Consistency versus Quality

In the ongoing debate about amateurs versus professionals, I’ve typically focused on the benefits that amateurs bring to the table. But there are plenty of scenarios where relying on amateur contributions just simply won’t work. I’m thinking anything involving a scalpel for starters. There’s an interesting article just published on the web – An Important Lesson About Grassroots Media – that is worth a read. The short version: Creating a business that relies on amateur contributions is unlikely to succeed. Not if you try applying a business model based on professional rules.

The common mistake when comparing professionals with amateurs is to assume that professionals are better (more skilled) than amateurs and therefore you will always get a better outcome. Similarly, the common mistake about amateurs is to assume that they will behave the same as professionals but just aren’t as good. Amateurs behave differently. Sometimes the outcome will be better, sometimes it will be worse. Sometimes they will be able to help, sometimes they won’t. Professionals will be consistent – consistently good if they are highly skilled. Consistently bad if they aren’t that good at what they do. If amateurs are consistent, it means they’ve turned professional…

Scenarios where relying on amateurs can lead to better outcomes: unique events that don’t follow the rules, situations where doing something is better than doing nothing, starting something that challenges conventional wisdom (re-writes the rules). It’s a sad sad example, but the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center are a case in point. The rules were: don’t use the lifts, stay inside, wait for professional emergency services to come and rescue you. But many people found out what was happening via their mobile phones and realised staying put didn’t look like a good idea. They did use the lifts, did get out, and helped others (injured and disabled) along the way. End result: 2,500 lives saved. (Source: Wired Magazine, May 2005 Print Ed.)

Scenarios where professionals trump amateurs: regular events that require commitment to deliver (and keep delivering) the required goods, where if you can’t do it right you are better not doing it at all or waiting for someone who can. In a regular world, I go to the dentist if I get toothache. I will happily wait (for quite a considerable time and pain level) rather than let an amateur anywhere near my teeth. But in the unique event of being shipwrecked on a deserted island, with no prospect of a rescue in sight, if that tooth gets painful enough it’s coming out using whatever resources are to hand.

Traditional newspapers rely on advertising to generate revenue. To secure that revenue, they need to grow and maintain a target audience that their advertisers can sell to. That’s why they use professional writers. Professionals will deliver the goods on a regular and consistent basis. They will adhere to deadlines, follow the party line and can create a headline out of nothing. An amateur writing a blog may produce far more quality stories than a newspaper, but there are no guarantees. The worry for newspapers is that rules are being re-written. The Internet is making it easier for us to discover talented amateurs who regularly produce better and more interesting stories than the newspapers. Newspapers are losing their audience. No audience = no advertisers = no revenue = defunct business model = problem if your profits rely on that model.

The mistake the author of the article made was trying to create a business that relied on amateurs but wanted a traditional (i.e. professional) revenue model. Why has Wikipedia been so successful? It isn’t about copying traditional encyclopedias and simply replacing professionals with amateurs. It is a completely different approach to creating and maintaining an encyclopedia. Wikipedia re-wrote the rules…

Filed under: Trends – Avoid Perfection

Amateur versus Pro on The Gadget Show

The Gadget Show has just conducted an experiment. Two presenters were tasked with seeing how easy it is to get an audience on the Internet. One (Presenter A) was assisted by a specialist viral marketing firm. The other (Presenter B) just had a man with a camera.

Professional Approach: The marketing company produced an interactive online game and got Presenter A to produce a supporting video (that involved getting undressed). The game was seeded on various gaming and social networking sites. By the end of the experiment, it had managed over 200,000 hits.

Amateur Approach: Presenter B, after much faffing around, recorded a video of him doing The Caterpillar Dance in public, across pavements and pedestrian crossings. The video was posted up on YouTube. By the end of the experiment, it had managed over 1,000,000 hits and at one point was the 7th most viewed video on YouTube.

