January 2021

Inching Closer to Herd Immunity

While COVID vaccine rollout news garners plenty of media attention in a world desperate to move on from the pandemic as soon as possible, the nature of the coverage is often sensational (a Wisconsin pharmacist purposely trashed vaccines!) or short-sighted (obsessing over present-day supply chain challenges). Whether anxiously angling for vaccinations for themselves or loved ones, or decrying the bumpy roll-out of the vaccine so far, the issue is top-of-mind for the majority of Americans.

But even as America looks ahead to that seemingly distant day when all supply and distribution issues are largely resolved, there remain worrying signs regarding vaccine acceptance overall that could significantly damage herd immunity efforts.  Vaccine hesitancy has been a recognized threat since the start of the pandemic when the COVID vaccine was still just a distant fantasy and “Plandemic” videos were going viral online. Levels of hesitancy in public surveys have ebbed and flowed, and will undoubtedly continue doing so as more people get vaccinated.

While COVID vaccine skeptics are in the minority, they pose a real threat to herd immunity goals, especially if this group expands (a distinct possibility as increased chatter about side effects for the newly vaccinated – sometimes true and other times intentionally deceptive – proliferates online). Influential individuals and organizations must play a critical role in proactively addressing concerns, as there will be substantial impact to human life, the survival of institutions, and the economy as a whole if the pace of vaccination flags in a manner that needlessly extends the length of the pandemic.

We have already seen many large-scale awareness campaigns addressing this issue. For example, the HSS launched a national ad campaign in December, with videos promoting vaccine awareness featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci, the FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn, and Dr. Moncef Slaoui.

While organizations of many different stripes across the business world are motivated to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates, the steps they must take to overcome consumer hesitancy can feel unclear. Especially because the root of hesitancy varies widely by demographic. The issue is not black and white and concerns are manifold. Therefore, the messages and channels used to address and allay vaccine-related concerns must be tailored. A message from Dr. Fauci vividly detailing vaccine development may be useful in persuading those who are skeptical about the science behind vaccines. But for a person of color who is skeptical about vaccines due to concerns about fair representation in clinical trials, or the long-standing history of racism in institutionalized medicine, Dr. Fauci may be a relatively ineffective influencer.

Nearly every type of organization has a vested interest in this issue, as a return to normalcy will rely heavily on widespread vaccination. But Hospitals and Health Systems are triply affected, as they need to operate during a global pandemic, vaccinate the population, and treat patients with COVID-19. Luckily, hospitals are also well positioned to create positive change. Data from Gartner’s Consumer Community shows that when consumers were asked which sources would influence their feelings about the vaccine, the highest ranked sources were doctors and health institutions.

Healthcare organizations should first proactively deepen their understanding of their specific target audience’s attitudes and perceptions regarding the vaccine, which are largely impacted by race, geography, and political background. Next, they should leverage their prominence, trust, and society’s nearly undivided attention at the moment to educate and influence their patients to accept the vaccine when it becomes available to them.

For details on how marketing leaders can jumpstart that vital process for their respective organizations read the following:

4 Healthcare Marketing Tactics to Overcome the Threat of Vaccine Hesitancy (subscription required)

Consumers Indicate Willingness to Receive COVID-19 Vaccine, but Marketers Should Prepare for a Cautious Return to ‘Normal’ (subscription required)

Conduct an Inter-Mortem Today!

Uh, what is an inter-mortem? Hold on … I’ll get to that.

As organizations work toward their own instantiation of hybrid working that makes sense for them, there may be a return to behaviors that are not consistent with the digital plans. Psychologists highlight that, during the pandemic, people are feeling nostalgia for the past (evidence 1,2)  in that “the past has never looked so good.” As team members head back into the office, they will feel a desire to return to the “good old days.” But many of those old ways of working are not what organizations want, moving forward. We need to prevent digital backsliding.

You are familiar with postmortems — those after-event sessions where leaders understand what happened and how the organization responded as part of its continuous improvement, moving forward. You might be familiar with premortems — those before-event sessions where leaders try to anticipate risks and problems, and then strategize solutions. This is an “in the middle of” exercise — an “intermortem.” In this session, leaders pause and ask themselves how things are working now so that the organization can course-correct.
Structure the Inter-Mortem
The way that work is getting done should be categorized by the source and the type of shift of the activity or behavior.

Source of the activity or behavior:

Strategy — What is being done that is either consistent or inconsistent with the strategy of the enterprise primarily and the IT strategy if you have one.
Cost-efficiency — What is being done that makes sense, given cost pressures.
Productivity — What is being done that improves or inhibits employees’ productivity.
You might have other categories that make sense for your organization; you can either add categories or replace with the ones above

Type of shift for each of the activities or behaviors:

Retain — Keep the changes that happened because of the crisis but that the organization desires to retain.
Reinvent — Do this differently, because while the changes are good, they aren’t great and need some continued effort.
Return — Revert to previous, because what was being done previously is best.

Get together with your team and do an inter-mortem exercise. See below for an example of a completed template. Once you have had the conversation with your team, do the same with your partners across the enterprise. Get that picture of what is working and what is not. And then plan to make sure you don’t backslide!

