Use Cases: The enemy of collaboration?

Today’s modern workplace offers a plethora of collaboration tools, as we shift away from face-to-face interactions and increasingly towards digital connections. But making these work has always been complicated by:

  • Too many tools to choose from
  • Choosing between social or document-based collaboration
  • Having overlapping collaboration functionality within suites such as Office 365   
  • Low collaboration maturity in organisations to begin with

When deploying collaboration tools or determining the best way to use existing ones, we often draw upon standard IT project management practice and develop use cases for them. A well-worn route for connecting tools to users, for giving those tools a business goal, a purpose.

And that’s great, we always need a clear goal. And here is where we encounter the problem with use cases and collaboration: forced to try and reconcile two very different types of goal.
what-is-a-use-case

1. Tool biased goals

Use cases are biased towards the tool. They represent transactional needs and are viewed from the perspective of the tool and not of the user. We can refer to these as functional use cases, based on the function of the tool. But isn’t this just putting the cart before the horse?

We are unwittingly pre-determining how people should use the tools based on what the tools say they can do, and of course tools speak in a very different, very functional language. For example:

  • To share files with anyone in the organisation
  • To work on files at any location

bot-not-userMakes sense, but if we are after collaboration, this simply isn’t good enough. We have to ask ‘why’ to these questions. Why do we need to share documents? Why do we need to work on them at any location?

What are our ‘users’ doing? In fact, they are not users, they are people. They might not even need documents at all. The problem is we look at everything as an incremental solution. We used Excel to capture project data, so therefore we should continue to use Excel, only now we should do it in the cloud! That way we can work on the one file, anywhere! Is this a better way of managing a document? Possibly. Is it a force for collaboration? No.

It doesn’t ask any of the deeper, more fundamental questions we need to ask. Why are we capturing data? Who do we need to share it with? What happens at the end? For a moment, let’s forget we ever had an Excel file, forget how we’ve historically worked, and start again. If we actually mapped out people’s interactions based on answers to those questions, we’d have an entirely different use case.

Collaboration as a goal

Another approach would see us having collaboration as a goal in its own right. However noble this is, it still won’t help. Collaboration is never an end goal in itself, it’s a means of achieving an end. Basing a use case purely around what we think collaboration is (or would like it to be) will still drive us towards incremental changes, such as:

  • To have multiple authorship at one time on a file
  • To target content to selected groups
  • To be able to comment on anything at any time just because we can

Again, we have to look a little deeper and understand why we are collaborating. What are we collaborating for? What is the end result for the customer? More important than trying to roll out the broadest, smartest tools that allow us to collaborate better is trying to understand how as people we collaborate. What will motivate us, what will stop us. Where is the link to business outcomes?

What about user stories?

User stories at least acknowledge the perspective of the end-user. However, we still constrain our thinking by the capabilities of the tool and what we expect of it rather than what the problem is that we are actually trying to solve. For example: “As a remote site worker I need to be able to access data logged by the previous shift to identify my tasks”. All sounds reasonable, but all we do is find ways to connect the user with the previous shift’s data. We’re not looking into the actual process of collaboration: who are these people, why do they need to access their data and what does this data tell them? It may be that we’re actually trying to facilitate a conversation between two shifts, but instead only capture data because that’s what we’ve always done.

Use cases and user stories both still drive us to look at previous habits, building on functional capability rather than looking for real opportunities to collaborate based on deeper, fundamental business needs.

It’s about the people

Collaboration is never going to be built on a set of use cases and user stories which too often allow the tools to be the driver of the outcomes. It’s a people thing. It’s what we do when we need to work together to solve a problem or create new solutions and fresh thinking. Understanding what our people are doing, and who they need to collaborate with to improve our work is where we should start. I have absolutely nothing against collaboration tools, in fact they are capable of awesome things when properly used. But we need to challenge our assumptions on why we are using them, on why we are using documents as our vehicle and not conversations, on why we are collaborating in the first place.

