Virtual Meeting Primer

Virtual meetings and virtual classrooms are here to stay no matter what happens with the coronavirus or any other virus—or tornado, or earthquake, or blizzard. If you have not yet presided over a virtual meeting, maybe to touch base with your team, or discuss a product or project with a prospective client, the tea leaves say that you will. So let’s get you ready so that you’ll perform at your best.

Everything done to prepare for a face2face meeting will likewise be done to prepare for a virtual meeting. Propose a draft agenda. Invite the stakeholders and any others who have the authority to impact the initiative that will be discussed. Suggest a meeting date and time. Decide who should be invited to speak at the meeting and include those persons on the agenda.

If Power Point slides will be used by any speakers at the meeting, ask for their slides to be sent to you 48 – 72 hours in advance of the meeting, so that you can have them ready for each speaker. Send the confirmed agenda and necessary hand-outs to all participants one day before the meeting (so they don’t get lost in anyone’s email).

The facilitator of the meeting, whether face2face or virtual, has a few unspoken duties to ensure a positive outcome for the meeting and it is in these fine points that the differences between face2face and virtual emerge. Meeting participants are not in a room together and while it is tremendously more convenient than traveling to the meeting venue, communications will be adversely affected.

Reading nonverbal cues, facial expressions and even tone of voice can be difficult and cause misinterpretation. Those who are not scheduled to speak can easily turn themselves into virtual wallflowers and say not a word beyond the initial round of greetings.

For those reasons, virtual meetings require a higher level of facilitation skills. If the meeting platform you’ll use has a tutorial by all means take it, so that you’ll know how to use tools that will enhance the meeting experience, and therefore outcome, for everyone. Give yourself an hour, or even two. There are just a 4-5 simple things to learn, study up to ensure that you’ll be at ease when implementing them.

Meet & greet

First, ask participants to sign on 5 minutes ahead of the announced start time to make the introductions easy and avoid the need to introduce late arrivals. Late arrival is more awkward in a virtual meeting because it’s not possible to see that person slip into the room and a new face popping up on screen may not be noticeable to everyone.

As close to start time as is practical, thank participants for attending and give a general greeting. Then kick-off a round robin of introductions and greet everyone by name. Better still, if you’re at the controls, flash each person on screen and invite him/her to self-introduce. Here is when you get people talking. This step is an ice-breaker.

If there are participants who have not met before, request that self- introductions include first and last name, plus title and department. Announce late arrivals as soon as is practical. If it’s not too disruptive, invite late arrivals to introduce themselves.

Tools tutorial

Walk meeting participants through the virtual tools, because some participants may not be especially proficient. Chat, hand-raise, yes or no, break-out room and poll are the most common items. These tools are very useful in keeping meeting participants focused on the agenda and discourage the temptation of wandering attention.

As you plan the agenda, think about how you can judiciously create an opportunity for a poll, a hand-raise, or even a break-out session that will allow small groups of two or more participants to have a short, tightly focused discussion and then take their findings back to the main meeting for a general discussion.

Hand-raise

Strictly speaking, a hand -raise sign indicates that a participant would like to speak, just like in a face2face meeting. You, facilitator, will acknowledge the hand raise as soon as practical and give that the individual the floor. The hand-raise can also be used as a vote or poll, but you have other tools for those questions and as a way to keep the content interesting, I suggest you use those.

Yes/ No

The green Yes and red No checkmarks are useful for a quick, general question that you, or a presenter, puts to the group. The question can be as easy as “Would we like to cover this one additional subject and keep the meeting in session for another 15-20 minutes?”

Chat

The chat function allows for public or private chats and participants should get a tutorial on how to utilize each. A chat can be used to ask a question to the presenter and s/he can address the question during the presentation. One participant may have a question for another participant and can use the private chat function to do so.

Polls

There may be times when a speaker may want to get the opinion of those in the room and polls allow participants to express opinions anonymously, which encourages honesty. The facilitator will type in the question, or prepare a question in advance and have it ready. Click and all participants will be given time to indicate and submit their answers.

