Will Wireless Take Your Business By Surprise?
By Heidi Kriz, Wed Jul 18 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Researchers at the "think and act tank" Accenture Institute for Strategic Change talks about the key to successful wireless strategies.

Businesses are chomping at the bit, trying to figure out how to catch a ride on the wireless wave. It's obvious the way people do business will change, but how can business leaders anticipate the changes they will need to accommodate, and integrate wireless technology? Is it all about economics, and complicated, newfangled, m-commerce business models? Or are there subtler clues business leaders can look for, to help them create a strategic, wireless strategy?

Researchers at the wireless think tank, the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change, have interviewed hundreds of executives, and examined businesses and cultural behaviors around the world, in an effort to answer some of these questions. Research fellows Mitchell Wade and Patrick D. Lynch talked to TheFeature.com about their findings.

TheFeature: What interested you about the issues that businesses might face as a result of the impact of wireless technology?

Mitchell Wade: Personally, I am interested in how information technology changes things strategically. For at least ten years, we have been surrounded by a waterfall of great, new technologies that, if any one of them had been around for at least twenty years instead, they would have been the "Big Thing".

I don't know if you remember what a big deal it was when digital watches came out, but people were paying three hundred dollars for watches that were in every other way inferior to what was already out there - but they had big glowing red numbers!

In an environment like that, if say, TIVO had appeared, then everybody would have one. And the fact that that has been largely ignored tells me a lot about our group capacity to take things in, and our capacity as organizations or individuals to be able to tell what technologies really add value to what we're doing. We're not at all perfect at that.

TF: You've written that the original conceit was that the Internet would change everything, and then you point out that wasn't necessarily the case. What makes you think wireless will be any different?

MW: Actually, I'm in the camp that thinks you ain't seen nothing yet as far as the ultimate impact that the Internet will have. Same for wireless - as hard as everyone is working to figure out what the killer app is for wireless, I think there's stuff coming out there that's gonna surprise every one of us.

TF: Like what?

MW: I think a lot of this stuff is fundamentally unpredictable and the name of the game isn't to look ten years into the future, but to be smart and look at where things might change. You have to recognize the change quick when it comes.

TF: Explain the distinction.

MW: You could approach it like a physicist and say you've got these fundamental assets; people can connect to the network, the device knows where you are, it's one-to-one map to you, your cell phone is typically yours, and it can even know that it's you. Now what would that enable you to do? And then put some economic numbers on it and say this is what the world is going to look like five or ten years out.

But I don't think we can really predict things that way. I thinks it's much more interesting and valuable to look at the surprising changes in "behavior" - I mean, for example, who would think that people would stop wearing watches because they are carrying a device that knows what time it is? But that is happening.

Patrick D. Lynch: I think some of the more surprising things we saw during the global research were some of the social changes that were taking place in people's behavior.

At a social level these electronic devices are so personal, so private, that people are willing to have what used to be these very personal kinds of conversations over an electronic medium.

I think we're going to see changes like that in businesses. What the research has shown is that you really have to be watching this space carefully because the kinds of twists and turns it takes are really difficult to predict. And yet, when they start to happen, it's sort of obvious. However, it became clear that you cannot anticipate what's going to be right for every market. Every market is a little bit different in how they use mobile phones, and whether businesses are going to adopt it's anybody's best guess.

TF: I thought one of the points you made about the "grammar", the language of business correspondence changing as a result of electronic communication is very interesting. Can you elaborate on that?

MW: My own bias is that if people in business pay a little more attention to the social/human, non-economic reality, that happens in information exchange, there is often an advantage to be gained.

PL: We conducted probably a hundred or more interviews with executives. And one of the questions that we asked was, how is wireless changing the way you do business? And what it was changing was how executives led their organizations and how they made their decisions.

Their core team that was guiding the company was available 24 hours a day from any location. And what might have before taken a sit-down meeting, was no longer needed. This guys were making decisions that were bottom-line decisions. In Europe in particular, the SMS messages were being utilized the most. And, interestingly, we found that it was smaller companies that were taking advantage of wireless the most.

