Technology is one of the best catalysts for disrupting traditional industries. You can think about it as the difference between hiring more people and “hiring” more technology. With the right tech tools, you can exponentially increase output and productivity. However, if you hire more people, productivity increases only as fast as you can hire—but is limited beyond that additional 40 or so hours a week.
Bookstores are a great example of technology disrupting a traditional industry. Bookstores have been around for centuries—the oldest surviving bookstore is nearly 300 years old. At one point, technology and bookstores seemed like an unlikely combination. Then, in 1994, Jeff Bezos introduced Amazon to the world. Two decades later, Amazon surpassed $232-billion in annual revenue with more than 300-million users.
Making the switch to technology can be tricky if it’s new and unfamiliar to your company or industry.
Traditional companies have the opportunity to revamp how they operate by using tech such as mobile apps and data analytics to boost productivity, scale operations, and secure their market position. Yet, making the switch to technology can be tricky if it’s new and unfamiliar to your company or industry. Change is always hard, especially when you’re working with multiple stakeholders and decades of doing it “one way.”
Sene Sorrow, Director of Product Management at United Technologies and former Director of Data & Analytics at Turner Broadcasting, is an advocate for using tech to transform traditional companies.
In this article, we’ll apply insights from Sene Sorrow, Director of Product Management at United Technologies and former Director of Data & Analytics at Turner Broadcasting to shed light on some of the key challenges traditional companies face when it comes to adopting technology. We’ll also examine why automation is a prime opportunity for creating a positive user experience and take a closer look at the stack that one product team at Turner Broadcasting used to provide stakeholder-wide access to data.
“Often without intent, people resist change, which can really limit companies.” Sene Sorrow, Director of Product Management at United Technologies
The problems traditional companies often face when adopting more tech
When traditional companies embrace technology, they often witness measurable, tangible wins such as increased productivity, greater scale operations, and significantly higher revenue. While there are a number of success stories that point to technology as the driver for success in traditional industries—such as Spotify disrupting the music industry and Airbnb disrupting the hotel industry—committing to this change is difficult. Even with the potential upsides of significant financial and performance gains, change can feel risky when you’re starting from scratch. It doesn’t help that the wins that result from disruptive technology rarely happen overnight; they are the result of weeks, months, and even years of dedicating time and resources to new processes, tools, mindsets, and potentially even rebranding.
Change can feel risky when you’re starting from scratch.
One of the key challenges traditional companies face in switching to more tech is getting key decision-makers to agree to the change. As Sene Sorrow puts it, “transformations can make a lot of people uncomfortable. Often without intent, people resist change, which can really limit companies. It takes strong leadership to facilitate and usher change. It takes exceptionally strong and visionary leadership to facilitate transformations. In my product, we were lucky enough to have exceptionally strong leadership and we benefited tremendously.”
“It takes exceptionally strong and visionary leadership to facilitate transformations.” Sene Sorrow, Director of Product Management at United Technologies
Another challenge to adopting technology tools is recognizing the opportunities right in front of you. Traditional companies are often run by industry and business experts with decades of experience. These industry experts often contrast with younger individuals entering the workforce who “have a strong data and analytics background and have grown up with digital devices,” according to Sene. “But digital fluency in young people doesn’t mean they have the knowledge needed to apply and make things happen in the business,” she adds. “Industry experts and young people joining the company need to join forces, and I think that development needs to be recognized and encouraged at a corporate level.”
To get more out of your company with technology, Sene recommends that companies identify specific technical skills that employees should have to do their job better. Figure out the mindset you want employees to work from, and reverse engineer which skills will contribute to developing that mentality.
If, for example, it’s important for people in your company to understand how data applies to every team from engineering to marketing to product, teach them relational databases or ensure that everyone understands SQL. “To learn SQL, you have to really understand and visualize what a database structure looks like,” Sene says. “This is an important skill to have. I think that seeing data and visualizing data relationships provides more tools and connections to the data that encourage people to be more curious about the data that represents their roles and the groups and products they serve. It pushes people to figure out how things work on the back end and challenges them to get comfortable with not only measuring performance but also unlocking new capabilities when data come together.”
How automation can help companies improve the user experience
Automation disrupts traditional companies and industries in many ways simply by allowing you to get ahead by accomplishing more with less time and overhead. When you rely exclusively on manual operations, you’re constrained to the total amount of work all of your employees can deliver. Without automation, the only way to scale is to hire more people. With automation, all you need to do is adjust your product or tools to accommodate your needs.
When you rely exclusively on manual operations, you’re constrained to the total amount of work all of your employees can deliver.
