Journeys in technology: Valuing data, experiences, and innovation
For some car buyers, the wait for their purchase to arrive can feel agonizing. But using technology, BMW customers can track a car’s progress from the factory floor through delivery.
The pleasure they take from this purchase perk illustrates what Helen Chun has learned from her research: Anticipation can enhance the consumer experience. The associate professor of services marketing at the School of Hotel Administration at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business points out, however, that anticipation is not the only factor that influences enjoyment.
“There’s an interplay of anticipation, the actual experience, and the memory afterward. We have a deep-rooted desire to create a memory-maker for pleasure,” Chun explained during a Jan. 18 alumni event in San Francisco that brought together graduates and faculty from the college’s three schools: the School of Hotel Administration, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.
A BMW’s path from a German manufacturing plant to a New Jersey port is just one of many journeys, real and virtual, that interest the professors whose presentations considered where technology is heading tomorrow. Pointing to data, experiences, and the process of innovation, they weighed the promises and pitfalls of technology, examining its potential for consumers, business, and society.
Clarence Lee, an assistant professor of marketing at Johnson, studies the entirety of experiences with a brand, a concept that marketers refer to as the customer journey. Drawing on his rich background in computer science, engineering, and business, Lee applies machine learning and econometric models to digital marketing and consumer behavior, focusing on how to add value for customers and keep them coming back.
Lee’s latest project involves determining whether it is possible to predict the success of patents. But he has an additional objective. Lee explained, “My goal is to piece together how the tools I use may help us better develop innovations and inventions in the coming age powered by artificial intelligence. What if we can use the advances in deep learning to supercharge the strategic and customer analysis that CEOs rely on to make crucial decisions? What if we can use AI as a friendly guide to figuring out potential solutions for society? The problem I’ve set out to study is innovation—driving the process of innovation in our country.”
Meanwhile, Chun has started exploring how technological opportunities can create more unique and enriching customer journeys. She noted that the hospitality industry is experimenting with this type of technology and offered examples already seen today: The app for the Hilton Honors rewards program allows customers to see the view from rooms before making a selection, while Lufthansa provides a virtual reality preview of the premium economy experience at the boarding gate to encourage airline passengers to upgrade their seats.
Chun cautioned against applying technology universally, however. She explained, “There is a fine line between using new technology like virtual reality as an effective tool to engage consumers and dampening someone’s desire to experience something. We’re all very different in our ability to vividly imagine things. Virtual reality does not seem to enhance the experience much for those who are high visualizers and already good at coming up with their own imagery, while low visualizers are helped by virtual reality. So a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t cut it.”
Aija Leiponen, an associate professor at the Dyson School, is visualizing a very different journey involving technology: how society’s massive quantity of largely unread data can become a major economic commodity. She noted, “It’s cheap to capture and store data, but a lot of companies are wondering about the next step. Most data is never read by a human or a machine, and of the data that is read, very little is shared or commercialized. I’m looking at what prevents companies from using this data to take advantage of opportunities.”
One opportunity that interests Leiponen is the Internet of things—put simply, connected everyday physical objects with the capacity to generate and share data. But, as she told the audience, such a network raises additional questions in her mind about data.
“What is the value of data? How do we evaluate data? What does it mean, and what does it measure? Data has to be about something. We call this inalienability. Data has to be connected to something else—unlike a product, which has value in itself,” said Leiponen. “But then there are issues of privacy and confidentiality. What happens if a third party gets data and shares it? The responsibility isn’t clear. But it raises another issue, non-excludability. Inalienability and non-excludability are creating big obstacles in sharing data.”
Whether these issues will lead to an Internet of things that reaches a global scale or exists only as small islands of networks, she said, remains uncertain.
Leiponen’s questions related to data are part of her larger inquiry into the sources and effects of technological change in the economy. Yet as much as she and the other faculty presenters are focused on digital matters, they also recognize the value of the human element.
“A model is only as good as the data you feed it, and data is only as good as the humans behind it,” said Lee. “At the end of the day, we’re humans connecting humans. We can sometimes lose sight of that.”