Break-outs

If there are perhaps 8 or more participants it may be useful to allow groups of 3 – 5 people to discuss a specific question. Break-outs are good for relationship building because their use allows a small group of participants to get to know one another in a safe, small space where they may be more comfortable speaking freely.

Power Point slides

The facilitator must learn how to operate the slides, since s/he will be at the controls. As in any meeting, Power Points will visualize and enhance the speaker’s presentation. A short slide presentation will be yet another way to maintain the focus, attention and engagement of your virtual meeting participants.

Lastly, I recommend that virtual meeting facilitators request that a technically adept person be on- site during the meeting. Regardless of what the facilitator understands to be a correct technical set-up, crashes can occur and someone with better than average IT skills may be needed to re-start the platform. I know this from humiliating personal experience.

Yet if your virtual meeting tanks, all is not lost. Another useful tech back- up is our old friend, the conference call. Have a dial- in conference number ready. If disaster strikes, email the conference number and Power Points to participants. A/V material can be downloaded and opened on laptops or tablets as you work through the agenda on your mobile.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Kim Clark

Collaborating in the Digital Realm and IRT

Collaboration is a soft skill that in the COVID era rapidly acquired big implications. Even more than in the recent past, the ability to achieve efficient and effective collaboration within work teams, and in fact within organizations, is recognized as a fundamental leadership skill. Collaboration today plays a defining role in driving successful business outcomes.

Because it is now common practice for team members to work from either home or office and to be scattered across city, state, national or even international borders, in addition to occupying various time zones, it is critical to ensure that all players are on the same page. Freelance consultants would do well to diplomatically encourage a collaborative environment on every project in which they participate. A project that yields less than stellar results will weigh most heavily on the Freelancers’, and not the employees’, reputation. The opportunity to receive referrals and repeat business sometimes rests on making one or politically savvy suggestions.

Collaboration is born of trust, respect, communication and, ultimately, sharing information and responsibility. These attributes and actions promote both camaraderie and good decision-making. Teamwork begins when team members understand their project mission; understand how their project supports organizational objectives; have the data, tools and authority to carry out their work; and know whom to consult when questions arise. Think about how you can advance those ideals on your next project.

Digital workflow systems such as Asana, Slack, Trello, or Microsoft Teams are excellent tools that provide access to all relevant documents, support continuity, allow all team members to view and contribute information as work progresses and document progress. Study the project specs. Visit the websites of the digital workflow systems mentioned here or recall your experience with other systems. In the kick-off team meeting, raise your hand (virtually or In Real Time) and suggest a workflow system that will both expedite the work and promote transparency and collaboration.

Virtual check-in meetings may find some team members in a makeshift home office, on a park bench surrounded by greenery, or in their familiar workplace office but nevertheless, if trust and respect have been properly seeded and nurtured, open communication that also allows for differing perspectives, will support candid assessments of project progress, about what may not be working and enable the wisdom of the team to devise solutions that all will support.

Follow-up is where the team pulls together to implement whatever useful suggestions for improvement that surfaces at check-in progress meetings. It is often said that half of life is about showing up. Surely, the other half is follow-up.

Follow-up moves the team and the outcome they produce from good to great. Top teams never assume that someone else took care of an important detail— they make sure it’s been done, the right way. Dot the i’s, cross the t’s and deliver excellence.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Kim Clark. Nursery school students collaborate on their project (the morning walk).

What Scientists Know About Virtual Meetings

Experience has shown us that video meetings and face2face meetings are not interchangeable. Videoconference meetings, while very appealing in ways too numerous to list, nevertheless come with some noticeable drawbacks.

Video meetings are often a little stilted and sometimes borderline awkward. Participants can have trouble signing on. Wavering WiFi signals will cause one or two people to drop out for a couple of minutes, leaving them to struggle to reconnect, maybe by walking to another part of the room in search of a better signal.

Still, video meetings are great for remote team check-ins and board or committee meetings. We are social creatures and enjoy being able to see who we’re talking to. But as the meeting progresses it becomes clear that communication does not flow nearly as well as in our face2face meetings.

