New kids on the blockchain

At Sopra Steria we often talk about a world ‘beyond digital’. This is so that we can help our clients to prepare themselves and their organisations for the challenges they are likely to face looking out three to five years into the future.

I shared some of the topics we have identified for a world beyond digital with an audience of digital and eCommerce professionals at a Thought Leaders of the North West event a couple of weeks ago. Our themes seemed to resonate with those in the room prompting plenty of discussion and debate.

One theme attracting a lot of interest was the ongoing challenge we face in the world of Information Security, where we see protection from attack being built into new products and services from the ground up rather than as an afterthought.

We also see an emerging era of unprecedented corporate responsiveness and agility as industry giants look to iterate their business models ‘on-the-fly’ in response to unforeseen threats and attacks in the way Sony Pictures did recently in immediately releasing ‘The Interview’ to digital channels and abandoning its plans for a full theatrical release.

Disintermediation is another concept having an immediate impact on the way we live, work and do business. Services such as Uber and AirB’n’B are already beginning to transform different aspects of the travel industry through their creative use of the crowd, the cloud and the semantic web.

In financial services we see the ‘blockchain’ threatening to disintermediate the traditional banking industry as Bitcoin continues to gain profile and transacting in such crypto-currencies nudges its way ever closer to the mainstream.

“whilst barriers to entry are very low, barriers to mass acceptance remain incredibly high”

It was in this field, at a second technology event I attended recently that I witnessed a tense debate between an established retail bank and an up-and-coming Bitcoin podcaster.

The bank, when talking about FinTech start-ups looking to establish themselves in the emerging global Bitcoin economy, outside of a traditionally regulated banking industry, suggested that “whilst barriers to entry are very low, barriers to mass acceptance remain incredibly high”, which is the kind of thing they used to say in the music industry in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, the power of the ‘blockchain’, the virtual ledger where the crowd validates transactions without the assistance of traditional banking infrastructure and regulation, may actually be found beyond Bitcoin trading, as new and emerging use cases emerge for this technology bring it further into many people’s lives.

One such service which could be leveraged by the blockchain may be that of personal data broking, where citizens take control of the value of their own personal data and begin to firmly negotiate with local and global organisations alike based on the value of their own data as derived from their own connections, online activity and their extended social graph.

Sopra Steria is working with some of the world’s most exciting start-ups in exploring these concepts, as these ‘new kids on the blockchain’ begin to collaborate with us and our clients as, together, we continue to play a vital role in the transformation of business for a world ‘beyond digital’.

We’d love to hear how you think ‘blockchain’ technology will transform our lives. Leave a reply below, contact me by email, tim.difford@soprasteria.com or on Twitter, @timdifford

Photo: used and modified under Creative Commons license thanks to BTCKeychain

Virtual robot workers and the impact on my pension plan

Sadly, I’ve reached the age where I am beginning to count how many years it is until I can start to draw my pension. Most days it’s a number far too close as I generally still love my job, although occasionally other days do have me dreaming that it was tomorrow.

My years of experience (!) in designing and running large back offices in the banking sector have seen me live through the centralisation of these back office functions, their subsequent outsourcing, followed by panicked in-sourcing when the wind or accountable exec changed, the drive towards off-shoring and, most recently, the delight of handling an 800-seat partial on-shoring project for a client.

For each one of those, the primary business case rationale was a step change reduction in the cost of the operating model, with CX being a nice to have secondary benefit when the business case needed a more politically acceptable feel to it!

What I couldn’t see was “what next” in the step change evolution of the back office.

That was held to be true until I reluctantly deputised for my boss at a meeting last year and was formally introduced to the world of virtual workforce robots, and an epiphany happened!

At its most simple level this is a piece of software that emulates the actions of a human in an operational process – once configured/trained, each virtual instance of an FTE is fully scalable, 100% trained, 100% accurate, and is available up to 100% of each 24 hour day.

