This year marked the fifth anniversary of Techweek Chicago, which attracted a diverse crowd of attendees and covered a wide variety of topics that ranged from the risks of commercial drones to the role of technology in education. While the subject matter was broad, three key themes emerged across the array of speakers and panels:

1. Turning Big Data into Valuable Outcomes 

Businesses in many industries are successfully using data to generate value, driven by growth in Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities, improved analytics, and increased connectivity. Despite these advances, many companies are struggling with how to act upon the enormous amounts of data that come from a multitude of sources. The challenge of identifying the right data and determining how best to utilize it has resulted in interesting use cases across industries ranging from the city governments to the education sector.

Data access and connectivity is one challenge many companies face. With data coming from many disparate sources, organizations often do not have the right platforms to manage and aggregate it. The education sector, which has been implementing technology in the classroom and creating programs around adaptive learning, is one example of an industry working to overcome this challenge. As student use of technology has increased, the question has become how to get their data back to the technology providers so that the company can compare the benefits of different product features and/or functionality. To meet this need, new platforms have emerged that take educational data sets from across silos and help educators discover trends and communicate insights to create better learning experiences. Companies are starting to find ways to bridge the gap between the seller and end user to improve educational outcomes. Another challenge can be found in the pace of technological evolution and creating the right architecture that can adapt to changes. The City of Chicago has addressed this challenge by leveraging the resources of both private companies and public universities. In a joint initiative with the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, the city has implemented an urban sensing project called the Array of Things, which is a network of interactive sensor boxes installed around Chicago that collects real-time data for research and public use. The intelligence gained from the collection and analysis of this data will be used for a wide range of applications from monitoring air quality to improving city services to prevent urban flooding. The City of Chicago has used partnerships to turn data into measurable activity.

Throughout Techweek panels, examples arose of companies from a variety of industries that have figured out how to successfully act upon the massive amounts of data they receive. Being resourceful and innovative in terms of partnerships and data aggregation and management as well as concentrating on the right data are going to be the focus of big data moving forward.


2. Letting Customer Expectations Create New Opportunities

Technology’s continued proliferation across industries has heightened consumers’ expectations of technology offering capabilities as well as how, when, and where they can utilize these offerings. Customers expect things to be online, self-service, mobile, virtualized, etc. Companies are recognizing that these expectations point to an important opportunity – to meet customers where they are, both in how customers are interacting with the company’s offerings as well as how they are engaging with the company itself. As one panelist said, “It is hard to acquire new customers, but it’s even harder to get them to change their behavior.”

When it comes to aligning offerings with where customers are, one topic that was prevalent was the advancement in bots, chat bots, and conversational commerce, a term coined by Uber’s Chris Messina for interacting with businesses through messaging and chat apps as well as voice-activated technology. Companies recognize that customers are increasingly utilizing messaging apps on a daily basis, thus presenting an opportunity for companies to provide offerings via that channel. Bots are now being leveraged as a medium to process transactions (such as ordering a pizza or transferring money) on messaging platforms, offering a new channel that is highly aligned with how and where customers are currently operating. We also heard examples of this approach in the FinTech space, which has seen significant technology disruptions, including those around deposits, peer to peer, mobile, etc. These disruptions have heightened customer expectations and, as a result, altered the overall customer lifecycle/journey. One way FinTech companies are meeting customers’ expanded needs on their journey is by providing ‘consumerized’ experiences. These companies understand that consumers are used to and value experiences similar to those provided by e-commerce companies like Amazon that address customer challenges (such as ongoing support needs) via various channels, like mobile.

To take advantage of these opportunities, companies need to organize and innovate accordingly. Companies must understand the full customer journey and their customers’ needs/pain points throughout that journey. We heard one example of a FinTech company that has product designers/developers listen in on call center lines so that they can better understand customer needs. The mindset has transformed to if they are going to fail on a given offering, to fail fast. This requires companies to adopt more of a fast/agile development process to allow for more rapid feedback (as offerings are getting in front of the customer faster) and quicker innovation cycles.


3. Maintaining a Human Element Among Bots, Cameras, and Drones to Build Trust

With the explosion of digital technologies, companies are collecting vast quantities of consumer data both online and off. Technological advancements that allow data to be generated everywhere from smart sensor boxes with cameras around Chicago to bots in conversational commerce make the question of privacy and consumer trust one of great importance. Many companies at the conference emphasized the need to maintain a human component to customer interactions, even in the case where bots could completely replace the need for a real person. Companies were approaching this need in a variety of ways with the goal of maintaining consumer trust.

The City of Chicago approached this issue by maintaining an open dialogue with community members. First, the city offered a public comment period for the Array of Things governance and privacy policies before project initiation. It also set up measures where interested parties could receive news and access information about how the data is being used at any time. Finally, the city implemented a Security and Privacy Group with the sole purpose of approving the data that can be monitored to maintain individual privacy. Transparency and open dialogue with community members was highly emphasized across materials, maintaining a human element while creating infrastructure to make Chicago a “smart city” run on data.

FinTech companies, which have always had access to sensitive consumer data, have approached building trust amongst their customers in a variety of ways. One approach we heard was that they are aiming to become a partner in their customer’s financial journey, aligning their success measures with those of their customers. For example, sales team members are now being assessed and compensated on parameters like NPS. Financial advisors are adopting a different, goal-based perspective towards their clients’ portfolios; rather than just considering portfolio performance relative to indexes, they are working to help customers reach goals around retirement, buying a house, etc. FinTech companies also see opportunities to maintain customer trust through education, whether it’s a new app that helps you invest your spare change and teaches you about the market (Acorns), or having financial advisors take a more hands-on approach to educating their clients.

There will always be trust issues amongst consumers and the companies with which they engage. Technologies proliferation creates a double-edged sword for many: We rely on and enjoy the facilities that technology give us, but know that we are becoming more and more exposed. Companies that show a commitment to respecting privacy and building customer trust will undoubtedly be helping themselves in the long run.

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About the Authors
Aman Singh

Aman Singh is a Manager at Waterstone. Aman’s expertise is in enterprise software strategy, focusing on growth strategy, Professional Services improvement, customer experience design, and Customer Success optimization.

Meenakshi Sharma

Meenakshi Sharma is a Manager at Waterstone. Meenakshi is responsible for delivery of client engagements, including developing content, structuring analysis, and supporting firm development. She has primarily focused on enterprise software clients across service areas including pricing strategy, customer operations improvement, and growth strategy.