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The Age of Context: One of the Two Books You'll Need for Business [BOOK REVIEW]

age of contextIn their new book, The Age of Context, Shel Israel and Robert Scoble have updated the sweeping and ambitious look at marketing and media they co-wrote in 2005, Naked Conversations.  Because the two of them have, in the meantime, traveled all over the world testing new products, talking to many tech CEOs, and asking even more questions about what all the innovations of mobile, sensors, data, social, and location-based tech mean for business, this book is a must-read for anyone who would like to be in business two or three years from now.  Every business you have or can imagine will be shaped by what the authors are calling The Age of Context. 

“Context” is essential to understanding the adroit way that the authors have wrapped the five innovations mentioned above.  None of them operates without the other and without putting you, the user (or whatever you call yourself), in the context of an overall network, whether that is your social graph, your actual location, your other relevant data, or what the sensors around you, or in many of the authors’ examples, those on top of or actually inside you, can provide. 

For those of you in our community who embrace both tech and social, there is much to value here: Scoble and Israel provide fascinating examples of the kinds of innovations already practical in government services, healthcare, energy efficiency, and especially, customer service.  This is customer service that scales, however, so that “the internet of things” kicks in; and, as they note, service is being performed by software that  “doesn’t suffer such human flaws as distraction, fatigue or mood swings,” but still solves problems.

The chapter on Google Glass was fascinating.  Always the most pre-natal of early adopters, Robert Scoble has not only spent a great deal of time wearing Glass, but he and Israel are also privy to the forward planning for the device, and they have thrown in a few uses of their own.  Additionally, they see other smart glass applications in the home and for your car that will make your world more convenient and safer.  Interestingly, much of what Age of Context predicts leads to longer and more productive lives for us humans, a theme that the self-admitted SciFi fans play with at one point in the book.  (I won’t spoil it for you.)  For businesses, there is no shortage in the book of tips on how to design products and services that play to this result; safety and convenience have rarely failed to attract customers. 

Music to the ears of our Social Media Today audience is the assertion that

"What has changed in the seven years since we proclaimed its arrival in Naked Conversations is that social media is no longer a disruptive force. Instead it is a vital business component. Rather than being resisted, social media is now being woven into the very fabric of business.

           Social media is essential to the new Age of Context."

Social media, and the data it generates, has clearly come to intrude on our understanding of customers and how to serve and sell to them.  But I detect a bit too much confidence in “Social CRM” and how Israel and Scoble rather too easily accept its promise, to justify the arrival of what the authors call “Pinpoint Marketing.” I asked our partner and CRM analyst, Brent Leary, to read this chapter and got his response:

"While interactive conversations are an important component of customer engagement strategy today, there is a lot more involved.  In order to create consistently great customer experiences during all phases of the customer lifecycle, companies not only have to change their tactics, but also their organizational philosophy to truly value customers for more than their collective wallets.  This means creating listening processes to capture real-time context, aggregating this contextual understanding along with other important data sources, analyzing data to uncover important insights, and using this knowledge to provide answers and experiences - in a way that customers and prospects will find appealing and not obtrusive.  So yes today's CRM is more social, but it is also more analytical, more integrated, more timely, and more central to the philosophy of the entire organization."

Leary makes a good point in that for organizations to realize the promise of Social CRM, and the ultimate Age of Context vision for Pinpoint Marketing, more than technology will be needed.  It will require a new organizational structure where the silos of customer-facing activities are pulled down and destroyed.

In Chapter 12, “Trust is the New Currency,” Scoble/Israel have taken the stand that in the Age of Context, trust becomes a determining factor in our purchase decisions and brand preference.  But the one area of business that they have not ventured into in the age of context is the financial services industry, and the implications of an actual currency based on trust.  Jeremiah Owyang, for example, is writing a great deal about the ideas behind the “shared economy,” which is no less a product of the five drivers than the examples given here. 

Also contingent on “trust” but given short shrift in the book is governmental regulation, which is a critical element of trust in a modern economy.  Granted, regulation tends to run one or more technological cycles behind, but is absolutely a necessary component of the value of a given product or service however it is found contextually.  Look no further than examples like China’s lackadaisical oversight of food production resulting in a lack of trust in their food products, or how the lack of regulatory oversight of the financial services industry feeds the inflamed anger of the Tea Party and the undermining of trust in government institutions.  True enough, a greater transparency, which is what the authors advocate as a buttress against governmental abuse of data, might speed up regulatory policy enactment, but protective policies are also only as valuable as their enforcement, something that the authors typically regard as the intrusive consequences of government surveillance (being caught for speeding because of automotive sensors and data, for example).

In perhaps a vast understatement, the authors state that “[i]n the Age of Context we seem to be unnecessarily performing risky tasks without a safety net.” Rather than suggest that the authors are at fault in not outlining what that safety net might look like, we should still challenge them to show at least a few examples of futuristic regulation which supports, rather than hinders, growing adoption of these technologies, especially if we as business people will be using them.   

Regardless, The Age of Context is clearly upon us.  The authors’ enthusiasm for technology is totally infectious; without doubt we are on the brink of yet another huge shift and we will come to regard the five drivers every bit as important in business decision-making as Six Sigma and shareholder value.  But a word of caution: the book requires a good companion piece, such as Thomas Friedman’s Flat, Hot and Crowded, or Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline.  Because The Age of the Context is not the only age of business we now live in.

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