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Thinking about context

This is the third in a series of posts about why personalisation needs context.

In my last post I wrote about Joe Pine’s idea that we can create new value by customising goods, products, services and experiences. And I wrote about how I believe we’re starting to do the next logical thing: we are customising experiences to create personalised ‘Moments’.

In this post I want to look at how companies differentiate themselves – and why so many organisations get it so wrong when it comes to customising services and experiences. And what this means for this idea of Moments.

Let me start with an example. I was recently travelling into work when I received a text from my mobile phone company telling me about a new loyalty offer from one of their ‘trusted partners’. It was a coupon to use that day at a local coffee shop. The problem was that the coupon had been sent to me based on where I was at the time. Which was on a train travelling about 50mph through that particular area.

It was a waste of a text. A waste of my time and attention. And a waste of money for the trusted partner (who I’m sure had been sold a ‘targeted loyalty solution’ as part of a ‘customer engagement service’ from the mobile operator). Even if they could have predicted that I wanted a coffee at that moment – ignoring the fact that I’d bought one before getting on the train – they’d failed to understand the meaning of my location. They were guessing.

(As an aside, I’ve just looked through the other ‘loyalty’ offers texted to me by my mobile operator. Some insight here if you bother to look: A cider offer (I expect based on my demographic profile), very expensive headphones (again, my demographic?), an invitation to visit a newly-decorated department store (based on location), a beer offer (I don’t drink beer), a discount sofa range (who knows), lottery tickets (don’t play), a lunch offer (the closest match – sent at lunch time), and a deal for an ice lolly. All waste. All diluting the market message. And all reminding me of Don Marti’s brilliant writing about ads and signalling here.)

So I started thinking about this more generally – why and how so many organisations make these assumptions, and waste time, effort, money and the relationship with the customer. Why guesswork is considered the smartest way to engage with customers.

Looking back at Joe Pine’s ideas about Mass Customisation, he describes how companies are able to differentiate: with products, it’s mainly about price. With services, he believes it’s about improving quality. And with experiences, it’s all about being authentic – or rather, two specific types of authenticity:

  1. Being true to others – doing what you say you will
  2. Being true to yourself – being consistent about who you are

By mapping these two types onto a ‘two-by-two’ matrix, he shows that there are four possible types of experience. Here’s a picture of what he means (some are my own examples):

Moment economy pic 2_B&W

Top right: It’s an authentically ‘real’ experience. They are themselves and do what they say they will. Like going to a traditional Italian family restaurant – they take a very real pride in serving you and discussing suitable wines, insisting that you sample their home-made tiramisu, and giving you an espresso on the house, because it’s what they are passionate about.

Top left: It’s kind of authentic, but there’s something missing. They do what they promise but they really aren’t truly being themselves. Like being served by the clichéd Fast Food Burger Guy – yes, he sells you a burger, but he doesn’t love his job. His “have a nice day” as you leave feels empty.

Bottom right: It’s an authentic experience, but it’s a ‘real fake’. Like going to DisneyLand – in every way it’s about family entertainment, but you’re not really in the Magic Kingdom.

Bottom left: It’s a completely fake experience. Like being the victim of a phishing attack – the people contacting you are not who they say they are, and don’t do what they promise.

I like Pine’s thinking about these two types of authenticity. So it got me thinking about how I could look at customised experiences – my idea of ‘Moments’ – in the same way.

How can companies differentiate themselves when it comes to personalisation?

I believe there are two things organisations will need to understand:

  1. Who I am. But not just my identity generally – it has to be ‘who I am right now’. They’ll need to understand my persona – who I want to be seen as – because this changes over time. At some times of day I’m a parent, at other times I’m a football supporter, sales executive, friend and so on.
  2. What matters to me. Again, this doesn’t just mean ‘my preferences’, but what I want or need right now. Am I looking for advice? Am I sharing with friends? Am I shopping or just browsing?

So like Pine’s view of experiences, I’ve had a go at mapping out personalised Moments in the same way. Here’s my view of the four outcomes:

 2x2 Authentic pic_2_B&W

Top left: When the organisation asks me who I am, but then guesses what matters right now: it’s Facebook (and other ‘social commerce’).

  • Them: “Please sign in and let us know exactly who you are.”
  • Me: “Hi, it’s me again.”
  • Them: “Hey! We’ve been following your activities online (and in some places offline too), and what your friends have been saying recently, and we thought you might be interested in this Expensive Car. And an ‘Ice Watch’. And a ‘Dream holiday in Malaysia”.* 

*these are not random examples – I just logged into Facebook to see what ads were being shown to me…

 Top right: When the organisation asks me who I am, but asks me about what matters right now: it’s

  • Them: “Hi, how can I help you?”
  • Me: “I’m looking for a new mobile deal.
  • Them: “Ah, what kind of deal are you looking for? We can help you look through all the options on the market right now, but if you let us know how you use your phone we can find you the best fit.”
  • Me: “Well here’s how I’ve used my phone for the last few months….”

Bottom right: When they don’t know who I really am, but go some way to asking what I want: it’s uSwitch (and other price comparison websites).

  • Them: “Hi, what are you looking for today.”
  • Me: “Here’s some basic information about what I need.”
  • Them: “Great! Here’s a list of things you might be interested in, but because we don’t really know who you are (and can’t verify any of the stuff you just told us) you’ll have to speak to the providers directly.”

Bottom left: When they don’t know who I am and completely guess what I want: it’s spam.

  • Them: “Would you like to buy this car?”
  • Me: “How did you get this address? Please delete me from your database.”
  • Them (8 minutes later): “Would you like to buy this car? Or this one? Or this one?”

Back to my texted-coupon-on-a-train example. I wrote earlier that they had failed to understand the meaning of my location – or rather, the context of my location. I believe that personalisation goes wrong when no one’s asking about the customer’s context, or no one’s listening. It’s being sent a ‘targeted’ advert for a car, not knowing you just joined a car club. It’s being recommended a book on Amazon based on your shopping history, not knowing you actually hate the author (your previous purchase was for a friend). It’s being sent coupons for pregnancy products based on your shopping history, when you haven’t yet told your family you are expecting a baby.

The opportunity here is to help organisations understand their customers better. Who they are and what matters to them – at that moment. The problem is that this is very hard to do at Internet Scale. Which is why most organisations rely on standardising processes, service models and customer experiences. It’s the easiest answer when all your customers look the same, and you’ve had a 150 years of practice. (though it’s unfortunate that standardisation like this can unintentionally kill innovation.)

I continue to be excited by everything going on around Personal Clouds, Trust Frameworks and Vendor Relationship Management. Because I believe that these ideas and others will help organisations build relationships with individuals, not just drive transactions. And in doing so they’ll be able to listen to, and understand, customer context.

It’s worth noting one point of caution here, made by Doc Searls after I put up my last blog post. Almost all personalisation as we know it today is ‘vendor-side’ and not ‘customer-side’. Put simply, it’s usually done TO us – or at best WITH us – rather than done BY us, the customer. You know, the people paying for stuff. My simple view is that personalisation is all about understanding Moments; this means listening to – and likely for – customer signals.