TF: What do you think are the frontline businesses that are going to be the most immediately affected by wireless?

MW: I actually think businesses that have strong brand relationship with the consumer may be a kind of surprise to people in the level to which they change. That has to do with how very personal this technology is. One of the pieces of Patrick's research in Europe that I love is that for people there, both the SMS messaging and the device that you carry around are very personal things. A company that has a relationship with you that truly is a relationship has some opportunities.

PL: Some of the things that our other research has shown is that companies that integrate into people's daily's life are most successful. So I think "attainment systems" is a really big one.

Obviously, the wallet is one of the first intimate things that we use every day that will probably go away. So, financial services then are probably well-positioned. Nevertheless, at least in the US, people's expectations about how fast this might fly for the employing of m-commerce as an everyday event, was a little slower than they might have hoped or expected.

So when you point to a change like in the use of wristwatches, it's a wake-up call to businesses; you're looking at a social change that may lead to a business change that nobody has thought of yet.

This is about changing people's lives. And when you get an entrepreneur or even a big company who starts to think about what they can do, it sometimes takes an executive to see the future in a new way.

TF: What is your basic counsel to businesses out there who is grappling with how best to use wireless?

MW: Well, the rate and the precise direction of the change that comes from wireless are probably fundamentally unknowable. But they will be more governed by what individual human beings need and desire than by numbers on a spreadsheet. If you can pay attention to the behavior of individuals, you can figure out ways to turn that to a business advantage.

PL: I can give you two examples in the wireless space: There is a lot of talk about how m-commerce isn't working. Well, I met with two companies in Europe, one in Sweden, with a very simple business model using SMS messages to generate sales, loyalty and to build affiliation between products, events and consumers. For example, there was a concert that they connected with the promoters for, and the people attending the concert could dial a number and download a ringtone of one of their favorite artists that was playing in the show. It was one of the most successful campaigns they had there. They were able to capitalize on that and move it to all sorts of products.

The point is, when, we got to the part of the interview and asked, "Well, what's wrong with m-commerce?", they were like "Not much, it's working great!". If you can't figure what's working today, it's because you're not thinking about the way people are using these devices.

There's another example in Germany. This company, when you hear a song on the radio, you can dial the number, you can get all the information about that album, and order it with a couple of clicks on the phone. That's a commerce model that is taking advantage of all the things that are right about wireless - it's timely, it's where you are, it's instant gratification. Those kind of models are already working for m-commerce. So when you hear pundits saying "M-commerce is dead on arrival," they don't really understand what they're talking about.

The point is, it's not something that people could have predicted on a spreadsheet. It's really being aware of what's happening socially, and how to make a business out of that.

MW: M-commerce can't all be quantified. You have to touch people where they live. Famously, with E-Bay, lot's of smart people that said "A giant garage sale on the Internet?" But they tapped into a certain excitement. It's very hard to justify to an economist your desire to have a great poster from a vampire movie from 20 years ago. But somebodyıs out there making a business out of that. And I guess I'm looking for the E-Bay's of wireless.

Patrick D. Lynch is a research fellow at the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change. He investigates global eCommerce strategy topics such as organizational behavior, attention management, and most recently the psychology of technology (including Internet and wireless consumer behavior, customer experience, and usability). His work has been published in Forum, Outlook, The Journal of Applied Psychology, Applied and Preventative Psychology, The Journal of Advertising Research, The Journal of International Business Studies, ePlant, and eCom Magazine.

Mitchell Wade is a Research Fellow at Accenture's Institute for Strategic Change. He played a key role in the Institute's recent report: The Future of Wireless: Different than You Think, Bolder than You Imagine. Earlier, Mitchell developed strategy for a (still-thriving) dot-com in the health care space and information architecture for major clients in a number of industries. Before joining the Institute, he spent a decade at RAND, the nation's leading public policy thinktank, where he focused on strategy, new ventures, communications, and technology. Based in Los Angeles, Mitchell can be reached at mitchell.wade@accenture.com.

Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.