What does it mean to live in an algorithmic age?

In many ways, the world of today is not so different than in years past. People watch TV, listen to music, shop for brands, socialize and work. All quite similar, except for one critical point of difference. No one has the same set of experiences anymore. Our social feeds, music and entertainment recommendations, communications and even retail and workplace environments are all shaped, personalized and curated by data and algorithms. Yet, while there is no doubt that we live in an algorithmic age, what it means to be an algorithmic leader is still far from clear.

​A couple of years ago, Netflix held a competition. They offered a million dollars to anyone that could enhance their algorithm that made recommendations about movies. One team managed to do it. They collected their prize money, and Netflix promptly chose to ignore the winning code. The reason why was curious.

During that short period that the competition was running, Netflix's business had changed completely. They went from sending out DVD's in little red envelopes, to streaming content straight to people's devices. That meant there was now data on what people watched, what they clicked on, what they started watching but didn't complete, and a thousand other points of customer interaction. So, what good was a slightly better algorithm based on static movie ratings, compared to a real-time view of human behavior?

The Netflix competition is but one of many stories of leaders coming to terms with what digital transformation means in a human context. Companies and brands have more data on customer behavior than ever before, and for the first time, machine learning platforms have provided them with the means to analyze, respond and design experiences based on that data at scale.

Digital transformation is not like a Y2K software patch. There is no simple, turnkey solution. It demands a journey of exploration right to the very edges of human experience, machine intelligence, and disruptive business models.

Documenting some of those leadership stories and visions, was the inspiration behind 'Journeys', a new podcast series I've been working on in partnership with Orange Business Services.

We set ourselves a challenge. Rather than presenting bland case studies or details of corporate solutions, could we bring to life the insights and struggles of the pioneers who are actually driving digital transformation projects globally, at the some of the world's biggest companies and brands? See for yourself, by listening to our three launch episodes that focus on digital luxury, smart cities and enterprise AI.

Journeys - Listen now

For luxury brands, delivering novel and engaging experiences is the key to maintaining brand authenticity and relevance. When I met with Mohamed Marfouk, Operations Director at LVMH, he spoke about the power of data to not only redefine retail store environments but to make the entire customer journey of commissioning and waiting for a bespoke item, to be as precious as the object itself.


Retail is not the only experience that will be profoundly changed by data and algorithms; cities will be transformed as well. Sensors, self-driving cars and intelligent, AI-moderated government services will hopefully being to alleviate the pressures of living in hyper-dense supercities.

Bala Mahavaden is CEO, India, at Orange Business Services. In his view, leveraging technology to streamline city life is nothing new. From the wall cities of the medieval ages to the temple towns in Indian forts, ancient builders used laws of nature and physics and the elements of nature to build their cities, rather than the sensors that we talk about today. While the technology has changed, the challenge perhaps remains the same.

The key driver of smarter cities is, explained Bala, is not the availability of new technology but rather the political and organizational will to make it happen. In his words, transformation comes from three levels. You need a push from the top, from the government. Then there is the pull factor from the citizens and the data collected by sensors. Finally in the middle is the very critical layer, which is the civic bodies which are responsible for the project, and the ones best placed to make beneficial use of the data.

If algorithms can run everything from a luxury store to a global city, what role will humans play, and how will companies compete and distinguish themselves? That was the question we tried to cover in the third episode of our series.

The legal industry, as one of the first professional service industries to see significant investment in AI and automation, is itself an interesting test case about how algorithmic companies might operate in the future.

When I spoke with Paul Greenwood, the CIO of Clifford Chance, I asked him how firms in the future would differentiate themselves if all companies essentially had access to the same learning algorithms.

His response was fascinating. Learning algorithms, he explained, were nothing without data. He planned to train algorithms against the entire firm's accumulated knowledge – every deal, transaction, and interaction. Anyone can go and buy a piece of software, he said, “but we've built up a library of models that we've trained using the very best lawyers in the world.”

I hope you enjoy the Journeys series. There are many more fascinating discussions coming up over the next few months. You will hear from very different industries and types of leaders, but I do believe that there is still a common thread.

To put it simply: living in an algorithmic world means embracing the fact that both our problems and also their solutions are likely to be data-shaped.

You can listen to Journeys, the digital leadership podcast series, at: http://www.orange-business.com/en/digital-leadership

Mike Walsh
Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is a futurist, keynote speaker and the bestselling author of ‘Futuretainment’ and ‘The Dictionary Of Dangerous Ideas’. As CEO of Tomorrow, a global consultancy, he advises leaders on designing companies for the 21st century.