I believe we’re about to enter a very interesting few years where customers will start to have tools to express who they are, and what they want – when it matters. And organisations will be able to listen, and address those customers directly. I think it was Doc who a while back reminded us that we overestimate what will happen in two years, but underestimate what will happen in ten…

It’s an exciting time indeed.


Thinking about moments

In my last post I wrote about how personalising a product or service means you need to know lots about the person. And that means having lots of personal data. On one hand most people want the very best deals and meaningful interactions with organisations whose products and services they need and want. On the other hand, there are a growing number of people who are uncomfortable about who has access to our personal data, why they have it, and what else they are doing with it (or what might happen to it unintentionally).

Whilst the idea of personalisation is appealing to many, there’s a deep debate about how we balance the innovation and convenience of personalisation with the security and privacy implications.

This post is about personalisation, but from the perspective of ‘Mass Customisation’, one of the ideas that Joseph Pine wrote about 20 years ago.

First, a bit of background on the idea. Pine describes how we’ve progressed through clear economic phases:

  • In the early days, most markets were centred around the commodities we produced as an agrarian society; the output from farming land and animals. For example, we bought and sold coffee beans in sacks.
  • Some people started to process these raw materials and package them up for a particular need – these raw materials had been ‘customised’. They became goods, and over time we stopped caring about who supplied the raw materials – we ‘commoditised’ them. We bought and sold pre-ground coffee in packets.
  • Then, over time, many started to use the available goods to create services, adding further value and of course charging a higher price still. We stopped caring so much about who supplied the goods behind the service, and we commoditised further. We bought and sold fresh coffee by the cup.

His main point was that this is a repeating trend: we customise to create value, and in doing so, we end up commoditising.

In his book, and later in this popular TED talk, he asked the next logical question: so what’s after services? What happens when you customise a service? His view, I think generally accepted, is that you get an experience. A service tailored in some way. Here’s the coffee analogy: the service providers not only grind the beans for us and make us a coffee, but we are invited to relax in big comfy arm chairs, listen to jazz and eat muffins. A specific customer journey. A specific environment. A specific view of added value, and importantly about finding new ways to make and sustain the profit margin.

And it makes perfect business sense: coffee beans cost less than a penny; a packet of ground coffee costs a few pounds; and fresh coffee costs £1.50 a cup. Yet a visit to Starbucks for a skinny-latte-extra-shot-no-foam-Norah-Jones-serenade costs nearer £5. And guess who’s making the good profit margins.

As ever, a picture helps:

Experience economy pic


But here’s what’s interesting: what comes after experiences?

The logical answer is that it will be the customisation of experiences. But what does that mean, exactly? Pine believes that it’s all about transformation – helping you transform yourself, physically, intellectually or emotionally. But having thought about it for a while I believe that it’s much more specific than that.

To me at least, customising an experience means understanding when you have the experience. And where. And with whom you share it. And a whole range of other things that depend on your context. I’ve come to think of these as specific ‘moments’.

I believe that as we’re moving from the service economy and into today’s emerging ‘experience economy’, we’re starting to see the early signs of a new economy around personalised experiences. At specific times of day, like when you get up. At specific locations, like your place of work. And specific social contexts, like going out for a family meal.

Just as companies differentiate themselves today by improving the customer service and the customer experience, I believe that they will look for ways to add new value by personalising customer moments. When you walk into a store. When you get engaged. When the weather changes and you need to change your route to work. When you’re moving house.

Just look at what Google are doing with their personalised digital assistant application, Google Now. They take data from your daily routine, your current location, your social and search activity, plus other digital breadcrumbs and provide up-to-the minute recommendations/ suggestions about what might matter to you – right now.

I recently came across this quote from Alain de Botton:

“Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us…”

This really struck a chord and the idea of moments has become very clear to me now. And how understanding context is fundamental to getting personalisation right (and why so many get it wrong). Pine’s idea of Mass Customisation is an important one, and something that I think will come to life as we develop better tools to help us express context – who, what, when and where matters to us individually.

Personalisation. It’s a matter of time. And of moments.

Thinking about personalisation

[So I’ve been meaning to write a new post for a while now. In fact for about a year. The last 12 months have been great thinking time and great family time. But it’s now time to get back online properly and put some new posts up. For people to read, for people to think about; hopefully for people to discuss and respond. Make of it what you will – I’m all ears. And eyeballs. And keen to hear and see what you think. Most of all I want to start a discussion.  Spark some conversations. Perhaps some relationships. And you never know, maybe even some transactions. (For those that don’t get the reference – go and read #Cluetrain. Welcome everybody, I’m back.]

Today’s thoughts are brought to you by the letter P and the number 1. P stands for Personalisation and ’1′ stands for the fact that there is only one you. Whilst there may be many versions of who we want to show at any one time, there’s only one real you (for a bit of background on some of that, see my previous posts).

You see, it all starts with internet advert click-through-rates. The last time I looked – and I must confess that I haven’t checked for a while (but very much doubt if things are today much different) – on average, internet banner adverts in the US get a click through rate of around 0.1% (that’s one in 1000, to be clear)

(Not for nothing, but one of my favourite facts from this same study suggests that Facebook achieves half of this (one in 2000), whilst Google get four times this (one in 250), almost 10 times that of Facebook. Curious indeed.)

Anyway, my point is this: the online advertising machine – the same one that over-valued Facebook at their IPO and according to Doc Searls is in a bubble – needs ever more data every day to stay relevant. It needs to gather up increasing amounts of juicy data about things like our habits, preferences, transactions, shopping trips and travel plans. In an effort to improve a terribly low rate of 0.1%, it’s understandable that marketing teams all over the world are asking for more data. Data about you, about people like you, and about people like people like you. And their friends.

The thing is as they gather more data, it all ends up on a spectrum of ‘use-value’ (as opposed to ‘sale value’ – see this great post for more). At one end of the spectrum the use-value is zero. The data is wildly wrong; it clogs up the customer relationship management (CRM) tools of our businesses, and fuels badly targeted ads and other ‘personalised’ services which in turn clog up our daily lives and devices.

At the other end of the spectrum the use-value is huge. The data can be used to deliver helpful, timely and relevant services to the right person at the right time. But the problem here is two-fold: First, the service is often ‘targeted’ at a ‘consumer’ that is ‘owned’ by an organisation. The purpose is purely commercial, and is really just about finding qualified leads for another sale. The individual is rarely actually involved. Second, it’s only when the data gets really accurate that we begin to ask questions about who has our data and why. We start to ask questions about trust.

When an organisation has worked out where you are, what you’re doing, possibly who you’re with, what you might need and when, we begin to wonder what else they know, what other data they have and what else might it be used for. It’s taken the public debate around PRISM both in the USA and Europe for us to reflect on what data we’re comfortable sharing with others (perhaps in the name of security) and what data we’d rather keep to ourselves.

