Home //Is loneliness an intelligent business model?
With its strategy, SAP wants to help every company to develop into a smart company. We ask whether the concept of the intelligent company, which is connoted with soberly calculating decisions, should not be supplemented by an empathetic component. Isn’t that what you call customer experience?
Going shopping alone is not a free decision.
We buy food and other goods for our everyday needs in at least four different ways: online or on site, e.g. in the supermarket. Alone or together: This way we can make our shopping tour an experience with other people or go our own way. What we do in the end depends strongly on our values and corresponding priorities (e.g. comfort, sociability, degree of misanthropy). With the Corona pandemic, these possibilities have taken on a completely different meaning. However, even before Covid-19, there were people who, in their loneliness, simply had no choice but to go shopping alone or with friends. These certainly include depressed or, to a large extent, elderly people, especially in the western world.
Should a supermarket be concerned about the emotional well-being of its customers?
Even before the pandemic season, there were companies that reacted empathetically and business-friendly to a social situation caused by demographic and social change:
The Dutch supermarket Jumbo, for example, has made an interesting counter-design to the Amazon Go and Amazon Go Grocery chains, which do without cash register systems and areas. At Jumbo, there is not only a normal checkout but also a checkout for lonely, mostly elderly people, who not only have enough time to pay but can also have a quiet conversation with the cashier. Moreover, they can have a coffee in the supermarket with an employee. In this way, the supermarket becomes a care service and as such a part of the health system. Willingly or unwillingly, the role of supermarket employees will change radically under these conditions, if this business model becomes established. This is an interesting concept – especially against the background that a large part of the activities in the supermarket will be automated anyway, as Amazon has already demonstrated.
The fact that supermarkets have long been part of the healthcare sector is also shown, for example, by the American supermarket chain Walmart, which cooperates with the laboratory chain Quest Diagnostics. Customers can hand in blood samples at Walmart and then have them analyzed by Quest. During the pandemic, Walmart is also offering a “Drive Thru Service” for Covid-19 testing together with Quest Diagnostics. The above-mentioned ideas of Jumbo could certainly be realized here as well, since the virus reveals the weaknesses and strengths of our social bonds.
So companies already have the possibility to influence how lonely or sociable we want or have to live our lives. How can we then understand the offerings of companies like Walmart or Jumbo? Are these signs of the emerging emotional and social intelligence of companies? Or is it a pure form of experience management that only wants to capitalize on the degree of our social bonds?
The intelligent company is neither emotionless nor unscrupulous
In 2018, SAP acquired Qualtrics, a pioneer in experience management, for $8 billion. A push that is primarily aimed at the overpowering opponent Salesforce in the CRM field. Qualtrics collects data on customers, employees, brands, and products to enable the design and optimization of the customer experience or employee engagement. Using Big Data and AI, Qualtrics is able to analyze customer experience patterns in an unprecedented way. Interestingly, SAP’s global strategy is to help its enterprise customers become smart businesses. The focus is on AI-supported decisions that are designed to give companies a competitive advantage – without human bias or emotion.
At this point, the image of the intelligent company is reduced to an unemotional rationality, and it is precisely this fact that is usually highlighted as a particular strength and is particularly valued in company acquisitions or on the stock market. This can also be made into a business model, such as the hedge fund Bridgewater, for example, which applies the sober calculation of algorithms to its own organization in order to minimize fund risks and maximize profits. You can see it that way, but you don’t have to. Because intelligence is more complex.
Shouldn’t we then also ask whether we want to equip organisations with emotional intelligence or an empathic ratio? In business ethics, the question of the extent to which companies can have a conscience was already raised in the 1980s. This question was answered in the affirmative where the company was regarded as an independent social actor, especially from an institutional ethic.
Why shouldn’t companies and organisations that are dedicated to the care and well-being of people, for example, broaden their perspective by identifying loneliness or depressive behaviour at an early stage, i.e. by adopting a kind of empathic rationality? It may be naïve to expect this from Walmart & Co. The question of corporate sustainability and the attribution of responsibility to social actors was also a question of sustainability in the beginning, but it is now becoming correspondingly accepted as a strategic dimension.
Emotional intelligence for good governance
Would this be an achievement of companies in modern societies that could be empathic and heal in a figurative sense, or is it ultimately only a matter of combating the symptoms of diseases that are produced by individualistically shaped societies and intensified by digital technologies? Would we allow an app to contact a good friend or colleague so that he or she takes care of our well-being because we could not have called him or her ourselves? With his work “Social Physics”, Alex Pentland has shown how communication and social experience data of people can also be used for Good Governance & Corporate Social Responsibility of urban communities, organizations and societies. The question is therefore how we will interpret the intelligence of institutions in the future and with which abilities, which we call intelligent, we want to enrich them.
Even though there is no generally accepted definition for the term intelligence, we assume that there are multiple forms of it that go beyond a sober and purely interest-based calculation. This is precisely why loneliness as a social risk for companies can become part of a business model if companies are aware of their proximity to customers. This is where the ethics of AI and also so-called experience management have the opportunity to show that people are really perceived as such.
Author: Lars Immerthal
This text is part of a series of blog posts that are based on the results and content of the study “Sturmreiter. Strategies of the TecDax companies” and to deepen interesting aspects of the analysed strategies. Here, it is the concept of the intelligent company that characterizes SAP’s strategy. And we must also align our new world accordingly.