On top of access and connectivity issues that interrupt the meeting pace, normal conversation rhythm is also stymied, because video signals are slightly delayed. We try to compensate for unnatural pauses that cause people to talk over one another by waiting (usually too long) to respond.

Scientists who study human perception say that aside from the technical annoyances, the big problem with video is that it disrupts normal eye contact, especially how long and how often we look at each other. In a study led by Isabelle Mareschal, PhD, Psychology Department Chair at Queen Mary University in London, and her colleagues at their visual perception lab asked experiment subjects to watch a video of a face that turned to look directly at them. Study subjects initially found the gaze enjoyable, but after as little as three seconds most found the gaze to be unsettling.

Now consider the protocol at a virtual meeting—- we are expected to maintain unbroken eye contact with the speaker or risk being considered inattentive, if not rude. It’s just that our brain is uncomfortable with this practice. No wonder we find more than one videoconference per day to be draining.

Videoconferencing also disrupts what is known as synchrony, the unconscious call and response speaking rhythm that we lapse into when communicating face2face. Synchrony also persuades us to unwittingly mimic the body language and posture of the person we’re speaking with.

So we smile when we receive cues that our conversation partner will respond favorably if we do, or we’ll put on a serious facial expression when people in the room look worried or upset. “People start to synchronize their laughter and facial expressions over time,” says Paula Niedenthal, PhD, a psychologist and expert in the science of emotion at the University of Wisconsin/ Madison. She continues, “That’s really useful because it helps us predict what’s coming next.”

The ability to unconsciously and accurately predict our conversation partner’s emotional state is crucial to feeling connected, research shows. The problem with videoconferencing is that so many facial expressions—-that sparkle or cloud in the eyes, or subtle posture and hand gestures—-are obscured. We cannot consistently predict and validate the nonverbal cues of virtual meeting participants. We become vulnerable to feeling awkward and eventually, alienated.

Andrew S. Franklin, PhD, a psychologist at Norfolk State University in VA, says the first problem with Zoom is that the platform is programmed to continually show the user an image of him/herself, “So you’re trying to get out of the habit of staring at yourself.” That fascination, or discomfort, breaks the participant’s attention, drawing it away from the speaker and disrupting the transmission of whatever facial and body language cues one might otherwise pick up. Worse, that Brady Bunch Zoom meeting line-up, whether shown in a horizontal or vertical configuration on your device, brings in too many pairs of eyes to confront.

Daniel Nguyen, PhD, a scientist and director of (the global consulting firm) Accenture Lab in Shenzhen, China, investigated how people bonded (or not) while videoconferencing. For the experiment, Nguyen and his team divided study subjects into pairs: some conversing pairs used a video set- up that showed only faces; another video pairing set- up displayed face and upper body; the third conversation design was an in-person chat. As revealed in observations, the in- person pairs developed the strongest bonds and the face and torso set- up elicited bonding that was fully twice that of the face only set- up.

Furthermore, Nguyen prefers the vertical screen view on our phones over the horizontal screen view that desk models, laptops and tablets give us because the vertical view showcases more of the body and less background scenery.

Guided by the results of their experiment, Nguyen and his co-authors now sit a few feet away from their keyboards when in video meetings, so that their upper body will be visible. Providing your videoconference partners with a more expansive view of you helps them achieve synchrony with you and the potential for mutual bonding will be enhanced.

Nguyen and colleagues also have recommendations for your videoconference vocal style. “Ramp up the words that you’re saying,” he advised, “and exaggerate the way you say it.” To be honest, I don’t know how to interpret that bit of stage direction. How about we just avoid speaking in a monotone and add a little energy to our speech, taking care to speak a little more slowly and remembering to enunciate clearly?

Probably the most formidable obstacle of videoconference communication is how to develop trust when doing business. It’s not easy to build bonds, to truly get to know someone and develop lasting rapport through online encounters, even when you see who you’re talking to. Nguyen said his research found that, “In a videoconferencing situation, trust is quite fragile.” He and his team demonstrated that in video, “Trust is diminished overall.” Nguyen suggested that when building trust is critical, opportunities to meet in person at least some of the time will help build bonds that make remote collaboration more successful.

