Scoring hoops for innovation - NBA lessons for business users

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks January 19, 2017
A survey shows most company staff are prepared to await business tool innovations to come from other than IT, a sports industry conference on IT innovations shows where the good ideas are now coming from.

Innovation is still not a strong suit amongst business users of IT. 

 That's the conclusion of a survey conducted by BMC Software, that came out in the week of the  World Economic Forum gathering. In Davos this week, the main themes include Responsive and Responsible Leadership, against a background of digitalisation redefining existing industries and creating new ones.

The BMC study, covering 3,200 office workers in 12 countries, contained the following factoid which shows a potentially worrying trend: 88% of those surveyed place the responsibility to create innovative cultures on their employers.

This is, perhaps, hardly surprising – most people just want to do their job, get paid, and go home to play with the kids.

Yet, when it comes to digitalisation, these are the very people from whom the innovations must now be expected to appear. They are the ones on the coalface who can define what new business opportunities and processes are needed. And with digitalisation, many of those opportunities and processes will be micro in scope, even if their impact ends up on the macro scale.

When it comes to IT, using the word `innovation’ normally turns the spotlight onto the technology vendors – both hardware and software - and what is coming from their R&D investments. Business managements seem happy to follow that path. Take cloud, for example, where many see it just as an option for reducing capital expenditure, scaling out existing applications or running a clearly defined application or two as SaaS rather than on-premise systems.

A-ploughing (and lots more) we will go

Yet a look round other markets and areas of business shows some of what might be possible, and maybe business managers need to spend a bit of time away from their minutiae of their own desktops and seek some inspirational innovations elsewhere.

The Leaders Meet Innovation Conference in London is an event that specifically targets the management of sports clubs and organisations, and while it has two tech sponsors – SAP and Cisco – its lead sponsor is the US National Basketball Association (NBA), which has as a perfectly sensible aspiration of basketball taking over the world as a dominant sports entertainment.

This an event that business managers in a wide range of industries could benefit from attending, not least because few of the innovations discussed were anything to do with business management.

Rather, they were all about how to gather and exploit information about all aspects of their businesses to provide a far better experience for their customers – the fans. A good experience makes those fans 'sticky’.

It is obviously easy for business managers to dismiss many of the innovations the NBA clubs – and the organisation itself – have come up with as irrelevant and some of the talk fanciful.

But behind it is a good deal of common sense. Take the opening remarks of Steve Hellmuth, Executive VP of Media Operations and Technology with the NBA.:

The aim is to make the buildings theatres for basketball. That means having the right number of cameras in the right positions.’ It even means engineering the sound systems so that it reflects the noise the fans make.

This makes sense when one considers not just the impact on the TV audience, but also the effect that big screen instant replay has on the fans in that `theatre’ s well as assisting the referees judging the action and assessing possible fouls.

It also helps the teams themselves to analyse and assess individual `plays’ and even individual players, said Hellmuth: 

An interesting effect of using the technology to analyse plays is how it has affected the rise of the three-point shot over the two-point shot. And we want to get even better ball tracking in place to help with this.

The rate of growth of tech-based innovations in basketball is gathering both speed and diversity. There is even a business management application which now optimises match scheduling. This includes the ability for clubs to put in their own requirements, such as flight lengths and rest days so that players can be kept at their optimum state of fitness and health relative to the games that need to be played.

This is one application that could be extrapolated to many areas of business, especially where the `sharpness of mind’ of key staff is a relevant factor in the efficient operation of business processes.

Thinking 'micro'/focused

The NBA has also added a raft of new innovations to add value to the game’s huge TV audience, including five simultaneous replay views, some of which can, depending on service level, be customer selected. It is also expanding development in the combination of mobile and social media. This includes the recent first live broadcast of a league match in a dedicated smartphone format.

One of the teams, the Sacramento Kings, is owned by TIBCO founder and chairman, Vivek Ranadive, who once a year puts of full-blown `Bollywood Special’ as the entertainment. The match – and entertainment - was then broadcast to a live Facebook page just in India.

The organisation has also just started running experimental Virtual Reality broadcasts of matches. Ranadive explained: 

We are looking to create a network of cameras around the court so that users can virtually sit where they want around the court. Using social media it could then be come possible for them to also be in virtual attendance with a friend or relative.

This extension of video conferencing could have widespread applications across a wide range of collaborative and remote working.

One of the underlying themes of innovation here is the ability to identify and exploit 'micro' markets in amongst the macro (and in this context, targeting smartphone-owning Indian Facebook users for a broadcast classifies as micro in amongst the notion of global TV coverage).

This was brought up again at the conference by Timo Elliott,  SAP Vice President and Global Innovation evangelist:

Every company is now becoming a technology company, and as market researcher company Gartner has observed, the way to increasing new business designs by blurring the lines between digital and business. The key to this is analytics that provide real customer service, such as a shoe company that analyses an individual customer’s feet, and their running style, to give them the right choice of running shoes. The thing is, not many businesses are yet doing this kind of business redesign well.

This, he suggested,  needs businesses to start using analytics techniques in ways that can create unique business processes `on the fly’, as and when required. This, in turn, also demonstrates that the role of innovator will fall ever-more squarely on the shoulders of coalface workers, the executives tasked with coming up with the day-to-day business management solutions and implementations.

Elliott referenced  Weissbeerberger, as an example of how analytics, technology and creative thought can come up with some new business opportunities. It also had a sports 'angle’ because many people who like sport also drink beer.

The company has developed some IoT flow-metering technology that fits into the pipes from the cellar to the bar tap. The output is then fed of analytics tools running in the SAP cloud where it can be merged with other relevant data such as the demographics of the area in which the bar lies and historical data on beer sales by time, location and other such factors.

Another example of the micro coming from the macro looks likely to spring from the new augmented reality application from Blippar, demo’d at the conference by Chief Operating Officer, Danny Lopez.

The aim of Blippar is the development of a smartphone app that can recognise everything and anything in the world. Yes, it will take time for the database(s) to fill up but the idea is simple enough – point your phone camera at a 'something' and it will not only be recognised, but all publicly known information about it is then made available.

This is, potentially, a mind-bogglingly large 'macro' app, but the number of `micros’ that could spin off it is equally huge. Just one example can be found in its ability to do facial recognition. So how about a real aide for those older people among us who can remember a face but….. well, the name is another matter. What better than to have that information delivered to you just when you need it.

My take:

I hold the view that digitalisation holds the key to a major change in the concept of innovation in IT. No longer the major R&D budget and multi-year project plans but more focus on coalface staff – the ones that often really know what is needed – to get on and innovate.

Waiting for senior management to have sufficient meetings to decide developments is no longer good enough, or fast enough. And digitalisation is also about that `micro’, slice-and-dice approach to innovation where a bit of customisation can hit the sweet-spot of improved customer experience and satisfaction. And it is that which will make customers sticky