And so personalisation is a tricky business. It’s about finding the balance of use-value for the individual and use-value for the organisation. When we get it right, everyone wins. But when we don’t, our businesses waste time and money and our lives get noisy; worse, we can sometimes lose trust – not only in the people or organisatoins involved, but in the whole system.

This is the first post about personalisation. It’d be good to get your thoughts – which companies get it right and why? What do they do that’s different?

I’ll bet that some have found a better way to spend money than on a 1-in-a-1000 advertising lucky dip. And they don’t irritate us in the process.

Sharing and empowerment: a virtuous circle

Today I want to write about how as we begin to share more of our data, I believe we can be empowered to do more of what matters to us. More sharing means more empowerment.

Let me explain what I mean.

The more we connect and share with those we trust, the more we can learn about ourselves and each other, and indeed about our wider communities. And the more we learn, the more we are likely to understand, and the better we are able to tell stories – about ourselves, about each other and about the world around us. All of this means we can make informed decisions.

When sharing gets smart

Let’s take smart meters as an example. These are the devices you can connect to your energy meter to send detailed records of your energy use back to your energy supplier (the UK government wants to have these rolled out to every home in the UK by 2019). By receiving real-time meter readings your energy supplier will be able to send you a much more accurate bill. At the same time, the energy company will be able to aggregate real usage across a wider group and be able to better manage supply and demand. In theory this means they’ll be able to improve energy pricing, which should be a win for everyone: a better service at a lower cost, and better margins for the supplier.

Now, what if you could share that information with another organisation that was working on your behalf? This other company could help you understand even more about your energy use, help you change your behaviours or indeed save money and become greener if that’s what matters to you. Based on your actual usage they could help you to find out which supplier can give you the best deal, or even give your whole street the best deal. By sharing your energy data with other people or groups you trust, you are able to learn and understand more and be able to tell a better story; a story about you, or indeed your street. This means you’ll be able to make better decisions – in this case you’d be able to make an informed decision about which energy supplier to use rather than trying to navigate the confusopoly that exists today.

Happily, such helpful organisations are beginning to emerge. A great example is called billmonitor. These clever clogs ask you to share your mobile phone bill with them so they can analyse it; they compare your last few months’ mobile use to the open market of mobile phone deals out there and then suggest the the contract/ company for you to get the best deal. They believe that 76% of people in the UK are on the wrong mobile phone contract, paying too much money and getting too little value. They believe that they can save the average person almost £200 a year. What a great idea.

The point is that it shouldn’t just be your energy data that you should be able to share, but all the types of data you create. I suspect ‘billmonitor’ have used that brand name exactly because it’s generic; this is a repeatable model which should work across other utilities, perhaps even other industries like your grocery shopping and banking. And it would all be volunteered by you – not automatically scraped and harvested by others without your permission.

A virtuous circle

So, back to this idea of sharing.

I believe that as I understand more, I can better tell the story, and that’s when I am able to make better decisions e.g. about what to buy, what price to pay, what behaviour to change and how. Such decisions mean I can become empowered to save time, effort and money, which frees me up to focus on what matters – to spend that time, effort and money on what I believe. The thing is, the more focus on what I believe, the more I am able to listen to what matters. And as we listen, we’ll learn more, and therefore understand more. And so on and so on, round and round. I think that it fits together as a virtuous circle – it would look something like this:

This all happens – and is reinforced – when we connect and share with those we trust.

Let’s take an example: patientslikeme. The more health data that patients share about themselves, the more the group learns and understands more about each other, and about the group generally. And the more they understand, the better a story they can tell about the individual or group as a whole. They can begin to see trends and opportunities which help them make better decisions: the patient can make informed decisions with her doctor about her medication or her fitness routine based on group feedback; the group can exercise their buying power – perhaps to lobby to lower the price of a drug, or to show that there’s money on the table for a drug that’s not yet been brought to market; the group can also share aggregated results with the medical research community, who in turn can help improve the very medical science which will help improve the lives of the group.

When these individuals are enabled to connect and share with those they trust, they can make better decisions and in turn are freed up to focus on what they believe. In this context, making informed decisions means helping people get better and live longer in less pain. And as they do this, they can listen to, or perhaps simply pay attention to what matters – their family, sport, their hobbies, their career or whatever, because we’re all different.

The bigger picture

I think this virtuous circle applies everywhere, including business. The more companies listen to their customers – what they want, how, when and why – the more they’ll learn and understand about what to sell, how and when. And the more they understand, the better they can tell the customer’s story – about why they are in business to serve customers. And the better the story about why the company exists, and why people do business with them, and what their customers believe.

As these stories are told, the better business decisions they’ll make, both tactical and strategic. And if they make better business decisions, this will give them the business oxygen – increased revenue, cash-flow, profit, shareholder confidence, attraction and retention of talent – to focus on what matters; the customer. Once again, it looks something like this:

I believe that if we are given the opportunity to connect and share with those we trust, we’ll get better at listening, at learning, at understanding and telling the story.

This means we’ll make better decisions, and ultimately be able to focus on what matters. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a patient like me or an organisation, the point is the same: the more we share with those we trust, the more we can be empowered to do what we believe.

A single version of you

In my last post I suggested that there are around 200 organisations that have their own version of you in their systems. Your shopping history with them (and only them), your credit card information, your address (possibly an old one), your email (possibly out of date, or incorrectly spelled through manual error), your age (guessed), financial status (assumed), marital status (incorrect), mobile number (work not personal) and so on. Some right, some wrong, some just out of date.

What would it be like if you could manage a single version of you? You’d want to make sure that not all of the data was held in one place – a potential honey-pot for hackers – but instead you could pull it together from other sources on demand so that you could make sense of it. Indeed, those 200 organisations could ask you for permission to subscribe to it, on your terms. And you’d be able to manage the context of how it’s shared – who gets to see what. On one hand you’d be able to give a bank access to your credit history so that they can authorise a loan, but then you could rescind that access after seven days. You’d be able to prove who you are to a hotel without them having to take a photocopy of your passport.

You’d be able to share your contact details with your employer, your childrens’ school and your family, but then be able to keep that information hidden from a high street retailer who asks for your mailing list details. You’d then be able to share your delivery contact information with that same high street retailer’s delivery company because that has context (but it would only be until the TV was delivered; afterwards they have no need for the data and you’d be able to remove that organisation’s subscription to those details). And perhaps interestingly, you could share with those organisations the information about what you actually want and need to buy. In real time, they could see your intentions. Some trusted organisations would even be allowed to recommend things that you don’t yet know you want, so there would still be some sense of serendipity in the system.

Something for everyone

Just think about the benefits here for businesses. No more buying data about customers on the open market to make their sure Customer Relationship Management systems are up-to-date. No more guesswork about what individuals might buy and when, spending good money after bad on advertising which has a hit-rate of 0.5%. Instead there will be deeper, richer, more valuable relationships with customers. And more accurate stories about the individual, written by them, on their terms.

