September 27, 2015  8:50 PM

Digital shift more hype than happening at most companies: McKinsey

Linda Tucci Linda Tucci Profile: Linda Tucci

McKinsey & Co. published new data this month on how C-suite executives rate their progress on digital initiatives.

Bottom line for CIOs: The shift to digital is a super-high priority for the 987 executives surveyed by McKinsey, but it is still more hope than reality  at most companies — and therefore should represent a significant opportunity for CIOs to take a leadership role. (More on the should-part below.)

Here are some of the McKinsey data points to ponder.

Digital expectations

  • Nearly three-quarters of C-level executives (71%) believe digital initiatives will add top-line revenue to the business.
  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) say digital activities will result in bigger profits.
  • However, less than one-third said their companies’ business activities are digital.
  • Nearly half of respondents said their companies are capturing just 20% or less of the potential value that digital activities could bring to the business

C-level involvement

  • Nearly half (46%) said their CEOs are personally involved in the companies’ digital agendas, up from 23% in 2012.
  • CIOs were ranked as the second-most digitally-involved exec at 35%, compared to 32% of CMOs and 23% of business unit heads. (CIO digital clout slipped from 40% in 2014 as CEO involvement rose.)

Biggest challenges to going digital

  • Lack of internal leadership or talent, both functional and technical, topped the list of the most significant challenges to realizing digital objectives at 31%, followed by:
  • lack of data and understanding of how digital trends affect industry and company competition;
  • inability to keep pace with faster speed of business of under digital;
  • inability to adopt an “experiment mind-set.”

Process automation climbs digital agenda, activities vary by industry

How the push to digital actually plays out at companies is pretty interesting. Most executives said their digital programs are focused on strengthening and growing the existing business, not aimed at new businesses or geographies — in line with what they said a year ago.

However — in a survey result especially germane to CIOs — digital activities within the enterprise are changing.

While “digital engagement with customers” remains the top corporate priority (as it was in the last three surveys), “automation and/or improvement of business process” has climbed the digital agenda: Just over half of respondents cited it as a top-three priority, right after “digital innovation of products, services, business or operating models.”

Priorities differ by industry: “Big data and advanced analytics” is a much bigger digital priority for healthcare than in other sectors, while business process improvement is of most concern to manufacturers. “Digital customer life-cycle management” is of low concern for all industries surveyed, suggesting that this is an area, in addition to business process improvement, where CIOs can step in and take charge.

Inside track from digital high performers

Of the 987 executives surveyed, 71 or a mere 7% identified themselves as high-performing digital companies. Here are the areas where they differed most significantly from their less digitally-enabled peers:

  • Reviewed portfolio more frequently for digital-related opportunities and threats (53% vs. 35%)
  • Made significant changes to risk profile and time horizon of business portfolio (51% vs. 21%)
  • Reallocated of larger share of resources between businesses in the portfolio (46% vs. 29%)

Speed is critical: 43% of high performers say their companies take digital initiatives from idea to implementation in less than six months vs. 17% of all other respondents.

Time to get going!

( Click here for the full report).

Let me know what you think of this story — email me or find me on Twitter @ltucci.

September 24, 2015  7:59 PM

Post-layoff, HP must tackle two cultural issues to stay relevant

Fran Sales Fran Sales Profile: Fran Sales
CIO, Corporate culture, Customer strategy, Digital business, Employee morale, HP, IT culture, IT Strategy

For last week’s Searchlight column, I approached SearchCIO expert and former Citigroup CIO Harvey Koeppel to get his take on HP’s layoff of 30,000 jobs in its Enterprise Services business as it prepares to separate into two companies in November. Koeppel applauded the decision, saying the company has long needed to do something to make itself relevant to enterprises once again in today’s digital age. But he also said HP is going to have to change its cost-savings-driven rhetoric if the two offspring companies are to succeed.

Unfortunately, this culture of executing transactions as opposed to focusing on customers’ business needs and building relationships is rampant among many big companies today, not just HP, said Koeppel.
harvey koeppel
“It’s just outrageous when you listen to the internal talk about not just the lack of understanding of who the customers are, but actual disdain for what idiots the customers are,” Koeppel said. Companies that share this view, he believes, are destined to fail. “It is just so 1950s,” he added.