Like it or not, people will watch crap and share it with their mates. Marketers take note 🙂 You can read all about it here – Internet Star

Changing Management

The Internet has changed how people interact with organisations yet, for too many organisations, internally they look the same as they did a decade or three ago. The result – a disconnect between what could be achieved and what actually happens. And the finger of blame usually points in the same direction -> middle management.

McKinsey has a stomper of an article – Innovative Management – A conversation with Gary Hamel and Lowell Bryan (free registration required to read) – discussing the challenges facing organisations. Traditional production line management in a world of change creates an inverse relationship with performance and profits.

Gary Hamel identifies the fundamental challenge:

¨When you read the history of management…, you realize that management was designed to solve a very specific problem—how to do things with perfect replicability, at ever-increasing scale and steadily increasing efficiency.¨

This should sound familiar to a lot of people, right back to the Pyramid builders. Do you have a standard job title and description shared with peers throughout the organisation? Are a set of standard objectives used to measure performance? That’s traditional management. Define a role and reproduce it to scale outputs. For those in the role – your job is to ‘do’ not ‘think’. What does the future look like? More of the same…

The challenge facing organisations is that more of the same no longer works. In the current environment, the winners are those who can adapt and change, quickly. But there is a hidden opportunity lurking inside all organisations. It turns out, who would have thought, thinking is not confined to managers. Lots of people do it. It’s actually quite normal, a common human trait. Redundant in a production line that wants replicability. Invaluable when value comes from connecting ideas and expertise.

Back to Mr Hamel:

¨The winners will be those that enable their thinking-intensive employees to create more profits by putting their collective mind power to better use

…You cannot command those human capabilities. Imagination and commitment are things that people choose to bring to work every day—or not.¨

So what’s stopping organisations from doing this? There are two issues that I think are common place.

The first is the outdated assumption about plebs* and managers: Plebs do the work, managers think and plan it. Plebs aren’t concerned with strategy or the future, that’s what managers worry about. Doing is replicable therefore plebs are easy to replace. None of this philosophy sticks when the ‘doing’ involves ‘thinking’. But managers are still running the show and therein lies the problem…

The step from pleb to manager usually results in the heady combination of more money, more power and less work (‘doing’ is often measured in time-based outputs such as utilisation targets, management is about results). You might as well dish out free drugs while you’re at it. Once addicted, few want to go back to doing and, somewhat ironically, the management club also looks like a production line:

Once you are in The Club, it can be all too easy to forget the messy life of doing. Names representing individual strengths become replaced with job titles in plans – this role will be doing that. (See also: Distracting Data) As job roles change, it is increasingly likely that managers make decisions about roles they have never actually done and therefore have little idea of what is or isn’t achievable. Non-management opinions struggle to be heard, particularly when they challenge the plan. Reports (and rewards) focus on what the plan has achieved that it set out to do, not the missed opportunities and costly mistakes that result from refusing to change it. ‘The benefit of hindsight’ is used to justify inaction.

There is an added challenge if you live in a country with legislation protecting employee rights. Replicatable work is the easy option for management to help justify that everyone is being treated equally (that doesn’t equate to fairly or correctly). It’s lazy management. You can ensure equal opportunities and still embrace individual talents to increase performance. But more effort is placed on management to keep track of what’s going on. That kills off the ‘less work’ part of the deal.

So what should management look like in the 21st Century? Yet again, Gary Hamel comes up trumps:

The management challenge is akin to urban planning. The art of it is that you must enable people to make thousands and thousands of individual decisions about how to live and work, but you have to create the infrastructure to make it easy for them to do so.

Management is becoming a more essential and skilled role than ever – coming up with, and executing, new ideas is much harder than repeating an established process. But so are the thinking-doing roles. Becoming a manager should not guarantee a move three rungs up the ladder of respect from non-managers. Organisations who insist on the pleb-management divide risk letting their best assets walk out of the door to become their next competitor (See also: The Digital Natives Are Leaving).

