What will the jobs market be like in 5 years’ time (or even in 1 years’ time) – given the rapid changes that are going on right now?
Robotics and Intelligent Automation are becoming mainstream, chatbots and avatars are taking over call centres and new fintech banks such as Monzo and Starling are turning the traditional banking market on its head. People of all ages will have to start acquiring new skills and approaches to working if they want an interesting, sustainable and well-paid job.
It’s a fact that digital is transforming the jobs market. People with digital skills and knowledge are in high demand and are commanding high salaries. Data is the major differentiator – and understanding how to gain insight from the increasingly huge volumes of data that we are all generating is crucial to every business right now. Universities and many Financial Services organisations have already started investing in digital and data. There are a plethora of courses and training available – but until recently – digital wasn’t really taught in schools – leaving young people who didn’t choose (or couldn’t afford) to go to university woefully under skilled and unprepared for the new reality of employment in today’s demanding jobs market.
The first Digital School of Excellence
That’s why it’s great to see Newbattle High School in Midlothian launching the first Scottish-based Digital School of Excellence. As well as teaching digital skills, Newbattle will be one of the first schools to also include Data Science as a core part of its curriculum. The Scottish Government, Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics as well as local businesses like Sopra Steria are investing in this landmark Digital School as they know it’s the only way to get the right ‘talent’ and skills into the jobs market. The school doesn’t just teach digital and data skills – it also encourages its pupils to be entrepreneurial, to challenge the status quo and to understand the creation process of great products as well as instilling the right skills and techniques to ‘sell’ their ideas to a sceptical and highly demanding audience.
The Unified Schools Programme
In Scotland, the financial services industry is working on its ‘Unified Schools Programme’ under the leadership of Scottish Financial Enterprise (SFE) and led by HSBC’s Colin Halpin. It’s an exciting project with a joint message about why financial services is an exciting, progressive and diverse industry to work in. The programme is focused on promoting the sector as THE digitally focused and customer centric place to be for young people, highlighting the advantages a career in digital can offer.
An SFE pilot project involving Newbattle High School and Queensferry High School kicked off in November 2018 to give young people opportunities to experience financial services through short placements. SFE members and Skills Development Scotland are fully supporting the initiative. Why? Big business knows it needs fresh talent and realises it needs to promote the financial services industry as a great place to work, highlighting the multiple opportunities that the sector can deliver if it’s to get the creative and talented people it needs to be future ready. There really is a job for everyone in financial services – and for young people with a positive attitude, creativity, enthusiasm and focus, it can be a fantastic first step into the world of work.
I used to be concerned for today’s young people facing an uncertain future in a demanding jobs market. Now I can see exciting new career opportunities where the education system, with support from government and industry helps the next generation to think differently, to be brave and to create ideas that will shape our future. Scotland is setting the pace for change – the question is – when will the rest of the UK catch up and put digital skills top of the agenda?
Have you come across Zozotown yet? It’s an example of a retail phenomenon that is pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in omni-commerce – the dedicated online shopping channel. The business model behind Zozotown – known as Zozo to many of its users – represents a shift towards true unified commerce.
As well as being an online shopping marketplace, it provides both a warehouse and fulfilment for major and minor brands. Sellers ship their products for storage to a Zozotown warehouse. As there is no inventory risk for Zozotown, and since no initial fees are paid, a higher commission rate is charged compared to other marketplace businesses – in some cases, up to a third of the item price.
Getting personal in retail
The Zozo shopping experience is personalised and interactive, with a customer’s size choice remembered from purchase-to-purchase and styling ideas offered. This model, along with other retail innovations, began not with the online retail giants in the West, but in Asia where e-commerce is expanding at record rates. For example, China’s e-commerce sales are set to grow by £180bn in 2018 alone, which is £23bn more than the UK’s entire annual online spend.
This is the topic of a new opinion paper that I’ve recently published, ‘Retailers look East for digital inspiration’. In it I look at how technology is changing the face of retail and how much of the innovation in this sector has traditionally come from the likes of Silicon Valley in the US. That’s all changing. We are increasingly seeing retail innovations stemming from the East, several of which I describe in my paper. There’s a heightened consumer appetite for digital commerce. Even Japan with its ageing population sees 70 per cent of all the fashion sold online purchased via smartphones.
