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Big Data and the Lonely Wolf

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It has become more valuable than ever to gather data yourself as an organisation. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, search engines and other easy-to-search databases on the internet have been making more and more information publicly available: your competitors and the guy next door can see it too. So in order to have a competitive advantage, you’ll need more than what you can get from publicly available information.

Secondly, exactly because more and more information is becoming publicly available on the internet, the information you find there is becoming generally less and less relevant. The magnitude of the internet grows by 100% every year. Not seeing the forest for the trees or looking for a needle in a hay stack is putting it mildly.

When it comes to data, the only way to attain a distinct and relevant position is by handling it yourself: gathering it, analysing it and making it relevant for your organisation. Look at the renowned big names of Silicon Valley: Google, Facebook, Instagram. These companies are revered, all because of their position in the world of online information, and the money made from it. But the offline world too is becoming more and more searchable.

Last Monday was national iSPEX day in the Netherlands, during which 5000 Dutch iPhone users used their smartphones with high-precision global positioning – to measure harmful dust particles in the air. Similar devices are in development for testing the safety of drinking water, but also to tell if a piece of meat in your supermarket really is organic. The Trading Standards Institute could become redundant within a week in that regard.

How are the major companies doing when it comes to information gathering? Not very well, I have to conclude every time I’m on the phone with a call centre. “Can you tell me your customer ID, sir?” – while I’m sure I’m calling them from the cellphone number that’s in their database. For that matter, I’d rather not be addressed as ‘sir’ as a 26 year old either, considering I had to fill in my birth date when setting up my contract. And let’s not even think about companies like that having their act together with modern possibilities for gathering data from outside the company.

Unfortunately, in the large companies it’s often one lonely wolf who’s in charge of handling big data, getting co-workers to share “their” data, and finding a way to make the information searchable and relevant. And within organisations that are actually very advanced in the area of gathering data, it’s also lonely wolves who have to remind everyone of the limitations set by privacy laws.

Unfortunately, one lonely wolf won’t change the world. Unless his name is Edward Snowden.

This column is written by NewTeam-partner Danny Mekic’ on request of the Dutch Radio 1.

Self-driving cars: who is to blame is not the question

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Who is to blame when a self-driving car crashes? This question is posed by Elmar Degenhart, chief executive of Continental (Companies & Markets, March 7), and it’s easier to answer than he implies. Just as in a “regular” traffic accident, the movements of each car will need to be scrutinised and compared to the relevant traffic rules. If it turns out that I’ve caused the accident with my vehicle, whether my car was self-driving or not, then I (or my insurance) have to pay the bill.

If my car was driving itself, then if I believe the “driver” could have and should have avoided the accident, the manufacturer will get a damages claim, with justification. Then a judge will decide what I could have expected of my self-driving car, relying among other things on a large pile of legal disclaimers and my own behaviour. Because as long as the self-driving car’s vulnerability to malfunctions, hacking and miscalculations isn’t clear, manual intervention needs to remain possible anyway – just like the autopilot of an aircraft.

This is a good thing: it forces manufacturers to first make their systems safe before they start self-driving experiments with human lives at stake. Drivers, in turn, need to remain cautious when their tractors pass near vulnerable human bodies. So the question of who to blame isn’t interesting at all, although the industry’s attempt to use this debate to shift the responsibility to a neutral third party, such as a compensation fund, is a nice try.

What the debate should really be about is an ethical dilemma: what should my self-driving car do if, in an accident, it could save my life by taking that of another (or more than one other) road user?

If self-driving car manufacturers think they can answer that question, let them pick up the bill, too.

This article, written by NewTeam-partner Danny Mekic’, has been published in the Financial Times.

Fighting for the future

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Industrialisation made it possible for one invention to be manufactured on a large scale, and globalisation made it possible for it to be sold everywhere in the world. Never before had there been so many companies, customers, products and services that needed to find one another. Around the world, in every language you can think of. A gigantic ‘matchmaking industry’ was born to serve that globalisation and to bring products and services to people’s attention: from marketeers to translators, from a creative industry that could create the most impressive advertising messages, to the companies that would convey those commercial, persuasive messages to the public. That industry grew into an end in itself.

