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Moving information into the public sphere

Milena Head knows how to make academic business knowledge palatable and usable for the community
Moving information into the public sphere

Prof. Milena Head

It always appears on the list of life’s most stressful events, rounding out a top ten that includes death, divorce and losing your job.  A change in residence – moving house – is never a welcome task and no one knows this better than the Canadian Association of Movers (CAM).

The CAM is in the business of assisting consumers access credible, professional moving services, and they know that one of the best ways for a reputable moving company to offer their services is on the “information highway” via the World Wide Web.

When the Association wanted to help their membership learn how best to build trust on the Internet, they invited Milena Head to their annual conference, not because she’s a specialist in moving, but because she’s an expert in electronic commerce (e-Commerce) and human-computer interaction.

A professor of information systems in the DeGroote School of Business, Head has published more than a hundred articles on trust, privacy and adoption in electronic commerce, identity theft and cross-cultural issues in electronic commerce and human computer interaction.

Head sees research productivity as only one aspect of a successful research program. For this professor, the ability to communicate her research to the general public is also important, especially when she can translate and share her research expertise in a way that can be used in the “real world” of business.

As a researcher, Head has conducted hundreds of surveys, experiments and empirical studies, tested dozens of models, and essentially, as she puts it “peeked into the minds of the consumer.” She’s learned that showing products in isolation evokes a less positive response than showing people holding or using the product. She knows what colours on a web site are most pleasing for different age groups and genders, and how those choices differ between Japanese, German and North American online consumers.

Head also knows that online transactions are more impersonal, anonymous and automated than person-to-person transactions and building trust in an online environment is critical to the success of any company doing business on the Web – the information she was able to share with the Canadian Association of Movers with her invited presentation “Building Trust on the Internet”.

“While academic knowledge may be public, it is not easy to use by non-professionals,” Head acknowledges. “Not everyone knows where they can access a professional journal, or even realizes that there’s research that’s been done and articles written that might be of use for a business to expand their customer base, promote sales, improve customer service or provide a secure online environment for their clientele.”

Head has long been a keen participant in what’s been described as knowledge mobilization: moving knowledge into active service for the broadest possible common good. Beyond her role as a researcher and educator, Head has delivered dozens of public lectures and invited talks to professional organizations and service groups on subjects that range from identity theft to the usability of mobile devices.  The business professor knows what makes good eBusiness sense, and she’s packaged her research results in a way that’s accessible and usable for non-academic audiences.

What does Head see as one of the next challenges on the horizon for Canadian businesses and consumers?

“The adoption of biometrics for everyday transactions has not yet been embraced by the Canadian public,” says Head. “Compared to many other countries, we’re lagging behind in the use of biometric systems to counter identity-related issues and bank fraud. The question is, are Canadians ready to move to this new technology?”

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada defines biometrics as “a range of techniques, devices and systems that enable machines to recognize individuals, or confirm or authenticate their identities.”

Identity-management systems range from the biometric chip in Canadian passports that “locks in” the photo of the passport holder, to palm scanners in Japan that identify the unique “signature” of the user by the veins in their hands. Grocery stores in the U.S.A. are using biometric payment technology based on a fingerprint scan and iris recognition has been used around the world since the 1990s.

Whether it’s the branching blood vessels in a hand, the texture and pigment of an iris, or the swirls and ridges of a fingertip, Canadians are wary of how their unique identifiers will be collected, used and stored.

But when you consider that Canadians are among the biggest per capita users of debit cards in the world, and in 2011 alone the Canadian Fraud Centre reported more than $13-billion lost by identity fraud victims, it’s clear that convenient, secure, cost-effective options for protecting identities, bank, and online business transactions needs to be explored.  

It’s a multi-faceted area with a variety of issues that will benefit from the research undertaken by researchers like Milena Head. Better yet? When that research is mobilized and shared to help build value for Canadians.