Part of the problem, as Koeppel mentioned in Searchlight, is that many companies’ technology sales and marketing strategies are managed quarter by quarter. But this approach isn’t conducive to building customer relationships.

“Relationships aren’t built in timeframes measured in quarters; relationships are built in timeframes measured in years,” he said.

He’s speaking from personal experience. As CIO at Citigroup’s Global Consumer Group, Koeppel awarded a $100 million contract to a company because its marketing representative spent three years establishing a relationship with him.

“I knew him and he knew me, but more importantly he had a total understanding of what Citi’s issues were and was willing to bear all the resources that were needed to solve specific problems, as opposed to executing a transaction and making numbers look good for this quarter,” Koeppel said.

Koeppel did acknowledge that it’s difficult not to strategize on a quarterly basis, “when that’s what the CEO’s job really is, is keeping shareholders happy, keeping Wall Street happy.”

There’s one aspect of HP’s culture the company has to tackle if its new endeavors are to succeed, and that’s improving staff morale, particularly post-layoff, according to Koeppel.

Big companies typically “lose the best and keep the rest after the cut,” Koeppel said. The people who remain tend to become demoralized — and if leadership doesn’t pay attention to the culture and the “people that matter,” a vacuum gets created inside the organization, he said.

“Smart people will go find other jobs, and [the company ends up] keeping the people who are too insecure to go find other jobs,” he said.

But Koeppel believes Meg Whitman and her leadership team are capable of tackling these issues.

“I have a lot of respect for Meg Whitman,” he said of HP’s CEO, whose career he has been following since her stint at eBay. “I think she’s got the brights, the smarts and the moxie to make something like this happen.”

September 24, 2015  7:48 PM

KPMG: Death of BPO at the hands of RPA

Linda Tucci Linda Tucci Profile: Linda Tucci

Bangalore, Delhi, Manila, Cebu City, Shanghai. CIOs have traveled far afield in search of cheap labor for business process outsourcing (BPO). But according to a recent report from Cliff Justice, principal, Shared Services and Outsourcing Advisory at KPMG LLP, there’s no place like home for the best deals on BPO projects.

That’s provided home can take advantage of advances in robotic process automation (RPA). Not to be confused with the robots in metal pants, software-based RPA uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities “to handle high-volume, repeatable tasks that previously required a human to perform,” writes Justice.

According to “Bots in the Back Office: Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) Withers as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Grows Up,” software will trump geography for labor arbitrage: “Rising global labor costs are causing BPO to become unsustainable at the same time as technologies are advancing and converging in such a way that they can not only augment work, but replace workers.”

New class of ‘digital labor’

As traditional business process automation — one of IT’s principal jobs in the enterprise — is combined with machine learning, data analytics and “cognitive inventions,” a new class of digital labor will arise that can do the work of humans — faster, better and cheaper — no matter where those humans reside, the report states.

The cost benefits of BPO labor arbitrage, typically between 15% to 30%, will be outmatched by the 40% to 75% cost reduction that can be delivered by labor automation, according to KPMG. That’s a lot of money and potentially a lot of jobs: The global BPO sector is a $300 billion industry, employing more than 3 million people.

Who is in the crosshairs? The millions of call center workers employed globally, for starters. But any human job that involves “largely transactional, low-end, repeatable tasks” is fair game for RPA, says Justice.  And as RPA matures, higher-level jobs are also subject to being done better and faster by software robots.

As my colleague Sue Troy reports in her story, “Cognitive robotic process automation poised to disrupt knowledge worker market,” over the next 10 years, “the work of 110 million to 140 million knowledge workers around the globe may be handled by cognitive robotic process automation systems.” But Justice, who cited the figures at the recent World BPO/ITO Forum’s Global Sourcing & Cloud Summit in New York, cautions that displacement doesn’t equate with 140 million jobs lost. The economy and demand for knowledge workers will continue to grow, he said, and a portion of the displaced workforce will be freed up from doing repetitive clerical and administrative tasks to focus on higher pursuits, including innovation.

