E-visionary Andrew Hart explains his motivation

E-visionaries: Andrew Hart is the man behind search engine Ask Jeeves. He spoke to Paul Mason about the challenge of making the...

E-visionaries: Andrew Hart is the man behind search engine Ask Jeeves. He spoke to Paul Mason about the challenge of making the Internet truly interactive - and the opportunities for dotcoms in today's harsher trading environment

If the Internet is the new rock and roll, then the Home House club on London's Portman Square will probably one day be revered like Liverpool's Cavern. As I arrive with Andrew Hart, ceo of Ask Jeeves UK, some of the best known faces in the UK dotcom sector are there doing business over breakfast. And - from the high fives and discreet nods he gets - it's clear he's one of the in-crowd.

But Hart's background is unusual for a dotcom chief executive. At 34 he already has one big management achievement behind him in the bricks and mortar world. As managing director of Sunday Business he was credited with turning the newspaper around after its chaotic start. Before that he was senior vice president at the European operation of publisher IDG.

Best known for its "natural language" search engine site, Ask Jeeves has now moved into providing software and services for other sites - for example Barclays' B2B.com.

Personalisation is a buzzword for many e-businesses - from consumer portals to e-procurement exchanges - as they struggle to differentiate themselves in a crowded market.

But Hart thinks personalisation is old hat. "It's the last wave," he says. "Why do all these people worry about personalisation? It actually comes down to the fact that we are moving from a period of mass media to one-to-one media. That strive to service the individual is very positive and very good - it's a very human thing to do. However, it's one very small component in the process.

"Everyone said they want to do this but they've been limited by technological processes. Technological processes are very structured and are focused on the way the computer works rather than focused on the way the people work. People are very complex - businesses are getting confused between personalisation and prediction.

"We predict how someone is going to behave given past behaviour. For instance I know that you like coffee: next time I meet you I might assume that you will take another drink of coffee, but you might not. You might want a beer. Or an orange juice or a water. But given prediction models, I would know that you like coffee and I will offer you coffee. If I get it right, you are going to be very impressed. If I get it wrong, you are going to be fed up - it's very presumptuous of me.

"So prediction is good when it's right. And what everyone is talking about at the moment in terms of personalisation is prediction. They are in the business of learning your behaviour online and then predicting. They are making it better and better, because the more you use the Internet the more they can build a model of it."

However, Hart thinks the industry is nearing the end of this wave of personalisation. "Prediction is one small component: the next wave is humanisation.

"Humanisation has many factors: we haven't cracked them, we don't see what all of them are, but prediction is just one of them. However, there is one way I can get it right. There is one very basic human trait that you can leverage, which everyone has forgotten about: the basic human adventure through dialogue.

"Language is very ambiguous - people aren't very good at using language. To take a good old newspaper analogy: why have we got so many sub editors? If people were great with language, you wouldn't need them. And that's for people who are trained to write.

"So 'disambiguation' is one of the keys to successful humanisation. Dialogue reveals individuality. As soon as I understand about you, I can then help you and deliver you stuff that you want.

"I would say the difference between personalisation and humanisation is that personalisation is knowing; humanisation is understanding."

All this would be great if computers were like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey - with the intelligence and bandwidth to behave like humans. Unfortunately we are years away from that - so just how "humanised" can the flat screen, narrowband Internet get?

"First of all, the Internet is not a PC. The Internet is a protocol, which enables many devices to be connected and enables humans to interact with these devices. It doesn't matter which device: the issue for the individual is for the point of access to be a humanistic process. And I think what we're talking about here is processes. We're not talking about cyborgs or androids or trying to create them online. Or if maybe there will be some sort of polygraphic person as in Star Trek who will stand there and look like a human: that's not what we're talking about.

"Today, code is linear, and humans at the moment are forced to adapt to the technological processes: think about the VCRs and how they're programmed. But each adaptation is an inhibitor: an inhibitor to people relaxing, to people feeling secure rather than insecure, people feeling at ease with their environment.

"Another problem about humans that technologists forget, is that most people don't know what they want: they find it very difficult to express themselves. They don't really know what they want to buy. So if you're putting them in an environment where they're not relaxed, where they're confused, it's not really going to work."

Hart adds that one of his pet hates on the Internet is avatars - animated human characters that are supposed to promote interaction, like Miss Boo on boo.com or Ananova on the Press Association Web site.

"Avatars actually dehumanise: they reinforce the idea that you are interacting with a computer", he says. "They are trying to put a human face on technology, not humanise technology itself."

Give B2C more time

Why has so much B2C e-commerce bombed? Isn't the current narrowband environ- ment, as JP Morgan analysts recently put it, the "worst possible environment" for B2C?

On the contrary. Hart thinks it has been "fantastic". He cites offline catalogue marketing: "That's two dimensional - it's a book! That's even narrower than narrowband. Yet GUS is one of the most successful companies: they still do it and make a fortune. How can anyone turn around and say narrow band is the worst possible place?

