We were delighted to welcome Tareq Amin, CEO of Rakuten Mobile and Rakuten Symphony to Inclusively in December. Tareq has pioneered the Rakuten Mobile business, embracing a more open network and software environment and building a mobile operator from scratch. You can see the full discussion between the three of us Senza Fili. It is well worth a watch but here are the highlights.
Tareq expressed his support for having a forum such as this to raise awareness of the inclusion topic. It is a subject close to his heart as he went through major challenges as an outsider when moving to the US as a young man, studying and starting work. His epiphany was realising what he can learn from other people’s journeys so conversations and engagement around diversity are an important part of his ethos.
What does an inclusive future look like?
A world in which everything is accessible to anyone regardless of gender, culture, nationality or disability. Feeling included is such an important factor for everyone. Reasons for feeling excluded can vary dramatically, but it’s particularly easy to do in a technology-centric industry like ours.
How do we make the individual feel included?
Rather than thinking from the point of view of individual minor excluded groups, we need to think of inclusion holistically. “We have a long, long way to go.”
“Customer experience today in the telecoms world is an empirical percentage point” rather than an interaction with an individual human being. The goal is to know who we are dealing with whether through a chatbot, contact centre, email or in person.
On what basis are people excluded today?
The main ones are disability, age and technological skills. Being able to interact with our industry without sight, hearing, physical dexterity, or technical know-how poses different problems across all channels of interaction. The aging population, such as that in Japan, is a serious topic. For example, the complex sea of apps on mobile devices today makes life easier for many, but these solutions may leave the less technologically able behind.
Tailoring our products to meet the needs of each individual is a great goal, but we are still some ways off now. AI is helping enormously. Voice AI especially is a key pillar of what Rakuten is doing. “While we are obsessed with touching the device” – speaking to it has got to be an easier interface.
Whilst this option opens up access for a large group, it also excludes people with speech impairment. But, there is a lot of work being done in this area – for example, take a lot at this initiative with cross-industry support from Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft.
Everyone feeling included – or more importantly not feeling excluded – should be the goal for our industry. “Awareness of our differences is as important as the common ground we share.”
For Tareq, setting the percentage of employees with disabilities, ethnic, gender, is not the issue. These factors are secondary compared to being a productive member of staff!
How much does software change the game?
“There are some big technology inflection points coming up.” The software world should be a massive agent for change for the world of inclusion. We don’t need to wait for the Metaverse nor 6G.
The key for Tareq is that every business leader should understand how important inclusion and diversity are on so many levels. The inclusive vision is now shared with the team and Rakuten has put structured awareness training into practice across the company. However, having enough representation of all groups both inside and outside the organisation is really the only way to drive the business inclusively.
Rakuten Group (which incorporates all Rakuten companies) created a subsidiary called Rakuten Socio to help promote disability and other employment diversity along with skilling and training. This is also part of meeting the obligation of companies in Japan. For instance, Tareq questions how we can bring this market into the 21st century and what are the needs? For example, is it a simplified app, interface or limited product set?
Rakuten provides a service called Rakuten Senior specifically for senior citizens, and team members must develop a deep understanding of how the elderly behave and think. One approach may be to use the flexibility in the Android operating system to build a smartphone more akin to the old styles that the older aged market identify with. “Bring back the flip phone!”
Customer support and channels of interaction
Tareq acknowledges that the early customer support provided by Rakuten Mobile required improvement, as operators spent lots of time on voice calls, often without resolution. It occurred to Tareq early on that a fresh approach was needed. Context and awareness of the contact just wasn’t available. He sees Voice AI as one of the key pillars of a solution to make interactions accurate and efficient.
Rakuten has developed its Customer DNA across the broader organisation’s vast ecosystem of services. The AI is gradually being trained to understand the individual and their requirements. The anonymized data within this DNA includes customer information, gained with their approval, to help shape the service. “It’s a smart characterisation of the customer.”
Tareq is excited by the possibilities that the Metaverse will bring but acknowledges that today’s VR headsets are some way behind requirements. However, the world of hybrid working and creating a fully immersive working environment away from the office is more easily achieved. Also, healthcare offers some amazing opportunities to blend the physical and virtual worlds.
One intriguing aspect of the future is how can we learn from using the Metaverse to model how people with different disabilities ‘see’ the world and interact with it. Digital twinning will be the ultimate simulation of real life!