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Filed Under: Changing Systems – Work

*I use ‘pleb’ in its original context – the plebeians. It seems ironic these days that ‘pleb’ is often used as an insult. Open and global access to information has shown how level the playing field is when it comes to acting with wisdom or stupidity…

Learning about versus Learning to be

Interesting article on CNET – A new crop of kids: Generation We – talking about how the latest generations are growing up adept and comfortable with technology from a very early age. Some snippets:

Gabriel, an intensely curious kid who’s about to turn 8, has been fascinated by everything from skateboarding and basketball to statistics about world extremes…. He likes to look up information about the subjects on Wikipedia with his mom and then turn to YouTube for short video clips… If he hears a likeable song in a YouTube video, he might visit Apple’s iTunes store to download the music, too.

“Driving home we’ll see a bird,” Kim said, “and then go to Wikipedia (at home) and look it up. Then once we’re online, he’ll say, ‘How about we go to YouTube?'”

Naturally, the world of business and media is fascinated with understanding how to market and sell to this new generation.

I’m interested in a different angle – how will their ability to learn be influenced and affected by these newer Internet technologies, and what will the effect be on their future?

It’s easy to assume that having the Internet is going to make our children a lot smarter a lot sooner… resources that were previously only accessible to the priviledged few are now available to all, instantly. But is that all we need?

In the book “The Social Life of Information” by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, the authors make a very interesting comment:

The web has made learning about easier than ever. But learning to be requires the ability engage in the practice in question

…and that could be the new challenge. There will be no shortage of people able to demonstrate how much they know about all sorts of subjects. But how many people will actually be able to practice what they ‘know’. At the moment, there are still no shortcuts to becoming skilled in practice – determination, patience and effort continue to be essential ingredients.

If we become used to having instant answers to questions, will it affect our stamina for the deeper level of learning required to move from knowing about something to actually being something?

An effect from moving away from agriculture and manual labour has been that, put simply, most people aren’t as fit as they would have been 200 years ago.

Will the effect of not requiring effort to learn about subjects send our brains in the same direction as our stomachs? I hope not.

Do you really want it?

Notes from the Leaders in London conference held last December included an interesting quote from Larry Bassidy, former CEO at Honeywell:

“Ask a CEO what kind of culture they have and they will describe the kind of culture they want, as if it exists, instead of describing what is really going on”

A similar phrase could be applied to a lot of IT projects. The explosion of Web 2.0 activities in the consumer world are beginning to infiltrate the enterprise world. Indeed, the phrase Enterprise 2.0 is becoming a popular buzz word. But I’m not convinced those who say they want Enterprise 2.0 really do want Enterprise 2.0.

For example, a lot of projects these days include statements such as “we want a user-centred design”, “we want to focus on user experience”, “we want to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing”, “people are our most important asset”… But when you start delving into what is actually required, the following statements start to crop up: “users must store their documents on the intranet”, “we want to apply consistent standards and formats”, “we want to ensure best practices are captured and re-used”… Hmmm, not much emphasis on putting the user at the centre when it comes down to the nitty-gritty.

I’m not saying any of these requirements are wrong (tempting thought though…) But there is little point starting with a claim that you want one type of system – one that helps people work together and get stuff done – when the requirements suggest you want a very different type of system – one that manages and monitors what people do.

Just a thought, whilst SharePoint is bathing in the mud pit…

Hanging on to knowledge

Interesting blog post: When they leave, what goes with them discussing lost value when an employee leaves the organisation, and how knowledge locked up in email becomes inaccessible without context, even if it doesn’t get deleted. (Robert Scoble comments in his exit interview on how he left behind 1.5Gb of email that will likely be deleted and lost.) The author highlights the hidden cost of lost organisational knowledge and how collaborative tools can provide a more accessible location for storing and sharing expertise long after the original source has left. This has been one of the useful side effects from deploying Microsoft’s Windows SharePoint Services technology (a free add-on to Windows Server 2003 that provides collaboration sites for storing and sharing information). When Microsoft describes how SharePoint has proliferated through the intranet, with over 40,000 sites created, most I.T. managers react in horror at the thought of managing such a viral technology. But its not all bad news. Making it easy for individuals to set up their own sites encourages people to upload useful information that was previously tucked away on private hard drives or hard-to-find network shares. When I left Microsoft, I left behind a couple of SharePoint sites containing all my recent presentations given to customers, other useful material and links to related resources. Because Microsoft had a system in place that requires every site has at least two administrators – the owner plus a back-up – those sites remained accessible after I had gone.