KPMG: 5 factors that spell doom for BPO

What’s not up for debate is that the appetite for offshore outsourcing is changing, as companies elect to do smaller deals and fewer of them. Citing KPMG research and market trend data published in The Wall Street Journal, Justice points to what’s happened at  companies in India — still the leaders in offshore outsourcing — where the value of deals worldwide shrank to $120.4 billion in 2014 from $206.8 billion in 2010. The number of deals decreased 61% between 2010 and 2014, to 1144 from 1805.

The report pulls out five factors that spell doom for BPO:

  • Shrinking talent pool due to global demographic trends
  • Escalating labor costs in emerging markets
  • Expanding capabilities of robotic technologies
  • Internet of Things making devices smarter and reducing need for human intervention
  • Increasing influence of platform-centric cloud service providers

Justice reports that traditional service providers are embracing the new operating models introduced by RPA.  Let us know what you are doing with RPA.

Email Linda Tucci, executive editor, or find her on Twitter @ltucci.

Andy Wasser  For more information on how RPA is poised to shake up the ITO/BPO marketplace, see my interview with Carnegie Mellon’s Andy Wasser.

September 23, 2015  4:38 PM

Aging2.0: What do business users and senior citizens have in common? Good technology to survive

Nicole Laskowski Nicole Laskowski Profile: Nicole Laskowski

Boston was selected to participate in a unique challenge known as 30in30in30: That’s 30 pitch events in 30 cities in 30 days. Who’s doing the pitching? Startups, many of them with a technology bent, that are building products and services for aging adults.

The Boston winner, a startup in Cambridge, Mass. called CareAcademy that specializes in online education for in-home care providers, took home $1,000 and moved on to the virtual semi-finals round where the pitching continues — this time to folks affiliated with Aging2.0, a “global innovation platform for aging and senior care” and the event’s organizer.

Before the festivities got underway, Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, took to the podium to talk about how to build useful, usable technology for seniors, but it wasn’t a stretch to see how Coughlin’s advice could be relevant to CIOs.

For example, Coughlin encouraged attendees not to design for seniors, but to design for themselves first. “Aging is the one class that, with any luck, you get to be part of. So, as you think about innovation, ask yourself: How do you want to live?” he said. The same goes for CIOs: Building enterprise tools you would find useful or easy use in your personal life will go much further with the business than something that’s cumbersome and non-intuitive.

Technology that’s built for older adults who don’t get how to use it can’t be blamed on the customer’s age. “There is still a dominant stereotype, especially amongst designers and amongst engineers, that if you don’t understand my mental model of how technology works,” that’s your problem, Coughlin said. The real problem, however, isn’t the customer, it’s the “bad technology,” he said.

Coughlin also said venture capitalists are interested in investing in products and services geared toward older adults, but, based on research he’s done, they aren’t. Why? “They didn’t see management teams that understood the population — people who had the intimacy of understanding the marketplace,” he said. In other words, before designing, know your audience. That’s certainly a thought that should resonate with most CIOs.

What do startup go-getters think the aging would enjoy? Here’s a rundown of some of the pitches heard at the 30in30in30 event:

The startup: The History Project
The presenter:
Niles Lichtenstein, co-founder, CEO
The idea:
A digital toolkit where users can build, essentially, time capsule of family history. Users can marry old family photographs with more modern digital images, tell stories through voice or print, include important family recipes and so on. Sounding a lot like Facebook? Said Lichtenstein: “Too often I hear people say they can’t capture their story or the stories of someone they love because the process feels complex and overwhelming.”

The startup: CareAcademy
The presenter
: Helen Adeosun, co-founder, CEO
The idea
: An online education, which includes a certification component, to help caregivers, who access the material via mobile device, develop the skills they need. Courses are taught by experts from the field. “By 2050, 27 million aging adults will depend on an in-home caregiver,” Adeosun said.

The startup: Forever Fit
The presenter: Chris Parchmann, founder
The idea: To provide an easily accessible exercise program for older adults. (This was one of the few  low-tech presenters at the event.) “We bring exercise to location as opposed to seniors having to go to the facility, which can be difficult for them,” Parchmann said.

