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  • Athina Mallis

What it takes to accelerate digital innovation - expert insights revealed

The recent global crisis has accelerated innovation and forced us to evolve digitally, says Nicola Millard, Principal Innovation Partner and Enterprise CTIO of BT, the UK’s largest telecommunications network. A world-renowned speaker, author and presenter, Nicola recently spoke with Target Market podcast host Athina Mallis and shared her deep insights into how innovation can drive exceptional customer experiences, impact our health outcomes and transform our new ways of working.

Nicola, it’s no doubt been an exceptionally challenging year for you in the UK, do you think the pandemic has put even greater pressure on your industry to innovate?

I don't think it's just our industry, it's whenever you look at crises you find innovation comes out at the back of them. I'm very fortunate, I work for our innovation team in BT and I get to talk to our innovation ecosystem. Basically, it's a whole lot of really cool people, often in academia and also within our partners and own researchers.

We have a large body of researchers at BT and I've been asking some of the economists and our academic partners what happens after a crisis. There is an emphasis around you can't just cut yourself out of a crisis. There is a lot of 'pivoting' going on. 'Pivot' is probably one of the words of 2020 in terms of organisations having to reinvent their business models and sometimes reinvent their own industry in order to survive.

We should never 'waste' a good crisis. Innovation does come out of a crisis and we are seeing a lot of it in the market. As a telecom company, we like to think we are helping people in terms of making sure people can work during these really exceptional times.

In any ways, we are being recognised as an emergency service. In terms of us, the pressure is on, in terms of making sure our infrastructure can stand up to thousands of simultaneous video calls and obviously big games launches as well. We've got quite a lot of activity on our network and it's certainly risen to the challenge.

Can you share any good news stories about recent projects you’ve worked on that have helped unlock exceptional customer experiences through innovation?

One of the things a crisis does is accelerate innovation, certainly digital innovation. I often say 'I'm the psychologist in the innovation team.' I've always claimed that people are the most disruptive part of innovation, it's not necessarily the technology. Unless we adopt it and embrace it, it really doesn't work. When we look at some of the digital innovations that are really accelerating during this crisis, they were there before the crisis.

In a way, it's a 'good time' to have a pandemic at the moment - if there is ever a 'good time' - because we have this collision of exciting technologies. We have cloud, video conferencing, connectivity - whether it's broadband, Wi-Fi, 4G or 5G.

One of the things we stated before the pandemic, which I think is exciting, is certainly around remote work. People who are out there with customers have a better way of collaborating with other remote people using things like VR and AR. A great example of this is our 5G ambulance. We've got a paramedic in Birmingham, in the midlands he's wearing an AR headset. Using 5G and augmented reality, we are beaming real-time high-def video straight back to a medic in a hospital and she is wearing a VR headset.

The medic can see through the 'paramedic's eyes' - and there's even more. The paramedic and medic are wearing a glove, so the medic can feel what the paramedic is feeling. The idea is to use technologies like 5G, which provides the kind of underpinning digital fabric for these activities - to change the nature of what the paramedic can do with the patients.

It expands the number of things a paramedic can do. Hopefully, it also reduces hospital admissions and handover time. So if we do have to admit, the medic is already up to speed with the case. I guess it is a customer experience, a slightly 'weird' customer experience.

We were getting cultural pushback prior to the pandemic, certainly from some of the medics who said, 'I'd like to be in the room with the patient'. Now their attitudes have somewhat changed and now they're saying they don't really want to be in the room with the patient but 'give me a richer collaboration experience'.

We are now looking at extending that. You can do remote diagnostics with our engineers for example. We've been doing a lot using a customer's smartphone. With the customer's permission, we can take control of the camera and even the light on the smartphone. If there is a broadband fault, for example, we can start to look at what has been plugged in, we can use pattern recognition and AI. A lot of this is standard cabling and standard sockets, so we can auto label things using pattern recognition for the benefit of the remote engineer as well as the customer.

From a customer experience perspective, we don't have to send an engineer so the customer doesn't have to wait for 2-3 weeks to get an engineer, only for the engineer to only say 'yes you have the wrong thing plugged in'.

It's a better experience for the customer, certainly during the pandemic. We don't really want to send engineers into customer's houses because customers don't want us in their houses. There is lots of stuff we can do, ranging from medical information, engineering diagnostics to even remote crane inspections. There are all sorts of things we can do by just harnessing a number of technologies that are starting to come together like AI, the cloud, like AR.

Looking at 2021, what excites you most about the convergence of digital innovation and customer experience?

It's not about the technologies alone, one of the things I try to do is to step back and say 'how does this improve the employee experience and the customer experience?' Because the two are very interlocked. Our view is that we have this digital fabric of the network, how do we weave in a whole load of technologies? Things like AI - there is a lot of hype about AI at the moment.

There is also some disappointment as well in terms of deployment of chatbots. We regularly do global customer surveys. In our 2017 survey, 73% thought chatbots were going to radically improve the customer experience. The digital deployment of bots has gone pretty crazy over the past year, certainly in terms of trying to just manage the volumes of communication activities like contact centres. The trouble is there are some brilliant bots out there, but some of those bots are just fairly awful. As a result of that experience, we've seen it drop. In the survey we published in February 2020, only 58% of customers thought bots were going to radically improve the customer experience.