Example of a Completed Inter-Mortem Template

1  The Psychology of Nostalgia During COVID-19, Psychology Today.
2  Why We Reach for Nostalgia in Times of Crisis, The New York Times.

IRM 2021: The Year of Uncertainty and Change

This time last year, few people could foresee the Great Disruption associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and global economic crisis. Organizations of all shapes and sizes responded to the crisis by embracing digital methods to safely conduct business while workers and customers quarantined. Regulations were set aside and associated technological and business risks were given low priority to help with the larger effort to “slow the spread” of the virus.

We all looked to 2021 as a year of recovery and renewal. Unfortunately, 2021 will be much different. This week the Wall Street Journal reported that due to emerging virus mutations, Harvard economist James Stock sees a “scenario of this thing sticking around for a much longer time frame.’’ No doubt, 2021 will be the year of uncertainty and change.

As it turns out, uncertainty and change are the two primary aspects of strategic, operational and technology risk fueling the current demand for integrated risk management (IRM). Last year, I described how IRM offers a “PRACtical” approach to risk management by offering a balanced view of performance, resilience, assurance and compliance risk objectives. A focus on performance and assurance helps to reduce uncertainty related to strategic goals. Moreover, resilience and compliance objectives address the resulting changes required to succeed (see figure below).

Now, as businesses revisit their hastily developed digital methods with an eye towards long-term sustainability, they must consider the full scope of potential risks beyond the immediate health and safety concerns. They must evaluate the value of their digital initiatives while determining the size of their risk appetite. These uncertainties can make or break a business.

At the same time, businesses must design resiliency and security into their products and services. In addition, the new digital world we are building will create a whole new wave of regulations. We already see signs of the coming regulatory wave in the form of the proposed new EU Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts. These forces of change will alter the business landscape in 2021 and for years to come.

As noted by my Gartner colleague John David Lovelock, “Gartner forecasts that global IT spending related to remote working will total $332.9bn in 2021, an increase of 4.9% from 2020.” He also shared the following prediction:
Through to 2024, businesses will be forced to accelerate digital business transformation plans by at least five years to survive in a post-Covid-19 world that will involve permanently higher adoption of remote work and digital touchpoints.

– Gartner, January 2021
In preparation for the post-Covid-19 world, boards of directors are shifting priorities with a focus on digital initiatives and operational improvements (see figure below).

This rapid shift to digital business will have impacts throughout the organization, not just IT. Ultimately, every business will become a digital business. As a result, business leaders are now requiring an integrated view of strategic, operational and technology risks. That’s why IRM is so essential for businesses in this year of uncertainty and change. To learn more about IRM, check out the following research (Gartner subscription required).

Emerging Technologies: Digital Risk Management Is the Next Big IRM Opportunity
Introduction to Creating IRM Individual Persona Profiles for Digital Business Tech CEOs
Cool Vendors in Integrated Risk Management
Market Insight: 10 Business Outcomes Every IRM Solution Must Deliver

Platform Wars Rest with Data

There was news this week (see Apple, Facebook Trade Barbs Over Privacy-Focused Business Models) that Facebooks’ advertising business will be put at risk when Apple changes its privacy settings.  In my mind this is a sign that that despite the power and dominant of multi-sided platforms and business models, it is the data that counts for more.

Apple is apparently improving its consumer support for data privacy. New features, apparently rolling out this quarter, will (more easily?) give consumers the choice over the sharing of their web data. In other words, right now as I peruse websites and sources for this blog, the tracks I leave behind about me are collected and shared with numerous third parties.

This tracking often confuses my wife.  She does not understand how it is that she can be searching for some new shoes on her smart phone one day and not an hour later, when clearing her inbox in her laptop, targeted advertising pops up on her machine for new shoes; maybe even from the store page she was looking at on another device. She thinks there are cameras watching her!  There might be (!), but the data she leaves behind every day provides marketers a treasure trove or web of information describing her preferences and desires. Apple is about to turn this pipe off for Facebook.  Facebook won’t be able to sell that connected data to its marketing prospects, so its value will decline.

Facebook and Apple, specifically smart phones and also things like the Apple Store, have been lauded as platforms. In different ways these modern malls create scaled advantages for those those that manage them, give access to them, and capture data from them. Always in the press, they have achieved such scale and reach that politicians and social disquiet is now as common a topic to discuss about them as their marketing power.

Privacy though has been a growing concern. With GDPR firmly in place in Europe, and other similar regulations now in place and being developed around the world, we are all more aware of it. Apple is , it seems, offering up something to give you, and me, the power to control at least a little bit of our digital exhaust. By allowing the consumer to explicitly approve or deny the sharing of their data, Apple is doing a good thing. But for Facebook, who typically maps that data to its own data collected about you from your travels on Facebook, it’s a wake-up call.

