Monday, May 31, 2010

Spring Conferences, Part 1

I recently attended SIIA NetGain, including site visits to Adobe and Google, plus a couple of conferences at MIT and Harvard. This may take more than one post, but I wanted to share my impressions of these meetings, since I took quite a few notes. (I'm currently in LA for D8 - All Things Digital - but that will form the subject matter of a subsequent post.)

Let's start with the Center for Digital Business conference at MIT. The morning session was mostly about "web morphing", i.e., how do you adapt a Web page dynamically to a visitor's cognitive style. Cognitive style was defined along a number of dimensions, e.g., verbal/graphical, small/large infomation load, active/passive, etc. The dependant variable was consideration (i.e., is the user really thinking abut your product) rather than sales, and this was measured in terms of clicks. Glen Urban's work on ad morphing was particularly interesting. It varies ads along dimensions like more or less visual, more or less detail, and used a 2x2 cognitive matrix tat combined deliberative/impulsive with intuitive/rational. Morphing ads in the right direction got a lift in all quadrants, but the biggest lift came from the rational-deliberative users, who presumably got the technical detail they were looking for.

Another fascinating study used fMRI technology to examine the neuropsychology of financial risk. (fMRI scans use magnetic fields to map blood flow in the brain. When an area is active, blood flow increases.) The nucleus accumbens (NAcc) appears to implicated in the anticipation of a reward, while the amygdala seems to implicated in matters of trust. One finding was that faces of financial consultants that had been digitally morphed with the user's face were deemed as more trustworthy! In other words, we trust people who look like ourselves.

The afternoon sessions were focuseed on "digital advantage", i.e., how to get competitive advantage out of IT and innovation. Andrew McAfee argued that, while the price of digital assets is falling linearly on a log scale, this trend does not benefit all companies equally. High tech industries show a greater spread of gross profit margins since the mid 1990s, suggesting more competitiveness than other industries. Johnson Sikes of McKinsey reported on a survey done jointly with MIT which found a correlation between data-driven decision-making and productivity, showing the benefit of having highly-qualified staff who are given access to data for analytical purposes.

Michael Cusumano gave a sneak preview of his forthcoming book, Staying Power, in which he identifies six principles relevant to strategy and innovation in an uncertain world: platform (not just products); services on top of products and platforms; capabilities (not just strategy); pull (don't just push); scope (not just scale); and flexibility (not just efficiency). I look forward to reading the book when it comes out later this year.

In addition, there was a lunchtime session, in which Sherry Turkle gave a talk entitled "Alone Together" about the darker side of social networking. She posed the question, do the technology affordances serve our human purposes, or do they exploit our human vulnerabilities? Her extensive studies with both adults and teenagers suggest that people are lonely, but fear intimacy. Asynchronous social communications allow us to be very controlling with respect to the amount of time and emotional exposure we grant to people. Even a phone call is too much commitment for many of us; we would rather email, post or text. She made many memorable points, e.g., "intimacy and democracy require privacy" yet "we have become the instruments of our own surveillance." The tech mantra that people who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear from the Googles and Facebooks of this world completely misses this point.