Tim Bardell is Head of Consulting, NTT DATA UK. Here he focuses on how technology and digital transformation are fundamentally reshaping our business relationships and creating a need for enterprises to rethink how they approach relationships at every level of their business – from their customers, to suppliers and society more generally.
At the end of last year, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimated that, at the end of 2018, 51.2% of the human race was online. Across the world, this new state of play is reconfiguring our relationships – with governments, with businesses and with each other.
Whether peer-to-peer, business-to-consumer or business-to-business, just 200 years ago relationships were hyper-local and exclusively based on a personal knowledge of the person you were interacting with. However, with the growth of legal protection and contracts, as well as through industrialisation and urbanisation, knowing the person that you were doing business with became both less necessary and less manageable.
With the advent of CRM and database marketing software in the 1980s, businesses began to recognise the potential for technology to create more personal relationships with customers. Ultimately, though, the thinking was ahead of the technology and these solutions fell short of the promise. In the 2000s, Amazon reanimated this idea with a business built on the concept that ‘if I know you better, I can sell you more’. However, who among us feels that they have a personal relationship with Amazon?
Fast forward to the present day and anyone with an idea or a product to sell can instantly reach 3.5 billion people. This immense scale brings new opportunities, but it also means that businesses increasingly want to create more personal relationships with their customers. So, how do organisations learn from these examples and strike a balance between reaching the right people at scale, while building long-term and meaningful business relationships?
Relationships in flux
With appropriate application of technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, big data, social listening and sentiment analysis – plus the requisite GDPR permissions – it is now possible to have a personal relationship with each and every customer, supplier and even the wider society.
However, the power of technology to reshape relationships also raises new questions. What are the new social norms when it comes to data usage? How should we behave when businesses and customers have digitally-enabled relationships? How do you avoid being manipulative, creepy or exploitative?
In reality, we don’t yet know the answer to all of these questions and the new ‘rules of engagement’ need to be agreed on. While cases like Cambridge Analytica represent a breakdown in those guidelines, the changing relationships between businesses and people or between the technologies that power commerce and society need to be acknowledged.
Working for the long-term
To help us find answers to the questions that technology poses, it is important to also think about the qualities we value in our relationships.
Japanese philosophy teaches that relationships mean nothing without long-term commitment. Numerous Japanese proverbs highlight the value of tenacity, perseverance and an appreciation of the long-term, but one of my favourites is “Three years sitting on a rock”. The legend behind the saying is that three years are needed for the rock to eventually become warm, telling us that success may not be instantaneous and that big commitments are required to achieve our goals.
This is a mentality that is still visible in Japanese culture today. For example, with its Vision Fund, SoftBank has declared that it is thinking about its future as a business, its investments and its partnerships over the next 300 years. In comparison, most Western companies may be only thinking about the next five years, or even as short-term as the next quarter.
Even in our own business, we appreciate that there are times that our customers and partners may not need us – and that’s fine. We know that, further down the line, there will be projects where our interests overlap once again.
Finding the answers
In order to avoid the pitfalls of being overly exploitative and invasive, businesses must prove themselves to be committed to their customers, suppliers and people for the long-term. At the same time, it is essential to prioritise building and earning trust, creating lines of communication and engagement, and demonstrating transparency.
These same business leaders must regularly ask themselves “what can we do to demonstrate the commitment to build, grow and develop long-term relationships that will have a positive impact on our businesses and shape new social norms?”
To develop the next version of our society, it is important to be prepared to innovate with business models, technology, organisational structures and relationships. By opening this conversation, everyone can create a new path for the future together.
Tim Bardell, Head of Consulting, NTT DATA UK
As the lead for design, technology and business consultancy, Tim’s focus is guiding organisations through change to drive business value.
He is driven by the opportunity to make lasting change happen for his clients, their teams and their customers. As such, he believes that putting people at the heart of business transformation is the key to success. This includes creating a working culture at NTT DATA that allows our own consultants to thrive.
A huge advocate for fairness, equality and opportunity for all; he is an active member of NTT DATA UK’s Diversity & Inclusion steering committee and proud to be the sponsor of the company’s LGBT forum.