When it comes to automation, user experience is often the biggest opportunity for improvement. Highly successful companies such as Amazon and Netflix have profited from disrupting entire industries by focusing on user experience improvements driven by automation. “Amazon and Netflix are great examples because they have figured out how to capture their data and not only use it to measure and optimize performance, but they use it in automated ways to serve highly personalized experiences to their customers,” Sene tells us. “This automation allows data to feed into content and becomes a complete loop to better serve its customers (and its bottom line).”
Consider Spotify, which launched Discover Weekly playlists in 2015. Discover Weekly uses an algorithm to generate a playlist with 30 recommended songs that users are expected to enjoy based on their listening history.
Spotify’s Discovery Weekly feature is an example of using automation to drive better user experience.
To pull recommendations for each unique user, Spotify combs through 2 billion playlists from other users. These playlists are used to predict similar music tastes and use that information to offer specific song recommendations. To automate these recommendations, Spotify uses a music analytics tool, Echo Nest, to parse through billions of data points and generate unique playlists that keep users coming back every week for more.
The stack Turner used in their switch to better harness their data
Data exists at every company. The question is who uses that data? It’s common for data to live in silos with the primary consumers of that data—usually the analysts and data scientists. Data is particularly inaccessible in traditional companies and industries, where most teams replace quantified insights with intuition, gut-feeling, and status quo.
Isolating data from your team limits the potential it offers your entire company. Every department—from marketing to engineering—can use data for a host of reasons such as running experiments that accelerate team learning, working more proactively, and improving performance. A few individuals at Turner Broadcasting System recognized that their data could simply do more, so they began working on a way to improve its accessibility. It was not easy to get the initial buy-in from the right people (as we mentioned before, getting others to agree to change can feel like an uphill battle), but they eventually got the approval they needed to provide stakeholder-wide data-access.
Isolating data from your team limits the potential it offers your entire company.
To get data in the hands of the various product stakeholders—not just the data experts—Sene’s product at Turner used a multi-layered data stack leveraging a few key enablement technologies that worked together to provide various functions to the business. This three-part data stack was made up of Segment, Braze, and Amplitude. Each tool had its own function:
- Segment: This tool ingested data from disparate sources that were previously siloed and rooted it to the different technology making it ready for use with the tools Turner had invested in. Segment made the data stack more possible and more available to more stakeholders – easily and reliably.
- Amplitude: An essential part of Turner’s stack, all data was funneled into Amplitude to understand user behavior trends in the application and provide teams access to the right data in a way that is intuitive even to non-data experts. Product, Marketing, Content and Customer Service teams used Amplitude to help provide metrics and data for their respective areas.
- Braze: Using Braze, Turner’s product and marketing team could leverage the actionable insights from Amplitude to build and execute a data-driven messaging strategy for email and push notifications.
The impact at Turner was significant. “Increased access to data was huge for us,” Sene shares. “In the past, critical business data may have only to certain groups. Other groups saw curated dashboard data only. Crash data was only available for development. Customer service data was only available for the customer service teams. There was no real effort to integrate data and make it available for teams to consider other relationships of the same data.
Turner Broadcasting used accessible analytics to support cross-functional team productivity and performance.
Sene adds, “What we’ve figured out very quickly, through Segment and Amplitude is that we could consolidate that data, integrate it, and then make it available to a lot more people. This enabled us to go from a very siloed centralized model that doesn’t really work for a product to a much more distributed and decentralized (democratized) data stack where more people could view a broader set of data and ask themselves am I doing the right thing? Am I building the right product? How could I make my product better?
It wasn’t long before people at Turner became fully engrossed into the benefits of all the data made newly available. “We quickly found that data can support teams cross-functionally,” Sene explains. “For example, the content teams could take customer service data and feedback and apply patterns to improve their content decisions even though the two data sets were traditionally kept separate.”
For most companies, data is the foundation for success
The overarching motif of disrupting traditional companies with tech is that change is hard, but worthwhile. Working tech—such as mobile apps, data analytics, and automation tools—into traditional companies enables you to do more with your business than was ever previously possible.
Change is hard, but worthwhile.
And, that tech can be all that you need to get ahead of your competitors. Burger King is a prime example of embracing technology in the face of steep competition. With their now-famous “Burn That Ad” campaign, users could install a mobile app and virtually set ads on fire:
Once the user completely burned an ad from one of Burger King’s competitors, they were awarded a free burger. The “Burn That Ad” campaign is a brilliant example of using tech to identify users that met certain criteria and using automation tools to deploy personalized messaging that ultimately resulted in a rewarding, memorable user experience.
If you’re a traditional company teetering on the fence of whether or not to add more technology to your company’s operations, now’s the time to act. The sooner you create a strong technical foundation, the quicker your teams can amplify the impact of their work.