A great way to start is to imagine you don’t have any IT tools – to forget about how we’ve historically done things. All we have instead are some people, a place of work, some roles and some customers. Then apply the same projects. What can we do to exceed our clients’ expectations? What can we do to do things better than last time? How would we work? Who do we need to work with? Answering these questions will give us the real use cases we need for our collaboration tools.

Flattening hierarchies, creating more visibility to our work are what collaboration tools are capable of. The question is, how can we leverage this in our own unique situations, what will it achieve and what do we need to do to engage our people in this? If we jump to this more openly communicative world, we need to understand what it means to the way we work, and crucially how we feel.

What if our use cases addressed emotions rather than functions? “I feel confident to highlight a failure on our enterprise social tool”. Now we can actually start to address some of the issues that hold us up truly collaborating.

Making the case for digital commerce transformation

While traditional retail continues to suffer in North America, the outlook for digital is strong, revenue is expected to keep climbing, and many organizations are investing in digital around the path to purchase.

Budgets for digital commerce continue to rise and seven-figure projects are not entirely uncommon. As a result, organizations that are contemplating change are more likely than ever to require a formal business case to secure approval to proceed with a digital commerce transformation roadmap.

At a high-level, a business case is a pretty simple deliverable to generate. Subtract the known costs from the expected benefits associated with an investment over time, calculate for the net present value of money, and if the result is at least one dollar more than zero, the investment is sound. That said, the due diligence around how one arrives at the expected benefits is likely to be carefully scrutinized.

Thus, when preparing a cost/benefit analysis, it is necessary to ask repeatedly: How will this undertaking impact profitability, by increasing revenue, or decreasing cost? After years of helping clients traverse these daunting questions, I’ve got a few suggestions to share.

Decrease the cost of operations by cleaning up technical debt

Technical debt is a blanket term for the frustrating net result of years of maintaining an existing, on-premise digital infrastructure. Over time many short-term fixes are applied for reasons that made perfect sense at the moment but have baffled the team ever since. As the years go by problems continue to grow; more quick-fixes are applied, entangling systems and making it more difficult and costly to keep things running at even a minimally viable level of acceptability.

While all this technical debt causes plenty of individual headaches and lost productivity, it also has a very tangible impact on the organization’s ability to support a modern, connected, and cohesive customer experience. It also introduces friction to the process of maintaining the platform, reducing efficiency and increasing the cost of otherwise simple operations. Frankly, you can forget about trying anything new, when it’s necessary to call in the I.T. department to move one comma in a product description.

Replacing an outdated platform not only eliminates all the technical debt that’s dragging the team down, but it also frees them up to try new things more quickly and efficiently than ever before. Suddenly, experimenting with A/B tested promotions, personalized search, and automated lead nurturing will soar to the top of the priority list, providing lift across the metrics that create value for your customers and your organization.

Increase revenue by improving the online customer experience

An eCommerce replatform project is an ideal time to reconsider the digital customer experience. First, because you will be ‘under the hood,’ as we say in the US, it will be quite efficient to design and implement new templates. Besides, this gives the business team something to do while the engineers spin up the underlying infrastructure.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is necessary to make changes to the experience if

you’re planning to take advantage of many of the best new features and functionality available in the latest platforms.

By now, most digital pros know the most popular statistics about customer experience:

  • “Customer Experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by the year 2020.” – Walker
  • “70% of buying experiences are based on how the customer feels they are being treated.” – McKinsey
  • “72% of businesses say that improving the customer experience is their top priority.” – Forrester

While inspiring on their own, these factoids don’t say much regarding the hard benefits your organization can expect from making changes to the experience. More specifically, they don’t address the ways an organization can and will increase revenue.

For use in a business case, focus on the impact to revenue in a few, key areas. For instance, improvements to the digital customer experience can include leveraging the latest in practical applications of artificial intelligence to make personalized product recommendations to millions of customers shopping in real time. Automated personalization drove very lucrative, tangible results during the 2017 holiday shopping season and can be rolled-out far more efficiently than earlier, segment and persona-driven scenarios.

