The high street’s future is about people, not transactions - Freeformers
Vint Cerf & Gi Fernando - The People Centred Economy

The high street’s future is about people, not transactions

A new book co-authored by Vint Cerf (‘the father of the internet’) and I4J’s David Nordfors explores the potential shift from a task-centred economy to a people-centred one.

Earlier this month, Vint joined me in London to talk about some of the opportunities for businesses, including banks and the high-street retailers – the latter of whom have endured another tough Christmas under competition from online shopping.

The book’s key idea is that making people’s jobs more meaningful and rewarding will help reshape the companies they work for.

“Historically we would define a set of jobs and try to jam people into those jobs,” said Vint. “It moves from this ptolemaic view of tasks being the centre of everything, to the Copernican view, which is that people should be at the centre of everything, and that we should help them to make themselves more valuable.”

An introduction to the People Centred Economy by Vint Cerf and contributor Gi Fernando


In a world where a lot of banks are essentially moving ones and zeros from one virtual server to another, with some sort of maths in between, that now increasingly costs nothing. And as a business, charging 1% of nothing is nothing!

It’s difficult to make money with that sort of business model, so there needs to be something else that you invest in. People-centred activities is an obvious one.

Think about a teller, whose traditional role was to move that money from one place to another. Software can handle that more efficiently now, so the teller can be freed up for more meaningful tasks that help customers, including teaching them to use those tools.

They’re a software consultant, but they’re also a financial consultant, in a way, because they’re helping them with money, and how to use the software that deals with money. That’s a much higher, more valuable job than doing a bunch of transactions.

“If we remove from the staff the need to handle routine transactions, and allow the customers to do those on their own, then we now freed up more time for those employees to help the customers with more complex problems,” is how Vint put it.

“There’s this empathetic capacity that human beings have: ‘I empathise with your situation, let me help you solve whatever problem you’ve brought to the table’. When you have a complicated problem, you want somebody who’s likely to empathise and be smart enough and have knowledge to help you solve that problem.”


Transactional vs Empathetic Interaction – The People Centered Economy

I’ve recently been sitting on a government panel about the future of the high street, under Sir John Timpson, and this is something we’ve been thinking hard about.

Transactions are not what’s going to survive on the high street. That’s gone, because you can do that more efficiently online. What you can do on the high street is stuff to do with community: people meeting each other; people interacting; people increasing their value; people experiencing things. And building a sense of community in town centres.

There’s a really interesting narrative around community-centric flavours to towns, supported by technology. You might do your transactions on your phone – in store, offline, it doesn’t matter – but you have your experiences inside the community.


The role of people in the Future of Retail

Vint also talked about how CEOs and other senior executives can move their companies in the direction of being more people-centred: a process that requires support, incentives and reskilling of employees.

“I think the first important step would be to ask ‘How does this work get done? Who does it? And how could we make people more valuable by allowing them to do the things they’re best at, and still solve my entire business problem?’” he said.

This is exactly what Freeformers has been working on with some of our clients, using a tool that helps businesses to assess the digital mindsets, skills and behaviours of their staff.

What we’re looking for, there, is to find those people in an organisation who are just one step ahead. And then we get them to go back into their little cohorts, and reskill their colleagues.

That means it’s not us coming in and forcing change on people. It’s us finding those people who are already on the journey – already a bit empowered, already curious, already learning to learn – and then arming them with a set of tools that they can go off and share with their colleagues who are a little bit more fearful or resistant.

Vint also talked about the importance of top-down support from senior managers, citing examples of his past work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and for MCI.

In both cases, the head of the organisation decided to use email, and thus that the people reporting to him would also need to use email, to receive instructions and know what was going on.

“There was some top-down push to create incentive, and so the important thing here is not the ‘top-down’ part as much as it was the ‘incentive’ part,” said Vint.

“Any technology that makes your work easier is usually attractive. If it’s just more work, they’ll hate it! But if you’re saying ‘I’m trying to introduce something new and it will let you do more, or it will let you do less than you had to do before’ – that starts to create some incentive.”

At Freeformers, what we think about is helping people learn to learn. To be in that state where they’re curious to find out the answer themselves. Leaders have an important role here: need to give permission for people to do that, an incentive to do that otherwise they’re not going to. A lot of leaders, I think, fail to do that.

You can measure the effects of these strategies. We did A/B testing with one bank, where in a few branches, for 15 minutes a week an advocate sat with their colleagues and just told them about the new things. It was every week for 12 weeks, then we measured the difference – and it was significant.

They saw an 83% increase in  net promoter score, which measures how likely you are to recommend a service or product, within the branches that had received training with Freeformers. 73% of the same staff also said that it had a positive impact on their personal and professional lives.

“I think almost everyone would like to feel that the work they do is meaningful, so the search for meaningful work is probably core to people’s wellbeing,” said Vint.

“If you are working on something that you believe to be useful and helpful and meaningful to others, then it’s meaningful to you and it’s worth the time and effort you put in to it… Helping people discover work that has that character, I think, is very important.”Find out how much you could save your business on Digital Transformation here.

Want to learn how how to deliver change through people in retail without sacrificing business performance? Download the Freeformers Retail 4.0 report today.

Click here to download the report.


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