And if that wasn’t enough, the single truth about an individual could be combined with others to create a single truth about a whole group – no more need for guesswork about demographic approximations and customer segmentations. Instead you’ll have customers – who trust the organisations – forming groups to tell lots about themselves; data which could be pulled together to make sense of a particular need or group behaviour. Very useful indeed; it would turn customer insight on its head.

If it was possible to manage such a personal data single truth to which others could subscribe, then it would be a place for more than this idea of ‘Volunteered Personal Information’ (i.e. all those forms you fill in); it could also be a place to capture and manage lots of other types of personal data, for example your receipts (think email receipts), travel information (think London’s oyster scheme data) and bank statements (a la lovemoney). I called this your ‘created data’ – the stuff you generate daily by shopping, browsing, travelling and sharing.

If we could pull all this information into one place it would create a much richer picture of who you are – a much richer view than those 200 organisations have about you today. It could capture the books you bought on Amazon as well as the ones at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble. It could capture what you spent on food at restaurants as well as in the supermarket. Wouldn’t that be handy? A holistic view of you – wouldn’t that be useful for companies who want to ‘personalise’ their service? Once again, if it was pulled together in a meaningful way – with a story written by you – wouldn’t it have more value than the dry data organisations buy today from the data markets?

A new way to tell stories

Imagine that this idea of a single place for your personal data could pull together all that information – not to store, but for reference – and then help you make sense of it, help you tell your story. (it’s important to note that this single place isn’t a centralised ‘vault’ or ‘cloud backup’ for all the original data, but instead is a place where all these different feeds can come together to help you make sense of them all – a bit like Flipboard for your personal data, with some parts that are authored by you.)

And imagine being able to share some of that information with others like you who have similar intentions and needs, and to express them in groups so that organisations can see aggregated demand, and perhaps even build new products and services to meet those group demands, knowing that there’s enough volume to warrant the investment.

Wouldn’t that be brilliant.

And it’s possible today.

By the end of the year, it’s expected that there will be at least half a dozen personal data services available to the public that will do just this – some of them are listed here. There’s been more than $100m invested by venture capitalists around the world in these ideas. Together with the myriad of personalised services appearing all around us, together with digital banking and ewallets and e-health systems and smart meters and social platforms, they are all straws in the wind. Together these things are going to fundamentally change the way we tell our stories. And who writes, edits and publishes them.

Why stories matter

This is the second of three posts about your personal data, about why they tell a story, and why that matters.

When you sew together the many separate pieces of my personal data one can start to tell a story…

  • A story about my shopping habits (think Tesco clubcard)
  • A story about my finances (think Mint)
  • A story about my likes and dislikes (think Pandora)
  • A story about my relationships (think Facebook)
  • A story about my skills and career (think LinkedIn)

And indeed when you put my data together with a larger group, you get even more powerful, collective stories…

But the cautionary tale here – and which I’ve told above, and many times before – is of organisations trying to tell the story about you, but not with you. If it’s not you doing the writing (or it’s done without your permission) then the story won’t be a real one; it’ll always be at least in part a fictional one. In the same way a Hollywood movie is sometimes ‘based on a true story’, the organisation is likely to exaggerate some parts of the tale and completely miss out others so that the story has a particular ‘angle’. Bravehart, Titanic, 127 hours and The Queen all used poetic license to twist a true story into a beginning, middle and an end so that it could tug at the heart strings, ultimately to achieve blockbuster success.

This idea of ‘taking an angle’ is what I think Facebook, Google and others do when they target ads at you. They have pieced together their version of your story without your involvement, and in most cases their assumption is that you are always looking to buy stuff. To their mind it’s the only reason you’ll be on the internet. You’re not there to connect, share and learn, but instead to buy. (To be fair, these companies often have nobler goals like to connect everyone or to organise the world’s information, but to fund these bold endeavours they feel they have to flog stuff to us which is a shame.) Anyway, this assumption – their use of poetic license – is wrong. Sometimes of course, they’ll get the story right and you’ll be looking for something to buy, but we can see that it’s only once in a thousand (and once in two thousand for Facebook) that they’ll show you something you’re actually interested in, and that’s probably more luck than judgement.

Becoming the author, editor and publisher

Stories need to be crafted. This means someone needs to write the words, someone needs to edit them and someone needs to publish them. Most of the time we’re the writer, filling out form after form usually in order to benefit from a product or service. At other times we let others write about us, for example our credit reference agencies or hospitals. And sometimes we’re the editor, when we get to update our data through a self-service portal, or we’re able to mash up our own datasets for other purposes, like with And finally social media tools have enabled us to become publishers in our own right.

It’s worth noting that once the data is written down or captured on someone else’s computer we lose control over what happens to it; just like the book that’s put on the bookstore’s shelves, we can’t control who buys and reads it, nor control if it’s copied or if the contents are mashed up with other material to make something new. Indeed I don’t believe that we should we have such control, something that certain element of copyright have been trying to do for a long time… in a previous post I’ve written about how it’s not really possible to have control over our personal data once it’s published; instead we need more transparency over where our data is held and a right to reply when we’re not happy with how it’s used.

Anyway, back to stories. Becoming the author, editor or publisher means that our personal data stories can be set in context, and have intent. In so many cases though it’s someone writing, editing and publishing our personal data and so our stories aren’t told in the right way. Some organisations even sell on our data so that even more organisations can write their version of the story, once again though without our editorial or publishing control.

It’s possible, just possible, that you know more about you than the organisations which want to sell things to you. Like where you actually live. Or what you like. Or when’s best to contact you, if at all. Or the actual reason you bought that album. It’s estimated that right now there are about 200 organisations that have their own ‘version of you’; government departments, online retailers, the driving licence authority, your current and past employers, your broadband provider, your grocery store’s loyalty team.

But what if you could write, edit and publish a single, true story about you, so that these 200 businesses could get what they need, each in context, and each with permission?

Wouldn’t that be a great idea?

The answer is yes. And it’s coming to a cinema near you soon…

Telling stories

[update: I originally put this up this as a single, much longer post, but based on feedback have decided to split it out it into three – the others are here and here)

Recently I wrote about some of the challenges and unwanted outcomes from sharing personal data. But what about the opportunities? I believe that is that there is an important but yet largely untold story about personal data – about sharing it, and about the benefits for us all if it’s done right.

On its own, data is somewhat dry. The fact that I bought Ed Sheeran’s album the other day doesn’t really indicate much other than I spent £11.99 on some music. Many companies might have seen me search for it online or seen the purchase itself and infer that I’m interested in Sheeran and try to sell me tickets to his next up-coming concert tour; others might infer that I’m into that genre of music and try to sell me related artists and albums (“people who bought this, also bought that”); others might further infer that I’m interested in winners of the Ivor Novello award. But no-one really knows why I bought it, except me. It was for some and all of those reasons, and was also in fact a present for someone else. My point is that the organisations will never know that, but many of them will take some of that dry data, mash it together with some other ‘feeds’ they have on me (most probably incorrect – from a ‘hollow me’ stored elsewhere), and make some assumptions about my preferences, and about what I want and need. Then try to sell me some more stuff.