"Let's be realistic. How old is e-commerce - forgetting about EDI - one year, two years? How dare these people go around and make a judgement on e-commerce that is already bringing in $2bn of revenue and say it's a disaster or a disappointment. What we've got to do is get realistic in our expectations of how to develop this market.

"Supermarkets are fantastic. They're a great place to do business. They took 50 years to catch on and all they were replicating is something that is ancient: which is a market, a street market.

"It is analogous to the move from narrow band to broadband. Portability went up when more people had cars. Time efficiency was a problem because people thought: I don't have time to do all the stuff I like. And there was a cultural shift with all these other factors going on, away from the need to have that very personal service you used to get when you went into the green-grocer. What came instead? A kind of specialised grocer's within the supermarket and it took 50 or 60 years to replicate an old fashioned process.

"So why do we now expect that the Internet should be there in its entirety yet? Let's be a little more patient - it's not going to take 50 years."

Security and trust

Hart cites industry research showing the big three inhibitors to online trade: security, ease of use and brand trust. He believes humanisation can make progress on all three.

"As soon as users say security, we in the industry start thinking credit card fraud. There are other ways of thinking about this. Another side to security is the factor: 'I don't feel comfortable in the environment I'm in; I haven't adapted to this process because it's a technological process. I'm not sure what I'm doing; I haven't got used to it.' What happens when you go into a store that does that? Even if it's a brand new store, you understand how stores work. You still wander around. You get the bill. You become acquainted. You become relaxed, then you go out. The same thing is going to happen on the Web."

Hart recently bought a digital camera: after hours of research on the Web he was more confused than when he started and ended up going to a shop where a salesperson talked him through the options and closed the sale.

"Because Web sites have been designed by webmasters, technologists and even marketeers, - not salespeople - they miss that whole sales process out. And so the first step into humanisation is automating sales. When I'm buying, I want to feel that you understand me, that you care about me and that this trusted relationship is going to continue."

So will all this change as broadband access and pervasive computing arrive?

"The way you posed the question is very much the way the industry does. Technology outwards. Let's start off with people and work inwards: they won't actually care what the enabling technology is. What they will care about is that, wherever they access this technology, it fulfils the process in the most friendly way.

With broadband, says Hart, the travel industry will be able to offer interactive tours over DTV. "But if you're going to rebook the same holiday as last year you don't need the broadband experience. You can do it narrowband."

What about mobile - what are the possibilities once it starts to work properly?

"Mobile does work properly," replies Hart bluntly. The debate over Wap usability is irrelevant, he believes. "Mobile works properly to do what it's meant to do, and I'm talking about existing mobiles. Put your phone in your hand; talk into it and listen to it: it does that very well. We can automate and personalise verbal conversations now - the problem is not software but the cost of microphones needed for voice recognition."

Investment tight

We move on to the commercial environment. Ask Jeeves UK has been set up as a joint venture between established companies - a commercial model that is gaining ground on the traditional venture capital route to dotcom glory.

Does Hart think there is too much dumb money chasing too many dumb ideas? "I see far more portfolio management from venture capitalists than smart investment. They're happy now to get returns from one in 10, and lose money on nine."

Many in the dotcom community believe the smart VC money has not really arrived from the USA yet. But Hart says: "There's a huge amount of money in this country at the moment. The problem is getting people to part with some of it - especially venture capitalists. The people who work for these investment companies are seeking security just now and this has nothing to do with business fundamentals: this has to do with the erratic nature of the market.

He describes a conversation with a well known clicks and mortar chief: "His stock prices have absolutely tanked: he has no idea why and neither do any of his bankers. This is scary. The whole market is out of kilter"

Hart believes a whole series of market conditions have coincided to produce uncertainty among investors. "We don't know if we're going into the euro or not. The oil crisis is always emotionally unsettling in Western culture - it makes people behave strangely. And you've got all these things going on: mad things happen.

"We saw what happened in Russia, Asia and Japan. People are scared that's going to happen here. People actually will these things to happen. And in that environment, VCs are going to be less likely to hand over cash however good the idea is. It's a little harder than it was six months ago when it was relatively easy. "

He believes that within bricks and mortar firms there is a cultural problem that prevents them seizing the opportunities of e-business.

"Traditional companies have fairly set processes. Why has the publishing model hardly changed for the past 30 years? Because the process is set. The workplace is pretty much optimised. You can't improve it. What we see here is that, in these companies, people are brought up in it, caught up in it, absorb it and that becomes the culture: that's the way it works.

"Whereas in our environment, a young environment, there are none of these systemised processes. And because the technology is adapting, we can create them and change them at speed. At Ask Jeeves UK there were two of us: now there's 87.

"We had a major problem, which was a wonderful opportunity, which was so many ideas, so many things we want to do and such limited resources. We had to start putting systems and processes in place. And we have two people - we call them programme directors. All they do is sit there, analyse and prioritise what we are and what we aren't going to do."

