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Stephen Dubner: Turkeys and why data is useless without experimentation

Telstra Vantage™

Posted on September 27, 2017

6 min read

In a wide-ranging talk at the 2017 Telstra Vantage conference, opening keynote speaker Stephen Dubner — an acclaimed journalist and co-author of the best-selling book Freakonomics — used stories of poultry farming, hand hygiene compliance in hospitals, and even rat plagues to illustrate the importance of good data and experimentation in an ever-changing business world.

To begin, Dubner pointed out that poultry consumption has vastly increased in Australia and the United States over the past half century. He wondered why, and while researching he learnt that turkey meat is the big riser and that most turkeys bred for consumption are now bred through artificial insemination. Looking deeper, he found that most chickens still breed naturally but turkey consumption habits have changed. Many people now eat turkey breast as part of their ordinary diet, whereas turkey used to be primarily consumed whole on special occasions.

In order to meet demand for turkey breast meat, poultry farmers bred turkeys to have larger breasts. Eventually their breasts became so large that they became physically incapable of breeding naturally — these big-breasted turkeys could not have sex with each other.

This story, Dubner explained, can help illustrate that you need data to understand the world. But data on its own has little use, especially today — when, contrary to 15 years ago, we don’t need more data so much as we need more people who know how to ask the right questions of the data.

In his experience working with businesses, Dubner said that “the people who are most comfortable with data in the firm are often the IT people, [but] the people who most need to unlock the mysteries of that data are in different departments”. Those two groups don’t necessarily communicate well with each other.

In the latest of our Telstra Vantage Behind the Mic series, Adam Spencer speaks to Stephen Dubner. Subscribe to the podcast via apple.

Look beyond the noise

Dubner explained further that the noisiest part of a problem is often the symptom, not the cause. Artificially-inseminated turkeys with gigantic breasts are a symptom of the agricultural revolution, which has for over a century repeatedly squashed arguments that we will run out of food to feed the world’s population. The US throws away 40 percent of food bought for consumption, he stated. The problem causing famine is not a lack of food but rather that political, social, and economic dysfunction prevents the food from reaching the people who need it.

The challenge, then, beyond asking the right questions to find the root cause of a problem, is finding the right incentives to fix the problem. Or as Dubner put it, “If you want to make a good decision, if you want to change someone’s behaviour, you have to understand the incentives that are at play.”

To illustrate that point, he next turned to bathroom hand hygiene and the difference between declared preferences and revealed preferences. He polled the audience: who doesn’t wash their hands after using the toilet? No hands went up. That’s people’s declared preference — the thing they hope to do, their expected behaviour. But his own efforts to measure this, by lingering at the sink at public toilets, have suggested that only around 70 percent of men actually wash their hands after using the toilet. That’s the revealed preference.

Hopes don’t always match behaviour, even among doctors at a hospital — who in one study self-reported hand hygiene compliance of 73 percent but were then recorded by their nurses as having an average compliance rate of only 9 percent.

Poor hand hygiene leads to bacterial infection, which is the most common cause of preventable death in hospitals. Doctors are the most educated people in a hospital, so clearly education is a poor incentive for good behaviour. Dubner talked about a committee for hand hygiene at a US hospital that tried to find the right incentive. First they hypothesised that it was a communication problem, so they issued a memo. Nothing changed. Then a subcommittee thought to use positive reinforcement — they hid in the room before a doctor arrived for his rounds, then if he washed his hands they jumped out, applauded, and handed over a $10 Starbucks gift card. Doctors loved the free gift and hurried to wash their hands whenever they heard the subcommittee was nearby.

But it didn’t change the overall rate of hand hygiene, either.

The winning solution finally came from a quiet member of the committee — “the best ideas often come from quiet people who like to sit in a room with their own thoughts” — who got everybody in the committee to press their hand into a petri dish and then got those cultured. Most returned covered in bacteria. The committee then took a photo of one of these palm-shaped cultures and used it as a screensaver on every computer in the hospital, with an explanatory label. Compliance leapt to 100 percent.

Be ready to experiment

“The moral of the story is that the incentives that you think may work don’t always work, [so you should] work hard to use data to find out what’s actually the behaviour and be willing to experiment,” said Dubner, who also pointed out that sometimes incentives can even backfire and produce the opposite behaviour — as was the case in a town that had a problem with rats eating people’s trash and spreading disease.

The government first offered free extermination, then when that didn’t work they offered free bins with lids. That also didn’t work, so they offered a cash reward. For every dead rat, they promised to pay the equivalent of about US$4. That then gave rise to a rat farming economy. Far from exterminating the rat population, people would breed rats to kill them and claim the reward.

“The next time you come up with a plan that seems perfect on paper, experiment, try it out, gather some data,” Dubner concluded, “because it may work brilliantly or you may just end up with a pile of dead rats on your doorstep.”

Launching ‘Liberate’: Combine the best of the desk phone and the mobile

Business and Enterprise

Posted on September 20, 2017

2 min read

We live in a world where the lines between work and personal life are blurring and people are using their personal devices more frequently for work purposes. From Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to mobility as a service, technology is enabling flexible ways of working for employees.

