Meet Fraz Chishti, (possibly) the region’s first Chief Innovation Officer

How important is innovation to you and your business? (image source nbry.files.wordpress.com)

What is innovation? It’s an idea that is also bandied about today. Launch a phone in a different colour? Let’s call it innovation. How about a longer chip? Yup, that’s innovation. Well, it probably isn’t. To me, innovation should be a treasured word. To me, it implies the introduction of a new product or service that results in a transformation, upheaval even, in how we think or act. A simple example could be the car, the internet, or the mobile phone. The point is that innovation keeps us improving and moving forward.

I had the pleasure of meeting a person who does innovation for his day job. Fraz Chishti, who works for Noor Investment Group, is the first Chief Innovation Officer I’ve ever come across in this region. While his CV is impressive – he has a Phd in chemical engineering and has worked in communications, marketing, information technology and project management – what’s different about Fraz is his willingness to question and probe and not accept the status quo.

His opinions, especially for someone working in the financial sector, are different from what you’d expect. For example, Fraz worked with his CTO, the technology department and internal stakeholders to implement an open source application for the bank’s Human Resources department. Open source is a taboo in the banking sector, due to the risks associated with security and the lack of supplier accountability. However, Fraz and his team innovated and worked to develop a solution that met the requirements of a number of parties. Instead of going with an established provider, Fraz stepped out of the box and delivered a tool which, as he puts it, “gets the job done.”

In markets and industries which are becoming increasingly crowded and competitive, companies need to find better ways to distinguish themselves. They can either do that through marketing (which most do), or through a product and service focus. Add to that the disruptive nature of our digital age and consider how rapidly our world is changing.

Just talking to Fraz is an experience in realizing opportunities and unlocking potential. He’s disarmingly honest – Fraz worked with Noor Islamic Bank to understand the potency of social media rather than just jumping in blindly – with a touch of common sense (just ask him about e-commerce).

What’s clear is that Noor Investment Group has a person on the top table who isn’t afraid of floating ideas, concepts and thoughts which he will then take and mold into a functional model. He is the rare individual here who understands different functions of a business, who knows how to get ideas accepted by different stakeholders, and then collaborate to transform those ideas into processes, products or services that will add to a company’s bottom line as well as improve a customer’s perception of his organization.

In the US, the innovation officer has become an accepted position among blue-chip firms. But we’re still lagging behind in this region. If we’re looking to create rather than copy, innovate rather than import we’re going to need many more Fraz Chishtis. I for one wish Fraz and his future innovation colleagues the best of luck.

* This piece was first published on the Kipp Report news portal.

Why stonewalling the media is always a bad idea: Nakheel and Arabian Business

Another day, another flood. Nakheel’s attempts to stem the tide of negative PR by not talking to media simply won’t work (image source: arabianbusiness.com

For those that don’t know Nakheel, you’re in for a treat. The Dubai government-owned real estate developer and the name behind the world-famous Palm Jumeirah is a byword for customer relations fiascoes these days. The company has run into a number of public relations calamities over the past two year, including issues such as service fees, numerous floods, and, most recently, a new development with lakes forming from putrid water.

Like any other company, Nakheel has both fans and detractors. However, a recent story on Nakheel by popular Dubai-based news portal Arabian Business raised my interest. The piece, which was about the recent flooding at Nakheel’s Al Furjan development, included a significant paragraph at the end.

* Nakheel no longer responds to media enquiries from Arabian Business, nor does it grant this publication access to any of its media events or announcements.

When a company feels that it has to stonewall, restrict access to and stop all relations with a media outlet there’s something very wrong. Whatever the company expects to gain from this action, I can guarantee all that will result is more negative publicity and an inability to counter negative stories by providing comments from the company itself.

In these cases, my advice to any company facing a barrage of negative media is understand what is at the core is the issue and why there’s so much negativity surrounding the company’s public perception. For Nakheel, maybe their time would be better spent addressing customer service and engineering issues rather than duking it out with the media. In the meantime I’m looking forward to reading more stories about the company on Arabian Business.

Who delivers the message is just as important as the message itself – a lesson from Abu Dhabi

Now, if you were to present to these people what would you think of wearing? (image source: The New York Times)

Many of us in the communications industry spend so long on developing the message itself that we often forget about the impact of who is going to deliver the message. A striking example of this and one of the most striking examples of mismatching the what with the who dates back to 2006, when Dubai’s DP World lost control of six ports in the US in part due to a lack of understanding how to present to a specific audience. For those who remember the episode the highlight was UAE nationals dressed in kandouras presenting to US officials, which didn’t help to assuage American lawmakers that the ports would not be a security threat in the hands of an Arab-owned company.

A news item this week caught my eye. It was an interesting article about a subject that needs more airtime, that of energy conservation and electricity subsidies. I’m going to quote from the article, which was published in the English-daily Gulf News, below.

When you switch off a lamp or an electric gadget when not needed, it is not merely minimising your own expense, but helps the nation implement more welfare measures for its people, including building more schools and hospitals.

Abu Dhabi Government spent Dh4 billion on subsidies on oil that used for energy generation last year, a senior official said here yesterday.

If energy consumption is minimised, the oil used for power generation can be exported and its revenue can be used for constructing schools etc, said Robert Bradley, Senior Policy Advisor — Climate Change, Directorate of Energy and Climate Change at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He was speaking at a discussion meeting in the capital… It was Abu Dhabi Sustainability Group’s sixth Hiwar Session (the Arabic word for dialogue), a public event, which aimed to shed light on current economic, social and environmental issues and its implications for sustainability in Abu Dhabi.