And, as always, there is a non-technology solution for retaining (some) knowledge when its owner leaves the organisation – mentoring, harder to see and measure but easier to spread (given the right culture, never underestimate that particular challenge). Knowledge is inherently difficult to document because of the very context that creates it, but skills and expertise can be passed on person-to-person, enabling others to build their own knowledge pool. When Scoble left behind 1.5Gb of email at Microsoft, I’d question just how much unique value resided in that information store. Scoble’s legacy lives on in those he worked and communicated with – they will continue to grow and improve Channel 9 and blogging. The bigger cost to Microsoft is the lost value from losing such a well-connected and passionate blogger – Scoble may have shared his expertise but that doesn’t necessarily make him easy to replace. Accessing and understanding his email won’t solve that particular problem

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Beware the script

If there is one clue that business should take from blogosphere, it is that you need to change the way you connect with your customers if you want to sell them something…

Last Friday, I received a phone call from a BT sales person. I currently pay BT for 3 services: telephone line, ISP provider and dial-up Internet connection. The BT man kindly reminded me that I was a valued customer (I wonder how many unvalued customers they call?) and told me he wanted to help reduce my telephone bill. So far, so scripted. On to the killer question. “How are you finding your Internet service?” He asked. “Well, since you ask…” I replied, “bloody awful, I’ve been meaning to call BT to switch from Anytime to Pay-as-you-go ‘cos it’s a waste of money .” Hmmm, that wasn’t quite the response his script required to lead on to the next question.

Now I wasn’t expecting a sales guy to solve my Internet connection problems. But if he wanted to sell me something, he could have at least recommended that I call the support number, or even offered to get a support person to call me (that would have won some loyalty points). But nooooo, that’s not why he’s calling – he’s got a script and he’s going to stick to it…

“When do you make most of your phone calls at home?” (If you checked my account, you’d know the answer… ) “Daytime.” (Not entirely true.) “Ah, well, did you know that for the incredibly small amount of £24.99 per month you could have super fast broadband access to the Internet including free telephone calls during the day. What do you think about that?” (sigh, if he had bothered to ask instead of tell, he’d discover that I know all about BT’s broadband talk offer.) “Lovely. Send me an email with the details and I’ll think about it.”

What do I really think? That BT just spammed me – a mass-produced scripted sales call designed for ‘the customer’ and outsourced to a sales agency to save costs. What I’m thinking is they couldn’t be bothered to find out what I really need and sell me something I want. What I’m thinking is, if they don’t want to listen and help solve an issue with their service, why would I buy anything else from them?…

Did BT man ever send me that email with details of the offer? Did he hecks.

What did this whole experience remind me of? The Push model of doing business – treat your customers as an entity – the ‘customer’ – uninformed and waiting to be sold something. But in this emerging Pull era, customers often know more about the products than the people paid to sell them.

When off-shoring became fashionable, business jumped at the chance to lower the operating costs of running a call centre without first questioning the effect it may have on customer service. Given it costs a lot more to win a new customer than it does to retain an existing one, creating a system that frustrates your existing customers and reduces the quality of service is perhaps not the wisest strategy. Lower operating costs are of little use if the cost of sales has to rise to compensate for the customers you lose.

The same is becoming true for selling. It may be cheaper to use untrained contractors, armed with a script and a list of telephone numbers, to mass sell a new service. But lowering the cost of selling is of little use if it annoys your customers so much they cancel what they already pay for and go somewhere else.

How should the call have gone?

