In the final Bristol Distinguished Address Speaker Series of the 2018/2019 programme, attendees to the University of the West of England heard from Laura Wade-Gery, non-executive director at John Lewis, British Land, and NHSI, where she discussed the rise of human and digital interaction in modern business.
Hosted at the Bristol Business School’s amphitheatre, the audience heard about Laura’s personal history of digital transformation within retail at Tesco and then M&S, as well as her history in the health service.
Within her lecture, titled ‘Human and digital – the challenges and power of harnessing both’, Laura talked about how human and digital interaction has impacted upon all sectors of the economy, and that we are only in the foothills of the current digital revolution.
With the rise of new digital technologies such as AI and Big Data, the need to highlight the human experience within retail and further sectors is key to future business throughout the world.
Our changing world
Laura opened her lecture by talking about how many small changes and advancements in tech have changed the world of human capabilities.
Combining human and digital has evolved rapidly in recent years, where it has become the most prominent part of a leaders mindset when looking at all areas of a company.
Laura talked about how education needs to change to prepare future generations for the world of tomorrow. Today’s practices will not work in the future, and businesses and education will need to adapt.
Some people within the world of business feel they have been left behind by increasing levels of the ‘digital economies influence’ of how a company should be run. This again highlights the need for education and training to increase in order for businesses to increase the use of human and digital crossover.
Businesses need to work to overcome any challenges new tech provides the modern worker so that the new amount of knowledge and understanding can be taken advantage of.
Laura explains: “The digital revolution and the accompanying explosion in the quantity of data being created is the reality of the modern world today. There has been a rapid scale of speed a change within the business.”
Rapid expansion of the internet
Internet connection speed has become vital to all areas of business.
Over the last 15 years, the internet itself has changed beyond recognition – as more and more people become connected. The scale of data has grown exponentially – and will continue to do so.
However, as rapidly as tech and the internet has changed, people haven’t changed.
Laura believes that the internet has changed the human psyche to become more adept to embracing and using tech, rather than our own thoughts – as we have seen in the shortening of attention spans and the ability to innovate without the use of a computer.
Laura continued: “A human mind which hasn’t changed a lot for millennia, now has to deal with rapidly evolving technology. This is something that we are now starting to address.”
Dawn of Big Data
During Laura’s career in retail, she was at the forefront of the original UK e-commerce department at Tesco, back in 1997.
It went from being a small part of the business to today having up to 90% of an influence on what a shopper buys day-to-day at their local supermarket.
As Laura explains: “This is an enormous shift, in an incredibly short amount of time. It is one of the areas of British digital development does now lead the world in the retail sector. The UK, China and South Korea, now have the highest level of penetration through e-commerce. Digital is making money go further.”
Embracing digital across all sectors is becoming ever more important if a business wishes to remain ahead of its competition.
Through her roles as a non-executive director, all of which operate within different sectors, but have a foothold in retail – Laura has seen a constant evolution of technology. This has meant that these businesses have had to adapt their process in order to incorporate the latest technology in order to continue to grow as a company.
Laura explains: “Wherever you work or will work, it is clear that we are just in the foothills of that new landscape.”
Creating value through digitisation
Bringing together human and digital can obviously improve the value and success of a business – but how is this achieved?
Laura commented: “Whatever the combination of digital and human, the single most important factor is whether the customer and user is the most predominant focus or not. I firmly believe that if you start with the customer and design your proposition around them, you then have the best chance of being successful in the long run.
“Digital has brought a new sharp edge to business. Any website will be designed in a user-friendly way – this means that business can now be more direct and tackle the retail side of business head on.”
Gov.uk was an initial government idea to help businesses deal with the ever-growing list of difficulties that a tech revolution provides.
Laura firmly believes that this was a stroke of genius to help companies of all sizes in this country, and part of why the UK is now so more advanced in the world of human and digital integration.
She continued: “We should honour the relationship between a human and their data. Those using that data have a big responsibility that the provider of data, does knowingly allow the use of that data. A customer must know what their data is being used for.”
In a world of GDPR, the legal ramifications have given a clearer basis on how a business should be run.
In the world of online transactions, and rewards schemes, building trust is vital to succeeding. Customers will not remain customers if their digital details are used and abused by a company.
Points schemes at shops are an exchange of data for ‘money’. This has become commonplace in retail.
Laura believes that in order to harness this information correctly, a clear framework on how data is used must be made public, with a clear corporate structure that customers can see what is done with data even if they are not interested.
The ability to block adverts is just one small process that can help customers build that digital trust, for example.
Making the customer feel that a business is safeguarding their digital confidentiality can go a long way.
This can be done through public consultation – making yourself be a friendly and understanding face, that people will want to share their information with.
Without correct and updated data, a business will not be able to advance during a rapidly changing tech world.
This is why Laura believes that businesses should always be looking at ‘How best to engage with customers’.
Accelerating adoption of digitisation
Businesses in some areas of the economy have been slow in the uptake in the acceptance of digitisation.
One way in which Laura sees this speeding up in the years to come is to follow M&S’ lead by giving all new AI tech human names.
Humanising technology speeds up its adoption in business. It may sound an obvious observation, but it has been proven across the business, that people are generally more accepting of tech if there is a human element – look at Alexa, Siri and Cortana, for example.
Adopting digitisation is important, but making sure that it is correctly applied in the eyes of the consumer is vital.
To listen to the full lecture, and the rest of the BDAS podcasts, visit the UWE website.