Startup: Triple Aim Technologies
: Ken Accardi, co-founder, interim CEO
: A system that makes managing chronic disease via telehealth affordable and scalable for patients with chronic conditions. “Disease management is this concept that if you teach people everything they need to know about their disease, they can manage it. Triple Aim said, ‘How can we make this scalable and simple,'” Accardi said.

Startup: QMedic
Presenter: Sombit Mishra, CEO, founder
Idea: A medical alert service that “intelligently” routes calls to an appropriate in-network care provider as opposed to always sending patients to the emergency room. “Think of us as the OnStar for care management,” Mishra said.

September 15, 2015  10:40 PM

Five steps on how to get your enterprise IoT initiative started

Nicole Laskowski Nicole Laskowski Profile: Nicole Laskowski

IoTIf CIOs and IT leaders want an Internet of Things (IoT) initiative to be successful, they’re going to need to work with the business. But expect the relationship between the business and IT to wax and wane as the project develops.

“[IT-led] ideation efforts are good to bootstrap an IoT initiative initially,” Fred Hillebrandt, infrastructure architect at the Monsanto Company, said during his presentation at the recent Gartner Catalyst event. “But, at some point, you want the business to take the reins.”

As reported in SearchCIO’s most recent IoT story, successful IoT initiatives also require good preparation, planning and executive business support. Here is Hillebrandt’s list of five recommendations for getting an IoT initiative off the ground:

1.  Find your influencers. Hillebrandt recommended pulling that team together in 30 days or less, depending on how far along the IoT initiative is.

2. Keep it small. Hillebrandt said he initially wanted to ask more than 20 people to join the group but soon realized his plan was not realistic simply due to logistical issues like calendar conflicts.

3.  Schedule an end-data for deliverables. When building an IoT proof of concept, agility will be key, Hillebrandt said. He recommended CIOs and IT leaders aim for an end-date of four to eight weeks.

4.  Start ideation sessions. IoT projects tend to start in the business and ideation sessions should of course include the business, but CIOs and IT leaders shouldn’t rely on the business to run ideation sessions. Hillebrandt suggested IT departments pull together a list of use cases or initial ideas rather than walking into the room with a blank slate. “Try to fill some of it out to spur ideation,” he said.

5.  Partner with vendors to initiate proof of concept. Vendors are going to bring the infrastructure, sensors and networks, and partnering with them can help move along the process of building a proof of concept. “In our case, we’ve not had to come up with any money, it’s just been our investment of time,” Hillebrandt said.

September 8, 2015  8:45 PM

CIOs take to Twitter to crow about Apple-Cisco deal

Fran Sales Fran Sales Profile: Fran Sales
Apple, Apple iOS, CIO, Cisco, Cisco TelePresence, Enterprise IT, Enterprise mobility, enterprise networking, Forrester, Spark, WebEx

Last week, the Apple-Cisco deal barely got a rise out of the analysts I spoke to. This is the partnership between Apple and Cisco aimed at assuring enterprise IT professionals that both companies are serious about making sure employees using iOS devices for work purposes will be fully supported on corporate networks. The industry experts I spoke with for last week’s Searchlight column were decidedly lukewarm about the deal, citing the announcement’s glaring lack of specifics, particularly where customer benefits were concerned.

Any mention of user benefits the announcement did contain, according to Forrester’s Andrew Bartels, was little more than “marketing hype” — a predictable move by Apple to fuel enterprise demand for its devices.

While Bartels and other analysts were unconvinced of the enterprise benefits of the deal — at least until more details are released — some of the CIOs I contacted on Twitter see the pair-up as a big step forward for iOS use in the enterprise.

Paul Kerekfy, CIO at King Sigismund Business School in Budapest, believes that the Apple-Cisco partnership will address the misperception that Apple devices don’t play well with corporate networks:

He added that this myth-busting couldn’t come at a better time, considering the popularity of iOS devices among business workers:

David Chou, CIO at University of Mississippi Medical Center, couldn’t agree more:

Teresa Devine, CIO at Serta-Simmons Bedding Co. in Atlanta, was excited about the possibilities around payments:

Bartels himself granted that if there was one specific benefit to be gleaned from the Apple-Cisco announcement, it’s that both companies do plan to improve Cisco products that already support Apple devices.