By now, the technology companies in Silicon Valley have been damaging that industry. It happens more and more often that those 24 hours during which an ad campaign can seduce us into buying something, are under more and more pressure, like a pressure cooker. We choose of our own accord to spend more and more time with electronic devices on which Google, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other platforms sell our attention to companies that hunger for new customers and more sales. They’ve won, but now it’s the social media that fight on their platforms for more of our attention and our time.

There’s more and more of them. There’s Uber, pairing taxi drivers and their passengers. There’s Airbnb, offering unoccupied apartments for short stay, which is popular among tourists. There’s Shapeways, letting designers have their 3D designs printed and sold to customers. There’s more and more of them, and it’s becoming too much. And so, we’ll have to do without some of them again in the future.

But they’re not the only ones in a tough spot: more and more industries will have to compete with the regionalisation that social platforms enable, and with the micro-industrialisation enabled by 3D printing, and meanwhile small companies will drop out of the race for lack of the means to invest in the innovation of the products and services themselves. Innovation is no longer a luxury: it’s become a survival strategy.

There are three questions we’ll need to answer about the future: what will our products and services be like in the future, how do we handle marketing and communication, and how can we ourselves best evolve into a platform of supply and demand?

Danny Mekić (1987), jurist and an expert in technology, wrote this article for Accenture

Innovation Harbour

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A brick, you can buy in a store. A special kind of brick has to be custom-made. But if you need a thousand bricks, you contact a wholesaler to buy them in bulk, and if you need a million bricks it might be a better idea to place an order directly with the factory. But you’ll still only have bricks.

What kind of building those bricks will assemble into, depends — among other things — of the building’s purpose and the level of expertise you have at your disposal. You can try stacking your bricks yourself, but if there’s a lot of bricks to be stacked and you’re building a complicated construction, it’s probably a better idea to find yourself an architect, one or more construction engineers and a number of construction workers. So much hassle.

Fortunately, it’s becoming increasingly common for factories to offer prefab houses and offices, making things a lot easier for you. Organisations are like buildings — except they’re made of building blocks, not bricks. Organisations want to innovate and adapt in order to continue to prosper, but the world changes more and more rapidly, which means organisations need to build and rebuild more and more rapidly as well.

Since there’s often no time for this and organisations are often too late to start adapting, there is now a blooming market for the acquisition and takeover of small startups. But this is a difficult market: failed takeovers are common and integrating a newly bought company into the older company turns out to be no simple task either. And valuation is still a difficult issue. Moreover: how do you find a startup that suits the current and future needs and problems of a large company? Meanwhile, a common complaint among entrepreneurs with innovative startups is: I’d like to contribute to the development of the business world, but how can a small entrepreneur like me know which of my innovations are suitable for their market?

The solution is simple: an innovation harbour where large oil tankers and small speedboats can find one another. An organisation-wide or industry-transcending platform to ask for prefab startups. Where large companies can offer up their biggest challenges and their greatest wishes. A kind of marketplace. A job board with problems and challenges on the one side and with solutions and startups on the other. And a predetermined sum of money for whatever individual or company can offer a prefab solution. In other words, public outsourcing of problems, and let whoever has a solution present themselves.

That way innovation would be somewhat less risky, there would be more meaningful innovation and the startup market would better match the demand from the large, unwieldy oil tankers.

(column by NewTeam-partner Danny Mekic’)

Young Entrepreneur and technology expert Danny Mekić’s expectations of 2013

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What do you expect of 2013 on a personal level?

We’ve ended up in an ‘economic crisis’, or at least that the name that’s been given to the current state of the world. That word – ‘crisis’ – is often used lately to mean we’ve fallen on rough times, a difficult period we’re going through. If you look up the word ‘crisis’ in the dictionary, however, it’ll tell you that a crisis is primarily a turning point, and that seems to be the case now as well.