Elena Rocco, PhD, in a 1998 study at the University of Michigan Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work, demonstrated that groups that connect solely online (in her study email was the online format) do not collaborate effectively. But when her study subjects were able to meet face2face for brief periods, their willingness to cooperate and collaborate rose dramatically. Face2face meetings make a difference and opportunities to allow in person meet- ups should be made, even when online communication is more convenient.

I feel that although working from home is all the rage now, in two or three years companies will move to reverse the trend and bring employees back to the office, at least for part of the week. Without reading any studies, I knew that virtual meetings can never adequately replace face2face interactions.

Ben Waber, President and co-founder of Humanyze, a company that creates software that allows organizations to map internal communications, understands very well how employees communicate and how their communication correlates to their company’s health.

Waber suspects that in the long run, a company’s culture and creativity risk declining in a heavily remote-working structure. Employees can’t get to know one another as well when they don’t regularly interact face2face. He predicts that profitable companies will initially continue to be profitable despite their significant dependence on virtual communication but damage will become evident a year or two down the line, when the quality of new ideas become less bold and innovative. He concludes, “I think we’re going to see this general degradation of the health of organizations.”

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Kim Clark. Doorway of the original location of the Forsyth Dental Infirmary for Children.

Your Technology Recovery Plan

We’ve been tethered to our tech devices over the past few weeks and they enabled our productivity in many ways. However, now that several states are in the process of cautiously discontinuing quarantine protocols, I think it’s time for us to rethink our heavy tech dependency. Too much of a good thing can lead to unfortunate consequences.

Unzip Zoom

I suspect that those who shifted from going to the office to working from home were particularly entangled in videoconference technology, which can eventually send team members into diminished productivity (or maybe just annoyance) if overdone. Well meaning managers inexperienced in the mechanics of leading an entirely remote team are known to hold many meetings and because videoconferencing technology exists, some managers will hold a (probably Zoom hosted) meeting every morning at 9:00 AM, for example, so everyone will be in the loop and, especially, the big bosses will know that your boss is getting the work done (or doing a good job at making it look that way!).

Despite the technology’s surging popularity, there is no need for every meeting to be a videoconference call. Audio only conference calls remain useful, especially when they are of less than 30 minutes duration. Furthermore, the matter at hand might be resolved in a two paragraph email. Resist the temptation to use video calls as your default communication tool because that’s not what it was designed to be.

Moreover, no one who is working from home should on a regular basis feel the need to assess the Home & Garden Magazine readiness of their home/ office space whenever they need to talk business. Not only that but your home may not have the best WiFi service. Your neighbors are also working from home, participating in videoconference meetings while their children are home schooling lessons on Skype or Google Hangout. Your internet signal could slow down or freeze up. Videoconferences are pressure and one does not always need to take it on to get the job done.

Physical over digital

As was discussed in the last post, suggest a face2face meeting with your VIP and arrange to have at least a beverage on the table when you meet. Oh, it’s been so long since we’ve been able to grab a coffee or whatever and sit down at a table and talk. Oh, how powerful that simple ritual is and how we took it for granted until it was gone!

Now that it is, or soon will be, within our grasp again, why not pay homage and invite a client you’re reconnecting with to meet you for ice cream now that warmer days are here? Surprise and delight!

Daily tech break

Rest your eyes and hunched shoulders and schedule two 30 minute tech tool breaks every day (unless you’re on project deadline). Believe it or not, taking a couple of short breaks during your work day is a time management technique that boosts energy, concentration power, creativity and productivity. We all need to periodically unplug and refresh ourselves physically, psychologically and emotionally because resting is necessary.

Pencil and paper

It’s also possible to walk one’s use of technology all the way back and periodically remind yourself of the charms of paper and pencil. The next time you (and your team or client, for that matter) need to brainstorm ideas or make a list, pull out a sheet of paper and a pen and write in longhand. Whether you’re in a face2face or videoconference meeting, don’t be afraid to go low tech old school every once in a while. You can use the white board in your office and plot a timeline in longhand. When you’ve completed it, take a picture with your phone and send it around. The raw, in the moment look of your notes will be the soul of creativity and authenticity.

