Q&A: Surrounded by 'code halos'? Here's how your IT organization can embrace this new religion

Every bit of digital information popping up in the cloud and Internet of things holds data meaningful to your company's products and services. The tricky part will lie in unleashing that value faster than the competition.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor
Paul Roehrig, global managing director of Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work.

Every move you make in the digital world is subject to scrutiny and interpretation, a phenomenon that companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix and Pandora use to their advantage every day.

The emerging blueprint for how businesses can leverage that digital information into new products and services — and the technology investments necessary to make that happen — is the subject of a new book (and accompanying app) written by several strategists at IT consulting firm Cognizant, Code Halos: How the Digital Lives of People, Things and Organizations are Changing the Rules of Business

ZDNet spoke with one of the book's co-authors — Paul Roehrig, global managing director of Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work — about why companies should care about what information is going viral about their company or with their employees, and how IT managers can help move their organization from a state of digital limbo into code halo heaven.

What sort of information is included in a code halo?

Paul Roehrig: It’s probably useful to personalize it first, because we’re all familiar with how we engage in technology in our personal lives, and then I’ll extend that into the enterprise point of view. Every day, you and I and millions of others exchange data and information with different companies. We do searches with Google. We manage our careers with LinkedIn. We listen to music through Pandora. We watch movies with Netflix. We connect to our friends and family with Facebook. We have these very rich digital interactions. Every "click" or "swipe" or "buy" or "like" or search creates a digital footprint, a digital exhaust trail. The combined information of what you like, what you are listening to, where you are in space -- all of that information in aggregate creates a virtual you that’s comprised of the information that you share every day, day after day, week after week, month after month.


Now, extend that idea to other kinds of data meaningful at the enterprise level. You can find some really interesting examples: Allstate and Progressive and others are using very specific driver data, collected in many cases through telematics devices, to create new kinds of commercial models for personal insurance, for auto insurance. Disney has created its MagicBand system where it has encoded your credit card information and what kind of things you’re interested in; it helps people get a very personalized theme-park guest experience based on data and information, and it’s all encoded in a band that goes on your wrist. In manufacturing, GE creates code halos around their jet engine. There are hundreds of sensors built into the engine, generating data useful for GE and airlines. It’s lowering costs, improving safety and efficiency, and there are many business benefits.

Do companies have code halos?

Absolutely. The best example is “United Breaks Guitars.” Remember when some guy had a guitar and United Airlines loaded it wrong and it got broken? When he tried to get some compensation, and they didn’t want to do that, [the owner] posted things on social media and he got a terrific reaction. It went viral, and United had to respond. That's one early example of a company’s code halo — their brand being really significantly shaped by information that was being shared about the company.

How much should a corporate IT manager worry about the personal code halo or halos of employees?

Corporate IT is becoming increasingly involved in helping manage employee code halos. The most obvious example is the whole bring-your-own-device shift, in which many employees are mingling personal data on their own devices with corporate data, which is subject to different kinds of regulation and privacy and security requirements. So, corporate IT managers have already had to embrace the notion of employee code co-mingling with corporate code.

In other cases, companies are recognizing that employees sharing their own code within the constraints of an organization can actually lead to improved efficiency, [and] improved collaboration. Many companies have built-in social systems where they’re sharing information, they’re solving problems, real time, remotely and virtually.

Other companies are taking it even a step farther and are trying to understand how employees are engaging with the world digitally. And there are some examples of companies doing experiments with employee code saying, “I don’t only want to know what your corporate code halo is, but I also am interested in knowing your personal code halo. So what are you putting on Facebook? What are you listening to on Pandora?” There are experiments going on right now where employees are voluntarily sharing that information with their company, and the company is trying to mine that data to create a more improved employee experience, a better work experience.

It’s really a fascinating point in time for an IT leader now to be thrust into this new requirement for managing code, managing employee code, product code, brand code, customer code, all of that data and information. It really shifts the requirements of IT to not only how keep the business going with data centers and desktop systems and what have you, but [figuring out] what do we do with all of this information from different constituents and how we convert that information into real business value.

What is the gating factor? Is it the ever-present privacy and security question?

"Companies have to be compelling and honest in their ability to manage that information in an ethical and trustworthy way, and they have to deliver a level of value that makes it worth the give." 

We go into this in some detail in the book: we called the chapter "Don’t Be Evil 2.0." Because, yes, this absolutely is one of the perceived gating factors to this happening even more rapidly than it already is. What we talk about is how, as this shift continues to unfold, real brand differentiation will be related to a company’s ability to manage trust, to manage that information and manage the trusting relationships with partners. 

Whether it’s B2B or B2C relationships, it’s that ability to treat that code and manage that information in a way that’s transparent and flexible, auditable, compliant with various regulations. That is going to be one key differentiating factor of companies winning or losing what we call the "code rush." 

These security, privacy and compliance issues are not simple, but every day different companies across the world are making tremendous progress on being able to solve some of these issues. That’s part one. The second side of the coin is people in many cases are willing to share more and more information, right? What we’re seeing is more and more of an opt-in economy. So people are saying, “Yes, I am willing to share this information, my information, with you, as a company, but you have to treat it with respect. ” Companies have to be compelling and honest in their ability to manage that information in an ethical and trustworthy way, and they have to deliver a level of value that makes it worth the give. We call this the "give-to-get" ratio.

How is the Internet of things impacting the code halo phenomenon?

It’s part of the whole master narrative. If I have a set of sensor devices on my bicycle, I’m creating a code halo as I go through space at whatever speed I’m going and where I’m going and what my heart rate is along the way. Where that gets really interesting and exciting is I’m creating this code that has meaning, too. It's up to companies to begin to make meaning of that code.

Where can a business get started, and how quickly does it need to move?

Our conclusion is the time to start is really now. How fast you have to go: it may depend on what your industry is or what sector you’re in. If you’re in book sales, you’ve already been disrupted. If you’re in movie distribution, just ask Blockbuster how things are going. Those industries have already been disrupted, but what we’re seeing is a lot of excitement and innovation in many other sectors.

The places to start are three. The first one is the customer interface. Some of the examples that we talked about already are really focused on how a business can change their interaction [with customers] and create a sense of mass personalization or customization using data and information similar to Amazon and their Web site. That’s exactly what Disney is doing with Magic Band: that’s very much a customer experience using code to improve the guest experience. So that first starting point is really thinking about how information can change the customer interface. 

The second place involves the Internet of things, what we call the product interface or the rise of the smart machines. Using devices and information from telematics devices, like GE’s aircraft engine, you’re seeing some really interesting consumer product stories around [companies] creating code and creating value from code — whether it’s a chip that you would swallow to help monitor your medical compliance and treatment or whether it’s a Bluetooth-enabled toothbrush that gives you information on brushing behavior for your kids. 

A third key starting point is the notion of creating a beautiful experience and using information to drive new product and service design. A great example is Netflix, with "House of Cards" [the original series created for online viewing]. It used a lot of data that it had based on which directors did well in streaming [downloads], what people were watching in terms of other kinds of shows. That informed the design for the "House of Cards" series, which had a significant impact on Netflix, its share price, its number of viewers, and even critical acclaim. 

So those three main points — the customer interface, the product interface or the rise of the smart machine, and rethinking product and solution design to create beautiful consumer and even organizational experiences — are the most fruitful starting points that we’ve seen.

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