Is the world economy really in such a bad shape right now, or was it – seemingly – going too well for years?  The motor’s overheated: at several points during the past years, in several different ways and in several areas, we’ve run into the limitations of the ‘system’ – call it the economy – in which we live. We sprained our muscles, the engine needs to cool down, we have no choice. You could also call the crisis a natural redistribution of supply and demand, because the western world has been living in a dream world for years.

When I was on the Ardèche river one day, my raft ended up in a wrong current, and it capsized. During rafting training, you’re taught not to resist strong currents, because you can’t win that anyway, but instead to protect yourself and get to safety: try to stay afloat on your back while protecting your head with your hands. When it calms down a bit again, that’s the time to use a lot of force and energy to try to swim away from the wrong current.

And that’s exactly what I think people – but also the organisations I work for as a consultant – should try to do during the next year. In my case, personally, that means doing lots and lots of reading and finding out what’s to come, trends and developments that are important to our clients: charting the currents. And talking to specialists within the various areas that companies’ challenges will be coming from, so we can use our own specialisations (technology, media, communication, entrepreneurship and law) to help them prepare but also to adjust their course, and preferably, to optimally benefit once the time is there.

What do you expect from 2013 on a societal level?

One of the greatest challenges of this time is the changing job market. It’s almost impossible to comprehend what’s going on there at this moment, because change is coming from so many different directions. There are two different ways to look at the job market: from the point of view of companies and organisations, and from that of employees (and job seekers). In the next few years, companies are going to have to deal with more and more shortage on the job market, as strange as that sounds. Just in Eindhoven, there’s a need for 30,000 educated and technologically trained employees, but those are not available. Among specialists like plumbers too, there is a high demand, while the influx of new plumbers has been shrinking for years. This trend will spread across a larger geographic area, but also to other professions. Only first there will be this crisis, or redistribution, and that means the next year will be an anxious one. A lot of people will lose their jobs nonetheless, and others will need to keep applying and churning out applications letters for even longer. That’s why I think 2013 will mainly be the year of endurance. People who give up will be swept away by the currents, and they won’t know when it’s time to swim away from them.

What would be the best way to deal with the current economic situation, as an entrepreneur but also just as a citizen?
It starts with two clear goals: what do you most want to attain?, but also: what will you settle for if that’s not feasible? What would be the best alternative? A lot of people are looking for work, or for another job, but if you’re looking for something, it’s useful to be able to recognise it. And therefore, to be able to picture it. But in my experience, it’s difficult to imagine in detail what a nice job would be like. And yet it’s important to have some idea or description of that. Otherwise, what do you hope to find?

Instead of playing drinking games, you could spend your Friday night having a discussion and asking questions about what the other person’s ideal career would be like. What organisations belong with it. How you could approach those. Who you should contact for that. In school they’ll teach you to apply to vacancies, but vacancies are only created – being published on a job board, for example – when a company is unable to fill a position in any other way. Putting up a vacancy takes time and money, so companies will always try first to fill vacant positions with existing contacts, especially in times of crisis. That’s why it’s important to get to know the right people within your field, to think well about why they should give you a job, or, if you’re an entrepreneur, why your customers should do business with you. What makes you valuable, or how can you become so? It’s not just important to show that in an application letter or your CV, but also to be very aware of that yourself. What sets you apart from other people interested in the same kind of job, or from other, similar entrepreneurs?

Where are the growth markets? What markets are shrinking, where would you do better to stay away? And… is that last thing actually true, or could a shrinking market be interesting too?
Some of the growth markets that are doing best are Kazakhstan, Brazil, Angola, Chile, Qatar, China, Hong Kong and Vietnam. The growing middle class in many of these economies creates a demand for consumer products, which means more business. More and more young people choose to seek their fortune abroad. For example, there are currently 30,000 Dutch people living and working in Silicon Valley, the technological Valhalla of the major American internet companies, and they’re living good lives there. We don’t know what the future will bring, but at least the Dutch people living and working in America now have an international network, and they’ve already shown they can adapt to a changing economy. That means a better position on the job market.