The other areas to focus on include increased average order value, conversion rate, and customer lifetime value. Simply put, if your current digital commerce experience is challenging to navigate, throws errors, and misses the opportunity to upsell and cross-sell, then improvements in these areas will naturally provide lift with revenue and conversion. If the current experience is bad enough, existing customers may try out your competitors. Nobody wants that (except your competitors).

Losing a customer is so much more damaging than the short-term loss of an individual sale. Naturally, when considered over the long term, the cost of switching must include friction on the average lifetime value of all customers in addition to all the lost opportunities to sell to that customer in the future. On the flip side, a customer who finds purchasing with you smooth or delightful will buy more, more frequently, and be more likely to recommend you to a friend.

For bonus points, try analyzing the impact an improving net promoter score has had on revenue for your organization in the past.

Wrapping it up

While traditional retail suffers and the outlook for online sales continues to rise, budgets for digital are increasing. As a result, it’s not uncommon for a digital commerce overhaul to cost millions and include milestones on a roadmap that takes months or years to complete, depending on how deep it goes.

The good news is there is a growing body of data that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a dollar invested in digital will show a positive return on investment that far exceeds the performance of the same invested in traditional, brick and mortar operations. With that knowledge in mind, the only question left is: How soon can we get started?

Cybersecurity: A top priority for the board in 2018

jake-dimareIn the US, cybersecurity has become a top priority for the board of directors. 2017 was one more in a string of years with increasingly alarming evidence that the organizations we trust with personal data have dropped the ball when it comes to cybersecurity. News of high-profile data breaches at Equifax, Uber, Yahoo, and the US SEC topped the headlines in what seemed like a year when no organization was safe from hacking, and any hope of privacy for consumers around the world has become a foolish naiveté.

Meanwhile, in just 4 months, this coming May, the highly anticipated EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) take effect. With fines as high as 4% of global revenue and extra-territorial enforcement, US organizations with customers in the EU are anxiously working on compliance plans that impact people, process, and technology, to avoid a violation.

The hard costs for a breach today are high and about to get much getting higher. It should come as no surprise that understanding cybersecurity is a top priority for boards in 2018. Whether your organization is currently making investments in digital transformation or not, there has never been a better time to think carefully about your strategy around cybersecurity and implement change as required.

Here are a few of the most common initiatives we at Luminos Labs are assisting our eCommerce clients with.

1) Accelerate the replacement of outdated technology

One of the most frequent and glaring issues I have encountered while assessing digital commerce tech ecosystems for mid-market and enterprise clients is cybersecurity risk created by excessive technical debt.

Whether your organization is handling eCommerce with a mesh of homegrown applications or an old vendor platform, the cost and complexity of maintaining these systems can often be overwhelming.

In 2017, the average cost of a data breach in North America was $1.3 million for enterprises and $117,000 for small and medium-sized businesses, according to a report from Kaspersky Lab. Meanwhile, the average annualized cost of cybersecurity has reached $11.7 million according to a report developed by Accenture. Now that cybersecurity is on the tip of every board member’s tongue, it’s an easy win to include the reduction of these costs and risks in a business case for new technology.

Organizations making investments in digital commerce are exceptionally well positioned to make meaningful, positive change in their cybersecurity profile. When considering changes to the technology underpinning the customer experience on the path-to-purchase, include cybersecurity requirements. These decision gates should be part of the process of selecting technology and ensure it’s a high priority capability for your digital commerce solution partner.

2) GDPR compliance is more secure

The cost of violating the GDPR are clearly driving much attention. Interestingly, a violation incurred as a result of technology that is outside of compliance is still the responsibility of the business leveraging the technology, whether it is on premise or, as noted above, a cloud-based platform.

A strategy that includes compliance with GDPR provisions such as privacy by design puts the organization in a better position for success in the short and long term.
It’s important to point out that all of the costs we’ve identified here are to the businesses, but personal data breaches also cost the most important people in any market: Our customers.