But, on the flipside, with the proliferation of mobile technology, people are communicating inside and outside of the office using multiple devices, various mobile communications tools and social media channels. This is causing implications for employee communications, and customer experience.

But all that is about to change.

‘Liberate’ your workforce

Today at Telstra Vantage, we announced our latest technology for businesses, bringing to market a solution to address the growing complexity of workplace mobility. And we’re proud to say, this is an Australian first.

The ‘Liberate’ product will provide our customers with a fixed to mobile network convergence capability natively to a mobile device.

This means, whether employees are on their own outside the office, or as a team in the office, they can now be as effective regardless of where they are.

How does it work?

Liberate unifies desk phones and mobiles in a single solution to simplify and enhance communications between teams and customers. Since call integration happens in the network, there’s an effortless handover between mobile and landline calls.

The mobile phone also has versatile Unified Communications functions, so employees can enjoy the best of your desk phone on the mobile for an office-like experience on the go.

Why is it so important?

We know that roughly 72 percent of enterprises businesses are either implementing or considering workplace transformation.

We want to help our customers on this journey, and that means arming them with the right technology that will empower their staff to mobilise, as well as meet the expectations and needs of their customers.

With our world-class network and reach, we know we are the best provider in Australia to meet our customers’ needs for an integrated fixed and mobile service at the network layer which will ‘Liberate’ their workforce.

Keep up with the latest in business and tech innovation at Telstra Vantage in our podcast series.

Twas the night before Vantage…

Telstra Vantage™

Posted on September 19, 2017

4 min read

I know September is a favourite month for many Australian’s – what with Footy Finals, the warmer weather creeping in and holidays just around the corner. For me, September is all about Telstra Vantage . . .it’s Australia’s pre-eminent ideas, technology and business experience and it’s awesome.

4 years ago the Telstra team set out to redefine the old school conference and event experience we’ve all been to. Looking at what’s in store this year, I can say with confidence that we have set a new standard in how companies can get value from spending time with a broad range of world leading technology partners.

This year will be even more focused on how we create brilliant customer experiences through the magic of technology. From Artificial Intelligence and drones, to eye movement technology that enables a dream to come true for a musician with physical limitations.

Read the book Freakonomics? Dreamed of travelling to space? Well this year we’ve got the award-winning co-author of the Freakonomics series Stephen Dubner and Anousheh Ansari, the world’s first female private space explorer and technology entrepreneur joining the stage. They are going to challenge and inspire everyone to sit up and think differently about how they take on challenges.

With 6,500+ people expected on site this will be the single largest experience that Telstra have ever delivered – but it’s not about size, it’s about quality. It’s about curating a brilliant experience that helps customers solve their issues.

Too often people talk about tech for tech’s sake, this experience focuses on developing solutions that actually help our customers, so they walk away with practical skills and solutions to make real change, now that’s worth getting excited about. We’re excited to be working together with businesses around the world over the next few days, to go one better than last year and solve even more business challenges with innovative technology.

Before it all kicks off tomorrow, I wanted to share why I feel like a little kid on Christmas morning and why attending could be the best business decision you make this year. . .

  1. It’s all about you – our customers

You are at the heart of this experience – every detail has been planned with you in mind. Every year, as part of our preparation, we ask our customers what their business challenges are and last year we solved 85% of these at Telstra Vantage based on what our customers saw, hear and experience while here.  This is the main reason I love this experience – it’s more than just an event we workshop real business problems and our attendees leave with real solutions.

  1. You will see the depth and breadth of the Telstra ecosystem

Telstra has a role in creating, curating, advising and inspiring our customers. Telstra Vantage brings this all together quite literally under one roof – showcasing our partners, our solutions and how we work together to help you achieve your business goals. This is where we do what we do best and it’s inspiring to see the jigsaw come together with people leaving Vantage with all the tools they need for a better year ahead.

  1. And, how the magic comes to life

When you walk into the Vantage Village, you realise the power that technology has in making dreams a reality. The experience breeds excitement, it’s the feeling of inspiration in its truest form. You will discover the secret source that you’ve been searching for, learning how technology can be truly magic, and better still, the solution that your business needs to thrive.

I look forward to sharing more about Vantage over the next couple of days.

Telstra Vantage Podcasts

Keep up with the latest in business and tech innovation at Telstra Vantage in our podcast series.

Why banks need to move or be run over…

Business and Enterprise

Posted on August 2, 2017

3 min read

I read with interest Telstra’s new report, entitled ‘Exponential Performance – In a Millennial, Mobile and Programmatic World’ which looked closely at the ways millennials want to use their money.

The report’s author, Rocky Scopelliti, says in the first paragraph that disruption to the financial services industry over the past decade “can only be described as ‘exponential’”.

He is bang on the money, excuse the pun.

Change has always been with us and will be a constant going forward but one of trends we’re definitely seeing is that the pace of change is increasing.

Over the past decade disruption has impacted a number of industries and financial services is certainly feeling the heat.