Putting the customer first
What lessons can the East share with the West? Perhaps the key one is the region’s focus on an effortless customer journey, where the experience is quick, seamless and continually improving. Innovations are very much attuned to the customer, for example with easy (mobile) access, multiple payment options and an almost ‘a la carte’ shopping and delivery experience.
As a consulting-led organisation, Sopra Steria retains a lively interest in developments like this. We constantly monitor disruptive new technologies and business models in the market. This enables us to see which ones are evolving and who is innovating at the fastest pace.
We’re also innovating ourselves. I am particularly interested in Sopra Steria’s development of a voice-enabled conversational chatbot proposition, known as Digital Customer Interaction. This ties in neatly with my earlier point about the need to build an effortless customer journey. It’s a trailblazing proposition in which a conversational bot uses real-time insight to provide a highly-tailored and personalised customer journey, regardless of channel used. From responses to frequently asked questions and automated customer identification and verification, to multimedia objects pushed to a smartphone for multi-channel interactions, our solution supports an end-to-end customer journey using natural language processing enabled by digital voice.
This is just one of the many exciting developments we are seeing in the retail sector, where digital is fast creating a level playing field globally. Retail pioneers in the West, such as Amazon and eBay, should now be looking closely at their peers in the East, where being customer centric is di rigueur.
I am looking forward to the next phase in the evolution of retail and feel sure it will have customer centricity at its core.
Last week I was proud to continue the tradition of Sopra Steria’s support of the Young Software Engineer of the year award, since its inception 20 years ago. Once again the entrants were outstanding (though I confess the technicalities of some project went right over my head!). Can Gafuroglu’s winning project was entitled ‘Joint prediction and Classification of Brain Image Evolution Trajectories from Baseline with Application to Early Dementia Diagnosis’. Our industry is about solving problems and this project underlines the significance of what can be achieved by the smart use of technology by #smartpeople.
The buzz at the dinner was incredible and underlined the spirit of ScotlandIS – that of #community.Our Sopra Steria table was no exception, with a mix of SMEs, customers and advisors. Plus Alison McLaughlin – now on secondment to Scottish Government Digital as part of the Digital Fellowship Programme.
And, #trees. Lizzy Yarnold was an inspirational speaker on the evening and reminded us all of the importance of belief, ambition and team work. She spoke about a book “The Inner Life of Trees”: What they feel, how they communicate. A brilliant parallel to business life – the need for constant communication, mutual support and networking.
Well done to ScotlandIS. The Scotsoft conference has once again reinforced our Smart Young People, Our Community and that we are a well-connected forest.
We all have dreamt of flying, fighting with a lightsabre, and controlling objects with our mind. I was lucky enough to make one of my dreams come true when DigiLab UK went on an exploration journey of brain-computer interfaces. I recruited one fellow dreamer, a UX designer, along with me, the software engineer. We started to look at different aspects of BCI. The initial task chosen was to control an object with our mind, and in the journey, learn more about the technology. I was staring at my desk thinking about which object to control. Then there was my answer staring back at me, BB8 on my desk. Whether by fate or the force, we knew what we had to do. We would control BB8 using a BCI device, the Emotiv EPOC+, which was also available and previously used for hackathon project in Norway. I will take you through my journey of making this prototype with the help of a two-part series blog in the hopes of helping others who are starting to explore BCI technology.
The Emotiv EPOC+ headset comes along with 14 electrodes. Setup of the device is easy but tedious as you are required to soak the electrodes with saline solution each time before screwing them onto the device. This process is needed to get good connectivity between the user’s scalp and electrodes. For people with more hair, it is naturally more difficult to get good connectivity as they must adjust their hair to make sure there is nothing between the electrodes and scalp. For some connectivity levels were sufficient with dry electrodes but to save time I recommend that always soak the electrodes before using the device as you are more likely to get fast and good connectivity. There are many videos available online that guide you through the initial setup of the device.
