By Mark Davenport
May 21, 2012

Mobile Strategy - Put Information in its Place

Visiting my 91-year-old grandmother at her retirement home recently, we began talking about the olden days, one of the more reliable topics for her declining memory. She had only ten minutes prior been unable to remember whether she had taken her afternoon pills. And now she was forthrightly describing being lifted by an uncle to peer into the casket at her grandfather's funeral, 89 years ago.

I asked her uncle's name. And then her grandfather's. I knew our family had this information all written down somewhere, but not at my fingertips, where I needed it. As she told the story, my grandmother began spilling off other names, and I decided to start writing them down—who knows what old 3.5-inch floppy or file cabinet held our records. Then I had an idea. On my iPhone, I found a genealogy app for download on Ancestry.com, fired it up and started entering the names as she mentioned them.

Then a funny thing started happening. The app began suggesting new relatives. It started correcting birth years and places. It started offering historic documents related to the family. As my grandmother struggled to remember some of her extended or distant family, I was able to offer suggestions that jogged her memory. Together, we replicated a genealogy endeavor that would have required multiple trips to faraway courthouses or archives (and lots of sneezing from dusty microfiche). The on-demand historical information added a completely new dimension to the typical reminscence.

My grandmother was already amazed at the information I could retrieve with just a phone. Then I showed her  a document the app had pushed to me. It was her father's hand-written draft registration card from World War I. She was visibly moved by the thought of him as a teenager, standing in the Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania post office in 1916 filling it out, four years before her birth. She recognized his handwriting, which she had not seen since his death 50-some years prior.

We sat in a retirement home without wi-fi signals, peering through a phone into a world where horse-drawn ice wagons made their rounds each morning. Suddenly, the implication of the mobile computing revolution came alive to me. Information previously hidden away is available at our fingertips, whenever and wherever it is most valuable. A piece of information is vastly more useful at certain times and places, and in combination with other information. If creativity is the act of combining existing things in new ways, our planet is acquiring the ability to unleash creativity at an unprecedented scale.

The technology, while still advancing, is already here. The challenge right now is a creative and strategic one: figuring out what types of information to connect, and how. Someone at Ancestry.com figured that census data could power a remarkable suggestion engine for genealogy researchers. I was surprised to see, however, that they haven't made any progress connecting their users to each other, introducing, say, all the living descendants of a given person. While I wouldn't want unknown relatives as Facebook friends, it would be great to have a specific relationship with them based on that shared connection. That can't be far behind, and if Ancestry doesn't do it, one of their competitors will.

Ideas like these are hitting the market at an amazing (and increasing) pace. Museums are offering GPS-based tours that augment displays with information from their Web sites. Retail stores are using iPads in dressing rooms to suggest complementary items. Mobile real estate sites can suggest nearby homes for sale. The combination of existing information is the thread.

The imperative for any organization today is to assess how its information or services could be more valuable when consumed in distinct places or contexts. In what locations or situations would the information be more valuable? What complementary information could generate additional insights? In what ways could  customers collaborate with each other to devise new uses for the information? This type of thinking needs to inform a new type of digital strategy that goes beyond an organization's Web site to assess opportunities across the entire digital ecosystem.

Within the next several years, this wave of creativity will have swamped many existing business models and enabled many others. Those organizations embracing and leading the change may reach new levels of success. Those that don't may soon seem as quaint as a horse-drawn ice wagon. 

(202) 223-8656