Finally, you can cut back your screen time and reclaim the lost art of reading a physical book or newspaper. Every Sunday I buy the paper and read it in sections throughout the week. My eyes and brain appreciate the break; I enjoy it and find it relaxing.

Whenever I grab something to eat, I almost always also grab something to read as well. If I want to share an article with someone, I go online to find the link and copy/ paste, reminding myself that technology maintains its advantages.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Kim Clark May 19, 2020. Office at Chase Bank 800 Boylston Street Boston, MA.

Optimize Online Content for Voice Search

The thing about internet technology is that we’re always playing catch-up.  First, we researched and identified the best key words for our products and services as we introduced Search Engine Optimization to our websites and eventually, our social media postings.  Next, we hired a web developer to add the responsive design capability to our websites, so that they would download correctly into smartphones and tablets.

It appears that for our latest update, we must ensure that we’re using long-tailed key words, i.e. phrases, that will capture the voice activated searches of Siri and Alexa. Adweek reports that 67 million voice assisted devices will be in use in the U.S. before this year ends and that’s your motivation to seed your online content with phrases most likely to be recognized by A.I. enabled searches.

But let’s begin at the beginning—have you made any voice activated searches? If not, then try it out and make note of what you say.  The next time that you listen to iHeart Radio, grab your iPhone and ask “Siri, play Michael Jackson.” Or speak to your Android and ask, “Alexa, order us a half gallon of milk and a box of Fig Newtons.”

Notice that words such as where, find, order, how, who and where are often used in voice searches and you will be wise to include those words when you update your content for voice search optimization.  As well, keep in mind that voice searches are often used when the prospect is in motion and typing is inconvenient, for example, when walking or driving.

Voice search requires us to adjust our thinking (again!) to that of a potential customer and not of a business owner or marketer.  What questions might a prospect ask when looking for information about your particular expertise? “Siri, find me architects in Philadelphia that do over kitchens and baths.” “Alexa, who are web developers in Tulsa that can create a new website for me?” “Who can help me plan the company meeting we’ll hold in Milwaukee in October of this year?” “Where can I find a dog walker near me in Natchez?”

Voice search key word phrases are like a conversation and your online content should respond in kind.  Your newsletters, blog posts, FAQs page, white papers, case studies and descriptions of your products and services are ideal places to embed phrases that resemble prospect questions that are likely to be asked in voice searches.

Your prospective customers do not use industry-speak buzzwords such as leverage, growth hack, synergy, visionary, or disruptive.  Is it not time to purge those words anyway? Your prospects are looking for answers, so give them the answers in everyday words that everyone uses.  KISS–keep it simple, stupid—as you update your content to answer basic questions, including facts such as the products your organization sells, the services provided, the address of your business if customers can be expected to come in and the opening and closing times.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Taping Gang Busters, the “only national (radio) program that brings you authentic police case histories.” The program was broadcast from January 1936 – November 1957.

Common Challenges That Impact Solopreneur Ventures

Starting a business is an impressive achievement that’s guaranteed to make you proud, but the real victory lies in your ability to grow and sustain the venture.  A Solopreneur business owner must be both leader and manager, competencies that seldom co-exist within the same person.

Leadership skills support your ability to formulate a guiding vision for your enterprise, recognize business opportunities, devise strategies, find new customers and develop marketing plans, as well as inspire potential investors, collaborators and employees.

Management skills direct your  focus to administrative functions, as well as business operations, financial management, risk management, quality control and customer service.

While it’s recommended that Solopreneurs cultivate both skill sets, it’s probably inevitable that the average person will favor one competency over the other.  Nevertheless, it is important to hone both leadership and managerial capabilities so that you are better prepared to position the venture to overcome the challenges that visit every business, regardless of industry, annual sales revenue, or number of employees.  Discussed below are two of the five common business challenges that we’ll examine.

CLIENT LIST

How many active clients are on your roster? How many do you bill at least $1000/ month, on average? I completely understand that for a Solopreneur, every client counts and that it’s so comfortable to provide services to just one or two clients who are generous with billable hours.

