“Digital needs to be about raising human ability.”

That was the message Mark McDonald, managing director of management consulting at Accenture, brought to the Fusion 2014 CEO-CIO Symposium, one of a number of speakers who stressed the need for CIOs to work with the business to bring more value to individuals, both inside and outside the organization.

Companies that don’t do this are at increasing risk of being disrupted by new technological approaches used by competitors, both those they know about and those they haven’t heard of yet.

The individual customer

Raising human ability of the customers happens at the edge, McDonald said, at the interface with the customer on the front lines and through devices, not just inside the four walls of the organization.

“The edge is where it’s happening,” he said. “The edge is where you create customer value. the edge is where information is needed.”

Use disruptive technology to create contradictions, McDonald said — like the biggest cruise line that has no lines. He recounted how Royal Caribbean’s operations and technology staff, faced with promises that the customer experience would be “as grand as the ships themselves,” used head-counting cameras to essentially eliminate lines for restaurants on their mega cruise liners by displaying how full those restaurants were on digital signage and mobile apps. That put the customer in charge of where they wanted to go, when, rather than giving them a preassigned reservation.

“If you create your own experience it’s significantly better than any experience any company could create for you,” McDonald said.

It’s not just technology for its own sake, either. Royal Caribbean could have used full-blown facial recognition rather than head counting. “They don’t collect the data, because it’s not needed,” McDonald said. “They could sell 150 more chicken parmesan dinners… but think about the operational overhead.” That, and the data security and privacy concerns.

Give customers a say, and data, and problems that people traditionally “put system on top of system to solve” can just “go away,” he said.

Sometimes, simplicity is best. People have ideas about the customer, but you have to listen and “not just have fancy objects built all over the place,” said Steve Cretney, CIO of Colony Brands. Some customers may rapidly adopt new digital channels, but not all. “You look at tools and you say, we should build mobile apps or, we should have a fancy web site, but she calls on the phone still,” he said.

The individual employee

In addition to raising the “human ability” of customers, McDonald said, it can and should do so for the workforce as well.

In the old model, he said, the edge provides data to the center, and the center tells the edge what to do. In the new model? The edge provides data to the center, the center provides data back to the edge to help the edge do its job better.

That requires front line employees with the training and the responsibility to act on that data.

Timothy Geisert, CMO of Kenexa, now IBM Smarter Workforce, said IT is allowing companies to have greater insight into their workforce and better support their people.

As a marketer, Geisert said he is closer to his CIO friends than ever before, because he’s now looking more at how to market to individuals rather than segments, and on a large scale that takes a great deal of technology support.

“As you think about your organization, what does your community say about it?” he asked. “When they leave work and go down to the bar, what do they say then?”

Or, if not the bar, perhaps Glassdoor. The information-sharing site for job seekers allows them to look for jobs while seeing reviews and salary information shared by others. If anything hits home the “disrupt or be disrupted” theme at Fusion, it’s that — whether you participate or not, disruptive digital systems will be used to talk about you.

Geisert worked with one retailer that was facing a problem with their distribution organization that they didn’t know about. They found out through Glassdoor and other sources that there was a harassment charge and talk of unionization brewing. A tense meeting became a turnaround as the company worked on improvement and was able to bring the organization up to much higher satisfaction in 6 months.

As an example of how data inside, rather than outside the organization can lead to better workforce outcomes, Geisert also brought up a survey done at IBM that addressed a compensation issue. Parsing text in survey answers and correlating it with other data revealed exactly where the problem was and narrowed down how to address it. He said asking for text, rather than multiple-choice answers was key.

“Open-ended questions versus radio buttons can be hugely insightful,” he said. “Why? Because they tell us emotion, and as humans we have a lot of it.”

“Are you giving your employees a great experience?” he asked.

Four signs you are being disrupted

Here are McDonald’s signs that a company is undergoing disruption. It might not be obvious at first because it’s not an overnight process, but giveaways can be found in the way the business operates and the customer base:

  • You have to work harder for every additional unit of revenue. Digital marketing can mask this by taking old marketing and making it cheaper, he said, but this won’t last if the underlying model doesn’t change.
  • Your customers are getting older. If your customer has aged more than 7 years in the last 10, you’re being disrupted. Baby boomers have a lot of wealth to pass down to relatively few children and will therefore be leaving a lot to the next generation.
  • Your staff to revenue ratio isn’t improving. “If you are hiring people who come in between, expediters, human middleware, you are already disrupted,” McDonald said.
  • You expect what has been working to keep working or are chasing competitors, taking cues from successes that don’t apply to your customers individually.

“None of the companies that everybody talks about being disrupted died overnight,” McDonald said. “It happens gradually.”