Failing to react quickly enough to emerging trends can escalate a downfall. All the more so when multiple trends collide and going digital changes habits
Another year, another Davos conference where the global super-elite gather to meet to discuss the worlds’ problems. Or at least do some great networking… Because how much innovation truly originates from those at the top?
In the UK, a controversially-titled TV show is dominating local headlines – Benefits Street – examining the lives of residents living on one street in Birmingham, the majority of which are dependent on benefits.
Paul Taylor has an excellent article – 3 lessons we should all learn from Benefits Street – highlighting the more positive aspects of the programme. Like Paul, I watched an episode out of curiosity given the news coverage and agree with his perspective. The show shines a spotlight on just how difficult it is to get out of the trap once you fall into it. And Paul highlights the flaw in much of our government systems focused on welfare (emphasis his):
One of the problems across the social sector is there’s too much top down innovation and an over reliance on tech based solutions.
We need to listen to communities , seed fund some grass roots projects and get out of the way.
Time and again, systems that grow bottom-up out perform those that are designed top-down. Top-down priorities are beneficial when you are looking to scale out a successful solution. But finding a solution in the first place is demonstrably easier when starting small: experiment, fail fast, learn and try again. You can’t do that when investing billions on a single enterprise-scale scheme.
Davos may be a great deal of fun and intellectual exercise for the global super-elite. But the mindset invariably focuses on top-down solutions. Attendance is mostly limited to those benefitting from the current systems in the world. Cue Machiavelli:
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.
To shape the world in a different way is more likely to happen by the actions of those least likely to attend events like Davos. And in this new globally connected age, the balance of power is shifting. Whilst there have always been people across the generations who would rather see a fairer world, the Internet has connected those voices on a far bigger scale in recent years. More and more individuals talk about their desire for meaning and purpose over wealth. For a more collaborative networked culture over one dominated by command-and-control hierarchies.
The following is just one presentation (but a rather good one by Joyce Hostyn) demonstrating this shift:
The theme at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year was ‘Shaping the world’. That’s something we can all now participate in. The smartest people will never all be in one room.
- 3 things we should all learn from Benefits Street – Paul Taylor, January 2014
- Can we design organisations for beauty? – Joyce Hostyn, January 2014
- Machiavelli’s quote taken from The Prince, published 1532
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Flickr image – Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Michael S. Dell at WEF 2009, Davos – shared by the World Economic Forum
An interesting article appeared at the end of last week, highlighting a shift in thinking towards IT projects within the UK government:
Gov.uk was launched quickly and iteratively, with a new simplicity that has resulted in a website containing fewer than 10% of previous separately hosted pages and is set to save as much as £70m on previous arrangements.
A new online system for people to apply for Power of Attorney on behalf of others had taken 10 working days to procure, 24 days to build and code a prototype alpha system for live testing and a beta was due to go live in two months, he said. The whole project had been commissioned from a small business using the G-Cloud for around £50,000 a year, compared with a quote obtained from one large existing provider of £4m set up plus £1.8m per year
There are two reasons why the costs to deliver an IT project should drop significantly to the established normal. 1. At the tail-end of a previous disruptive innovation, 2. At the beginning of a new one.
The hype curve of innovation applies to just about any industry. A new concept is invented. It starts small and is highly specialised but creates demonstrable value to customers. Such success never goes unnoticed and demand begins to grow. That brings competition and rival proprietary solutions. To begin with, more value is created, usually at an increasing pace as different companies come up with more innovative features to compete with one another. But then a tipping point is reached and, for a short while, everything gets a bit chaotic and messy. Hidden costs emerge, problems arise, competitors get acquired and solutions are suddenly discontinued or dramatically altered. Out of the disruption comes a new demand – standardisation that allows for continuity and economies of scale. And so the market settles down into slow growth, cheaper solutions and small incremental improvements. Until a new disruption comes along.
Building traditional web sites for publishing content are at the end of 15-year innovation cycle. The standards for design and formatting of web content have become so well established that even Microsoft has just about embraced them within the latest versions of the Internet Explorer web browser. Most popular public-facing web sites now follow familiar conventions regarding navigation and page layouts. To consolidate multiple different government departmental web sites under a single umbrella gov.uk web site makes absolute sense and should save a lot of money.
Using agile approaches to software development has grown in popularity in recent years. The goal being to do ‘just enough’ design to build a working solution, and quickly tweak and iterate based on actual usage patterns rather than predicted requirements. It requires far less ‘up-front’ investment due to much shorter planning cycles and usually results in far better user adoption rates. But it doesn’t guarantee a cheaper solution over time. That will depend on the iterations and ongoing development.
Applying an agile approach to business systems is at the early stages of the innovation hype cycle. Some solutions are simply brilliant, but growth in competition means some are not. The disruption and hidden costs are yet to emerge and it’s a little early to be celebrating dramatic savings in annual operating costs. I have already seen one government project that I know is so under-costed, it will take the supplier in question into bankruptcy unless they are able to renegotiate down the line. Yes, the bigger systems integrators were insanely expensive in their quote for what was needed. But insanely cheap is a short-lived improvement.
A comment was made by Tom Loosemore, deputy director of the Government Digital Service (GDS) responsible for the projects quoted above:
“We don’t talk to IT departments other than to ask what legacy can offer”
That’s not a healthy comment and was not well received at the conference where it was made. Today’s IT legacy is just yesterday’s innovations gone stale. I think the GDS could look to the automotive industry for how to better embrace IT as part of doing business. The current approach may be saving a lot of money in the short term (and that’s an understandable driver in the current economic climate) but there are going to be consequences.