However, succeeding in business means pushing beyond comfort level and actively discouraging one’s tendency to become complacent. Furthermore, depending on one or two big clients for the lion’s share of annual revenue places the business in a vulnerable position.

What will happen to your billable hours if your contact at that company moves on? There can be no guarantee that the next person will continue to send projects your way.  Be advised that the new person has Solopreneur friends with whom s/he has previously worked and it’s reasonable to believe that it will be game over for someone who’s thought to have ridden the gravy train for a number of years.

Demonstrate your leadership skills and protect your venture as you pursue potential prospects to nurture your sales pipeline.  A diversified active client list is an insurance policy.  Furthermore, growing your list of viable prospects encourages you to operate as a real Solopreneur and not just a sub-contractor for a larger entity.

MONEY MANAGEMENT

Early in the life cycle of a business, the most important money matter is simply to earn enough to pay the bills, for the business and your personal life.  On the next rung, you’ll begin to consider the amount of investment capital needed to finance upgrades that will make you and the company appear more competent and trustworthy to clients, prospects and referring colleagues and friends.

The company website must have a professional look and download quickly.  Printed marketing materials must reinforce the superior quality of your brand and communicate your expertise.  Even the look of your invoice matters.  You’ll also need enough revenue to occasionally attend conferences to upgrade your skills and expand your networking options.

BTW, to promote a predictable cash flow, it is not uncommon for Soloprenuers to take a job, whether it’s an under the radar gig such as  bartending or waitressing, or a more typical opportunity such as teaching, where one’s professional skills are parlayed into an arena other than the usual client work.

Unless you have a background in finance, consulting with a good accountant and/ or bookkeeper is the best way to ensure that your venture has astute financial management.  Meet quarterly with a bookkeeper and semi-annually with the accountant to learn how to take the necessary steps to strengthen your business finances.

I’ll return to discuss more common business challenges.

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Members of the Acorda Capoeira perform on a roof top in Rio de Janeiro (July 2016)

Can You Bring Blockchain into Your Business?

The technology known as Blockchain has received loads of attention in the business and tech press over the past three years or so but until recently, I never understood what it and never thought it would apply to me, anyway. Blockchain is for the big guys, right? Not really. The benefits of Blockchain play to many audiences.

Before we go any further, let’s understand what Blockchain is. Blockchain is a record-keeping ledger that is accessible only to its participating creators. Blockchain is also the ultimate permanent record because information entered into a Blockchain document cannot be deleted and will be stored forever. Registered participants may enter new data into the Blockchain ledger to update it, but nothing can be deleted.

Blockchain data is secure and permanent and each document entered into the network has an unique software code. Once the document is triggered, that’s it—the document is forever locked down. If it becomes necessary to make substantive changes, one must start over with a new Blockchain document.

Companies that deliver complex services or offer a wide array of products that are purchased from numerous sources are a natural fit for Blockchain. Think of retail operations that order inventory from overseas manufacturers. Cultural business practices, language differences and the processes of ordering, shipping, payment and confirming arrival of the goods creates many opportunities for the ball to be dropped. Blockchain enables all parties to monitor in real time every action-oriented element in a contract and can even link payments to meeting milestones that demonstrate fulfillment of terms.

Freelancers, professional service providers and small business owners can also find practical uses for Blockchain technology. For example, the Blockchain Smart Contract has potential for broad usage. Your Smart Contract is registered with the network and legally cleared as a valid agreement. Each point of agreement specified in the contract, e.g., the scope of work, milestones, deadlines and the invoicing schedule, is then automated and when fulfilled, that element is triggered and recorded as complete. That achievement allows any incentives connected to its fulfillment to be approved and awarded.

Let’s say that you contract to write a certain number of social media posts for a client. When your post is received by the client, or when you’ve uploaded it to the the client’s account, your Blockchain Smart Contract will signal that you are eligible to be paid for your work and you will not need to send an invoice to request payment. What a relief!