Depending on your cost base and its location, these virtual wonders can also do the same volume of processing for as little as 1/9th of the cost of a human.

With our partners at Blue Prism, Sopra Steria has developed a Lean Robotic Automation (LPA) proposition, coalescing our deep capability in Lean process management and Blue Prism’s software wizardry.

We are still at a relatively early stage in deployment both internally and externally but watch this space – every commentator and analyst in the marketplace recognises virtual robots as playing a significant part in all our clients thinking within 12 months.

As for my pension plans, they’re on hold for a while – I’ve a target audience in the UK alone of around 8,000,000 jobs to try and automate!

What do you think about the role virtual robots will play in operational processes? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Why I signed the Digital Participation Charter

I am a great believer that digital has the opportunity to reduce costs, improve services and change lives.

I had to renew my kids’ passports recently. My experience was that the on-line form was simple and quick to complete, gave me a copy for my own records by default and then a text message received to let me know that the form had been approved and the new document being printed. Left me feeling reassured and impressed by the government service. Not an outcome I was expecting I have to admit.

Sopra Steria is company that works with organisations to make best use of technology to support their business, reduce costs and implement digital solutions. We are advocates for the use of technology to reduce cost and improve services.

To me the public sector has no choice but to ‘go digital’. Not only does it give the opportunity for services improvement, such as the passport office example, it is also by going digital that we can reduce the cost of services, which unless we do we will be cutting services.

But in forging ahead we have a social responsibility to those who we are potentially leaving behind. We have to provide support to bring as many people with us as we can. To me, it is those who we often refer to as the digitally excluded who have the most to gain from digital participation. I have met carers who feeling isolated at home gained a support network on-line, older people with grandchildren far away being able to Skype chat and disabled people who can’t speak or write be able to communicate.

Sopra Steria has signed Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter to pledge our support to achieving this aim. As an IT services organisation we have staff with very valuable digital skills. Just giving a little of their time, could help someone get on-line or better still train someone who works with the socially disadvantaged on a daily basis.

So I urge all to sign the Digital Participation Charter. Be an advocate for bringing the opportunities that digital has to offer to as many in our society as we can. With as many of us doing what we can, we have an opportunity to make a big difference.

Mobile payments?

Oh no!” (I can hear you say) “Not another blog about mobile payments…” Well, yes… and no.

I’m probably as fed up as you are with a lot of the stuff that gets written about “mobile payments” – almost as fed up as I am with the nonsense that people write about “mobile wallets”, but that’s a whole different discussion.

Why am I fed up? Well, basically because many of the blog posts and articles and much of the commentary around mobile payments cast too wide a net and addresses products, solutions or developments that are way wide of the mark when compared against a proper expression of a mobile payment implementation. All of this noise helps to perpetuate the idea that anything which involves:

  1. a mobile phone, and
  2. a payment of some sort

automatically qualifies as a “mobile payment”.

So, if I take out my Samsung Galaxy S4 and use the Chrome browser to call up the Tesco Dotcom site, place an order for groceries to be delivered over the weekend and then pay for the goods by entering my credit card details, then that’s a mobile payment, right? Or if my friendly neighbourhood plumber fixes that annoying leak under the sink and he accepts my credit card payment (well, it was an emergency!) by using his iPhone connected to an iZettle card reader, I’ve just made a mobile payment, haven’t I?

Compare that to walking into your nearest Starbucks with your Starbucks Rewards app open on your iPhone and presenting the “Pay” barcode to the scanner at the till to buy a caramel macchiato and a chocolate muffin – see the difference? It’s not the best example of a mobile payment by a long way, but at least it’s heading in the right direction insofar as you haven’t had to supply any payment credentials at the point of interaction to effect the payment (as in the Tesco example above) and you haven’t had to provide your plastic card to complete the transaction (as in the payment to the emergency plumber). Instead, information related to a payment card – in this case, the Starbucks Rewards card linked to a pre-paid account has been transferred from your mobile phone to the point of sale terminal, and all you had to do was wave your iPhone screen in front of the scanner.