Conversations aren’t necessarily markets

Armed with all that data about my recent music purchase, sometimes those organisations will target adverts at me, usually as I go about my business on the web. And sometimes they’ll get those targeted adverts right. But mostly – and overwhelmingly it’s mostly – they get it wrong. The latest stats on click-through rates from web-based targeted advertising are very interesting indeed (read shocking) when you look at them in the cold light of day:

  • Average: 0.1%
  • Facebook: 0.051%
  • Google: 0.4%

This means ON AVERAGE that for every 1000 people being shown an advert on the web, one person will click through to the company. Really? Think about that for a second, and imagine those odds in another context. For every 1000 people walking into a car show room, one will buy a car. For every 1000 people walking into a shoe shop, only one will buy some shoes. Of course not; the difference with theses cars and shoes is the intent of the individual. In my examples, people are walking into the shop and expressing an interest in a conversation. In Facebook’s case (and by the way for them it’s one in 2000 people clicking through) it’s like walking into a coffee shop and shouting offers at people based on what they are talking about (and to some extent based on who they are with, what they are drinking, what they look like, and which coffee shop they are hanging out it). In that context, then maybe one in 2000 might listen to the person at the till doing the shouting, but it’s an awfully odd way to go about getting business.

In Google’s case it’s like me walking up the high street doing some window shopping and based on the route I take around town, where I have been before and the discussion I’m having with a friend, having people with sandwich-board adverts follow me around, telling me about today’s offers possibly even based on where I’m standing at any one time. That could be relevant, and perhaps is why they are eight times more successful at click through ads than Facebook, but it’s still ridiculous odds, and well a little creepy.

Alan Mitchell, riffing on a Cluetrain meme put it brilliantly when he wrote that: “all markets are conversations. But not all conversations are markets.” In the examples above what’s missing is context. In context, I’m happy for organisations to sell things to me. In context, I might buy those things. In some contexts, I may in fact want to be left alone. And in others, I might even share more information about myself because there’s a benefit to doing so.

My point is this: context is about telling stories. We need stories to make things meaningful, to give them life. I believe that personal data can come to life when we tell the story about the individual – in context. And because it’s a story about personal data, we need to make sure it’s written, edited and published with permission, and only shared with those we trust; with those we have a relationship.

I believe that our personal data stories can be as beautiful, compelling, engaging and meaningful as the greatest stories ever told. So it’s important that we begin to understand where our stories come from, and how we write them.

More on that soon…

Some more lessons from Dan Pink

In my last post I wrote about how in Drive, Dan Pink wants us to change the way we think about how we’re motivated. He says that our current business operating system (which he thinks of as ‘Motivation 2.1’) is centred on external rewards – carrots and sticks. And he shows us the science which proves that it’s an increasingly outdated way to motivate people; indeed it can often do more harm than good. So Pink believes that we need an upgrade. Motivation 3.0 needs to be based on autonomy (to direct our own lives), mastery (to get better and better at something that matters) and purpose (to work in the service of something larger than ourselves). And I agree.

In this post I wanted to share some specific lessons I took from the book…

Give workers as much autonomy as you can handle. Pink says that if a task is self-directed, you’ll be more interested in it, you’ll make time for it and it’ll probably be better suited to your skills. And there’s a bunch of evidence that proves that business performance improves with greater employee autonomy. Researchers at Cornell University for example did an experiment with 320 small businesses, half of whom granted workers autonomy and half relied on top-down direction. The result? The former grew at four times the latter and had one third of the turnover. The bottom line from Pink is clear: “This era doesn’t need better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.” (Bonus link: JP Rangaswami has spoken at length about designing for loss of control”Why would you want to hire a really smart person and then tell them what to do…”)

Treat people as people; not as resources. In the book Pink talks a bit about ROWEs (results orientated work environments). They are the brainchild of Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, two former HR execs at the American retailer Best Buy. The idea is that as a business you ignore input measures like timesheets and instead focus entirely on outputs and outcomes; you enable the people in your organisation to work when and how they want, where and with whom they want. They just need to get the work done. This is Pink’s idea of autonomy on acid, and has proved very successful for many of the organisations who have embraced it. The killer line comes from CEO Jeff Gunther who has rolled out ROWE across his software companies: “More companies will migrate to this as more business owners my age come up. My dad’s generation views human beings as human resources …[]… for me it’s a partnership between me and my employees. They’re not resources, they’re partners.”

Pink reminds us that ‘management’ has been a specifically human invention. And like all inventions it’s had its time, grown old and needs to be updated: “…at it’s core management hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. It’s central ethic remains control; it’s chief tools remain extrinsic motivators.” Pink wants to challenge management’s underlying assumption: that we are naturally passive and inert, and need to be managed. He suggests instead that we are active, self-directed and curious, and that we’re wired that way out the box; you only need to look at a six-month-old child. He says that if we become passive and inert as we grow older it’s because we learn to be so. (As ever I find myself channelling Clay Shirky here: when our only opportunity was to consume, that’s what we did (and so we became marketing’s ‘consumers’); now that we have the opportunity to participate we’re much more active and engaged (and we have become Twitter’s and Facebooks ‘users’).) I personally believe that somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten to treat people as people, they’re still an asset on the balance sheet to be sweated. People are relationships. People are innovation. People are customers. Not resources.

Make time for free time. I don’t have much more to say about this one since ‘20% time’ is already famously part of Atlassian’s and Google’s working practices, other than to add that I strongly believe that more companies could benefit from some form of free innovation time. For those companies dedicated to – and often I suspect reliant on – innovation, I can see why one day in five actually needs to be spent working on employees’ own interests; after all, it’s what enabled Google to bring Gmail, Google News and AdSense to market. But I can understand why other organisations – perhaps those in heavy industry – might be reticent to try it out since their time really is money; if you’re not on the factory floor or selling then you’re not making money.

The point is that some form of free time would I suspect massively benefit those who try it. Perhaps just a trial of 5% time; that’s one day each month. You could find time for some people on the factory floor, while others keep the wheels turning, to solve problems that they care about. It would be easy to fashion it on Atlassian’s model of ‘FedEx days’ where you have to deliver something overnight. In a big company, this could have a huge impact on the customer experience, a new idea or indeed on employee satisfaction and engagement (especially if the employees can coordinate themselves around self-directed topics).

Help people find flow. I’m sure each of us can remember a time when we were so focussed on somthing that we were in the ‘zone’ – or as Mihaly Csikszentmihaly defines it (and as John Hagel has eloquently written lots about since), we had flow. I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t a reward or salary you were focussed on, but the task itself. This phenomenon has been well-documented in many disciplines from writers amd surgeons to painters and swimmers. Rather than clumsily summarise what’s in the book, here’s Pink’s own words about a study into flow: “the relationship between what a person has to do and what he could do was perfect. The challenge wasn’t too easy. Nor was it too difficult. It was a notch or two beyond his current abilities which stretched the body and mind in a way that made the effort itself the most delicious reward… …in flow, people lived so deeply in the moment and felt so utterly in control that their sense of time, place and even self melted away.”

