‘How we organise our digital inheritance will be a major concern in the future’

With more and more of our lives moving online in the days to come we will have to figure out who to leave that legacy to. “How do we organise our digital inheritance will be a major concern in the future. To whom do you want to transfer all your digital life is a question that will need to be answered,” says Ferdinando Pennarolla, an associate professor at the department of management and technology, Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. He was in India teaching the first batch of students at the Mumbai International School of Business, an initiative of the SDA Bocconi School of Management. In this interview he speaks to Vivek Kaul.
I wanted to start by talking a little bit about our digital lives. More and more of your lives are moving online. So how private are our lives?
There are two pitfalls of this story. One is the pitfall of the consumer and the other one is the pitfall of the agencies and the authorities that have to set rules about the privacy for the future. The consumers are not asking themselves to what extent their digital lives are there forever. When you write something on the internet it is written on the stone. It is forever. It is very difficult to erase things on the internet. Once you get Googlised it is very difficult to cancel or erase your news. There many stories of people who want to remove themselves from Facebook and Twitter. But there are many other stories where people cannot erase their contribution to things like community groups and forums. How do we organise our digital inheritance will be a  major concern in the future. To whom do you want to transfer all your digital life is a question that will need to be answered.
Could you discuss this in detail?
Our digital lives are characterised by services to which we have subscribed, say newsletters, social networks, e-commerce websites, free email accounts, blogs, and any other sort of profiling registration we do on the web to access to services and make our online purchases. Since we are not yet in the (eventually) forecoming era of the “digital identity” with an hopeful single sign-on technology that gives the pass to all we need on the web, the issue that remains open today is what happens to all this digital heritage when we will pass away. Who will have access to all of this? Will these accounts just be cancelled because they will remain unutilised? Will the vendors still keep on bombarding our mailboxes with news and advertising? I think there is a need of an integrated service that in the future will take care of all our digital and networked life, and pass it to our loves, according to our will.
What are the pitfalls at the agency level? 
The pitfall of the agencies and the regulatory people who have to work on privacy are the following. I think we have to reformulate drastically what we mean by privacy. Let me quote a story which I was not mistaken happened two years ago and turned into a major scandal. It was found that there was a log file in the Apple iPhone available only when the user was synchronizing the iPhone with iTunes and this file was sent to Apple. It contained all the log information about the GPS presence of the user. And it was a big scandal. People started saying things like Apple is investigating about our lives. Apple knows where I am walking with whom I am talking. Apple knows whether I am travelling not travelling. Is this fair? Is this against private? It was a big debate.
And what happened?
I went onto the internet and I saw many of the blogs talking about it as well. And do you know what was the most common response? Who cares! I am not a criminal. I am not a government representative. Whether I am walking in Mumbai or I am walking elsewhere, who cares that they know. So there are people who have no problem in disseminating their information. The problem is that in many cases we think privacy is being violated but everyone else may not be thinking on similar lines.
That’s a very interesting point you make…
Let me elaborate on this a little more. I don’t wish that this happens to anybody, but do you know what is the very first thing you will do, if you are diagnosed with a cancer? You will go on the internet. Yes. You will go on the internet. You will start grabbing information about your case and similar cases. And do you know what is going to be next step? You will be sharing your story with other people. There are zillions of websites with cancer patients sharing their super private lives with everybody and pharmaceutical companies don’t know what to do with it. So there are some circumstances in life, where the traditional old fashioned notion of privacy is definitely in dire straits. Zuckerberg and his friends, they made an IPO with our privacy. They built a huge company with pictures and facts that I share with my circle of friends.
How are companies using this information that we leave online?
I think there is a big room for business on this. Let me make a case. Yesterday it rained very heavily in Mumbai (the interview was taken on an earlier date). I just talked to the head of the academic activities at my school and it took her four hours to get home and she only reached around midnight. Is that sane? It’s insane. Now routing traffic on the basis that people want to share their local information would be fantastic. It would mean exploiting the possibility of returning services to citizens based on the data they produce and the data they want to share. Google has started this in some cities. But they are still in the test phase. So we will have to wait and see to what extent this will become a popular service. I like to say that it is much less expensive to move bytes instead of moving atoms. Moving atoms should be the ultimate solution.
Any other examples?
Then there is the case for the health care businesses. And I would say that we are at a very early stage. I have been working with the giants of the industry and if you get into the Facebook pages of the pharmaceutical companies or look into the social network strategies of these companies, you will discover that some of these companies are trying to listen what is happening on the web. They are trying to understand how consumers are talking about their products and their therapies. That I think is a start and then eventually these companies will use this kind of data for returning services to the end consumer.
But you are talking from a positive point of view…
Yes. You know it is a of trade off. Let me put a case. Every time something dramatic happens in my country like a kidnapping, shooting, or a major accident, what happens is that police gets into a desperate search of webcams that eventually had the fortunate possibility to shoot the situation. These cameras could be something like private cameras for security purposes at a hotel. Now if you spread out cameras all over the city definitely you are invading the private life of your citizens and that they are being filmed at every single step of their lives in the city. But the returning action is that you can defeat criminals, who are a major problem in any country. Nothing is safe because in the end we are talking about human beings. But I do believe in policies and practices and I do believe in their enforcement.
