2014 and 2017 there were almost 200.

Why does this matter? Because it means that customers are being faced with ever more choices, and in doing so, those choices have to be increasingly compelling if they’re going to attract users, and more importantly, retain them. It also changes what we define as customer centricity and what competition looks like. The nature of this unprecedented speed, scale and scope of disruption means companies can no longer confine their attention to competitors locally; they have to consider their rivals globally.

Netflix, in one fell swoop, doubled its footprint by simply offering its content in 100 new markets. Meanwhile, digitally savvy consumers understand the options available globally, so even if they aren’t in a market with a particular product or service, they expect their local equivalents to at least try to be competitive. Customers with the mobility to operate globally, meanwhile, will simply take their business to the most agile and able provider.

Strategy is driven by people and culture

So, how do you drive disruption? First, you need to inspire confidence in the people in your organisation to try new things. At the same time, new initiatives must be driven by competent people who understand the problem you’re trying to solve. The culture and competencies required for disruption are different than those required for innovation.

Under Satya Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft is tackling social challenges and making the company socially responsible. It’s important to realise that it’s no longer enough to provide a service: Society expects you to contribute to solving broader, systemic problems. It’s no longer good enough to design solutions that only serve the business’s ends. Nor is it sufficient to measure success by revenue KPIs. Instead, one has to consider social KPIs.

It used to be that data and tech were used to design products and services and offer them to customers using different channels. This “omnichannel strategy” meant not only fostering relationships with customers through various means, it meant maintaining them that way. But today, the expected approach is a ubiquitous strategy.

Instead of an omnichannel strategy focused on pushing particular products or services, in a ubiquitous strategy you’re sharing the entire solution so that other people can adopt it. One of the advantages is it means customers identify you with an overarching solution rather than with a specific product.

Innovation can come from openness

In 2014, Elon Musk made many of his electric vehicle company Tesla’s patents free to use. Musk’s argument for sharing his company’s intellectual property was that his incentive is to get the automotive industry to shift to greener initiatives as soon as possible. Sharing IP made it more likely the goal would be achieved, and sooner. Search giant Google open-sourced its TensorFlow AI engine because it believes the problems it’s trying to solve are so large it can’t reasonably expect to do so alone.

In both examples, what matters is that the way success is measured is different from the conventional metrics of revenue generation or profitability. By measuring success in new ways and opening problems to new prospective solvers, businesses can harness hitherto unforeseen opportunities.

The global goalposts have moved

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) — also known as the Global Goals — were adopted by the member states of the United Nations in 2015. Their core tenets are to alleviate poverty, provide solutions to the ecological devastation the Earth faces and bring peace to war-torn regions. To realise them, companies need to adjust their strategies to focus on society, where how much they improve it is a metric of success at least as important as profitability.

It’s helpful to think of SDGs as brand or value propositions. When you’re solving a society’s systemic problems, you’re not just a philanthropist, you’re a social entrepreneur. For example, leaders at Davos this year heard that achieving the Global Goals could open an estimated $12-trillion in market opportunities in four economic systems: food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being. Taking advantage of these opportunities fully — that is, maximising benefits for business owners, shareholders and other stakeholders while simultaneously maximising social benefits — will require inclusive business practices. This can achieved by the fourth sector model which includes blended consortiums, public private partnerships, civic or municipal enterprises, cross sector partnerships, hybrid organisations, and social enterprises.

SDGs are now useful criteria for measuring your company’s success. There are 17 unique SDGs, and while it’s unreasonable and unrealistic to try and solve for all of them at once, some companies are solving for multiple goals at once. Musk, for instance, is solving for sustainable energy and environmental preservation. Microsoft, meanwhile, under Satya Nadella’s leadership, is tackling social challenges and making Microsoft socially responsible.

Furthermore, with this mindset in place, the long-term value of a company is no longer a matter of earnings alone. Human capital, innovation, and societal impact are all important yardsticks, too, and long-term value needs to be weighed against talent, happiness, sustainability and other previously intangible assets, all of which can contribute to financial success.

Engage your customers, enhance your brand

Customers want to be identified for who they are and how they behave. Whether through facial recognition or deep-learning techniques and habit analysis, customers expect businesses to know not just who they are, but how they operate, and what they want. Moreover, they expect this level of personalisation without having their security compromised.

Looking at an ID document for manual verification doesn’t make the document safer. Instead, biometric data plus behavioural information can be used to link a consumer to their actions and ensure that anomalous activity is spotted promptly. But the onboarding process isn’t something unique to financial services. Every organisation, business, enterprise, and government agency, large or small, has to manage onboarding processes, and can benefit from more effective ones. Users want to be identified as individuals, not numbers, no matter the sector.

The same holds true for repeat interactions.

While there are fears about biometrics and their potential misuse, blockchain networks are being used to solve this problem. Biometrics and behavioural identity can help provide a standardised identity link for first parties, but also for partnering with other services and solutions providers, all the while providing customised but applicable offerings. A customer can have different account or product numbers, but not different biometrics. Tying them together can provide oversight and contextual awareness that makes for better customer interactions, or more effective upselling.

For example, biometrics and payment history can be used in a retail environment to help direct customers to aisles based on their historic purchases, or to remind them about a rewards programme at checkout. In the case of Amazon Go’s retail stores, to take the idea to further reaches, AI-powered cameras and user accounts allow for interaction-less shopping and checking out, with customers billed automatically for what they take with them from the store. Simultaneously, Amazon gets to build an ever more detailed profile of a customer, enabling it to better target promotions and realise more consistent conversion rates. While there are fears about biometrics and their potential misuse, blockchain networks are being used to solve this problem, protecting identity information while ensuring only legitimate actors can use it.