If employees could be helped to find flow in their work, I suspect the performance benefits could be huge – and importantly, employee engagement and satisfaction would go through the roof. That would mean helping individuals find work that suits them, and would mean understanding – and providing feedback about – levels of performance and levels of task difficulty. This stuff isn’t easy to do and harder to implement. But if your organisations could tap into these employee moments of connection with the task, then it would benefit everyone.

Focus on learning goals not just performance goals. Setting out to get an A grade in high school French (what Pink calls a performance goal) is different from setting out to learn French (a learning goal). The motivations for each are very different and they will likely produce different outcomes. We all need to better understand these differences in order to tap into our individual potential – indeed to tap into our organisations ‘talent’.

Performance goals are those which have well-defined targets that can be clearly measured and rewarded – they are perfect for extrinsic motivation. Do this, get that. Learning goals on the other hand are longer-term and less-measurable, a bit like intrinsic-motivation. The thing is that with learning goals is that you get increasingly close to the target but never fully reach it. This very characteristic inspires continuous improvement – a need to keep learning. It’s one of the principles of mastery.

Importantly – and somewhat intuitively – learning goals (and therefore mastery) are more likely to satisfy us over the long term. One particular study looked at graduates in the years directly after university: they found that those who set out with performance goals (e.g. money, fame and acclaim) didn’t get happier or become more satisfied than they were at university. Even though many achieved their goals. AND they were more likely to get depressed or be anxious than those who set out with learning goals, who generally felt happier and reported higher levels of satisfaction over time.

There’s no secret sauce here: learning goals and mastery take lots of effort, patience, grit, determination and focus. These are the very leadership qualities that most organisations would want their employees to have – indeed, qualities which are so often seen in successful sports men and women, musicians, craftspeople and entrepreneurs. Perhaps organisations should take a closer look at learning goals and seek inspiration from beyond the boardroom (where we so often motivate leaders with performance goals and external rewards – share price performance, dividends and bonuses).

Only use carrots and sticks when you need to. Pinkpoints out a couple of big problems with external rewards. Firstly, they narrow our focus and restrict our thinking. This is great when we’re working on repetitive and rule-based tasks, but it’s not good when the task needs new ideas, inventiveness or for us to think ‘out the box’. In fact, external rewards like money have been shown time and time again to make us perform less well when the task requires creativity. Secondly, carrots and sticks can have unintended consequences. When we focus on external rewards we are more likely to cheat, to take shortcuts, to take risks, to cooperate less and even to become addicted to the reward itself; once a reward is offered, it becomes expected and over time, the gratification of the reward tails off which means that next time – like a drug – more reward is needed the get the same level of satisfaction.

The third reason that ‘if-then’ external rewards (and indeed punishments) can cause problems is that they can ‘crowd-out’ our intrinsic motivations. Regardless of why a task is started, if an external reward or punishment is introduced we’re likely to become less creative and more selfish. As they say, and research has shown, we’ll often consider that a ‘fine as a price’; we view punishments (our ‘sticks’) as something to weigh up against the benefit of doing it anyway.

Pink’s advice is that if we have to use carrots and sticks, we must make sure it’s only for rule-based algorithmic tasks and that we must also do three things to help employees: we must explain to the worker why the task is necessary (even if it’s boring, make it meaningful); we must acknowledge that the task is boring (empathise with those doing the work); and we must give the worker freedom to complete the task – focus them on the outcome, not the rules to get there – give them autonomy.

Given that today we’re more likely to be knowledge-workers than rule-based workers, carrots and sticks are probably doing more harm than good and encouraging us to take shortcuts to reach our goals. We need to think very carefully about how, when and why we use external rewards in the workplace. Of course, this is all very topical as we reflect on the root causes of the banking crisis…

Take money off the table. Each of us has a threshold level of motivation – a level of income we need to live a certain lifestyle, or an amount of pay below which we’ll say the task isn’t worth doing. Pink has shown that above this level of reward, extrinsic motivations can have a detrimental effect on performance and individual behaviour. So it’s clear then that a decent salary, benefits and perks should form only a baseline so that we can the issue of money off the table. We should instead motivate our employees with self-direction and control (autonomy), the enjoyment of the task itself and learning (mastery) and the reason to work in the service of something greater than ourselves (purpose). It’s about using rewards in the right way. In my mind this is a bit like Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs. A salary should address our basic needs, but that it’s our intrinsic motivations that should push us up to the higher levels of esteem and self-actualisation (which is of course where creativity, problem solving and morality live – the very things we aspire to have in the workplace).

Peter Drucker had it right: people make shoes not money. Let’s start rewarding people to make great shoes and the rest will follow.

Start with why. This one deserves a whole post in itself, but for now the lesson is simply that we need our organisations to have a reason to exist that’s beyond performance goals and extrinsic rewards. Money is an outcome, not a purpose. Only this week I noticed that Sir Jonathan Ive said at a conference: “Our goal absolutely at Apple is not to make money… Our goal and what gets us excited is to try to make great products. We trust that if we are successful people will like them, and if we are operationally competent we will make revenue, but we are very clear about our goal.”

A choice

So Pink sets out our two options: we can hold onto a view of human motivation that is grounded more in hold habits than in modern science. Or we can listen to the science and research and build organisations that build on the way we’re really motivated – intrinsically; doing so we’ll make our businesses, our societies and ourselves happier. I agree with Pink when he says it won’t be easy, and that it won’t happen overnight. But it can and should happen, and I’m willing to help us get there.

Things I have learned from… Dan Pink’s Drive

I’ve read some great books recently which have influenced my thinking about why we connect, share and learn. So this is another post about one of those books: today I’m writing about Drive by Dan Pink.

I’m sure many of you have already seen Dan Pink’s TED talk from 2009… in fact, stop reading and go watch right now – even if you’ve already seen it. His observations about what motivates us are so fundamentally important that we should remind each other of them on a regular basis. His main point is that there’s a surprising truth about what motivates us. And there’s a massive gap between what science knows about motivation and what business actually does about it…

Why do we get out of bed?

The book starts by looking at the history of why we do things. Pink considers our ancestors’ basic need to hunt, gather and survive as an early operating system for society – a kind of ‘Motivation 1.0’. As communities emerged and groups got bigger we needed to organise ourselves to get stuff done. Soon we began to notice something interesting…that humans were more than the sum of their biological urges; we would avoid punishment and seek out reward. The idea of carrots and sticks was a powerful one and came in handy when we wanted to drive certain behaviours, whether that was to help organisations scale or to underpin law and order. This evolution Pink says was an upgrade to our motivational OS – a ‘Motivation 2.0’.

Business was booming for the carrot and stick. Organisations got bigger and leaner, and we invented Scientific Management to keep things ticking over. The assumption was that without stimulation, we are inert and passive – we need to be told what to do, how, when and why. Then in 1960 Douglas McGregor brought some of Abraham Maslow’s ideas into business thinking and suggested that we have a higher drive, an intrinsic motivation to work. We want to learn, to enjoy the task itself and to collaborate with others as we want. Over time, McGregor’s ideas seeped into the workplace; our offices and factories became more relaxed, our hours became flexible and our clothes more casual. Pink suggests that these were important changes, but they were only incremental to our good old carrot and stick. Today we have upgraded to Motivation 2.1, but that’s about it.

