This article is based on a speech given by Gerald Adams to a
conference organised by Fannie Mae, the US's leading home loan
provider, in Colorado Springs.
For the past 30 years or so, technology and people like me who
design it, have been major culprits in the destruction of real
business conversations. The internet, though, has brought the
conversation back and, in the process, is reorienting technology
design around human interactions.
What's a conversation? It can happen face to face, on a
telephone, through email or - for teenagers most likely - through a
short text message. The medium might enhance the communication, or
intrude. No matter how it happens, the conversation is the natural
way we make things happen in the world.
Computers cut conversations
Computer systems have reduced the costs of doing business and
have improved convenience for customers. This happened by defining
rules for handling repetitive tasks, using software to apply those
rules and introducing storage technology to keep a record of the
But technology also has fractured conversations and replaced
them with data flows and mechanical interaction. In retail banking,
the ATM removed the teller from the conversation but no new
conversations with the customer took its place.
In most industries any people still in the loop have become
operators of software, not participants in a business conversation.
Each time technology is introduced people are removed from the
process. The conversation disappears and the human element is
Internet brings interaction
With real conversations gone, the end result is a reduced and
devalued relationship. Consumers respond by turning fickle,
increasingly distrustful and easily irritated by what they see as
insincere offers of relationships. Lost conversations, which no
longer bring value, are not being replaced by new ones.
This is not the case on the internet. It is revolutionary not
because of the great search engines and enormous library of
interconnected information but because it's a two-way
communications medium that allows large numbers of people to
interact with each other.
Trust through communication
Early, successful adopters of the internet like FedEx and
Amazon.com use the communication nature of the internet to build
trust with their customers by allowing them to have
In this new style of conversation they promise to be reliable.
They always let customers see what's going on. They make sure to
get back and offer a counter-proposal if they do hit a problem they
cannot resolve to a customer's satisfaction.
Those successful early-adopters make extensive use of customer
and inventory databases with well-integrated financial and
logistical systems. They could not provide their service without
But that's not what makes them unique. The internet is the first
technology I've experienced with core elements built around a
network of communication between people,
not around computation or record keeping. What we're learning is
how conversations can be conducted with partners and customers -
using the technology and style of the internet.
The opportunity facing enterprises now is to use the internet
style and technologies to create a richer business network for
their own benefit, and that of their customers and partners.
The opportunity is to create a new style of interaction between
all the parties that increases trust and, as a consequence, removes
wasted effort from throughout the network.
Technology becomes human
What's exciting about the internet is that it demonstrates -
daily - how to reorient technology designs around human
interactions. There are a number of principles successful internet
adopters are applying to the way they use the technology.
Keep the conversation going: things do go wrong. Products are
out of stock. People make mistakes. But the conversation itself
must always be reliable - even if some of the mechanical parts
Keep it secure: the world may be becoming more anonymous but
that's not acceptable in a business network. There has to be
rigorous evidence that you are who you say you are and that you
have the authority you claim. If it's confidential then of course
it must be protected from prying eyes.
Keep data requests relevant: Don't ask for information without
connecting your request for the information clearly into the
conversation you're having with the customer - and the goals you've
Share the data: It's not your data. It's shared between you and
your customer for the purposes of achieving a mutually agreed goal.
Share the data between relevant parties easily. Don't hide it or
make it difficult to find.
Use your history: The historical record of past interactions
will help bring value to your next conversation with that customer.
Bring it into all new interactions.
Respect owner's rights: The information or other form of digital
property that was provided by the customer was given for a reason
in a specific context. Don't abuse that context.
Value of conversation
The internet is simple, and what people are using it for is
simple. The value of being in regular conversations with customers,
suppliers - all partners through out the network - is that it
allows new opportunities to be identified together and exploited
Conversations and the relationships stemming from them is where
valuable business is generated. But that sort of business sense is
a dying skill. It is now largely restricted to already successful
individuals and only shows up in the sizeable business
conversations in which they engage.
Already, that skill has been lost down in the trenches of retail
and is disappearing fast in the ordinary service industries. If
this skill disappears a vital entrepreneurial element will be lost
from our economic lives.
Now, almost by accident, the internet has grown to be a new
business tool that gives us the opportunity to put people, and the
conversations they have back at the centre of ordinary day-to-day