Head in the cloud

by admin on August 5, 2011



Peter Williams Photo: Eddie Jim

WHO Peter Williams, a leader in harnessing computing and social media
WHAT The greatest risk is to fail to realise there is a revolution going on
HOW Get your head in the cloud and your staff in the conversation

THE explosion in the use of social media, supercharged by mobile computing and a newfound abundance of data and knowledge, poses a profound risk to organisations large and small.

The risk is not that it allows disgruntled customers and others to publish criticism that can go viral terrifyingly fast. Nor is it that social media might threaten their revenue and market share or undermine managers’ power and authority. The risk is businesses will languish. For leaders, it is that they will squander opportunity to the point of presiding over decline and even demise.

The phenomenal, sustained surge in platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube generates a compelling chance for companies and other outfits to reduce costs, power productivity, foster creativity and innovation, recruit the best and brightest, deliver services and engage staff, markets and audiences.

It is a commercial and cultural revolution, and it’s being fuelled by mobile devices, cloud computing, crowd sourcing and an unheralded and unprecedented ability to mine and manipulate data.

Any board of directors or group of managers who are not moving fast to understand and harness these changes is abrogating their responsibility to deliver leadership and governance. Staff and shareholders in lagging organisations ought to be aghast.

One of Australia’s technology titans is here in The Zone to help explain and map the new terrain. Peter Williams, CEO of Deloitte Digital, grasped the implications of the internet as long ago as 1993, and has been engineering change ever since.

”This is bigger than the dotcom boom. I have never seen anything like social media … There is a massive social shift going on here. It can be scary, but my sense is that if you don’t embrace change, and understand how you can leverage it, you will just fall behind.

”It’s the fastest pace of technological change we have ever seen. And those changes in technology and the changes in society are both driving each other. And the next thing is obviously the mobile revolution. It is as exciting a time as I have ever seen in technology.”

There are four primary, interlinked elements to the changes technology is delivering: social media; cloud computing; mobile devices – tablets and smart phones; and data. Williams discusses them in detail in our interview, the full transcript of which is at www.theage.com.au/opinion/the-zone.

Cloud computing allows people to use applications, business and social, through the internet, rather than having to install software and hardware in their own workplaces. Many people use cloud computing without realising they are so doing; everyone who uses Google mail or Hotmail is using the cloud, for example.

The cloud is providing commercial opportunities. ”It gives you the capacity to avoid the cost spike that has been traditionally involved with large computer deployments … You have not made a massive investment and hope like hell that it is going to pay a return …

”For most businesses, and for small businesses, I’d love to see them jump on this stuff because it’s cheap, it’s fast, and it works. And we are seeing a lot more big businesses starting to leverage it.”

When combined with social media, these sorts of tools create new ways to improve your business. ”Whatever technology you are running should have social in it. I run an online accounting system which has got social in it – people can be invited in to look at the numbers and discuss and all that stuff, as opposed to being just a dumb set of static numbers.

”Now we can say, ‘Let’s animate that data, let’s talk about it.’ Your accountant can come in and review your numbers and say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on in each month,’ and give you some ideas, as opposed to the old model of transporting the data once a year to do a tax return.”

Data is everywhere, and can now be captured and manipulated and explored to create insights and opportunities. Combined with social media, it has led to some fascinating breakthroughs.

”There is a great Melbourne start-up called Kaggle, which runs data competitions, and recently they appeared on the White House blog because in the US, NASA and the Royal Astronomical Society ran a data competition on mapping dark matter.

”They had been working on this for 50 years with some of the greatest minds in human history, and some 35-year-old glaciologist solved it in a week. And so one of the greatest scientific challenges, by crowd sourcing and making it open and leveraging data, was solved. Bang. There is a guy out there who knows how to do it, it’s just you never ask the right person.”

There can be big savings involved in the cost of recruitment. Peter Williams no longer uses traditional sourcing; he simply sends out a call via Twitter, or alerts his teams using the internal (free from the cloud) social media tool Yammer (see link below), which has been voluntarily adopted by as many as 4000 of Deloitte’s 4500 staff.

”I remember one I tweeted, where I needed a BlackBerry developer, one preferably with a risk-management background, for an app we were building. About half an hour later, I got an answer back from a guy in Deloitte South Africa, who said there is a guy who married a Melbourne girl and who landed there yesterday permanently. He started working for me on Monday. There was no recruitment cost and the speed with which it happened was only days.”

Williams despairs at the managers who use the hackneyed idea that ”our staff is our greatest asset” but then block their staff from using social media. Instead, enlightened leaders encourage communication, the wholesale sharing of ideas. Deloitte’s CEO, Williams’s boss, is an avid user of Yammer, regularly participating in conversations with graduate recruits. There is no hierarchy in social media.

It is also providing companies with what Williams describes as a risk-mitigation tool. ”Before things hit the front page of The Age, they are bubbling away on social media. If you are monitoring what is being said about you, you have at least got a bit of an early warning system.”

Williams says the most enlightened chief executive he has counselled is Carlton Football Club’s Greg Swan. ”He just rang me up and said, ‘Look, I do not really understand this stuff but I know it is huge. Can you come and help us out?’ And their level of fan engagement over the last eight months or so has just gone through the roof.”

Many organisations have started using social media for customer support, including Telstra, Optus, Commonwealth Bank, Vodafone and Australia Post.

”They have all got teams now, and people are sitting on hold with a call centre and tweeting about how annoyed they are that I am still waiting and then some Twitter person at the call centre goes, ‘Hey what is the problem, can I help you?’ And then there is a Twitter conversation and they say, ‘This is what you do, and you link there,, and the next thing you know, the person becomes an advocate.”

But these companies are in the minority. Williams says the default position of most organisations is still to resist the use of social media in the workplace.

”Those organisations that are going to thrive in the future are those that are agile and well connected. The more rigid and hierarchical you are, you will go the way of our friends in Egypt. Anyone wanting a highly rigid hierarchy or to be in a controlling position will find himself increasingly under threat from active social networks.”

Clearly, organisations should be exploring the ways they might leverage these new tools. Social media is not frivolous. It is not a fad. It should perhaps be thought of not as social media but as social business.

As Williams puts it: ”Leaders either see the light – or feel the heat.”






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