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When machines take over: Our hyperconnected world

Hyperconnectivity Range

We are entering the age of hyperconnectivity, an era where billions of workers worldwide will have multiple devices plugging them into the internet 24:7. Many of the tech gurus attending the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, including Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Cisco boss John Chambers, are raving about the opportunities this ‘Internet of Things’ will deliver for businesses, with machines talking to each other, controlling environments and delivering automated instructions. There are significant possibilities but also risks.

BBC Capital asked Paul Coby, information technology director at British flagship department store John Lewis, how the retail giant has addressed the challenges of hyperconnectivity.

Q: How can businesses cope in hyperconnected world?

A: Businesses need to look at the hype and determine which bits of technology are going to succeed. The Internet of Things [where connected devices communicate in an automated way for a given set of tasks] is a really interesting and exciting area in my view, but where this ends up, no one really knows yet. It will depend on what people really want to trust connected devices with.

Clearly Google thinks Nest [which makes smoke detectors and thermostats] is onto a winner, and home energy management and security are clearly areas many people are looking at.

The issue for a retailer is: does hyperconnectivity give customers services and products they really want, and how does it do that? People are going to be interested in what they can do with totally connected devices and how it will help them and save them money. They will be asking, ‘will it save me energy? Is security going to improve? Is this cost-effective for me?’

Q: And how do employees cope?

A: "By allowing instant access to the information people need to do their jobs, our connected world has increased productivity amazingly. But the thing one has to have in this information-overloaded situation is the self-discipline to concentrate on the things that really do matter and need attention. Whether that's a work task or in your personal life. You must then screen the 'noise' out and focus.

Q: What about dealing with hyperconnectivity internally, such as workers bringing in their smartphones and tablets for work use? Do you have a Bring Your Own Device strategy? 

A: We have a limited one. In terms of basics, if you’ve got a need for email and calendar on your smartphone, we will enable that.

There are things we are very concerned about, though. The first is customer data, being really careful with that. If you open up things too wide, accidentally, you increase risk so you have to be so careful.

Q: Do you think we are more productive because of this hyperconnectivity?

A: Immensely so, I’m enormously more productive, in terms of being able to connect to people and talk to people. I haven’t felt I’ve had to rewire my brain… I love all the extra information.”

Q: I understand one innovation didn’t work out — the virtual mirrors trialled in London, which let shoppers virtually try on clothes by laying the garments over their reflection. What happened with them?

A: Customers and partners really liked using it, but the reason you can’t roll it out on a wider scale is the overhead [costs] of introducing 3D images in a fast-moving department like high fashion. It’s very considerable.

We recognised it wasn’t mature so we’re trying other things. I’m proud of that as an example of actually how you should innovate. Innovation is about trying things.

Q: Is social media a double-edged sword? How do you both exploit social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to increase sales, whilst dealing with the potential for reputational damage from customer complaints? 

A: I used to have presentation slide with a picture of a dodo, saying that’s what your business would become if you ignored social channels. It’s a reality.

Obviously you can’t control it and feedback is now instantaneous. That brings many good things and many challenging things, but it’s the world we live in.”

Our marketing teams were very good at integrating social channels early on. We recently launched our Christmas ads on YouTube and Facebook 24 hours before they were on television. Clearly when there are issues you need to recognise them and deal with them. If there were issues in the print media, it would be up to us to respond to them, and you need to respond on social channels too.

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