What can Chris Riddell, keynote speaker at this year’s AHRI National Convention, tell us about what’s ahead?
When it comes to the subject of digital transformation, Chris Riddell does not mince his words. “If you feared change before, then my God, have you got something coming around the corner,” states the global futurist and self-described digital evangelist. “Digital is going to flip industries on their head and fundamentally force you to change your way of thinking. If you don’t, you might as well pull down the shutters.”
It’s just like Riddell to issue such warnings. Since leaving the role of chief digital officer (CDO) at MARS Australia and New Zealand in 2014, he has had his eye fixed firmly on the future. An award-winning keynote speaker, Riddell also provides strategic insights that help business leaders prepare for what he describes as “beyond tomorrow”.
Early days of change
“If you have just one function, one role, one capability, you are ripe for your role being amalgamated or automated.”
Riddell’s fascination with the future began early. Born in Bahrain, he spent his childhood in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UK, France and Australia. Disruption – and swift adaptation – were part of his life from a young age and helped shape his curiosity for what’s around the corner.
“I saw a lot of change when I was growing up,” says Riddell. “The development that some of the countries in the Middle East have been through in terms of infrastructure and technology has been like nothing else in the world. It was a hell of an experience just being part of that growing up, and then going back as an adult as well.”
Like many his age (Riddell is 36), his first experience with new technology was through gaming – specifically with an Atari console. In an interview with communications specialists smsglobal, he talked about the family’s first computer.
“My family’s really expensive first home computer was an enormous IBM 386 – which had a ‘massive’ 1mb of RAM! Before Dad even brought the computer to our house, I was making lists of the programs I was going to make. I was as excited as all hell and we hadn’t even got the technology yet! When it arrived with Windows 3.1 that was the beginning of the end – I just loved it.”
Despite being known as the ‘IT nerd’ in school, Riddell had early ambitions to be a pilot. “I travel a lot with my job now, so I get my flying fix, but I’m still envious of the pilots who get to fly those massive machines,” he laughs. “I was FaceTiming my brother at 40,000 feet the other day. It never escapes me how fast our world is changing and how technology is allowing us to do things we could never imagine before.”
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Life at MARS
Technology has been central to Riddell’s career from the very beginning. Before joining MARS, he held senior roles at companies such as Vodaphone in the UK and IT consultancy Sopra Steria in the Middle East. He also worked for Nurizon Corporation, a provider of integrated mobile data for homeland security, as customer director, Middle East & Asia Pacific.
His decision to leave the technology industry for the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector was fuelled by a desire to be part of wide-scale business transformation. “I could see that soon all industries would be in the business of technology. It was a fundamental shift and I wanted to be part of it.”
As the first CDO of MARS, Riddell initiated digital strategies for brands such as Whiskas, Pedigree Petfoods, Wrigley Company, Masterfoods, Snickers and Maltesers. Key to his role was ensuring that every part of the business was using digital technology effectively – and convincing people of the need for change.
“MARS is a company that makes chocolate and food, and they’re damn good at it,” says Riddell. “There was a strong attitude within the business of, ‘Hey, we’ve done it well for so long, why do we need to change?’.
“As CDO, you’ve got to convince the business of why digital is so important – even more so for a global institution like MARS,” he adds.
Riddell believes one of his greatest achievements at MARS was fostering a new way of thinking about technology. “You’ve got to be able to speak in old-world terminology but bring the new-world perspective,” he says. “How is digital going to help me to grow the business? How is digital going to help me reduce overheads? How is it going to help us remain relevant? The FMCG industry makes products that fill our supermarket shelves and technology is changing a lot of how that will happen. Digital forms a huge part of our new customer experience.”
The new customer experience
“I think the HR role is now one of the most important that exists in any organisation today.”
Riddell says customers today are less interested in a company’s products. “They’re more interested in the experience that surrounds that product and you had better be making that experience a good one. More than ever, your customer is now front and centre of every single decision that you make.”
Companies have access to more data than ever before and Riddell predicts they will soon be using it to create experiential value for customers. “We’ve got to start seeing a return on investment for giving our data to companies,” he says. “Our data will be used to create personalised, individual experiences. Companies will soon be saying, ‘hey, we’ve got all this data on you and we’ve got something for you that we know you actually want.’”
Riddell says that data will also have a role in shaping the HR industry of tomorrow. “HR have got access to more technology, data and insights than ever before. There’s no excuse for not driving a real-time picture of what’s going on in your organisation, not just company-wide but drilling down on individual talent analytics and insights. I think the HR role is now one of the most important that exists in any organisation today.” »
Although Riddell’s area of interest is how technology and human behaviour intersect, he nevertheless describes himself as a generalist. “Years ago, a former boss of mine said to me, ‘We have no idea what you do, we just know we need you because you cover a lot of different areas’. That was quite a visionary thing to say back then, because we’ve been educated to believe you need to be a specialist.
“Today, we are starting to realise that generalists are king,” he adds. “If you have just one function, one role, one capability, you are ripe for your role being amalgamated or automated.”
Riddell likens the role of a futurist to that of a chef. He gathers macro-level ingredients – mega trends like artificial intelligence, augmented reality and the internet of things – mixes information from research agencies and fellow trend spotters and then adds more flavour through the conversations he has every day.
“It all starts from the trends that are going on now,” he says. “I keep my eye on the newest startups and where investment is being directed. I also try to identify new breeds of business from technology trends. Then I have conversations: by meeting start-ups and business leaders face-to-face, asking questions, understanding emotions, you can gain so much insight.”
Riddell will be sharing many of these insights at this year’s AHRI convention. How can we all keep up with the pace of change and what will the next wave of disruption look like? How can we maintain our own relevance within a disrupted world?
“You need to challenge yourself every single day as an individual and as a business,” says Riddell. “Just because the business you set up 10 years ago looks like this today, that probably isn’t going to be relevant for tomorrow. The future is the most important thing to think about.”
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