We are about to do this survey again, we normally do it every two years but again, we are just seeing some acceleration of digital adoption amongst customers. Generally, we are seeing some exciting technologies come together for the benefit of customer experience and I think it's going to be accelerated by the pandemic.

We all know great innovation starts with exceptional leadership, what do you think are the key qualities of a great digital innovation leader?

I'm in an innovation team and we debate this an awful lot because innovation teams often have a slightly different way of leading. The first thing for innovation to happen is you need to take some risks. Leadership and innovation need to not be afraid to fail and for some leaders, that is quite an uncomfortable place to be. Failure and innovation actually go hand in hand. To be honest, having been in innovation for a very long time, the biggest sin is not learning from that failure. If it just fails and you go "that didn't work did it?" That's not the best thing to do, it's really around what did happen, what actually showed promise, could this work if we did this.

At the moment, we are almost in a global remote working experiment, aren't we? That's exciting within itself. I'm getting data on a daily basis on what is working, around remote work. What's almost working is where the innovation often sits, so let's do what is actually working. Things like working from home are suitable for a large percentage of organisations, but not everybody can work from home.

So how do we be creative if we can't bring people into offices? What are the things can we do? Or do we bring them into offices? It's just that offices are a bit weird - certainly in the UK given we are in a lockdown. How do we develop much richer collaboration tools to help people who are maybe struggling or feeling isolated? Experimentation is also a very good quality in an innovation leader.

Final thoughts - what’s a commonly held belief in digital innovation strategy that you passionately disagree with?

I passionately disagree with the fact that digital innovation strategy necessarily has to do with digital. I would say this because I am a psychologist in an innovation team. Those tools do enable us to work in very different ways, but we do need to think about what those tools do for us. 'Digital' is an interesting one - I work in the future of work so a lot of the stuff I get involved with is digital transformation strategies and digital workplace strategies.

I work across multiple sectors as well, I tend to work with our large global corporations, our UK corporates and the public sector. You ask them what is a digital workplace, and you get completely different answers depending on who you talk to. The HR guys will give you one answer, the IT guys will give you another, the property guys will talk about offices a lot. Ultimately, that's interesting but I like to step back and go 'alright we've got a ton of technology we could throw into the workplace - but what do you want to achieve?'

We've just published a global survey to ask business leaders around the world 'what do you want from a digital workplace strategy?' There are three things. One is very obvious, improving productivity. If we are going to reinvent the ways that we work, we need to reinvent those ways to make us more rather than less productive.

The second priority is customer experience. Again, if we're going to reinvent digital customer experiences, let's make them better. Let's make them very customer orientated. That's about people, not necessarily technology. It's about really understanding what your customers are thinking. Particularly, how do we make things a lot easier for customers? If you're going to put a digital channel in, for example, customers are not going to use it if it makes their life more difficult.

The third strategy that has become very important over the past seven or eight months, is to support remote work. It was in the top 10 and obviously that one has gone up in priority recently. That's really about trying to understand business objectives, because just throwing technology is not necessarily going to solve a problem. We need to fundamentally understand the business drivers behind the digital strategies in order to get the right technologies to underpin them.

When it comes to leveraging digital innovation to drive better CX, what should innovation leaders START doing?

Again whenever the topic of innovation comes up, you do have to think, will this make my life easier or not? Is it going to improve my productivity or not? Is it going to improve the customer experience or not?

It is also about trying to step back and understand really what the business priorities are. Particularly when you get into very hyped technologies like AI - there is a lot of hype and not a huge amount of understanding around where AI could really help.

AI was supposed to be the thing that was going to change the future of work radically but in reality, it's something a lot smaller and a lot more microbial, that has disrupted workplaces. AI hasn't gone away, it's a case of understanding where it can help customers. There is a lot of mileage around discussing what I call a "me-conomy".

This is because AI doesn't work by magic, it works by data. A lot of that data is my data as a customer - what can I do in order to make customer's lives easier by using their data? The first thing I can do is personalise the experience. I can use that data to understand the customer and to start to mediate choices. Hopefully, the choices I put in front of the customer don't confuse the customer, don't overwhelm the customer but are relevant to the customer. That's the first step.

The second step is to become a little bit more proactive with customers. This means telling them things they likely want to know, when they want to know it and via the right channel. That's really a game trying to learn about choices and preferences. Understand what the messages are that customers might want to know.

Generally, we get a big thumbs up from both personalisation and proactive contacts. To be honest from a customer experience perspective, that's really around managing demand outwards rather than inwards. Don't make me call you, tell me what the problem is before I have to contact you. Of course, we are getting into the era of Internet of Things and smart everything so it's really around trying to understand how we can use data to improve that customer experience and the employee experience.

Once we've done the personalised, the proactive, we can get into the 'creepy' stuff, the predictive. This is of course when our algorithms kick in but that can also get a bit creepy. If things get a bit creepy, if I know more about you than you know about you, I'm more liable to say you can't have my data anymore. This is a me-conomy. I'm trading my data for something back. Hopefully that 'something back' is a better experience, an easier experience. That's one significant thing to consider: that intersection between AI and CX.

Listen to the full podcast here.

Target Market, a podcast series by AZK Media, where the world’s most premium thought leaders across technology, marketing and data come together to share their insights. Hosted by Athina Mallis.


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