What are the upsides of a crisis?
There are no upsides to a crisis. What it does offer is more opportunities for those who are still flexible on the job market, people who still can (and are willing to) be retrained and are therefore able to go along with the redistribution, the changes in the economy and the world, and can find their place again on the newly created job market.

This interview has been published in Penthouse.

Young CEOs

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They want responsibility and meaningful work to do. How can you keep the new kind of young employees motivated?

I know someone who switched jobs to join the Dutch navigation system company TomTom, even though he’d be earning less there. Working for TomTom was more fun to him. That’s my generation. We’re fine with giving up salary in exchange for a job with greater prestige. Our needs are fundamentally different from those of my father’s generation. He had a job because he needed to make money. My peers want a job that has meaning. And variety. And interesting co-workers. And getting to directly contribute to a project.

Among this generation, companies with promising career development opportunities and varying tasks are popular. You won’t find these things in construction, where careers are very simple. That’s why many young construction workers are leaving their companies and opting for a career as a freelancer. Work is no longer a destination, like it was in my father’s days; it’s become a journey. It should offer enjoyment, meaning and a good social network. Preferably all at once.

Young adults’ need for autonomy in what they do is a result of their education. Students nowadays are graded both as part of a team and as individual. And then after graduating they end up in a company where all of a sudden they’re supposed to work for their partner, their older co-worker, their CEO.

What young adults want, essentially, is to be part of it. Google allows every employee to spend 10% to 15% of their time on their own projects. Or consider Ritz-Carlton’s employees, for example. Each of which — high or low — gets their own budget to improve service in whatever ways they see fit, or to appease a customer in case something has gone wrong. For every ‘incident’, they get $2000 to spend. This is a tremendous motivation to work with a truly customer-oriented attitude. Whoever runs into a problem first is the one to solve it.

The problem the younger generation struggles with is the immense number of options. Jobs, companies, college subjects. This can lead to option paralysis. They leave school with the misconception that their entire career depends on decisions they make at the age of 18. But one thing educated people don’t learn, is how to choose. Managing the direction of their career is what they expect their job to do for them. Their assignments, their career, it all has to be plotted out for them by a manager or by the human resources department.

YOUNG CEO

So young adults want two things that seem contradictory. They want guidance, but they also want to have the freedom to give their own input. They want responsibility in their work, but they also want the company’s support for their career development.

What demands does this place on today’s managers? The best course of action for the relatively old board of directors to take now is to involve their young adult employees in the process. Without them, they would never manage to have a reliable perception of the world, the changing social structure, the new technologies, the new ideas. If you can’t understand them, let them join you. Let them into the chain of command. To end the divide between computer illiterates and digital natives. To create role models for other young adults, so they’ll want to continue to be a part of the company.

A board of directors comprising 30% young adults would be ideal, but that would probably be too much to ask. I propose a shadow board. They’ll discuss the same issues and contemplate the same decisions. An internal group of trend watchers at the CEO level. The Young CEOs. And they should agree upon mentorship arrangements. The proper CEO should be a mentor to the young CEO. That’s how you stimulate the transfer of knowledge. Furthermore, the young CEOs would sooner hear complaints or feedback from other young adult employees, which would otherwise never make it to the ears of the higher-ups.

But it all starts with the vacancies. Vacancies are still written like it’s all about a task and maybe a company car. Not many young adults feel compelled by the vacancies on Monsterboard, a listing website for the Dutch job market, even if it’s what they have to settle for. They apply to jobs they don’t really want. Recruiters should stop thinking in terms of tasks and instead try to entice people with career perspectives.

This article was originally published in the Dutch Financial Times in 2011