A higher drive

The book explores the idea of our intrinsic motivation in some depth, unpicking three specific elements: a need for autonomy, a need for mastery and a need for purpose. Together, Pink says, these motivations mean we’ll work harder, longer and very often for free because what we’re doing is enjoyable, it’s self-directed and we feel it matters. Pink intelligently likens motivations to natural energy resources… intrinsic motivations are renewable, like solar power – seemingly abundant and self-generating (if not sometimes difficult to tap into). Extrinsic motivations on the other hand are finite, like coal. Much easier to get to, but over time gets expensive to use (and often comes with unpleasant side-effects). We can see that short-term external rewards lead to short term thinking and ultimately cost us money, effort and time.

The book describes how over the long term, people motivated intrinsically will almost always out-perform those driven by external rewards – something we probably know intuitively. Whilst it’s true that short term rewards can drive good performances, the results can’t be sustained over time. And the research reveals something that I think is more fundamental; those who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to be physically and mentally healthy. I personally believe that that this is because those who do things because they have autonomy, master and purpose are more likely to be self-directed, self-energised and self-controlled; in short they will be more likely to have balance. And this I’m sure will influence the way they exercise, the way they eat, the way they spend their money and time.

Why we need an upgrade

There are two types of task: algorithmic i.e. there are established instructions and usually one outcome, like working on an assembly line; or heuristic i.e. there is no pattern or routine and it takes new ideas and creativity to come up with a solution, like working on a marketing campaign. For the last 100 years our work has mostly been algorithmic – one of the results of industrialisation. Today however, the book suggests we’re mostly heuristic workers. Machines and computers have taken over many of our factory and administrative jobs and organisations have outsourced what’s left of the routine-based, low-paid tasks in order to keep costs down. We’re now more likely to be doing right-brained thinking jobs than left-brained rule-based ones. As I wrote about recently, Clay Shirky puts it brilliantly when he said that nowadays more people are paid to think or talk than are paid to make and move things around.

And organisations themselves are changing. For many years we’ve considered the purpose of a business to maximise shareholder value. (Peter Drucker would say the purpose of a business is actually to create a customer, but that’s one for another post.) But a new type of organisation is emerging – those which are ‘for-purpose’ or ‘for-benefit’. These types of business make and sell products and services on the open market just like for-profits, but they do so for a wider purpose than just money and shareholder returns – for example their aim is to connect us, to educate us, to give a voice to the vulnerable, to organise the world’s information or to empower the individual. Purpose isn’t just a vision statement; it’s emerging as a fundamental reason why we work.

On top of all of this the field of behavioural economics is showing us that our traditional view of human behaviour and markets isn’t as we thought; we need to reconsider how individuals interact and the impacts of how we reward and recognise people. In fact, research shows shown that we’re very likely to be predictably irrational. In Drive, Pink suggests we need to reexamine how we motivate people and sets out the three reasons why today’s model – based on Motivation 2.0 – is broken:

  • Today’s workers are thinking creatively, not just following a routine or algorithm;
  • There’s lots of research which now shows that we’re intrinsically-motivated purpose maximisers and not just extrinsically-motivated profit maximisers (whilst money and profit have a part to play, they’re not the whole game); and
  • Our real-life behaviours are far more complex than textbooks often allow – our established view of the organisation and people is changing

Pink makes a compelling case that Motivation 2.0 is great for compliance, but that today we need engagement. Society’s operating system he says needs an upgrade; it’s time for Motivation 3.0. In my next post I’ll follow up with my main lessons from the book. For now though, go read it. It’ll change the way you think about why we do what we do.

Thinking more about personal data

Relationships are everything.

Relationships are the reason we look after each other, the reason we reproduce, the reason we form groups and ultimately the reason we evolve. Relationships are simply one of the fundamental parts of being human.

These relationships with others – our family, our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues our customers – are all based on different levels of trust. When we talk about ‘deep’ or ‘strong’ relationships, we just mean to say that we trust each other a lot, sometimes unconditionally. It’s obvious then – but worth making the point – that when we don’t trust each other we form weaker or perhaps shallower relationships. Trust and relationships are not only related, but symbiotic. They need and feed off each other.

Personal data is naturally one of those things we share with those we trust. Information about who we are, what we are doing, where we are, our physical and emotional selves and so on. But sometimes when we share personal data, trusting that what’s shared will be handled with care, there are unintended or unwanted outcomes. In this post I wanted to look at those unwanted outcomes from sharing personal data, and some of the steps we take to manage it.

Who said you could do that?

When we share our personal data, it’s sometimes used in ways we don’t agree with, in ways we didn’t sign-up to. I think there are three of these outcomes…

  1. Being contacted without permission (or good reason)
  2. Being impersonated without permission
  3. Being exposed without permission (or good reason)

When we have a relationship, often implicitly or perhaps culturally we agree the rules of engagement – how often, when and where we are happy to contact each other. And because we have a relationship, we are able to set those boundaries (and reset them when they are crossed). But sometimes we are contacted by people without our permission or good reason, and by people or companies with whom we have no relationship. So the first of the unwanted outcomes is about spam, stalking and unsolicited advertising. In order to contact us, people either need to obtain our contact details (phone numbers, email address, twitter handles etc.) or they need to track us so they can target their communication by knowing where we are, what we’re doing, or what device we’re carrying (here’s a great link to a recent New York Times article entitled That’s No Phone. That’s My Tracker).

The second is about identity theft. That is, someone we don’t know using our personal data in order to access our money, our government benefits or citizen rights (for example using our passport information to get into the country). Sometimes the data is obtained through phishing, and sometimes it’s hacked. Experian recently released a report showing that more than 12 million pieces of personal information were illegally traded online by identity fraudsters in the first four months of 2012 – outstripping the entire of 2010 (interestingly, about 90% of it was password/ login combinations). Regardless of how our personal data is obtained, it’s often being used to impersonate us without our permission.

The third is more interesting – it’s about permitting, or seeking to have control over information about us which is shared with others. Naturally, we’re pretty good at doing this for our physical selves – we use clothes and curtains to keep private what we don’t want other people to see. But when it comes to personal information it’s different. What are the ‘clothes and curtains’ for our personal information? Is it even possible?

The thing is, information has some interesting characteristics. George Bernard Shaw once said (something like): “if you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” His point was that some things behave as if they’re abundant. It doesn’t matter how many times you copy them and share them, the original remains the same, as do the copies. These things are known as ‘non-rival’ goods. This idea of abundance is a powerful one, because it helps explain how we treat abundant things.