Blockchain can simplify and speed accounts receivable payments and as a result, enhance your cash-flow. Moreover, if you hold client credit card information that is used for automated payments, the information will be super- secure in the Blockchain network. Clients will feel more confident when doing business with you when you deliver your services with cutting-edge efficiency that includes an added layer of protection for their financial information. In other words, Blockchain is a brand and customer service enhancer.

For more information on how to set up Smart Contracts for your important projects, visit https://applicature.com/smart-contracts-development/. Plan on $500 for reusable Smart Contract development.

Thanks for reading,
Kim

Image: “Signing the Marriage Contract” (1905) by George Sheridan Knowles (private collection)

Machine Learning: Coming To A Freelancer Near You

Machine learning is a ground breaking technology that uses Artificial Intelligence to allow computer systems to automatically “learn” from the patterns of the user’s online browsing choices, without the need to program the system to do so.  Many of us became familiar with AI and machine learning through movie choices offered to us on Netflix or music on iHeartRadio.  Think also of the Digital Personal Assistants Siri and Amazon Alexa, other applications of AI and machine learning that many have embraced.  Machine learning focuses on developing computer programs that can access data, analyze that data (to find patterns) and then use that information to “learn.”

Machine learning and AI are slowly filtering down the food chain from global and national corporations to regional operations.  Start-up entrepreneurs are launching enterprises that employ machine learning and early adopter Freelance consultants will soon be able to incorporate machine learning beyond what we may already be doing with Siri and Netflix.  In particular, marketing is poised to become a primary utilization of the technology, in businesses of every size.

About a year or two ago, you noticed that when you visited a particular website and then returned to Facebook, LinkedIn, or your chosen online homepage, an ad from the site you visited would soon pop up and tempt you with an offer.  The phenomenon is called “real-time” by marketing specialists and it’s driven by the data that your browsing history generates via machine learning and AI.  It’s a manifestation of being responsive to a potential customers’ interests as a way to fill the sales funnel and facilitate a sale.

To take AI and machine learning a few steps closer to ordinary mortals on planet Earth, these tools are uniquely suited to B2B marketing, because they limit the (costly) trial-and-error activities that haunt every online or off-line marketing campaign.  Now, your marketing activities, whether presented in an online display ad, social media posts, or content marketing outreach, will be seen by those whose online searches indicate that they are likely to be interested in exploring your products and services.

Machine learning, augmented by AI, will allow marketing specialists to greatly reduce the wasteful expenditures inherent in every marketing budget and direct those valuable dollars toward self-qualified leads who have a much greater potential to become paying customers.  Your marketing campaigns cannot help but become more cost-effective whether online or offline, print ads in traditional publications, banner ads on individually targeted websites, social media posts, or email marketing.

Speaking of social media posts, machine learning allows marketing specialists to monitor trending topics on various platforms, i.e., topics that currently resonate with particular market segments.  Certain of those memes can become the basis of content for blogs, newsletters, email marketing and other promotional activities.

Finally, let’s circle back to what machine learning has been doing for Netflix and iHeartRadio, which in marketing speak is called demand forecasting.  When movie and music choices are offered to you, the goal is to give you what you want before you know you want it.  Current algorithms are doing a pretty good job of doing that now, but more sophisticated algorithms are in development, with predicting accuracy refined by machine learning and AI.  What is offered will still be a guess and just a suggestion, but for many of us, at least once in a while, we’ll receive an offer that we cannot refuse.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

display.png   Happy Valentine’s Day!

Photograph: Jean Jennings (l) and Frances Bilas programming ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first large-scale computer to run at electronic speed   Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania (1946)

AI and U: Bye, Bye Billables

The trouble hasn’t trickled down to us middle grade Freelance consultants or small boutique consulting companies yet,  mostly because we are not servicing Fortune 500 C-Suite clients, but apparently, the Artificial Intelligence phenomenon is being positioned to impact in particular the high-end management consultants and not for the better.  Eventually, our comparatively modest stratum will be touched as well, depending on the services that your consultancy provides.  I’ve got no love for the consulting giants Bain and McKinsey, but I’m worried by this trend.