Besides all the legal considerations, protecting customers’ data is obviously just the right thing to do. It’s nothing less than what we expect for ourselves and our friends and families. There is much to do, but it’s incredibly valuable effort.

3) Ensure cybersecurity leaders understand the business

IT/Security must be in service of higher-order business goals and objectives, not an obstacle to them. Unfortunately, many organizations have fallen into the trap of allowing IT leaders within the organization to become reactive roadblocks to progress as opposed to proactive enablers of success. Although this damaging negativism can seriously impact the development of operations and products, it is reasonably easy to turn around. Above all else, it should not be acceptable for IT to stymie an initiative based solely on security concerns rooted in the current way of operating.

On the other hand, it’s critically important for IT/Security to be part of every conversation about the adoption of new technology. Under the GDPR, companies are accountable for a personal data breach, even when it’s information stolen from a cloud-based vendor platform.

Ideally, IT/security executives work best when they are included in the conversation in much the same manner as a CFO: Early and often.

They should attend board meetings when security is on the agenda and be given the opportunity to present a strategy to support the organization’s priorities. Conversations rooted in the possible should be encouraged. Conversations that sound like: “We can’t accomplish A because of B security risks,” should be replaced with: “It will take X to accomplish Y with appropriate attention to the relevant cybersecurity risks.”

If cybersecurity is part of the discussion of all new products and services it will naturally follow that the relevant personnel are included in the conversation when there’s enough time to plan accordingly.

4) Engender a culture of cybersecurity

Keeping vital data assets safe demands much more than merely installing antivirus software and hardening networks. Social engineering cost businesses $1.6 billion between 2013 and 2016 and phishing attacks cost the average large company $3.6 million a year. Create and nurture a culture of security to reduce these costs and risks.

To do so, continually communicate the importance of security. Educate teams on the evolving nature of the threat and hold contests to normalize and incentivize best practices. Empower frontline ownership of security while putting the top-down guardrails in place to keep colleagues safe.

A culture of cybersecurity will not be surprised or confused about routine security assessments and necessary updates. Teams should participate in upfront planning for incidents and have identified and defined roles during a crisis. Conduct exercises to simulate the causes and conditions of a breach and practice the response.

Unpacking the 2017 US Holiday Shopping Weekend

During my keynote presentation at the J. Boye 17 Aarhus conference, I shared my thoughts about how slow adoption of digital has catalyzed what analysts and the press refer to as the Retail Apocalypse in the US.

Since 2006, thousands of physical stores have been affected by this slow-motion train wreck, including 6800 closures in the first three quarters of 2017. The eight publicly traded department stores carry $28 billion in debt Incredibly, 50% of the 1,200 shopping malls in the US are expected to close by 2023.
Analysts are still debating the exact nature of the problem, but few disagree that changing consumer behavior around digital commerce and the onerous debt associated with maintaining brick and mortar retail locations are primary factors.

After my week at the J. Boye conference in Denmark, my research on this topic lead me to wonder, what impact will the 2017 Holiday shopping season have? And what can we learn from those results? To find some answers I took a deep dive on shopping data from Thanksgiving (November 23rd, 2017) to Cyber Monday (November 27th, 2017) when 20% of all holiday shopping typically occurs in the US.

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Exploring the data

Interestingly, this year the biggest story was not brick and mortar vs. digital commerce, but rather the impressive growth of sales via smartphone. Another unexpected learning was the exceptional amount of revenue driven by AI-powered product recommendation engines.

According to RetailNext Inc., the number of people visiting stores on Black Friday fell 4% year over year. RetailDive.com reports total in-store sales for the entire weekend was also down. In total, 137 million people went to stores over the four-day Black Friday weekend.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) reported that more than 174 million Americans shopped from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, beating their prediction of 164 million consumers. The NRF also says that 33% of Thanksgiving weekend shoppers participated online only while just under 40% shopped both in-store and online. Roughly just 25% of weekend shoppers went to a physical store exclusively.