Of course, if you like targeted shopping messages to pop up all the time, you can opt in. And that’s good too. It’s the fact that consumers have a choice that is getting more visibility and support. But it also puts everything into perspective. Many of these modern platforms are held hostage to data they use. Cut off the data and the business on those platforms, even the platforms themselves, may die. Now that is something to think about. How does your business rely on data, and do you have in place a data and analytics strategy that protects your business model, should your data sources dry up?

Privacy and Chaos

In a Times op-ed titled “The Knowledge Coup,” The Age of Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff takes on three iconic issues of our digital age: surveillance, disinformation and censorship. She weaves these together around a common focal point: the unchecked rise of the “Big Tech” companies whose platforms and business models have transformed our economy, culture and politics (not, in her view, for the better).

Most of the essay concerns itself with painting a familiar picture of our current dystopian catastrophe which she describes with the phrase “epistemic chaos.” The picture connects the profit-driven, unregulated trade in digital behavioral data to the “radical indifference” to truth embedded in targeting algorithms that shape people’s perception of reality on a mass scale. From there, it’s a short step to the condition where unelected and unaccountable autocrats make self-serving decisions about what propaganda and individuals to suppress or amplify, with violent outcomes.

This is a familiar distillation of a growing view of what’s gone wrong with Big Tech, at least among people who think about such things. In her conclusion, Zuboff sketches a three-part remedy based on “new charters of rights that protect citizens from the massive-scale invasion and theft compelled by surveillance economics.” The privacy-first implication is, if we put an end to the data collection operations at the root of Big Tech’s exploitation of “human experience,” democratic principles can supplant their concentration of power and return to us what’s ours.

Of course, many legislative initiatives are already pursuing this sort of remedy worldwide and increasing regulation of personal data collection is clearly inevitable. Antitrust forces aligning against Big Tech companies may also have some impact. And Big Tech companies themselves are actively working to supersede the technologies of data collection built into our phones and browsers (while protecting their revenue streams).

But whatever the benefits, the link between these approaches and the problems of disinformation and its dark counterpart, censorship, is tenuous. At worst, it may be exacerbating. In any case, the effects of restricting data collection on the flow disinformation are surely worthy of consideration.

One theory suggests that, without the precision targeting algorithms that feed on personal data, the filter-bubble structure that reinforces extremism and conspiracy-theory-based realities will dissipate. Instead, people will be exposed to views hatched and moderated by more mainstream media brands as extremists lose the automated amplification power afforded their most lurid fictions. Even if media brands are biased (which, of course, they are), they’re at least open to scrutiny and accountable for what they publish—unlike Big Tech companies which are protected or anonymous agitators operating in the shadows.

However, we also need to consider the benefits that pervasive anonymity conveys on the business of spreading disinformation. People will still seek information that confirms and reinforces their biases and exploiting them might just be easier from behind a veil of anonymity. As bots and deepfakes become more widespread and sophisticated, we should expect disinformation to flourish under a system designed to protect all individuals from being tracked or personally identified. Big Tech may yet thrive on disinformation in a world where corporate targeting algorithms are replaced by hidden forces and platforms are forced to relinquish oversight (note Facebook’s stated commitment to end-to-end encryption in this context).

Zuboff obliquely acknowledges this problem when she writes that we need to “tie data collection to fundamental rights and data use to public service, addressing the genuine needs of people and communities.” Fair enough, but this exposes the big question: how can we apply democratic accountability to the problem of selective surveillance and censorship (or, if you prefer, “content moderation”)? Our legacy systems of checks and balances – things like fact checking organizations and court orders with judicial and legislative oversight – come up short. Whatever loopholes we build into our privacy shield will be vulnerable to exploitation at scale.

Even as the scope of disinformation appears ready to explode, many people dislike the idea of empowering government agencies with more surveillance and censorship capabilities as much as they dislike leaving the problem in the hands of unaccountable Big Tech companies mining behavior for their ad businesses. The advertisers that pay for all this are also in a bind. Is there some more democratic solution to this problem?

This a question the digerati have been pondering for some time. Back in 2018 and ‘19, a flurry of proposals emerged for various ways that decentralized ledger technologies like blockchain might address some of the problems of fake news and build consensus around a single version of the truth (at least as it applies to data). The bloom is now off the blockchain rose; in 2020 Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Blockchain Technologies put blockchain squarely in the trough of disillusionment as it failed to deliver on extreme hype. Still, experiments press on.

Last year the New York Times worked with IBM to test its News Provenance Project, which used blockchain to investigate ways to verify the authenticity of photojournalism. Although this is a small corner of the disinformation and censorship landscape, it does illuminate the idea that technology may play a significant role in restoring trust to the digital ecosystem.

Technologies like blockchain have a complex relationship with issues like privacy and censorship. Blockchain’s immutable nature has led some to propose its use in censor-proof social networks and others to point out the dangers of injecting personal data into its immutable blocks. More research is needed to determine these technologies’ role in addressing the “epistemic chaos” described by Zuboff and others. However, a single-minded approach rooted in privacy laws is unlikely to dig us out of the hole we’re in with toxic, polarized realities. Above all, we need to be sure that the next wave of digital technology is developed with better incentives in mind than profit and power. If there is an answer, it must involve law and code working together, transparently, on our behalf.

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