“There already is a WebEx for iPads or iPhones; they’ll probably work out to enhance that so it is easier to use [and] make it simpler. … Cisco Spark and TelePresence are areas they’re probably working on, too,” he told me.

Check out the Searchlight column to learn more about the Apple-Cisco partnership.

August 28, 2015  6:03 PM

If big picture is key for digital transformation, is ‘starting small’ on the way out?

Nicole Laskowski Nicole Laskowski Profile: Nicole Laskowski

CIOs taking the big data, cloud, analytics, digitization, [fill in the blank] plunge are often given this piece of advice: Start small.

But new research jointly conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte Digital found that businesses focused on “discrete problems” are at the digitally immature end of the spectrum while those on the digitally mature end (or, according to the researchers, “maturing” since businesses are still in the thick of this stuff) are focused on the big picture.

Here’s the exact language, from the report’s executive summary:

MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte’s 2015 global study of digital business found that maturing digital businesses are focused on integrating digital technologies, such as social, mobile, analytics and cloud, in the service of transforming how their businesses work. Less-mature digital businesses are focused on solving discrete business problems with individual digital technologies.

The statement begs the question: Is starting small still good advice? Absolutely, according to Gerald C. Kane, guest editor at the Review and associate professor of information systems at the Boston College Carroll School of Management.

“A lot of these technology efforts are more about culture, are more about changing the business, which is often really hard to do,” Kane said in an interview with SearchCIO. Starting small and proving the value of a new tech endeavor enables CIOs to build in a transition from business as usual to the business of now while generating buy-in from the business.

But it does something else: Because digital transformation won’t look the same from one business to the next (a disconnect between theory and practice, according to Kane), starting small gives CIOs the opportunity to experiment “so you can capitalize on those that take off and kill those that don’t,” Kane said.

That’s what BASF SE, a chemical producer headquartered in Germany, did with social media tools. During last year’s study, Kane and his team researched BASF’s social efforts and discovered that the company started at the project level by asking some employees to use a new social tool in place of email — as an experiment.

“They found the product team increased its efficiency by 25% as a result of that,” Kane said. The results were dramatic and eye-opening and apparently the result of team turnover, although not in the way you’re expecting. With email, “if someone leaves, they take all of their information, knowledge and communication with them,” Kane said. When the same kinds of discourse take place on a social media platform, “there’s a whole digital record of the entire team’s interactions for the new person to get up to speed,” he said.

Turnover, it turns out, was incredibly disruptive, and the social media platform minimized the effects. “But they were never going to [get buy-in] across the whole organization at once,” Kane said.

August 13, 2015  1:56 PM

Dissenting views on Windows 10 privacy

Fran Sales Fran Sales Profile: Fran Sales
CIO, Data collection policies, Data privacy, Forrester, Gartner, Microsoft, OS, Windows 10

When I talked to two analysts about whether recent criticism of Microsoft’s new privacy policy for its Windows 10 operating system (OS) was overstated — one tech writer went so far as to say the company was using the OS to spy on users — they both basically said, uh-huh. Microsoft’s encroachment on users’ data is just part and parcel of cloud-based services, they said: There is a price to pay for all these free or nearly-free services, and the payment usually involves letting the provider see what you’re doing online.

The experts — Steve Kleynhans of Gartner and David K. Johnson of Forrester — granted that Windows 10 features such as virtual assistant Cortana gathered specific data about users, but only to improve search and recognition capabilities that, after all, will ultimately benefit users. Moreover, users can opt out of these data-collecting features.

One CIO I spoke with concurred with Kleynhans and Johnson’s view that Microsoft isn’t doing anything that a Google or Amazon or Facebook hasn’t been doing for years.

Wayne Sadin, CIO and CDO at marketing firm The Go Solution in Houston, told me he felt that the extent of Windows 10’s data collection is just the next step in the evolution of privacy vs. convenience, and that CIOs and users simply need to be more vigilant.

Not everyone I reached out to, however, felt that Microsoft is acting with the most honorable of intentions.

Robert C. Covington, an information security advisor, said that time will tell if critics will accept Microsoft’s response to their privacy concerns. “But I tend to doubt that most will be satisfied,” he said, adding that the majority of consumers won’t let privacy stand in the way of their use of the new OS. “Enterprises will be more careful,” he said.