Let’s have a look at the message, which in itself is fascinating. Abu Dhabi is spending unnecessary money on power generation, money that could be spent on infrastructure, on public services, education or healthcare. All good so far. However, who is speaking and to which audience?

We have a Westerner, an expat talking about nation-building. Okay, but which group(s) would have have the most interest in looking long term? Who uses public services such as national schools and hospitals? It’d be a safe assumption to say UAE nationals. And which consumer demographic uses the most electricity per head (take a guess… yes, it’s locals).

The question would be, why isn’t a UAE national delivering the message, in Arabic? And why is an English-language paper reporting on this rather than the Arabic press? Surely a UAE national would have more gravitas and clout in spreading this message to his or her fellow citizens, in a language and dialect that they understand. There’d be less opportunity for misunderstandings and misgivings.

We’ve often got to think beyond the message to the messenger him or herself. If we don’t then we’re going to miss the chance to make the impact that we’re hoping for. And trust me, we’re not going to be able to rely on oil and gas in this part of the world forever.

The importance of the mobile web for Gulf-based businesses

Remember the good old days, when mobiles were there only for making or receiving calls? Forget them, and start thinking mobile web sites and more business (image source: tandemdigital.co.uk)

It’s official! The UAE is again a world leader, but this time in smartphone penetration. Seventy four percent of UAE residents carry a big, bad smartphone in their hands (some of us have two of them on the go at a time). Saudi Arabia is third, with seventy three percent of people carrying mobile devices according to research conducted by Google for its ‘Our Global Planet’ project.

The good people at UAE-based PR agency Spot On PR have summarized the findings for the UAE and you can do the same by going to Google’s website and customizing your query. What’s most striking is local behaviours. Have a look below.

Have a look at the frequency of local searches and look at the growth from 2012 to 2013

Have a look at the frequency of local searches and look at the growth from 2012 to 2013

Actions taken after Local Search in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and 2013 across all age ranges and gender types

Actions taken after Local Search in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and 2013 across all age ranges and gender types

What is strikingly obvious from both of the graphs above is that local search is now essential to local businesses. And yet, we’re still pretty awful when it comes to developing websites for mobile browsers.

So how do you change this? The first piece of news is pretty obvious. Go and get a website (it’s amazing how many businesses still don’t have sites in this part of the world). Secondly, if you’re not sure about how mobile-friendly your website is then test it using a tool such as W3C’s Mobile Ok Checker. These will be able to tell you what you’re doing right and what you’re getting wrong when it comes to rendering or displaying your site on a mobile browser.

If you’re stuck on how to develop a website that renders well on mobile browsers why don’t you consider using a content management system such as WordPress. WordPress has website styles that automatically adapt or respond to different browser types. WordPress is free and you don’t need to even pay hosting fees if you use WordPress’ own servers.

Even if you have a mobile-friendly website remember to use back-end analytics programmes from Google or other providers to better understand what your customers are doing on your website and what you can do to improve their experience. If you’re looking for more advice on what you should be doing to generate business from mobile have a look at this crib sheet for mobile e-marketing by local developer Saad Bhatti or get in touch with the good people at Spot On. But the general message is, do more on mobile!

A glimpse into Social Media in today’s Gulf

It’s not often I can say that Monday is my favourite day of the week (as Bob Geldof says, I don’t like Mondays) but this week was an exception thanks to the inaugural Social Media Forum. Arranged by the Middle East Public Relations Association, the event brought together some of the world’s largest social media names present in the Gulf including Facebook and Twitter’s local agency Connect Ads to talk shop about what’s happening in the social media world. And by the looks of it we’re addicted to social media.

The latest stats from Twitter are stunning; there’s now six and a half million active users of the social media channel in Saudi Arabia (active users are those who use their account on a daily basis), which represents a growth of 500 percent over last year’s numbers. In the UAE there’s 1.5 million users. But the highest percentage of Twitter users to a population is in Kuwait, where one in three people – one in three million – use the service on a daily basis.

While Facebook’s spokesperson didn’t reveal updated numbers about users in the Gulf region usage trends have changed thanks in part to widespread adoption of smartphones and broadband wireless networks such as 3G and 4G. The average user will check Facebook 11 times a day, up from 3 or 4 times, partly thanks to Facebook’s latest mobile applications. Sixty percent of Twitter users in the Middle East and North Africa are now using the service while watching television (the logical question would be, where are you advertisers and why are you not taking advantage of this?).

The good news would seem to be that (some) clients are now understanding social media is more than just followers, likes and retweets according to the head of analysis agency Social Eyez. One speaker at the event, the corporate communications manager for the Qatar Foundation, told the audience that a sixty hour social media activation with FC Barcelona using Twitter drove global brand awareness by upwards of 20 percent. This goal would have been unachievable with conventional media without an eight figure marketing budget. Social media has changed both marketing and communications completely, and long may our love of tweeting and posting continue in the Gulf.

If you’re interesting in seeing the best practice presentations from the event you can download the Facebook Middle East Public Relations Association Presentation here and the Twitter Social Media Forum Presentation here. MEPRA will be holding more events on social media soon, including with the Social Media Club in Bahrain and other areas of the region. For a glimpse of the event have a peek at some of the pictures below.