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The internet is reviving the fractured conversation


By  Gerald Adams

This article is based on a speech given by Gerald Adams to a conference organised by Fannie Mae, the US's leading home loan provider, in Colorado Springs.

For the past 30 years or so, technology and people like me who design it, have been major culprits in the destruction of real business conversations. The internet, though, has brought the conversation back and, in the process, is reorienting technology design around human interactions.

What's a conversation? It can happen face to face, on a telephone, through email or - for teenagers most likely - through a short text message. The medium might enhance the communication, or intrude. No matter how it happens, the conversation is the natural way we make things happen in the world.

Computers cut conversations

Computer systems have reduced the costs of doing business and have improved convenience for customers. This happened by defining rules for handling repetitive tasks, using software to apply those rules and introducing storage technology to keep a record of the outcome.

But technology also has fractured conversations and replaced them with data flows and mechanical interaction. In retail banking, the ATM removed the teller from the conversation but no new conversations with the customer took its place.

In most industries any people still in the loop have become operators of software, not participants in a business conversation. Each time technology is introduced people are removed from the process. The conversation disappears and the human element is lost.

Internet brings interaction

With real conversations gone, the end result is a reduced and devalued relationship. Consumers respond by turning fickle, increasingly distrustful and easily irritated by what they see as insincere offers of relationships. Lost conversations, which no longer bring value, are not being replaced by new ones.

This is not the case on the internet. It is revolutionary not because of the great search engines and enormous library of interconnected information but because it's a two-way communications medium that allows large numbers of people to interact with each other.

Trust through communication

Early, successful adopters of the internet like FedEx and use the communication nature of the internet to build trust with their customers by allowing them to have conversation-based interactions.

In this new style of conversation they promise to be reliable. They always let customers see what's going on. They make sure to get back and offer a counter-proposal if they do hit a problem they cannot resolve to a customer's satisfaction.

Those successful early-adopters make extensive use of customer and inventory databases with well-integrated financial and logistical systems. They could not provide their service without those systems.

But that's not what makes them unique. The internet is the first technology I've experienced with core elements built around a network of communication between people,
not around computation or record keeping. What we're learning is how conversations can be conducted with partners and customers - using the technology and style of the internet.

The opportunity facing enterprises now is to use the internet style and technologies to create a richer business network for their own benefit, and that of their customers and partners.

The opportunity is to create a new style of interaction between all the parties that increases trust and, as a consequence, removes wasted effort from throughout the network.

Technology becomes human

What's exciting about the internet is that it demonstrates - daily - how to reorient technology designs around human interactions. There are a number of principles successful internet adopters are applying to the way they use the technology.

Keep the conversation going: things do go wrong. Products are out of stock. People make mistakes. But the conversation itself must always be reliable - even if some of the mechanical parts break.

Keep it secure: the world may be becoming more anonymous but that's not acceptable in a business network. There has to be rigorous evidence that you are who you say you are and that you have the authority you claim. If it's confidential then of course it must be protected from prying eyes.

Keep data requests relevant: Don't ask for information without connecting your request for the information clearly into the conversation you're having with the customer - and the goals you've agreed.

Share the data: It's not your data. It's shared between you and your customer for the purposes of achieving a mutually agreed goal. Share the data between relevant parties easily. Don't hide it or make it difficult to find.

Use your history: The historical record of past interactions will help bring value to your next conversation with that customer. Bring it into all new interactions.

Respect owner's rights: The information or other form of digital property that was provided by the customer was given for a reason in a specific context. Don't abuse that context.

Value of conversation

The internet is simple, and what people are using it for is simple. The value of being in regular conversations with customers, suppliers - all partners through out the network - is that it allows new opportunities to be identified together and exploited together.

Conversations and the relationships stemming from them is where valuable business is generated. But that sort of business sense is a dying skill. It is now largely restricted to already successful individuals and only shows up in the sizeable business conversations in which they engage.

Already, that skill has been lost down in the trenches of retail and is disappearing fast in the ordinary service industries. If this skill disappears a vital entrepreneurial element will be lost from our economic lives.

Now, almost by accident, the internet has grown to be a new business tool that gives us the opportunity to put people, and the conversations they have back at the centre of ordinary day-to-day business.

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