If you want to get technical about it, you had to open your iPhone, which requires a screen swipe and (hopefully) a passcode; then you had to look for and open the Starbucks app; then you had to click on the “Pay” button and then orient the iPhone screen in such a way that the barcode could be read by the awkwardly positioned laser scanner… But it was easy, wasn’t it? And you got a star for making the purchase with your Starbucks Rewards card (in your iPhone app). So maybe it wasn’t that easy and it could have been better designed to ensure a smoother, more convenient customer experience, but it’s still more like a “real” mobile payment than the other examples above, despite its sub-optimal implementation.

So, in my view, there are true mobile payment solutions and there are other implementations which are “mobile payments” in name only. But what makes a good mobile payment product, as far as I’m concerned? Well, there are a number of factors at play in building a fit for purpose solution in the mobile payments space, including security, functionality and ubiquity of acceptance, but most of them revolve around the customer and the customer’s experience of using the mobile payment solution. I talk about this aspect of mobile payments and what customers are looking for in a mobile payment product in my recent white paper on mobile payments as well as discussing what makes a mobile payment a mobile payment. Take a look at it: it might help you appreciate why I get fed up with some of the stuff that I read about “mobile payments”.

What do you think? Post a reply below, contact me by email at liam.lannon@soprasteria.com.

Mixed gender teams are more successful

.. And it has been proven by academic research. Single sex teams do not show the same flare or creativity as a mixed team and therefore are less successful. It’s not an earth shattering headline until you realise that only 13% of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) jobs in the UK are occupied by women.

Equality in the tech workplace, it seems, still eludes us and the reasons for this start early with girls tending to choose topics at school and university that are less male-dominated. The statistics show that social norms and societal expectations are pressure enough to drive girls into careers where their gender is less noticeable.

It is not all bad news though, as women become successful leaders in their chosen fields and as the world of business cranks up the opportunity provided by digital innovation, women and technology become reacquainted. Fifty women were identified last year through Inspire Fifty, a pan European initiative to encourage, develop, identify and showcase women in leadership positions within the technology sector: of these women, 17 lived and worked in the UK. So women are finding more opportunity in the UK in comparison with the rest of Europe, but there is no room for complacency.

It’s known that women are generally not so good at pushing themselves forward and believing in their own capabilities. A man is much more likely to “go for it” than a woman. Harriet Minter, Editor of the Women in Leadership section of the Guardian recommends that girls and women to “proceed until apprehended”, to not ask for permission before doing something that we believe in but to just go ahead and do it.

As a woman working within the field of technology I have had the full range of experience from being the sole woman in a peer group meeting (only red dress in a sea of grey suits), being mistaken for the lady who does the coffee at a meeting (I’m not bad at making coffee but that was not why I was there), leading a team where the dominance of women inadvertently silenced the only male member, to being part of a mixed team that was diverse, energetic and high performing.

I also have the experience of talking to people about developing their careers as a coach and mentor. Most of the coachees were women – wonderful women with incredible skills and abilities who were not sure how or whether they should make the next step in their career. The key is always to step past the fear of failure and do something, but it helps to have an ally or a mentor that will help you along the way when you feel a wobble in your intentions.

It is for many of these reasons that Nadira Hussain, president of Socitm, is keen to give women in the IT industry more visibility and recognition to become the role models young girls can aspire to be. Socitm is setting up a Woman in IT Network to offer coaching, mentoring and open discussions about career choices in both the public and private sectors . Getting involved in these networks can help guide women and young girls into an exciting and rewarding career within an industry that is growing rapidly. For the industry to be at its best we need diversity at all levels up to the board room.

What’s your view? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

The next digital disruption: buying B2B services using social media channels?

Digital Transformation is changing how businesses interact with customers and each other.