Training mental commands
I aimed to control BB8 with EPOC+ headset, so I started to investigate the mental commands and its various functionalities. To use the mental commands you first need to train them. The training process enables the EPOC+ to analyze individual brainwaves and develop a personalized signature corresponding to the different mental action.
Emotiv Xavier control panel is an application that configures and demonstrates the Emotiv detection suites. It provides the user with an interface to train mental commands, view facial expressions, performance metric, raw data, and to upload data to Emotiv account. The user has the option to sign in to their account or use the application as a guest.
The user is required to make a training profile. Users have the option to have multiple training profiles under one Emotiv account. Each user needs their profile as each one of us possesses unique brain waves.
Let’s train the commands
The first mental command or action user must record is their “neutral” state. The neutral state is like a baseline or passive mental command. While recording this state, it is advisable to remain relaxed like when you are reading or watching TV. If the neutral state has not recorded correctly, the user will not be able to get any other mental commands working properly. For some recording, the neutral state results in better detection of other mental commands.
The “record neutral”button allows the user to record up to 30 seconds of neutral training data. The recording automatically finishes after 30 seconds, but the user has the option to stop recording any time they feel that enough data has been collected. At least 6 seconds of recorded data is required to update the signature.
After recording the neutral state, the user can start to train any one of the 13 different actions available. For my research, I only focused on two mental actions “push” and “pull.” Emotiv website provides tips and instruction on how to train the mental commands. It suggests remaining consistent in thoughts while training. To perform any mental action, users must replicate their exact thoughts process or mental state that they had during the training process. For example, if a user wants to train “push” command, it’s up to the user what they want to think or visualized for that action. Some users might imagine a cube going away from them, or some might imagine a cube shrinking, whatever works for them, but they need to remain consistent in their thoughts and mental state. If the user is distracted even for a second, it is advisable to retrain the action. As the user is able to train a distinct and reproducible mental state for each action, the detection of these actions become more precise. Mostly, the users must train an action several times before getting accurate results.
While I was trying to train the “push” action, I placed the BB8 on a white table and imagined it moving away from me. I replicated same thought, imagining BB8 going away from me on the table and was able to perform the mental action. However, when I placed the BB8 on the carpet, I failed. This may have been because the different colour of the carpet distracted me and I was unable to replicate my exact mental state, therefore, failed to perform the mental action. For me, the environment needed to be the same to reproduce my specific mental state. However, this varies from user to user.
Emotiv Xavier gives the option to view an animated 3D cube on the screen while training an action. Some users find it easier to maintain the necessary focus and consistency if the cube is automatically animated to perform the intended action as a visualization aid during the training process. A user can, therefore view themselves performing an action by viewing the cube. The cube remains stationary unless the user is performing one of the mental actions (if already trained) or unless the user selects “Animate model according to training action” checkbox for training purposes. It is advisable to train one action fully before moving on to the next one. It gets harder and harder to train as you add more mental actions.
Is the training process easy?
There are lots of tips and guidance given on Emotiv website for training mental commands. Users are given an interface to help them train and perform mental actions with the aid of animated 3D or 2D models. However, during my three days of training, I was not able to find an easy and generic way to train the mental commands. People are different. Some are more focused than others. Some like to close their eyes to visualize and perform the command. Some want help with animation. What I observed was that it depends on the person and how focused they are, and how readily they can replicate a state of mind. There is no straightforward equation. You need time and patience. I was only able to achieve 15 % skill rating after training two mental actions. Only one of my colleagues got 70% skill rating which he wasn’t able to reproduce later.
While searching for simpler ways to train mental commands I came across a process known as neurofeedback. Neurofeedback is a procedure for observing your brain activity to understand and train your brain. A user observes what their brain is actually doing as compared to what they want it to be doing. The user monitors their brain waves, and if they are nearing the desired mental state, then they are rewarded with a positive response which can be music, video or advancing in a game. Neurofeedback is used to help reduce stress, anxiety, aid in sleeping, and for other forms of therapeutic assistance.
Neurofeedback is a great way to train your brain for mental commands. For example, if someone is trying to do “push” command,” they can observe their brain activities on screen and see if they are consistent. Then they can slowly and steadily train their brain to replicate a specific state. Emotiv provides the “Emotive 3D Brain Activity Map” and “Emotiv Brain Activity Map”, a paid application that can be used to monitor, visualize and adjust brainwaves in real time. For our research, we didn’t try these applications. If you try it out, let us know how you got on!