Isn't that what we used to call management, I ask? "They are management but they are not seen as that by people in the company. They are people with great human skill so that they can work with every department. They clarify, documenting, regularly analysing, right across all of them. And they bring order. And all of a sudden, we've become systematised - system oriented."

Hart believes the biggest challenge for traditional small businesses is to understand and unleash the power of the Internet to improve productivity. He says we are moving towards "the end of non-inflationary times" and that, if small and medium-sized enterprises don't start getting productivity gains out of the Internet it will increase the threat of inflation.

"But SMEs need significant gains in productivity," he warns. "Big companies understand productivity, and work hard on measuring it, through balanced scorecards, for example." But SMEs will not make the investment unless you can show them big gains in productivity, Hart believes. For him this comes down to "stuff you can automate and people you can focus".

He cites the example of the pub trade where average staff turnover is six weeks. "If you can get an extra three weeks retention, and shorten the time taken to train people, that is a boost to productivity," he says.

A 20th Century thing

Ask Jeeves UK is unusual for a dotcom in that it is targeting a specific national market. Does Hart think the push to personalise and humanise the Internet will make it fragment towards local and national cultures?

"I'm not going to answer yes. Why do we need to fall into the trap of segmenting people into homogeneous groups, as we've always done? Why not treat them as individuals? If I went on a UK Web site and asked the question: 'Are there delays on the tube?' we can make some great assumptions at first: UK Web site, tube, delay - [that means] London Underground. From a US access point it could it mean something different.

"Customers segment themselves, rather than us segmenting them. It's a very late 20th Century thing: treat me as me, don't treat me as an ABC 1 married male living in central London. Once you treat them as individuals, it's the ultimate localisation.

"I behave differently in one location from the way I do in another. There's a fundamental difference between a Londoner and someone from Buenos Aires - fundamental cultural differences. But considering the same two people's family situation, as fathers, I'd bet we'd become remarkably similar: in fact more similar than myself and a single man from London."

One part of the UK Government's strategy is to use the Internet to overcome social exclusion. Does Hart think segmenting and targeting customers will militate against this, allowing corporates to discard the "bottom" end of the consumer market? While many business people might start casting worried glances at their PRs at this question, Hart strides confidently into the political minefield.

"The Internet is going to solve the crime problem and it's going to solve the drug problem. There tend to be pockets of crime, primarily petty crime and drugs, in less privileged communities. And if you actually start analysing those communities, there's a fundamental break-up of the traditional family unit.

"What I mean by that is not necessarily the nuclear family, it doesn't matter if they have two parents, or whatever. I'm talking about the sharing, the emotional stability, the communication between parents and children: the generation gap. And as time moves forward, the generation gap spreads.

"We all used to joke with our parents when we were kids, about how different they were. Our parents were probably the first generation that were aware of a generation gap. And it's going to get wider and wider with our kids. Technology is one of the causes and mass media is one of the causes.

"So there's a bigger generation gap. In these communities, the parent or parents tend to be poorly educated. That can mean they're poor communicators, not in touch with their emotions. And once you're a poor communicator and badly in touch with your emotions and in deprived circumstance: frustration, anxiety and psychological aggression comes through.

"Obviously that impacts upon the children. And we know from all the nature and nurture studies, that it's the environment that determines outcome.

"So what happens when a kid tries to learn - which is a very natural human instinct - 'Dad, mum, why are rubies red?' Answer: 'Don't be cheeky.'

"Now, in front of the television the only conversation is: 'pass me the remote control'. And that's not just in more deprived areas. It's a cultural problem: it inhibits communication skills.

"How do we solve this? If we can help protect defensive parents from their defensiveness, we can give them with something that enables them to actually partake to help and encourage the kids.

"The Internet can give parents a platform to protect themselves against their lack of knowledge and against poor communication, and provide a platform where they can interact.

"You can do that in front of a PC, or even an interactive TV environment. So it becomes: 'Dad, why are rubies red?' 'Let's go on the Internet and find out'. You can type it in - you can even get the spelling wrong because we've got a spell check engine.

Making assumptions

"With [Ask Jeeves'] natural language, we make big assumptions about what people are trying to ask. We never set out to do it: we just realised what we had afterwards. So in this environment you are reinforcing positive education, reinforcing communication and are having positive shared experience.

"It's going to take a couple of generations: we are not going to solve it overnight. But if you reinforce positive learning experiences, the kids then enjoy learning. They go to school, the same type of thing happens - they're working with technology, it's cool, it's there, it's orderly. And all of a sudden you're back on the path to learning. And now you're not the geek who goes there: everyone's there.

Next week we profile Michael Edelman, European head intellectual property exchange yet2.com

CV: Andrew Hart

CEO, Ask Jeeves UK

Formerly managing director of Sunday Business and senior vice president in EMEA for IT publisher and research group IDG. He has a degree in Economics and Accountancy from Manchester University. Aged 34, he joined Ask Jeeves in January this year.

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