However, online sales were nothing less than impressive. According to Adobe Digital Insights, Cyber Monday set the record for the most significant online shopping day in history, with $6.59 billion in sales in the US. That’s a $1 billion year-over-year increase for same day sales.

Mobile also had a record-breaking Cyber Monday. Smartphones and tablets drove $2 billion of the total online retail sales. 47% of visits to retail sites on Cyber Monday happened on mobile devices and accounted for 33% of revenue.

According to that same research, online sales from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday (Nov. 23 through 27) clocked in at just under $20 billion, up 15.2% YoY. Mobile was a key driver in that growth, representing 33.1% of online revenue.
Shopify reports that 500,000 merchants sold over $1 billion during the Black Friday to Cyber Monday weekend. Incredibly, mobile sales for the merchants they tracked represented 64 percent of overall digital commerce revenue.
“At the peak, Shopify merchants also generated more than $1 million of transactions in just one minute,” says Shopify in its release covering the Black Friday-Cyber Monday shopping period.

In other news, Salesforce tracked the impact of Artificial Intelligence enabled shopping on Cyber Monday. They report that 5% of shoppers who engaged with personalized product recommendations driven by AI-powered technology accounted for a whopping 24% of Cyber Monday’s total online revenue.

Who were the winners and losers?

No surprise, Amazon was a winner after they dominated with nearly 33% of online sales on Cyber Monday. Target, captured 6.4% of sales, making them the not-so-close first runner-up. Amazon also got a jump on things this year with their 50 days of Black Friday promotion. Amazon’s stock is up more than 60% this year to above $1,200.

Walmart was also a winner, a clear leader in brick and mortar sales and a healthy online operation with Jet.com. Over Black Friday weekend Amazon and Walmart increased their combined market share by 1.5%. Walmart’s shares have soared 40% to a near record high of $100 thanks to robust growth in its online commerce operations.

The most prominent losers were, no surprise, the traditional department stores. Already in distress, organizations including Macy’s just could not afford a weak showing with in-store sales. Macy’s stuck to their strategy of deep discounts to attract customers to their stores. While this may be appealing to their dwindling base, it is apparently doing nothing to attract new customers to the store.

Retailers with poorly performing digital commerce infrastructure were also big losers this year. Macy’s and Lowe’s experienced significant slowdowns in transaction handling which required hours to resolve. Lowe’s entire e-commerce website crashed for 20 minutes on Black Friday. The Gap and H&M also dealt with performance issues throughout the weekend.

At this point, it’s unforgivable for an organization like Macy’s to deliver a weak digital commerce experience, given how desperate they are. Macy’s stock has fallen over 40% in 2017 and they have recently announced hundreds of new store closures

Unpack what this means for brands

Based on what I’ve learned this year, I think it’s fair to say working e-commerce infrastructure is, as we say in the US, table-stakes. In other words, it is the minimum expected level of effort necessary to be taken seriously by customers today. And, to be effective, minimally viable infrastructure must be capable of supporting traffic spikes. Particularly predictable traffic spikes during events such as Black Friday weekend. It is no longer acceptable to claim overwhelming inbound traffic is a valid excuse for performance issues.

Beyond infrastructure, this year’s data also indicates that customer expectations have moved well beyond simple e-commerce websites. Digital commerce is more than just the latest buzzword; it references the need to meet customers with the right products on whatever device they may be using when they are ready to make purchases.

Digital Commerce is websites, mobile, and conversational interfaces like Alexa. But it’s also personalized product recommendations driven by AI-powered technology.

Based on all this data I feel very comfortable proclaiming that the days of relying upon home-rolled solutions for digital commerce are quickly receding. If your organization does not have professionally built and maintained platforms which offer scale, integration, and personalization as core features, it’s time to start thinking about making changes to your technology ecosystem.

At the J. Boye conference, I talked about the criticality of accelerating digital transformation initiatives in-motion. We discussed embracing digital and all of its challenges and opportunities. This year, I believe it’s time to make a New Year’s resolution for the organizations we all serve. To finally get out ahead of the curve and be the very best digitally enabled businesses we can be.