Bob Egan, a CIO advisor at Seraphim Group, a research firm, also wasn’t certain that Microsoft’s assurances would appease privacy critics — including pundits, enterprises or ordinary users.

“Overall, employee trust is eroding. Trust itself is down 5% in the last two years, and complete trust is down by even more,” he told me.

It’s also worth noting that since I’ve published my Searchlight column on this topic, it’s already garnered two comments from people who believe the Windows 10 privacy “ruckus” was definitely not overblown: one from a software delivery consultant and the other from a director and producer.

Software delivery consultant Matt Heusser said that by making the “accept default privacy” settings button on the installation screen large, but making the customization button hard to find, Microsoft was making it difficult for users to customize their privacy settings.

Plus, “the default options included a keylogger to send all your keystrokes to Microsoft. Overblown? I think not,” he said of users’ concerns.

Norman Berns, a New York-based creative director, also believes the Windows 10 privacy “ruckus” is justified. He pointed to Microsoft’s daunting terms of service and the complicated installation process.

“After being force-fed a 12,000 tome of legalese (about 40 typed pages’ worth), approve or kill the entire installation, users have to wade through a dozen screens of intrusion approvals,” said Berns.

The fact that users must opt out of Microsoft’s privacy settings, rather than be able to opt in, is problematic, he said — and not only because the opt-outs are carefully hidden from users.

“Most [of the privacy settings] are of zero value to the end user; most simply provide another source of private data for Microsoft sales.

“People maybe have been less bothered if Microsoft hadn’t been quite so sneaky about the implementation,” he added.

August 1, 2015  1:55 AM

Duolingo cofounder explains crowdsourcing to the MIT crowd

Linda Tucci Linda Tucci Profile: Linda Tucci

When Luis von Ahn was 12, he dreamed of becoming a “gazillionaire” by building a chain of free gyms where the kinetic energy people expended on exercise equipment would be captured and sold to power companies.

“I thought this was a genius idea. We’re going to have a set of free gyms, where we don’t have to charge people because as they are exercising they are generating value for us. And because the gyms are free, we are going to take over the whole world of gyms,” von Ahn, an associate professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science department, recounted at the recent MIT Platform Strategy Summit.

As he later discovered, not only was his big idea unoriginal — many people had entertained the same notion — there remain two big reasons it doesn’t work.

“The first is that people are just not very good at generating power, so you can’t make much money off it,” he said. “But second, and most importantly, gyms make their money from people who pay and don’t go.”

A native of Guatemala, von Ahn, 35, is famous for being one of the pioneers of crowdsourcing or, to use his term: human computation. He defines human computation as a system “that combines humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone.” As a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon he worked on CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart). The security tool, in wide use today on the Web, does double duty as a crowdsourcing tool, using our typed-in transcriptions to turn images of hard-to-read text in old books and magazines into an accurate digital record.

For this work and other projects, von Ahn has become a millionaire, if not the gazillionaire of his pubescent dreams. He was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship “genius” award in 2006. Three years later he sold his company, reCAPTCHA, to Google reportedly for more than $25 million.

Duolingo platform

Von Ahn currently commands the spotlight as co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, a learning/translation/crowdsourcing platform that combines the lofty aim of teaching people a foreign language for free via an interactive app  — with crowdsourced labor. As learners acquire language skills, they are asked to translate portions of foreign news articles into English as a way to test their skills; Duolingo then sells these translations to the likes of CNN and Buzzfeed. The site has more than 100 million users, von Ahn said.

“More people are learning language on Duolingo in the United States than in the whole U.S. School system,” he said, a fact that would probably not surprise what’s left of the foreign language school teachers in the nation’s public schools.

Indeed, according to von Ahn, of the 1.2 billion people in the world trying to learn a foreign language (his figure), most are trying to learn a language — English — as a means of getting better work, but can’t afford to pay for classes.

“This is the irony. Most people that are trying to learn a language are doing so to get out of poverty, but it seems you need $1000 to get out of poverty,” he said.

