Stephen Scheeler has one question he always asks business leaders. And it’s not related to regulation, shareholders or competition.
“What don’t you know about your customers that if you did it would change the game?” Scheeler, the former CEO of Facebook Australia and New Zealand, tells Westpac Wire.
Inevitably, the reply always involves a “long list” of things. But as Australia prepares for greater data sharing under the government’s “Consumer Data Right” initiative, Mr Scheeler says the world has moved well beyond just getting data to how it’s leveraged to create value for customers and leading to new ways of servicing that were previously never imagined, such as what Facebook has done for consumers and advertisers.
In addition, business leaders need to better prepare for the “perfect storm” of artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data, he says.
“Every manager on earth now needs to be as dexterous and able to use data and understand data and converse with data experts in the same way they converse with the person who runs HR, or…strategy or … finance or … operations,” he says.
“The best leaders, they’re not necessarily experts in all areas but they can have strategic conversations with those people who are experts. The same now is true of data and too many of our leaders and businesses, they’re data illiterate but they need to become data dexterous.”
Mr Scheeler, who has taken on a variety of advisory roles since leaving Facebook in 2017, including at McKinsey, says the move to free up data across the economy – first under the “open banking” regime slated to begin next year – will have a “profound” impact in ways that are impossible to anticipate, like when electricity or the combustion engine changed markets.
Similar to other countries, the government in 2017 unveiled Open Banking as the first use case for the Consumer Data Right to give consumers greater ability to share data, eventually also planned to be rolled out across the telecommunications and energy sectors. It coincides with other policies freeing up data, such as Comprehensive Credit Reporting, and rapid improvements across technologies such as AI that is driving both optimism about new opportunities, but also concerns around privacy and security.
“Data is not a technology into itself. But a lot of the shifts going on right now are around the quantity of data, the low cost and ease which you can process and store that data and then the smarts you can put on top of that data to drive insights such as machine learning and AI,” he says.
“We’re sort of at a perfect storm now where all those things are coming together in a profound way so they’re going to drive profound changes in how businesses create value for consumers and indeed how businesses organise themselves in terms of business models. Every business in the world isn’t going to necessarily abandon their core …but they’re going to have to learn how do we use data of our own and open source data to create value for customers, to create new business models, to create new products and services.”
Reflecting on how Facebook has grown so rapidly since 2004, Mr Scheeler says it was both good timing and strategy. Founder Mark Zuckerberg “cracked the code” of tapping into the zeitgeist of people connecting via social media and rode the rise of the iPhone, but also made smart acquisitions of the likes of Instagram and WhatsApp amid shifts in the modes of communication.
But in the past 12 months following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has been at the centre of a global pushback against the usage of data and dominance of large technology companies. Mr Scheeler says given the amount of data and content on platforms like Facebook, they are actually very good at managing these issues. He added it was raising bigger questions amid the collision of “AI-driven system with an organic system called democracy”.
“What I would suggest about the challenges happening with Facebook and democracy is Facebook has to change some things but we need to shift about how we think about democracy and how we build our democracy as well.”