Seeking innovative ways to use technology to solve business problems is a good approach. But assuming it is a panacea for all IT projects is not.
- Government digital guru Loosemoore stumbles into a diplomatic incident – UKauthority.com, April 2013
- How clouds enable IT to create value – blog post, November 2012
A great article on Fast Company highlights the need for both business and design skills when faced with tough business challenges: What Both MBAs And MFAs Get Wrong About Solving Business Problems, by Melissa Quinn.
Article outline: Numbers and bullet points aren’t the only things driving executive decision making. And pretty pictures won’t get you there either. Both designers and MBAs have a lot to learn.
Toronto University’s Rotman School of Management has run a design challenge geared at exposing MBA students to the value of design methods in business problem solving. For the past 2 years, the MBAs (Masters of Business Administration) have been trounced by the MFAs (Masters of Fine Arts). How?
With only 15 minutes to convince a skeptical panel of experienced professionals about a new idea that doesn’t exist in the world today, [MFAs] fared significantly better than their MBA counterparts. Why? Because they shared real user insights to engage us emotionally, used narrative and stories to compel us, drew sketches and visualizations to inspire us, and simplified the complex to focus us. It’s proof positive that numbers and bullet points, while important, aren’t necessarily what drive executive decision making
The key message – don’t assume you can teach MBAs to do this stuff well by chucking in a couple of modules as part of their course. Don’t dismiss the years of study that designers undertake to develop these skills.
That said, it wasn’t an entirely happy ending for the MFAs either.
While design students fared much better than their MBA counterparts that Saturday afternoon, I should point out that only the winning team from the Institute of Design at IIT actually charged a fee for the service they developed (a fact that was not overlooked by my final-round co-judge Ray Chun, the senior vice president of retail banking at TD). Some competitors were able to offer a vague notion that their ideas would generally create economic value, but crisp articulations of a profit model and underlying assumptions were hard to come by.
A great article, worth a read. Particularly if you tend to rely on bullet points more than visuals in PowerPoint to explain something you want people to remember. (Side note: but does depend on the type and purpose of presentation. If teaching a technical topic, screenshots and bullet points are usually quite helpful after the event.)
p.s. The image at the top? A book shelf in my home office, containing some of the books that continue to help develop presentations. Story boarding for films has been the latest new topic of study. 🙂 (Half of those books are in Kindle-only format… times change.)
As a good mentor Nicholas Bate likes to say – ‘Always be learning’.
Three weeks ago I attended the third Social Media for Business DellB2B event, this time held at Google’s offices in London. Then I was supposed to attend Dachis Group’s Social Business Summit, also in London, but ended up watching the Twitter feed instead. Whilst both events included some great sessions, they shared a frustration: utopian quotes that sound great in theory but can be hard to put in to practice. Here’s a sample:
||No. The impact of participating or not in social media is not equal for all businesses or industries.|
||Yes, but so do most retail stores, call centres, middle management etc.|
||Tell Apple that!|
Many organisations could benefit from adopting social media. But it is too often pitched as the new utopia all businesses should aspire too. Businesses have plenty of flaws, not listening too or conversing with customers is just one of them.
I’ve seen oodles of research and presentations proving that performance appraisals damage moral, lower producitivy and encourage poor behavoiur. For one example, see Crashing with the nose up (2001). Yet still they are a staple of business life and Dilbert cartoons.
For businesses seeking to benefit from trends and technologies such as social media, it can help to understand, if not overcome, some of the barriers that prevent adoption. And O’Reilly Radar has a great post to help identify them: 5 reasons why we still don’t have invisibility cloaks.
Here are the soundbites: As always, it’s well worth reading the full article.
Decision-makers have many choices when investing scarce dollars on IT projects. Many great ideas fall by the wayside and never make the light of day in favor of more pressing enterprise needs. Social media may not cost much, but it is never free.
Today, fewer and fewer solutions remain islands. There are often so many inter-dependencies that even a small change has downstream impacts that must be considered. Social media often starts out as an island. Can it justify staying that way?
Every CIO needs to understand, for his or her organization, the pace at which new capabilities can be deployed. It’s probably a lot slower than we all think. Social media rarely provides instant hits, think marathon rather than sprint. That does not help speed up internal adoption.
We are wedded to the past. We like the things we know more than things that are new and unknown. There’s a reason we go back to that tried and tested Excel formula when we know we have the same capability in the latest ERP system. People don’t change their habits over night. And social media is all about changing habits.
Reconciling organizational and individual interests is a messy business. And it’s highly complex. I imagine many of us can tell our own stories of how we observed decisions being made that had little basis in reasonable logic. We’d like to pretend it isn’t a factor, but all too often it is. And pretending won’t help your social media project.
Five points applicable to all new systems, social media is just one. Enjoy the memorable quotes at your next conference but never forget, the devil is always in the details.
- Crashing with the nose up – why performance appraisals fail, blog post
- 5 reasons why we still don’t have invisibility cloaks, O’Reilly Radar
- Dell B2B Social Media Huddle 2, blog post
- Dell B2B Social Media Huddle 1, blog post
- Social media requires discipline, blog post
- Social media can protect systems, blog post
- Blogging mistake help improve policy, blog post
- Social media judges the Olympics, blog post
- Analyse and act on social media trends, blog post
- NLab Social Networks conference, blog post