Training is like developing a new skill. Remember how you learned to ride a bike, or how you learned to drive? It took time and practice, and it’s the same for training mental commands. Companies do provide help by giving tips, instruction and software applications to help users train and visualize, but in the end, it’s acquiring a new skill, and users need practice. Some might learn faster than others, but for everyone it takes time.
The telecoms industry is no stranger to change. After all, the leading players in this sector have delivered network connectivity and devices that sit behind many of the world’s game-changing digital innovations. Take digital pioneer Uber as an example; it simply wouldn’t exist without the proliferation of smartphones and underpinning mobile network engines. But there’s a problem for the telecoms companies providing the networks and devices enabling these new business models. These telco giants need to accelerate their own digital transformations but, unlike digital start-ups, they have made massive investments in legacy IT over the past few decades and can’t simply ‘switch on digital’.
Nonetheless, business leaders recognise that, as consumers increasingly demand a digital customer experience, one that offers instant gratification, they must embrace the digital economy. Failure to become a truly digital company, is not an option. You only have to look at the number of big name companies that have gone out of business in recent years because they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, transform.
So, how can traditional telecoms companies survive in today’s fast-changing digital economy? Not known for their agility, how do they forge ahead quickly with digital transformation programmes that ensure their business models and operations are fit for the future? There are many recommendations for accelerating transformation, embracing technical, operational and process change, but I’m going to focus on just three in this blog.
Tip 1 – Modernise legacy applications, rather than dispose of them
At Sopra Steria, we encourage those clients with a heavy investment in legacy assets to modernise what they’ve invested in over the years, while ensuring they also keep pace with modern, cloud-based developments. It’s clearly not feasible to replace decades-old systems and applications in their entirety. That’s especially so in an industry experiencing significant pressure on revenues and margins (e.g. decreased roaming revenues, commoditisation and price erosion) and needing to continue investing in their networks (SDN/NFV & 5G, etc). So, my recommendation is to adopt an evolutionary approach. Ask what you need to do to extract more value from existing IT assets in line with a digital strategy. Then look at the real business triggers for legacy applications to become redundant or the option to replace with new, cloud-native ones. Be selective in your investments and opt for projects that give a rapid ROI. Modernisation offers a quick win as you accelerate your digital transformation.
Top 2 – Use Agile coaches to turn DevOps from theory into reality
We all know that speed to market with new services and products that give customers the digital experience they’re looking for is vital. To achieve this, organisations recognise that they need to transform their software development processes. Traditional lengthy waterfall-style development must be replaced with a DevOps culture that enables rapid, frequent releases through Agile sprints. This is typically a strategic top-down decision that sounds good in theory. The message is clear: we need to release fast, often and with assured quality; and we need to be agile so that we can respond quickly as the market changes. Yet that message becomes lost as it filters down through the management layers and those people expected to put theory into practice struggle to make it happen. I’ve seen enterprises overcome this by embedding Agile coaches at different layers of the organisation. These are people with practical experience of DevOps and Agile, able to lead and demonstrate this new way of working. This is a case of ‘don’t just tell us how to do it, show us as well’.
Tip 3 – Address adoption challenges with a defined vision and value position
Even with Agile coaches embedded in the end-to-end DevOps cycle, we still see instances where an organisation has implemented a new system or launched an innovative app that fails to gain traction with users. Let’s say, for example, you want to launch a mobile-front end on your Oracle DB system, enabling your employees to access what they need, where and when they need it. Or you might have invested millions in a new cloud platform for better visibility and control. If you want to avoid this being money down the drain, you must encourage user adoption. This requires communication of the ‘vision for’ and ‘value of’ your investment. So, it’s not just a case of communicating what the new capability is for (the vision), but clearly articulating the benefit it will bring both to the business and the users themselves (the value). If it’s a sales application, why would your salespeople use it if they perceive that’s it’s just a management tool for tracking what they do? How much more enthusiastic would they be if they understood how it will help them to sell more, faster? It sounds a simple tip for ensuring successful adoption of new digital tools, but the lack of a defined vision and value proposition can so easily stand in the way of you achieving your desired business outcomes.