Do companies like Google benefit because they have an access to a major part of our digital lives?
There is the famous quote from the Google founders “don’t be evil”. They know that they run the risk of being perceived as the evil of the world sitting on an incredible amount of data on processing information about users. I think Google is sitting on a pile of data which is very difficult to process and analyse. In fact, they are very cautious in turning this data into further initiatives. It is very difficult to trace behaviours when you move in different areas of the world,  when you have different IP numbers and when you have different devices. So it is very difficult to then a have an interpreting model of the user behaviour. So once again it’s not easy to trace what you are actually doing. Can I say that, that’s the not the solution that we have to talk about.
Then what should we talk about?
The Google people made the brilliant contribution of re-inventing the way we do searches and making a business about that. Searches will be the most important engine of mankind in the years to come. But because of all the information that will be there, the difficulty will be in catching the information that you are looking for. So we need different engines. I predict the Google story will come to an end or they themselves may re-formulate their engine view and get into different type of searches. People get a little bit dissatisfied when they do traditional searches on the web. They get lots of popular stuff that they are not looking for. When you are under pressure when you have to make a fast decision you don’t want that to happen. You want to have exactly what you are looking for. This will have to change.
What kind of specialised things do you see them getting into?
The answer is semantic search engines which have the ability to interpret what you are looking for. But these are still in their early stages because semantic engines are very expensive to build and they need a lot of self learning. This database of semantic searches is the future that I see. In a recent blog you wrote “customer service operations today are similar to the organisation of the early mills and factories of 100 years ago. There is a long long way to improve in customer service, anywhere in the world. Neither the best admired companies are immune from this.” What made you say that? 
Deploying a service with a face to face encounter in many businesses is no longer rewarding. Think of type of services like insurance or giving support to the customer once the product supplies have been done. They don’t have any reason to keep on opening local offices and having customers visiting those local branches. So more and more customers are logging onto the web or making a phone conversation to get their problems resolved. But there is a problem with the way customer service operations and call centres are organised. These jobs are of the highly repetitive kind where you do and do the same thing over and over again. You are bombarded by mails and phone conversations and then at the end of the day you are exhausted because you are working hard eight hours a day managing hundreds of complaints from customers.
Yes, I guess that’s true….
If you visit these organisations, I am sorry to say, they look like chicken gates, where people are organised in small cubicles. Sometimes the environment is very noisy as well and at the same time the people who work in these call centres are trying to understand what the customers are saying on the phone. I would say that this is insane. This is really like old industrialised assembly lines of 150 years ago. The other kind of organisations have been evolving their orgnisational modes towards much more up to date and more humanised, productive and motivation oriented environments. I am not surprised in many of the customer service operations, also in India, experience high turnover rates. So there is a major challenge for customer service managers to reinvest these organisations in such a way that I enter the customer service operation as a junior manager and I leave at the retirement age, let me provocatively say.
Do you see that happening?
No. It is not happening with the exception of a few cases. In 2003, there was a scientific research in the Academy of Management Journal which is one of the leading publications in my field. The research demonstrated for the first time ever that in customer service operations there is a positive correlation between customer churn rate and employee churn rate. This is very interesting and which means that if you want your customers happy, you have to make sure that your employees are happy. As opposite, if your customers are unhappy it is very likely that one of the reasons is that your employees are unhappy. But are customers happy with customer service operations? I fight on a daily basis to be served on the phone. And the quality of the service is lousy. It is very poor. Sometimes you have to remake the connection or re-explain the things with several agents over and over before getting a problem solved. This is happening in insurance, banking, travel, transportation and even in telecommunications.
Just to be frank and open, it is very difficult to find the right solutions and the right processes working in the back-office without any face to face interaction with the customer.
Another interesting blog of yours was on the growing number of digital subscribers of the New York Times newspaper. That raises a few questions. Do you see newspapers being a viable business model in the days to come? Or will the biggest newspapers of the world largely move online?
We are at a turning point and the turning point is the following. Definitely the news business is becoming more and more free. Everybody has news. The earthquake followed by the tsunami in Japan was communicated across the planet, faster than anything else. And it started with basically a few people shouting about it on Twitter. All this is fantastic news for mankind. We want to be informed and we spread out the news all over the planet. But the point is that   we have to make a balance between the crowd-sourcing of news and the authoritative production of news.
Could you elaborate on that?
I would not want to stop the crowd-sourcing of news from people who become journalists simply because they are eye witnessing something that is very important. At the same time we need editorials. We need people who can interpret news. I value this a lot. I am still on old fashioned customer. I still purchase newspapers. Of course I purchase the digital version. But I still pay for the news that I get. But at the same time I am a very well informed citizen. I am always connected to the internet. I have my news websites open. And I grab the news instantly as soon as it comes. But still a day after I love to get into editorials to get an understanding of what is happening. I think the publishing industry has to find a solution. Is a solution readily available now? No.  They are still in between.
The interview originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis on October 1, 2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/interview_how-we-organise-our-digital-inheritance-will-be-a-major-concern-in-future_1747236
(Interviewer Kaul is a writer and he can be reached at [email protected])