In this environment business-to-business (B2B) service providers face the constant threat of “digital disrupters” – new entrants who don’t fundamentally change the underlying product or service but win (or steal?) market share by leveraging new ways to interact with customers/clients and suppliers.

But couldn’t an existing B2B service provider become the digital disrupter by leveraging social media to create a new, differentiated approach to market engagement to deliver sustainable competitive advantage?

Here are some (radical?) ideas…

Customer led innovation: clients could potentially benefit from best practice about digital transformation being shared rapidly from different sectors (for example, the innovative work in UK central government and retail). A service provider could use its social media channel(s) to enable this sharing in an intuitive, dynamic way tailored to specific client needs. Furthermore, the provider could use gamification to incentivise the sharing of insights, advise directly between companies (such as discounting its services for clients providing such support). This would help position the B2B service provider’s brand as a collaborative thought leader in digital transformation.

Deepening personalisation: a provider could engage directly in all the social media activity of a client (at all levels including organisational, team and individual). Although there is a risk of appearing intrusive, it’s a way of building more intimate relationships with existing clients and sourcing new ones. This would also pro-actively complement and enhance other sales and account management approaches it uses.

Intensifying responsiveness: undoubtedly radical and reputationally risky, clients could post their complaints, issues and other feedback directly on a B2B service provider’s social media channels. The value comes from how the provider deals with these issues openly in this public space; a positive opportunity to explicitly demonstrate its strong commitment to quality service delivery.

Buy buttons: underlying these social media channel approaches would be the tools to enable a client to contact a sales representative immediately to purchase the provider’s services. Depending on the agility of the provider, potentially these services could be bought and stood up on the same day – now that’s digital transformation!

If you would like to find out more about how digital transformation can benefit your business, please leave a reply below, or contact the Sopra Steria Digital Practice.

Solvency II – a day well spent

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending the Insurance ERM conference “Data for ERM & Solvency II“. The focus of the day was firmly on data and its importance in the risk management of insurers, something of a personal hobby horse of mine, now that I’ve spent the last 18 years of my working life on that very topic!

It was particularly pleasing to find that many of the insurers attending the event were looking beyond the regulatory compliance aspects of data management and saw the governance and maintenance of their own data as key to the success of their organisations in the digital age. David Lodge (Allianz) gave an excellent presentation on taking a pragmatic approach to implementing a Data Governance framework. A quote he attributed to his CEO explained that their organisation only had two unique assets “people and data”. It’s worth taking a moment to consider to what extent your business strategy is aligned to leveraging your own unique corporate assets, which I’d argue as a minimum should include those two.

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Sopra Steria’s Slaven at Data for ERM & Solvency II 2015

My colleague Slaven (pictured) proved a big hit during the coffee breaks and not only on account of the bowls of Haribo at our table but also his demonstration of our fully featured software solution for the last mile of Pillar 3 – SOLVARA-QRT, which will be used by over 250 insurers to get their Solvency II ducks in a row.

Later in the day I enjoyed the panel discussion with Richard Charlton (Phoenix Group) and Dominic Rau (Swiss Re) who highlighted the challenges of coping with both the variety of data required by an ‘internal model’ and also the subsequent maintenance of robust and detailed documentation of that model.  The “simple” logistics of maintaining and operating an internal model have too often only been considered in Solvency II programmes as an afterthought. The initial rush to implement exciting and exotic new algorithms has understandably been a key focus though, ultimately, the BAU success of an internal model is tied to its usability.

Recently we have helped a number of our clients implement data and knowledge management solutions to ease the headache of model updates and meet the requirements of the ‘use test’.

The conference closed with an insightful presentation delivered by Peter Telford (Legal & General) on the division of data management responsibilities between the first, second and third lines, but not before he’d won our prize draw for an iPad Air 2!

Thanks to all at Insurance ERM for organising a very entertaining and informative conference on what can be something of a dry topic.

What are your thoughts about data and its importance in the risk management of insurers? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.