Get in touch
The above three tips are just a flavour of the new thinking and approaches that telcos must take on board to survive in today’s digital economy by accelerating their digital transformations.
Everyone’s talking about Fintechs – but what does ‘Fintech’ really mean? It’s a generic term that loosely groups a number of innovative technical organisations within Financial Services.
As the Fintech director for Sopra Steria, I believe I know all about Fintech. To me, Fintech is all about change – introducing new, fresh ideas and ways of working – and making them happen. I’ve worked in financial services across the UK, Europe and further afield for many years – and organisations of all sizes find it hard to change; the bigger the organisation – the greater the challenge. Change means that organisations have to think and act differently to introduce brand new ways of working to deliver desirable services to their customers. The customer really is king and new products and services need to be built to their wishes (rather than the ‘old fashioned’ way of creating a product and selling it hard). What’s more, new, faster technology and access to huge amounts of data have made this issue more acute as it’s raised customer expectations. Put simply – there’s so much to think about and to do to get ahead and stay ahead.
Organisations need to keep up with the very latest ideas – and still deliver a reliable and robust service. And it’s a fact that incorporating new technology is how they will do it. So why is it so challenging for Fintechs and big players to work together? All too often, Fintechs struggle to get their ideas to the right decision makers – and established businesses are nervous of too much change.
The biggest hurdles are often company politics, internal structures, old processes and course – the difficulty of incorporating brand new ideas into ‘old’ systems. For Fintech’s, it’s tricky to get the right contacts at the right level – and to also ensure their ideas are brought to life safely and securely. For banks and insurers, introducing new, untried and tested ideas is hugely risky and it can take a long time – as well as effort and money to get it right.
What’s needed is a bridge between the Fintechs and the more traditional organisations – to help them to work productively together. Organisations like Sopra Steria have platforms that are at the heart of many of today’s large businesses – and they also understand existing processes, procurement and politics which often stand in the way of getting things done. By working together, Fintechs, established players and platform organisations can listen to and learn from each other, in order to fast track innovation and get the results they need – quickly and cost effectively.
So, my advice to banks and insurance companies as well as the Fintechs is to work and collaborate with a platform provider from the start. Fintechs can safely test and prove their worth in ‘virtual factories’ using real systems and data – and financial organisations can be confident about bringing the best and brightest ideas to market without huge risk. It puts new Fintechs in touch with established players – and accelerates change. And that’s what we all want.
So, maybe, we shouldn’t be using the term ‘fintech’ to refer to just new and upcoming technology companies. After all – aren’t we all Fintechs? Perhaps instead we should be focusing on partnerships and collaborations between new technology companies, established organisations and the role platform players have to accelerate change.
It really is true. It’s not what you know but who you know that makes all the difference.
What they are, what they do, and what they mean for you
What if you could make a computer powerful enough to process all the information in the universe?
This might seem like something torn straight from fiction, and up until recently, it was. However with the arrival of quantum computing, we are about to make it reality. Recent breakthroughs by Intel and Google have catapulted the technology into the news. We now have lab prototypes, Silicon Valley start-ups and a multi-billion dollar research industry. Hype is on the rise, and we are seemingly on the cusp of a quantum revolution so powerful that it will completely transform our world.
On the back of this sensationalism trails confusion. What exactly are these machines and how do they work? And, most importantly, how will they change the world in which we live?
At the most basic level, the difference between a standard computer and a quantum computer boils down to one thing: information storage. Information on standard computers is represented as bits– values of either 0 or 1, and these provide operational instructions for the computer.
This differs on quantum computers, as they store information on a physical level so microscopic that the normal laws of nature no longer apply. At this minuscule level, the laws of quantum mechanics take over and particles begin to behave in bizarre and unpredictable ways. As a result, these devices have an entirely different system of storing information: qubits, or rather, quantum bits.