AI is already at work, automating routine tasks such as maintaining calendars, but it is now poised to support decision-making functions in HR, marketing, finance (budgeting) and resource allocation.  It seems safe to say that AI will in the near future be used as a strategic planning tool.

According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. businesses spent $58.7 billion on management consulting services in 2016, a 7.1% increase over 2015, and the bulk of the business was generated by the financial services industry.  The primary expertise of high-end management consultants is data analysis and presentation and facilitating long-range strategic planning.  It is becoming obvious that AI can execute many functions as well as an elite consultant, and can perform more accurately, faster and at a fraction of the cost of a consultant’s billable rate.

Do you have an iPad or iPhone? Then you are part of the AI revolution yourself whenever you ask voice-activated Siri to give you directions or show you the lunch menu at a new restaurant.  Alexa, the AI voice-activated digital personal assistant app for your tablet or smart phone developed by Amazon, will already allow you to control your smart home features such as lighting, heating/ air conditioning and keyless entry for your doors.  Presently, Alexa has the capability to answer economic questions for clients of the Swiss global financial services giant UBS Group AG.  The Wall Street Journal reported that Alexa will answer UBS client queries by using information provided by its chief investment office.  Alexa is expected to soon begin analyzing markets and may also be used to buy and sell stocks.

Meanwhile Boston-based Blackrock, the financial planning and investment management outfit, which happens to be the world’s largest asset management firm, used by institutions and individuals, is rolling out computer-driven algorithms and models in a move toward management by smart machines, that is, employing passive management rather than active management of their funds.  In other words, a machine will become the asset manager of Blackrock’s funds and not human, salary, bonus and benefits receiving employees.

Like the 1992 candidate for president Ross Perot predicted, that sucking sound you hear is your job going out the window.  The middle class is about to shrink some more.  Happy Labor Day.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph of Lost in Space, the CBS-TV series 1965 – 1968                                                          Jonathan Harris (as Dr. Smith) and the robot

Staying Safe on Public WiFi

Public Wi-Fi is a most convenient resource and millions of mobile device users gratefully sign on when it is available.  Data plans are more costly in the U.S. than they should be and avoiding extra charges motivates users to dip into free service.  Not only that, your Skype, Go-To-Meeting, Dropbox, or Twitter app can use local hotspots to obtain internet access even if you do not sign on to unsecured public Wi-Fi.

File sharing and transfers are performed on several apps and that data can be intercepted.  Moreover, log-in credentials can be stolen, allowing cyber criminals to fully access your private accounts.  When using the internet as your phone service, eavesdropping on conversations can take place through the Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP).  If you are using a mobile device that belongs to a business, signing on to unsecured Wi-Fi networks gives hackers are able to access the networks of large organizations and do significant, costly and embarrassingly public damage.

Mobile device users are obliged to pay attention to this commonly occurring risk and take steps to protect our valuable data.  No one wants to clean up the toxic mess of a data breach, whether it’s malware that infects our data files or compromises of your financial account passwords. Antivirus protections and firewalls are effective methods of cyber defense, but these are useless against hackers that hide on unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

DO:

  • Convert all password protected sites, such as your cloud-based email sign-in process, to two-step authentication.  For one email address, I receive an automated phone call that asks me to verify that I’m signing in, another sends me a unique code to punch in once I’ve verified via my mobile phone that I’m signing into the email system.
  • Use a VPN, virtual private network, that will encrypt all of your online activities.
  • Visit only https and avoid http websites when browsing on public Wi-Fi networks.
  • Purchase an unlimited data plan for your mobile phone, which for that device anyway, limits the need for free, unsecured Wi-Fi that makes you vulnerable.
  • Consider being especially strict and shutting off the automatic Wi-Fi network search feature from the settings app on your phone or tablet.

DON’T

  • Use your credit card to shop online or access your financial institution for automatic deposits, fund transfers, or any other banking business while using free Wi-Fi.
  • Connect to the hotspot of an unknown individual when searching for available public Wi-Fi.  That hotspot may belong to a cyber criminal who is waiting to do you harm.
  • Enable your device to automatically join networks that offer internet access.

Thanks for reading,

Kim