However, with that competition comes challenge and we are certainly up for that. We know we have plenty of work to do and are up against not only traditional sector competitors but new competitors from our outside our sector looking at ways to eat into the traditional financial services space.

We know we need to adapt and to adapt quickly. Our customers, and not just millennials, judge our service not only against other financial institutions, but by how they order food, pay bills and find healthcare services.

As the report says, we are up against it and to keep pace with the rate of change in financial services banks need to undertake significant digital transformation.

At NAB, I feel we are heading in the right direction and I explained some of how we’re addressing that with Telstra.

We are bringing together dedicated and specialised teams to redesign specific end-to-end customer experiences; we call these our Customer Journey teams.

They are rethinking the ways we can better support our customers as they go through life experience like buying a house, getting a loan or a credit card, or perhaps starting their own business.

Those customer experience improvements are mirrored with our technology and digital teams who are focused on engineering our digital platforms to be fully agile, to increase efficiency to get changes quickly into customers’ hands.

All of these parts of our 150+ year old organisation are working together to help us move more quickly for our customers than we ever previously have.

But we have plenty more to do and we have big ambitions which I’m really excited about. Stay tuned.

Learn more from our whitepaper and a range of interesting content from our Exponential Performance in a Millennial, Mobile, and Programmatic World report.

Early progress in building the networks for the future


Posted on August 1, 2017

5 min read

Telstra’s Chief Operations Officer, Robyn Denholm, highlights the progress being made in building Networks for the Future with enhancements to the reach, capacity and capability of Telstra’s networks.

With the explosive growth that is underway in the number and variety of smart devices, online services and digital applications, we are expecting five times the traffic and more than quadruple the number of devices across our networks over the next five years.

These figures sound impressive but this is about more than raw numbers.  It represents connecting you with friends and family; enabling Australian businesses to take advantage of cloud computing, machine to machine communications and artificial intelligence; supporting the development of a host of new startups; and giving you control over the smart home of the future.

To make this future a reality in Australia we are undertaking a once-in-a-generation program in building the Networks for the Future.  This will see Telstra build networks that underpin the way our customers work, learn and play for years to come.  Networks that will usher in 5G and make the Internet of Things a reality.

With the hard work of our leading engineers, developers and technicians bringing the best technologies from around the world to Australia and collaborating with our technology partners, we have made some exciting progress on this journey.  By increasing the reach, capacity and capability of key parts of our networks in recent weeks we have put the foundational building blocks in place for the connected world of the future.

Increasing capacity

Only 20% of the capacity we are going to require on our networks by 2020 existed at the start of this year.  So clearly we have a lot of work to do!

A critical part of delivering our services is our transmission network. These are the big pipes that form the backbone of our national network and support everything from mobiles and home broadband, to data for our business and government customers.  So upgrading the capacity and capability of this network is a key early step in building Networks for the Future.

We are currently rolling out optical transport technology across our transmission network, which will increase both capacity and flexibility of the network as well as improve resilience.

Tasmania is the first place to benefit from this new technology.  We have lit up the optical transmission technology across the state and on the cable routes running across Bass Strait.  The upgrade will increase Telstra’s network capacity on each of Telstra’s two subsea cables running across the Bass Strait from 400 Gigabit to 1 Terabit per second – the equivalent of 200,000 HD videos being streamed simultaneously.*

Importantly, the next generation optical transport technology offers huge upside for supporting growth.  With future system deployments we anticipate we can scale up to 100 Terabits per second or more.

We will now be progressively upgrading our optical transport capability around Australia, with Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia the next in line to benefit from from inter-capital upgrades.

Telstra’s 4G coverage now reaches 99% of the Australian population

With new mobile sites being completed in Woongenellup, Western Australia and in Kongwak, Victoria as well as 4GX upgrades in Cardwell, Queensland and in Grace Plains, South Australia among several other towns in recent weeks, we have now expanded our 4G coverage to reach 99 per cent of the Australian population.  This means more regional and remote communities than ever before have access to mobile services using the latest technologies.

We now offer 4G across more than 1.4 million square kilometres, which is more than five times the landmass of the United Kingdom and means more Australians have access to our world leading network where they live, work and play.

Australia’s largest Internet of Things footprint

Telstra has activated Cat M1 across our 4GX coverage footprint, becoming the first network operator in Australia to offer the technology and accelerating the growth of IoT-based businesses and applications across the country. We will shortly deploy range extension capability which will take the Cat M1 coverage footprint for compatible Cat M1 devices to more than 3 million square kilometres.

Cat M1 enables low cost IoT devices, like sensors and monitors, to have greater reach in distance and depth into buildings.  It also offers the opportunity for battery life measured in years rather than hours and days.

This is great news for a range of industries.  We see this as an investment in the IoT ecosystem in Australia that will support new start-ups across multiple sectors, including agriculture, transportation, healthcare and mining.  We are working with the sector to develop products and service that can take advantage of our IoT capabilities.  Telstra has also commenced the rollout and testing of software that supports the NarrowBand IoT standard and we expect to enable that capability later this year.

* Based on a 5Mbps per streamed HD video

If you want to learn more about the types of work you can do in technology at Telstra you’re already in the right place.