Unlike the standard computer’s bit, which can have the value of either 0 or 1, a qubit can have the value of 0, 1 or both 0 and 1 at the same time. It can do this because of one of the fundamental (and most baffling) principles of quantum mechanics- quantum superposition, which is the idea that one particle can exist in multiple states at the same time. Put another way: imagine flipping a coin. In the world as we know it (and therefore the world of standard computing), you can only have one of two results: heads or tails. In the quantum world, the result can be heads and tails.
What does all of this this mean in practice? In short, the answer is speed. Because qubits can exist in multiple states at the same time, they are capable of running multiple calculations simultaneously. For example, a 1 qubit computer can conduct 2 calculations at the same time, a 2 qubit computer can conduct 4, and a 3 qubit computer can conduct 8- increasing exponentially. Operating under these rules, quantum computers bypass the “one-at-a-time” sequence of calculation that a classical computer is bound by. In the process, they become the ultimate multi-taskers.
To give you a taste of what that kind speed might look like in real terms, we can look back to 2015, when Google and Nasa partnered up to test an early prototype of a quantum computer called D-Wave 2X. Taking on a complex optimisation problem, D-Wave was able to work at a rate roughly 100 million times faster than a single core classical computer and produced a solution in seconds. Given the same problem, a standard laptop would have taken 10,000 years.
Given their potential for speed, it is easy to imagine a staggering range of possibilities and use cases for these machines. The current reality is slightly less glamorous. It is inaccurate to think of quantum computers as simply being “better” versions of classical computers. They won’t simply speed up any task run through them (although they may do that in some instances). They are, in fact, only suited to solving highly specific problems in certain contexts- but there’s still a lot to be excited about.
One possibility that has attracted a lot of fanfare lies in the field of medicine. Last year, IBM made headlines when they used their quantum computer to successfully simulate the molecular structure of beryllium hydride, the most complex molecule ever simulated on a quantum machine. This is a field of research which classical computers usually have extreme difficulty with, and even supercomputers struggle to cope with the vast range of atomic (and sometimes quantum) complexities presented by complex molecular structures. Quantum computers, on the other hand, are able to read and predict the behaviour of such molecules with ease, even at a minuscule level. This ability is significant not just in an academic context; it is precisely this process of simulating molecules that is currently used to produce new drugs and treatments for disease. Harnessing the power of quantum computing for this kind of research could lead to a revolution in the development of new medicines.
But while quantum computers might set in motion a new wave of scientific innovation, they may also give rise to significant challenges. One such potentially hazardous use case is the quantum computer’s ability to factorise extremely large numbers. While this might seem relatively harmless at first sight, it is already stirring up anxieties in banks and governments around the world. Modern day cryptography, which ensures the security of the majority of data worldwide, relies on complex mathematical problems- tied to factorisation- that classical computers have insufficient power to solve. Such problems, however, are no match for quantum computers, and the arrival of these machines could render modern methods of cryptography meaningless, leaving everything from our passwords and bank details to even state secrets extremely vulnerable, able to be hacked, stolen or misused in the blink of an eye.
Despite the rapid progress that has been made over the last few years, an extensive list of obstacles still remain, with hardware right at the top. Quantum computers are extremely delicate machines, and a highly specialised environment is required to produce the quantum state that gives qubits their special properties. For example, they must be cooled to near absolute zero (roughly the temperature of outer space) and are extremely sensitive to any kind of interference from electricity or temperature. As a result, today’s machines are highly unstable, and often only maintain their quantum states for just a few milliseconds before collapsing back into normality- hardly practical for regular use.
Alongside these hardware challenges marches an additional problem: a software deficit. Like a classical computer, quantum computers need software to function. However, this software has proved extremely challenging to create. We currently have very few effective algorithms for quantum computers, and without the right algorithms, they are essentially useless- like having a Mac without a power button or keyboard. There are some strides being made in this area (QuSoft, for example) but we would need to see vast advances in this field before widespread adoption becomes plausible. In other words, don’t expect to start “quoogling” any time soon.
So despite all the hype that has recently surrounded quantum computers, the reality is that now (and for the foreseeable future) they are nothing more than expensive corporate toys: glossy, futuristic and fascinating, but with limited practical applications and a hefty price tag attached. Is the quantum revolution just around the corner? Probably not. Does that mean you should forget about them? Absolutely not.