Jul 19 2011

A vision with legs – that grows

Published by at 8:26 pm under business models,Technology

Photo: WhiteHorse.com "The Future of In-Aisle Mobile, A Framework for Consumer-Centered Innovation"

This post gathers the #chifoo Twitter feed from a presentation by Will Reese (@willreese) at CHIFOO on July 13, 2011.  Both Robert Hughes (@rlhughesPNW) and I (@smithjd) were posting during the session.  I’ve been thinking about whether or how tweets during a talk or a conference can serve as a first draft of a report, so I’m appending a lightly cleaned up Twitter feed with some of the text highlighted.  First thing I’ve noticed in moving from one medium to the other is probably obvious: tweets are about what makes sense at the moment, so you don’t have to pay too much attention to how they build or where they lead; writing up notes like this requires more reflection, decisions about what to summarize, what context to supply, and what commentary to offer.  The bottom line is that Tweets can be a good memory jogger, but a “report” that you might want to read is another story.  It’s when you think about those raw and funky Tweets, though, that you come up with another story.

Reese talked about the “digital futures” group that he leads at White Horse (whitehorse.com), a small, 31-year-old digital marketing agency that wants to be big and that he joined within the last year or so.  He thinks of the group as altering “the underlying DNA of the company.”  I’m usually pretty skeptical when Organization Development folks talk about transformation culture, but his talk convinced me that as an anthropologist, Reese might actually know what he’s talking about.

Start with “vision,” an overused metaphor, but certainly a key ingredient in significant organizational change.  Reese talked about how vision starts as a vague and intuitive direction, where you try to get everyone to progressively move “over there,” and “in that direction.”  Vision then can be used as a framework that’s useful for making sense of experience or evidence. If the experience and evidence changes the vision, it’s all to the good.  (Partly because Reese is a PhD anthropologist and partly because I’m buried in Jean Lave’s new book, I thought that the way Reese talked about vision sounded an awful lot like “a theory” and I kept getting the feeling that the “change in DNA was about getting “theory/vision” and “field work” to to feed each other and so evolve together.)  With a vision, creating a new design capability involves thinking through the company’s brand character, working towards a new model of competition, company character, ideal customers (a cluster of change agents in a company), ideal customer’s customers (initially digital colonists & the consumer innovators but ultimately mainstream consumers).  Vision has legs and consequences, in other words.  And in the learning jargon, it’s situated.

The vision development process wasn’t only based on looking at internal character or capability, nor at client needs.  It needed to take account of current technology environment, so the group could concentrate its service development and research in one sector of the technology landscape.  They settled on mobile technologies because of their immediacy, intimacy, and ubiquity. Even though White Horse has a long history and considerable expertise in developing websites, mobile seems like the direction of future development.  To develop a business in that area, they’d have to develop deep expertise and unique knowledge of people’s experience of the technology – in order to ask disruptive questions such as, “Why not just give up on that big honkin corporate website?”  As if to say,  “You’re investing way too much in that website and you can’t differentiate because everybody already has one.”  [My words for what he was implying, not really his.]   I think it was clear that the digital futures vision was fundamentally questioning the existing White Horse business.

Within the mobile technologies area, the digital futures group narrowed its focus down to mobile geo-location apps.  In the current marketplace, these apps seem most connected with social apps like Four Square. They looked at adoption patterns with a survey and respondents contacted through Mechanical Turk.   They concluded that even if the technology is cool, general adoption was a long way off, with general awareness of the technology being more of a barrier than age (e.g., those who do adopt mobile social geo-location apps are not just the young).

So rather than working on generalized geo-location smartphone apps, they decided to look at specific environments where mobile geo-location apps might be used or useful.  What do all the mobile apps out there have to do, say, with specific environments like stores, convention centers, or schools?  How can such environments work better with mobile apps or leverage the resources that mobile apps can bring?  Eventually, the digital futures group began looking at “in-aisle mobile retail.”  An example of this is how Best Buy now provides QR codes next to products so you can look up product reviews and other online resources as you shop. Many brick and mortar stores see themselves serving as showrooms for online vendors who end up making the sale because they can offer a lower price.  So it’s a bit counter-intuitive for a brick and mortar store to encourage people to comparison-shop right there in the store’s aisles.   Reese argued that digital comparison shopping was going to happen anyway, so shaping the environment, supporting the interaction, and providing specific resources that could bring together the many separate information silos that are out there might be a business opportunity. What opportunities do people using in-store apps offer to retailers?  The digital futures group is exploring “supported shopping” where sales staff help you with your smart phone—making it do stuff that customers want to do done or are going to do eventually anyway. (“The Future of In-Aisle Mobile, A Framework for Consumer-Centered Innovation” – downloadable at http://whitehorse.com/resources/ makes for some interesting reading.) In the CHIFOO conversation we imagined people scanning a QR code about quinoa, say, with their smart phone at Whole Foods – to get nutritional information, look up recipes, find out where it comes from, etc.

What impressed me about the work that Reese and his digital futures group are doing is that there is a creative iteration between a theory (e.g., a vision) and observed on-the-ground behaviors, tools, sources of data, and commercial opportunities. Each produces the other. If we’re very good – or lucky.

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