The public relations man: You’re never off-message in tech

We all know the jargon. Organisations refer to data not as datasets or flows, or ‘drivers of change’, but instead as variations on the ‘problem’ of the employee (did something get in the way,…

The public relations man: You're never off-message in tech

We all know the jargon. Organisations refer to data not as datasets or flows, or ‘drivers of change’, but instead as variations on the ‘problem’ of the employee (did something get in the way, or someone did something they weren’t supposed to).

Employee wellbeing is ‘aligned with business’s strategy’ or ‘optimising processes to deliver more for less’. Sex, gender, ethnicity and gender equality are parlance you hear over and over in tech land and in business in general.

These enunciations of a ‘pain point’ as a key to business success are well and good, and the occasional catchphrase will surely please investors. But they convey a very different attitude to work than they were back in the days of Wozniak or Jobs.

And by different, I don’t mean unimportant. Jobs and Wozniak were not only two of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century, but they also helped reinvent what we think about work.

In the wake of their successes, many of their successors tried to follow suit. Start-ups were founded with an aim to solve difficult problems, or to improve product quality. In recent years, however, they have often substituted artificial intelligence (AI) to solve an issue. But that’s not what was new. To hear them talk about their ‘engines’ was not to realise that they were developing a toy that you pointed at, or that they were developing a computer to run it.

Many of their successors have struggled, and suffered from the wrong kind of disruption

It was not the availability of better products and services that had the most impact on their success; it was the disruption caused by the arrival of brand new technology like the iPhone and then the iPad. Companies that deliver strong, long-term returns have never been more resilient.

The start-ups in the so-called tech revolution were set up, in the words of one VC, to “scare the beejesus out of the S&P”. And for the companies that have prevailed, technology is certainly not the issue. It is the disruption, and the companies that have been able to react quickly, or to ‘go to market’ fast enough.

In some industries, Amazon or Facebook or Google have been a ‘wedge’ in the market, disrupting whole areas, taking down whole competitors. But in others it has been a lead rope, delivering a perceived competitive advantage, not just a different offering. They stand at the confluence of labour, material and information costs – a physical, not just virtual, marketplace. The pressure applied by Amazon has not only brought down costs and made logistics better, but cut out the middlemen who did so.

In our relentless quest for more, and new, opportunity, ‘business’ is shifting from its ‘services to businesses’ orientation

In the technology industry, the customer’s disquiet has led to criticism, and even protest, over the power of the markets and over the monopolies they have established. Indeed, in its most extreme form, anti-trust regulators are examining the issue. But the reality is that many of the disruptive businesses rely on a kind of market share domination not so dissimilar to how old-style monopolies operated.

These new-style monopolies, however, do have one interesting characteristic: they exist at the level of customer interaction with the specific industry they dominate. The ‘services-to-business’ companies of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Uber do not actually deliver services to ‘business’, but rather to individuals. They simply process data. When they can cut out the middleman and offer a product that is better or cheaper, and delivers people to their door, the ‘customer-to-consumer’ attitude of these companies is a lot more appealing than the old-style oligopolistic business model.

This new-style industry is something of a different beast, but the old lines are not that dissimilar. While each company creates a class of ‘customers’, that is only at the level of individual humans. They are companies that ‘curate’ their customers’ experiences, which can change rapidly through the device of smart devices.

In other words, for Amazon, customers get to choose their mood when they have a shopping list or a task to complete, and to choose how they interact with their computers.

The old saying about customer service says that when ‘the customer is always right’, there will be no ‘satisfaction’ with a bad

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