  • For starters, don’t tell me I’m a valued customer, find out if you are a valued supplier – thank me for purchasing your services
  • If you are going to ask what I think about your services, be prepared to deal with the response – if I tell you there is a problem, try and fix it before you try and sell me something else
  • Be honest – don’t tell me you want to help reduce my telephone bill when you don’t (switching from Anytime to Pay-as-you-go would reduce my telephone bill, subscribing to broadband would not)
  • Do your homework – BT itemises my telephone bill and would know that I barely make any telephone calls during the day from home so why ask the question?
  • Don’t assume that I haven’t already done my homework – if BT man had asked, he would have found out that I had spent the best part of last month studying BT’s various services and knew all about the broadband talk offer
  • Instead of trying to sell me the product you decide I should be using, match the right products to my needs – if BT man had tried, he would have found out that I use wireless a lot in coffee shops and have been considering buying a BT OpenZone account

If BT had invested in proper sales tactics instead of using canned scripts, they would probably have:

  1. Sold a broadband package in half the time it took to waffle through the script
  2. Also sold a BT OpenZone account

That would have increased revenue on my account by £35 per month. Instead they got less than nothing – I will switch my Internet account to Pay-as-you-go (it should save £10 per month). Prior to the call, I had no intention of buying broadband from anyone else, now I’m not so sure BT are worth the extra cost… Oh, and opinion of BT before the call: 7/10. Opinion after the call: 5/10.

Now that’s a lesson in how not to sell to your existing customers…

Merging online and offline sales

After managing to survive a grand total of 6 weeks without a mobile phone, I finally went online to pick a model and subscription service. I decided I now needed the phone immediately so phoned the company to find out if I could pick it up from the local store. Nope, that’s not how the system works. Attempting to make a purchase online and then collect the new toy from the store wasn’t an option, and the phone company couldn’t guarantee a phone would be in stock by the time I reach the store. Hmpfff. So I ordered the phone online and waited for it to be delivered, which ended up taking 5 days. “There’s got to be a better way”, I thought…

Fast forward 10 days to today and, funny old world that it is, I read an interesting article in the Financial Times: ‘The new profit pick me up‘ (requires subscription).

Retail companies have begun to discover that there is money to be made by offering a service where people can order goods online and collect them from the nearest store. One of the early adopters, Circuit City (sells electronic goods), expects online order/in-store pick-up to account for 62% of its online business this year. The reason for the popularity of the service? Customers who don’t want to wait around at home, take the risk of having products left sitting on their doorstep or have the inconvenience of trekking to the delivery company’s depot to collect a missed-delivery.

Another early adopter, REI (sells equipment and clothing for outdoor pursuits), has discovered benefits for its product line. It is seeing significant orders being placed at locations such as Seattle with customers selecting the store closest to their trip destination to pick up equipment. “It’s growing faster than the overall growth of our business,” commented Noel Nelson, head of REI’s direct sales.

Perhaps the most innovative benefit so far has been discovered by Circuit City, who launched a 24/24 guarantee service. According to Fiona Dias of Circuit City, “On Christmas Eve, we had this torrent of people coming through the door for pickups. We have become the modern-day hallway closet… rather than hiding a present, they leave it at our store.”

So what sort of company enables customers to buy and receive products when and where they want to? The ones with with systems that make it possible to get the right stock to the right location for the right customer at the right time… Sound familiar?

A scrummy world

It has been interesting watching the SOA (service oriented architecture) vs Web 2.0 (read/write web) discussions this past week, John Hagel has perhaps the best summary. Whilst I love the overall objective of SOA, my interest has waned as the ‘experts’ have got in on the act. They seem intent on designing the perfect SOA world in theory first and that approach usually leads down a dark path to being expensive and complicated to adopt, with questionable return on investment. Web 2.0, on the other hand, feels much more real in that the applications are out there to work and play with. But the low cost and large number of similar applications makes it almost too easy to start adopting different niche solutions with little concern for their longevity or value, and that approach can stumble across a chasm between consumer/silos and corporate/integrated adoption.