The cloud is an enabler, not a buzzword

For cross-platform data services to work, you need cloud-based solutions. Not only does the cloud make it easier for a wide range of businesses to leverage each other’s networks, it ensures greater security than is possible when each company has to assess the reliability or the validity of data in isolation, and in-house.

Previously, data science techniques have provided a snapshot of a customer at a specific point in time. While these have done well in predicting outcomes based on that moment and guiding strategies around the predictions, they have not been sufficient to provide strategic insight on what is driving those outcomes. Nor have they assisted businesses to adjust their strategies to obtain different, desirable outcomes as opposed to expected, empirical ones.

But today, because there is lots of data available, engagement changes and understanding moves from standalone snapshots to a cumulative, and potentially predictive, customer journey, where it’s possible to infer a future need from a current one, and pre-emptively respond down the line. Moreover, it’s possible to recognise which behaviours lead to which outcomes, and then actively encourage the correct behaviour from a customer to direct them to the desired outcome.

Identify the motivation, shape the behaviour

One such technique enabled by new technologies is reinforcement learning (RL). RL is a machine-learning approach that points to the suitable action to take to maximise the reward in a particular situation. It is employed to find the best possible data-driven behaviour or path a subject should take in a specific situation.

In traditional, supervised learning the training data has the answer key built into it, and that answer is the intended outcome, which shapes the course of the learning accordingly. With reinforcement learning, there is no specific answer. Instead, the reinforcement agent decides what to do to perform the given task, which means that in the absence of a training dataset, it is bound to learn from its experience.

RL provides a way organisations can link observed, data-driven behaviour to social needs in the future. For instance, a customer’s transactional or investment behaviour may indicate they’re focused on future education, housing, travel or health needs. A financial institution that recognises this may then be able to shape its products or services in such a way that the customer is incentivised to adjust their behaviour accordingly.

At the same time, this prescience might require different channels. A customer might be best reached via e-mail during office hours or via mobile after hours. They might be best served by a phone call for some queries, or a chatbot for others. But what’s important is that their place in what might previously have been considered a relationship cycle should now be thought of as a series of unique circumstances, each of which determines the channel of engagement.

It’s not about making the decisions around the state of play, but about influencing it. Instead of creating an app because a customer might use it in future, it’s about creating an app because a customer will use it in future because it’s the best channel for their needs and they’re incentivised to use it, which means they do.

Use doesn’t mean contentedness

Just because a customer uses a product doesn’t mean they like it. How they use a product, their comments, complaints or social media posts about it, or even their interactions with call centres — which can be analysed by AI that understands customer’s complaints or comments, called natural language understanding (NLU) — can all lead to a more telling sentiment analysis that better indicates perception and satisfaction. NLU, in this case, is providing insight into customer data. The data just happens to be voice data rather than digits on a spreadsheet.

This sort of approach can also result in personalised solutions to unique problems or solutions to problems that prove not to be unique and can then be offered to other consumers before they become dissatisfied. These sorts of approaches allow for extremely granular analysis of how customers perceive your products, where their pain points are, and how their perceptions may have changed over time or may do so as their relationship with, and expectations of, your business evolves.

At the same time, these sorts of adaptable, predictive models can help financial institutions and other risk-sensitive businesses better manage and assess risk. Traditionally, risk has been managed at a single point in time, but now the structure of the problem has changed, and financial institutions want to try to help customers avoid getting into a risk space in the first place.

As threats become more complex, it’s necessary for warning systems and pattern recognition to do likewise. Similarly, predictive data models and accompanying technology can be used to monitor financial crime risks and regulatory requirements, including tax avoidance, money laundering and other organised crime activities than can leave financial institutions subject to punitive measures from government or other regulatory bodies. Mitigating these risks and developing a reputation for being safe and immune from abuse can also keep fraudsters at bay and encourage new customers to take up your services.

As threats become more complex, it’s necessary for warning systems and pattern recognition to do likewise. Enhanced due-diligence AI tools create holistic views of customers, using varied data sources, and creating a multifaceted set of insights that can be used to better predict and counter risks like fraudulent activities. These AI tools don’t just do quality assurance and make recommendations but can be used for financial advice, onboarding, strategy analysis, or designing individual rewards programmes and other unique and specific offerings where practical, or necessary.

Built to purpose means built to last

While it might seem the obvious course to take is to collaborate with fintechs, start-ups, universities and other higher education institutions with experience building AI solutions, the risk is that by outsourcing the design and implementation you’ll forever be beholden to outside contractors for your AI needs. Also, any unique IP created along the way won’t belong to you, and your ability to respond to changing needs will be hamstrung.

Wherever possible, when employing AI it’s preferable to build solutions in-house, from the ground up. That means less procuring, more building, and far more opportunity to customise and add to your solution over time. The result is an AI model that matches your needs and your societal challenges, and that’s easier to integrate into your platforms. It also provides a competitive advantage that’s absent when you and your rivals are all beholden to the same service provider. To achieve unique results in the era of technology, you can’t keep strategising and thinking about data the same way. Instead, you need to consider the unique ways you can harness it to provide equally unique and bespoke solutions to consumers, who have now come to expect specific and customised offerings.

Dr Mark Nasila is chief analytics officer in FNB’s chief risk office


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