For a long time, sharing things was limited to people who were in the same place at the same time, or limited to those who could write things down, copy them and take the bit of paper or parchment away. In other words, there was a cost to sharing, a friction to sharing. And so sharing was contained, for better or for worse. But then the printing press came along, then later the telephone and more recently the Internet, and we’ve been able to copy information at an increasingly low cost. In fact today, the costs to copy are pretty much zero – as Kevin Kelly brilliantly puts it, “The internet is a copy machine”.

Anyway, sharing our digital information has now become so easy and so cheap that all day, every day we share things without thinking. And like Bernard Shaw’s ideas, we’re now sharing our personal data abundantly – perfect copies of this data can be made and shared widely at pretty much zero cost. And this abundance of sharing begins to scratch away at the idea that we’re losing the sense of relationship with whom we share our personal data. Where, how, why and when it is shared is often unclear to us. And with the loss of these relationships, we’ve lost the trust in how that data is handled; people started contacting us without permission, impersonating us without permission and sharing information about us without permission.

Protecting our privacy

Let’s take an example to bring this to life a bit. Earlier this year, much was written about how Target, a goods retailer in the US, figured out a teenage girl was pregnant before her father did.

Aside from the fact that there are some social and ethical issues to be explored here, the point is that whilst Target were correct in their analysis, they contacted the girl about the pregnancy without her permission, and they exposed her personal data without her permission. As we go about our daily lives we leave a digital exhaust – a digital footprint – and our personal data is often left behind like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. Track enough of it (like what lotions and vitamin supplements you buy) and compare this with other known group behaviours (like those who you know are pregnant and who are buying baby clothes, nappies and pregnancy books) and of course it’s possible to make some accurate assumptions about an individual. I’ve previously called this your ‘inferred data’. So it’s understandable that we’re becoming more wary about what is being shared – both with and without our permission – and we’re seeking to protect our privacy to avoid these unwanted outcomes.

To look more closely at how we protect ourselves, I’ve broken down the lifecycle of personal data:

  1. Data is produced (or observed if it’s self-evident);
  2. Data is captured and stored;
  3. Data is analysed or processed; and then
  4. Data is used

Here’s an example of this in action…

  • I wear clothes that expose my Harley-Davidson tattoo
  • My tattoo is seen by the man serving me at the bar
  • The barman makes an assumption – that I’m into biking and believe in what Harley-Davidson stands for
  • The barman strikes up a conversation about bikes, and because he too is into bikes, we share information about each other. The result is that we start to trust each other. We form a relationship. He might even give me a beer on the house.

Now let’s take a more obvious digital example…

  • I browse the web using an internet browser
  • Using cookies, my browsing activity is tracked by the web sites I visit
  • My behaviours are analysed – both in real time and afterwards
  • My subsequent web browsing is targeted with ads to better ‘personalise’ the service. Importantly, the targeted ads are paid for by companies trying to build a relationship with me. But it’s not really a relationship. And there’s no trust. It’s really just a transaction at best, and I’m seen as a sales lead to be sold on

This use of my personal data means I get a better experience (like remembering my ‘shopping basket’) and sometimes I get a good deal on my purchases. But mostly it just makes my browsing experience a bit noisy because the ‘targeted’ ads are assumption-based and are often more miss than hit. These two examples highlight how it’s the context of sharing that determines the permissions to share – some are explicit, while others are implicit – and therefore the outcomes i.e. stronger relationships and lower prices or instead a loss of trust and shopping frustration. As we live more and more of our lives online these issues have become increasingly apparent, and there are now many groups and bodies who are looking at the social, ethical, economic and political issues surrounding personal data.

I see that these projects fall into two camps… The first are looking at who knows what about us – in other words, steps 1 and 2 above. For example there is lots of work going into making the public aware of exactly how much data is being captured about them, by whom and for what purpose. The second group are looking at how this data is handled once it’s captured; that’s steps 3 and 4.

Privacy in action

Now rather than delve into the ins and outs, rights and wrongs of digital privacy (not least because there are many more qualified people than I who have written credibly about it, and at length), I wanted to point to some of the main activities aiming to help us manage our personal data and avoid those unwanted outcomes I suggested at the start of this post.

Below is a list of some of the main things going on around personal data; I’ve broken them down into the stages of the personal data lifecycle, steps 1-4. (Note that some of these are links to specific projects, and others are just  linked to sites that provide more information)…

1. Produce
2. Capture
3. Analysis
4. Use

Who’s in control?

A big part of sharing our personal data is the bargain we make with online services when we agree to give up a bunch of data in return for some utility – a better deal, access to my friends’ information, accurate search results and more. Cory Doctorow highlights one of the great underlying issues here when he points out that “…even if you read the fine print, human beings are awful at pricing out the net present value of a decision whose consequences are far in the future.”

So I would suggest that we’re sharing our data abundantly, and not really ‘pricing in’ the full cost of doing so. The thing is, culturally we’re so much more comfortable with scarcity. When things are scarce we value them more highly, and when things are abundant we treat them cheaply (in Clay Shirky’s words, abundance means ‘cheap enough to waste’ and therefore ultimately ‘cheap enough to experiment’). And so it is with our data – we value it and so want it to remain scarce. Our instinct is to hold on to it, restrict it, secure it and sometimes misdirect others around it (like when we give out a fake email address to avoid getting spammed). And yet we give so much of it away, not really fully aware of the T&Cs under which we agree to share it. This pretence of scarcity means we end up saying things like ‘who owns the data?’ or ‘who controls the data?’, something pretty much impossible once it’s been shared in this digital age.

In my view, we should instead reflect on the idea that our personal data is now in many ways a non-rival good, it’s abundant, and perhaps behave differently around it. That would mean we would instead say things like “who has access to the data” and “what are people doing with my data”. It would mean new terms and conditions for sharing, perhaps those under which we can  feel more confident about how our data is being used, and under which we can benefit from the products and services exchanged. Sharing would be more transparent, and we’d have the right to take action if our data is incorrect, or there’s an abuse of the data. Once we get some degree of visibility of who has our data, in what format, why and how they are using it, I think something interesting will happen: trust will emerge. And with that trust, new relationships. Indeed, we may begin to actually share more – an idea already proposed by those looking at Volunteered Personal Information. And as we share more – under clear and transparent terms – everyone will win: new products and services will become available (think of but for everything), our existing services will get even better because they will matter to us (and not be based on guess work), and guess what, we’ll feel better about it all because there won’t be a sense of any hidden agenda with our personal data, which after all, is personal.

A couple of suggestions

So I’d say that we need two main changes to how we behave around our personal data

  • We need to recognise that we can’t control data in every circumstance:  instead lets accept that and turn to ways to improve transparency: information sharing agreements, regulation for organisations to be clear about what data they gather and how they use it, and perhaps new ways to make us more aware of what we’re sharing in the first place so we can make informed decisions
  • We need to better understand personal data in context: what it is we really need to share, when and with whom (here’s a good example: to prove we are old enough to buy alcohol, we often use a document that proves we can drive. We can and should get better at using personal data in context – we only need to share what we need to share)

I’m hopeful that much of this is on the way. But there’s a lot more to do.