Microsoft hosted an event called Spark in March to look at the connections between Web 2.0, Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Software as a Services (SaaS). David Hill has posted his notes. Mike Platt, one of the organisers for Spark, has documented some of the initial architectures that were brainstormed during the event and there is a blog tracking progress. It’s a good start to marrying up Web 2.0 and SOA. Jeff Schneider has created a very good image ‘Competing Interests‘ to visualise the clash between organisations and individuals, business and I.T, and the challenges they face.

The common problem shared by SOA and Web 2.0 is that neither approach enamours IT to business. The Internet is changing how people interact with organisations, speeding up the pace of communications, decisions and transactions. There is frustration at the slow pace of change inside organisations compared to outside, and IT is too often part of the problem instead of the solution. Regardless of whether the preference is for the theoretical and controlled SOA approach or the practical but chaotic Web 2.0 approach, there needs to be closer alignment between IT activities and business needs.

Jack Vinson woke me up to the Theory of Constraints (ToC) and I think SOA and Web 2.0 would make a lot of progress within organisations when accompanied by a ToC statement. The short version of ToC: “Technology is beneficial if, and only if, it diminishes a limitation.” 4 questions to ask:

  1. What is the power of the technology?
  2. What limitation(s) will it diminish
  3. What rules were flawed because of the limitation
  4. What new rules should be followed

For example, there’s not much point implementing wiki software to improve document collaboration if the traditional method for reviewing reports is a monthly meeting with handouts to review. You have to be prepared to change behaviour as much as the method and to do that requires everyone to be involved, business units as well as I.T.

Once you’ve pass the ToC justification, the solution still needs to be implemented. Too much theory and top-down design risks creating a complicated and/or sterile solution that nobody wants to use. Too much chaos and bottom-up adoption risks causing confusion and duplication, wasting time and resources.

In the software development world, a new method called Scrum is gaining support and I believe the method could be applied to most I.T. projects. It attempts to mesh theory with practice, and align I.T. solutions with evolving business needs. The idea behind Scrum is that when customers define requirements for a project, they are based on an ‘envisioned system’. But that envisioned system is not sufficient for predicting costs because the initial set of requirements sound great in theory but can fail in practice. I have often seen this happen when building prototypes for customers: once the requirements are translated into a working model the customer realises that they want something different, or that their requirements are going to be too expensive to ever achieve a return on investment. The end result is the same – the need to redefine the requirements. But projects are often signed off without any attempt to prototype and costs are based on that initial set of ideal requirements . The implementer (be it internal I.T. or external consultants) is then committed to delivering those requirements come what may, costs and project plans can spiral out of control and, for the biggest (i.e. government) projects, we hear all about it in the news.

The Scrum method assumes from the start that there will be changes to the requirements and uses an iterative process for implementing a new solution. It recognises that whilst the ‘envisioned system’ is needed as the start point for a project, the ‘essential system’ is what will be built. The definitions:

  • Envisioned system: a system as initially foreseen by customers to deliver the needed business value
  • Essential system: a system with the minimum set of functionality, architecture and design that delivers the envisioned system’s business value

The Scrum method rejects the traditional approach of predicting costs and resources at the start of the project and then holding the project team accountable for delivery of those predictions (and thus encouraging the project team to make it extremely difficult for the business to change requirements, no matter how compelling the reason to do so). Instead, Scrum is a collaborative process that encourages the business to change requirements as needed throughout the project by not requiring I.T. to be rigid in their predicted costs (time, resource, money) up front. By making the essential system the baseline for the project, the business is free to adjust resources required for the project – more funds can help deliver the project sooner, if there is clear business benefit to do so; delaying key milestones can reduce risk when theory doesn’t translate into practice as well as initially expected.

I think the combination of ToC and Scrum can create a framework for better aligning I.T. projects with business needs. Whether those systems are based on SOA, Web 2.0, SaaS or whatever then doesn’t really matter as long as the solution delivers the goods. If the experts defining the theories include alignment with the Theory of Constraints in their models and a Scrummy approach to adoption, it will be far easier to justify and prove their purpose, benefit and value…

Maybe we need to follow the scientists lead – we need a unified theory for doing I.T. 🙂

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