Can coders code Authenticity?

Written by Simon Devonshire, Entrepreneur in Residence, UK Government

Today I spoke at an event hosted by Accenture – which asked the question: “Can coders code Authenticity?”. I think that is a good question. My answer lead me to conclude that perhaps authenticity in leadership has been superseded. The views I shared are as follows:

To a large extent the answer depends on your definition of authenticity – but if it is about truth and consistency – then the simple answer is: yes – I believe that authenticity can be coded. Although Amazon is primarily a digital experience – it is one that I find very reliable and authentic.

We are witnessing amazing breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence (AI) which will undoubtedly revolutionise how we interact with technology. This is not technology that belongs to the distant future, it is on sale today – good examples being Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple’s Siri – which may not be top of your Christmas list – but these are the forerunners of tech that is about to totally transform how we all live and work. They enable humans not only to have a near-authentic conversation with a computer – they enable humans to have a near-authentic conversation with the internet.

Are they authentically human? Not really.

But I believe that is the wrong question.

Are they authentically able to provide excellent customer service? Yes. And that matters much more than how well they authentically simulate human tonality and character.

I don’t care if my satnav sounds like a Dalek. I care that it gives me accurate directions.

My observation is that we are witnessing a societal transformation in how we evaluate and appreciate authenticity. And it really matters.

Until recently I have always believed that authenticity was a characteristic vital to business success. A common characteristic of repeatedly successful entrepreneurs is their authenticity. Some of the world’s most aspirational businesses: Google, Amazon, Facebook are lead by famously authentic leaders – arguably that’s still true for Apple, even though the founder is sadly no longer with us.

However over the last few months my views about authenticity have shifted profoundly. To be clear I’m not advocating that people, brands and businesses be inauthentic. My view is that authenticity is still very important, but now, I believe that authenticity alone is no longer enough.Now there is a greater need. But I’ll come to that a little later.

Looking back, hallmarks are in many ways the oldest and most robust way of proving authenticity. Literally the application of an indelible mark with which to officially certify that something is what it purports to be. But such methods of validating authenticity belong to an analogue era and are incompatible with an intangible digital age. We need to find new ways of proving authenticity that are appropriate for use in a digital economy by digital natives. All of which creates massive opportunities for entrepreneurialism and investment. And that’s incredibly exciting. Imagine a world where we no longer rely on passwords to authenticate our identity. Not surprisingly it is a sector in which I have invested – specifically: www.yoti.com who have pioneered breakthroughs in personal identification in a digital world.

So what has happened for authenticity to be superseded? For me, two significant developments: one technological; one human.

Technology’s impact on authenticity:

In my post: “I’ve listened to the future” I shared my experience of interacting with a ‘chatbot’ powered by AI. The experience was so mesmerisingly good that when this technology goes mainstream, I believe that most of us will prefer talking to a chatbot rather than talk to a human when we are in need of customer service. And this raises an interesting challenge for the notion of authenticity.

When a computer is programmed to simulate and replicate a human it could be legitimately described as being inauthentic. However, I don’t mind that my satnav does not contain a real human inside – my priority is the accuracy of its directional instructions, not the authenticity of its voice. And this play-off between quality and authenticity is even more significant when applied to more established / more vital industries like banking for instance.

To help bring that to life: I can’t wait for my bank to speak fluent satnav. I’ll be able to converse with it without having to navigate multi-levels of infuriating IVR – pushing 5 for this and 3 for that. I won’t have to wait for it to tell me my current balance that I didn’t actually want to know and didn’t ask for. I won’t have to listen to the unwanted instructions on how to go on-line in order to reset my password. It’ll simply answer the phone, and once it’s sure that I am who I say I am, I’ll then be able to ask it what I want to know. And then, I might be inspired to ask it something really random like, when was the last time I ordered flowers for my wife? Which it will be able to tell me.

Technology may not be authentically human. But it might authentically provide excellent customer service.

This is not just an issue and opportunity for huge banks and utility companies – it is an opportunity that is becoming increasingly relevant to all businesses, large and small.

But it is not only technology that has challenged my notion of authenticity – the bigger impact has been human.

Human impact on authenticity:

One domain of leadership that is especially visible in society is the domain of politics. Politicians are inherently highly visible leaders. Society has always demanded authenticity in its leaders, especially its politicians.

2016 has been a momentous year in politics: the UK got Brexited; and the US got Trumped.

What we’ve witnessed this year, in several countries, especially the UK and US, are politicians that are unarguably massively authentic – Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump being just two examples. And yet to some people these politicians are also authentically detestable. There is nothing new to either of those observations. What is new is that previously being unpopular was quite career limiting for politicians – but evidently not anymore. And that really matters because it has fundamentally changed who gets elected to run whole countries with globally significant consequences for economics and possibly security.

That does not mean that leaders now have permission to be inauthentic or that authenticity does not matter. Authenticity always was important and I suspect always will be.

But for me personally, what recent political events have highlighted is the need of something more than authenticity. Authenticity alone is no-longer enough – it needs to be accompanied by:

  • Integrity
  • Respect
  • Positivity
  • Grace
  • Statesmanship

For me, statesmanship has surpassed authenticity as the characteristic that I value most.

Statesmanship is gender neutral, (like Chairmanship). In my opinion two of London’s most admirable statesmen are Martha Lane Fox and Eileen Burbidge.

I have had the privilege to work some remarkable statesmen: Jose Marie Alvarez Pallete and Gonzalo Marin-Villa being two masters of Statesmanship.

Statesmanship is all about having a long-term view; being moderate; it is about de-escalation; placing a greater priority on the legacy inherited by our great grandchildren, more than the immediacy of popularity, media-coverage and election.

With America’s appointment of a new President, we have witnessed the retirement of one of the world’s greatest statesmen: Barak Obama. I love this video clip of Obama’s statesmanship in action – when elegantly handling a protestor – it demonstrates his respect and how strongly held his values are.

Statesmanship is not only relevant to politicians – in my view it is equally relevant to brands, businesses, and their leaders. Statesmanship is a relatively rare human characteristic. Certainly it is virtue not easy for humans to acquire. I suspect that statesmanship is an inherently human quality. Whilst I am confident that authenticity can be coded, I suspect authentically coding statesmanship is exponentially more tricky.

The beautiful thing about authenticity is that it is both democratic and meritocratic – like ‘respect’ anyone can have it and acquire it. But also like respect, it can be lost in a heartbeat.

From the perspective of business, the challenge is that authenticity seems to be inversely proportional to company size – the bigger a company gets the harder it is to be truly authentic.

Of course, there are always exceptions to that rule – perhaps Virgin is one of the best examples.

Small companies and start-ups are inherently more authentic – and I believe that that advantage is fundamentally lead by the proximity of the Founder.

The challenge of how best for corporates to be genuinely authentic creates the most amazing entrepreneurial opportunity for collaboration and partnership between small businesses and big corporates. I’ll write about that in a separate post.


This first appeared here on Simon Devonshire’s blog ‘Tall Man Business’ and was reposted with permission.
Simon will be interviewed live on stage by Sacha Romanovitch, CEO of GrantThornton, at the 4th DL Conference on Thursday 1 December. Find out more here.

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