Duolingo aims to level the playing field, von Ahn said, and is part of a larger goal to make education more widely available, regardless of one’s ability to pay.

How to make something like this pay is something he’s been thinking about since he was 12. “The question was, ‘How do we apply the idea of the gym to language learning?'” he said. And the answer is to get users to give you something of value in return for learning. The platform matches up what users are learning to the material CNN and other clients want translated.

Game theory and A/B testing

Three years in, the platform keeps growing and keeps adding languages (e.g. Irish; the number of people learning it on Duolingo now exceeds native speakers, von Ahn said). Schools are starting to adopt Duolingo. Like other platform companies, the company does not rely on traditional marketing to promote itself but has gone to great lengths to figure out how to hook people and keep them coming back.

Language learning is divided into separate skills — the ability to talk about food or animals; the ability to do plurals — and then game theory is applied to encourage people to keep acquiring skills. Every skill level has a “strength bar,” a sophisticated mechanism that goes up as language proficiency increases and decreases when mistakes are made or the student slacks off, disappearing altogether if one ignores ones lessons for too long.

The company has used a lot of mechanisms to lure back Duolingo dropouts, von Ahn said. But the one that has worked the best is sending an image of Duo, the company mascot, crying — crowd tested, of course. “We A/B tested how many tears and how large the puddles of tears should be,” von Ahn said.

Crowdsourcing language acquisition

To figure out how to build a system for learning language, von Ahn and his co-founder read a lot of books (including French for Dummies) on how best to teach a language, but realized the field is rife with conflicting theories. Rather than settle on one method, von Ahn said he and his co-founder “took what we could” from a variety of approaches. As the user community grew, they tested empirically what worked and what didn’t, using A/B testing to improve the heuristics – for example, when is the optimal time to teach plurals.

Whether this back-to-the-future apprentice model has staying power remains to be seen. In the meantime, it is using its current crowd of language learners to not only sell translations but also to perfect itself.

“DuoLingo keeps getting better and better over time, as we are experimenting,” von Ahn said.

Let me know what you think of this post — email me or find me on Twitter @ltucci

July 30, 2015  2:24 PM

Loura-isms: How to do IT leadership right from HP’s CIO

Nicole Laskowski Nicole Laskowski Profile: Nicole Laskowski

Ralph Loura, CIO of the enterprise group at Hewlett-Packard, participated on a panel at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium where he served up plenty of food for thought for IT leaders. Here are four choice Loura-isms on IT leadership.

Post-implementation reviews. “If you’re not doing a post-implementation reviewRalph Loura and you’re not tracking value, then you’re not doing IT for a business, you’re doing IT for a hobby. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

The rule of seven “dippings.” This one comes from an old Loura mentor. When it comes to complicated concepts or big changes, “it takes seven ‘dippings’ or exposures to that thing before you can begin to internalize it,” Loura said. He didn’t go through all seven “dips,” but a few went something like basic comprehension, understanding how this thing connects to other things, working through the emotional change that comes with thing. So, when IT leaders are trying to drive a different conversation or implement a change that doesn’t seem to be catching on, “it may appear to be a failure at first, but it may be we haven’t gotten to dipping number seven yet,” Loura said.

IT leadership: Embrace what your users are doing, and they’ll show you where IT is falling down. “None of our users, hopefully, show up to work thinking, ‘How can I pull one over on IT today?’ They show up thinking, ‘How can I sell more, hire better, run a more efficient supply chain?’ and they’re just doing it sometimes in spite of you,” Loura said. “So if you pay attention to what they’re doing, they’ll often show you the gaps in what you’re doing.”

3D transformation. Loura is the former CIO at Clorox, where the language of the brand was, we disinfect in you, on you and around you. “‘In you,’ was Britta water filtration and that sort of thing,” he said. So Loura decided to co-opt the language, and apply it to IT. Here’s how he broke it down for his department:

  • In you: IT itself needed a different capability set, a different exposure, a different way to approach the business.
  • On you: The interface to the business had to change to be more collaborative — in the way they worked and created value together.
  • Around you: The ecosystem of vendors had to change, which included technology, in some cases, platforms, and the partners used to deliver it.

“If you only change one of those three dimensions, you’re not getting it done,” he said.

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