English sheep and Indian fishermen

Or rather, how mobile technologies are enabling better supply chain management in rural India than in not-so-rural England.

Whilst listening to a MIX08 session online – I Wanna Go Mobile – the host, Michael Platt, retold a story about Indian fishermen benefitting from mobile technologies. In the past, rural villages along the coast of India relied on their local fishermen for food. Without enough fish, people starved. With too many fish, food was wasted. Thanks to mobile phones, there are now fish merchants along the coast. When the fishermen catch more fish than their local village needs, they can contact the merchants and sell their surplus. A simple solution and everyone benefits.

In the same week, I discovered sheep in England eating chocolate fudge. When a certain will-remain-unnamed retail organisation orders too much food, they have an arrangement with a company to remove the surplus on a daily basis. Doesn’t matter what the surplus is, it must be gone instantly. This isn’t food that has gone past its sell-by date. Presumably it’s more efficient to get rid of excess stock than to store it in warehouses. And that’s fair enough. But, with our government spending a whopping 50p per school dinner, wouldn’t you think we could come up with a better method for distributing edible surplus stock?

Technorati tag: mobile technology

Competition vs Opposition

Fabulous article in the February issue of Harvard Business Review print ed. (Actually, there’s a few.) The opening line:

“Top executives are good at competing, but when they come up against opposition rather than competition, they flounder.”

A simple example from the article. When Coca-cola battled Pepsi to get their soft-drink vending machines into schools, that’s competition. When parents decided they didn’t want soft-drink vending machines in schools, that’s opposition. (At least one of the soft-drink companies started producing bottled water…)

I can think of another example. Get ready to fall over in shock and surprise… Microsoft. Microsoft is usually at its best when competing, preferably against an established player. (Increasingly hard to do, when you’re the world’s largest software company.) Microsoft is rubbish at coping with opposition. Probably because it doesn’t happen very often. The last time they really faced opposition, it was called Netscape. The solution? Create a near-identical product and compete. Say hello to Internet Explorer. (We’ll not get into a debate about whether the tactics used to compete were fair). The opposition this time around? Google. Microsoft’s tactic? Same as before – turn opposition into competition. Round 1: Try and build a near-identical service. That hasn’t gone so well so far. Round 2: “Hmmm, who could we buy to achieve our goal…” 🙂

Trying to tackle opposition by getting into their space and competing head-on doesn’t always work. Worse still, it can be a disaster. Instead, the article advocates turning the tables on the opposition. And highlights that, in this instance, business can actually learn a few tricks from politics. Adopt your opponent’s issue/solution as your goal but pitch an alternative path for getting there. Tracking Microsoft’s activities in cloud computing and software as a/+ service, I suspect some opposition tactics are also in play but a lot less visible in the news than their traditional methods.

The ability for any and all organisations to cope with opposition is going to become an essential management skill (I wonder if it is on MBA courses). The Internet’s role in social networks combined with mobile phones and instant messaging services have introduce a whole new audience of potential opponents, better organised and more vocal than ever before. Us.

Technorati tags: Microsoft vs Google

When patterns mislead…

In case you missed it, there was a great article in FastCompany this week: Is the Tipping Point Toast? written by Clive Thompson. The article covered research from Duncan Watts, author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (amongst others), that challenges the belief that you can use influencers (the well-connected) to seed a new trend.

To grossly over-simplify, the idea behind the tipping point is that people watch people who watch people who watch the influencers. (Classic Pyramid stuff.) Therefore, if you can get the influencers to adopt a new product, it will go viral and grow exponentially = big success. Duncan challenges this claim and argues instead that the likelihood of success has nothing to do with influencers. They are a side effect that can speed up adoption of a trend that would have gone viral anyway. In other words, spending your marketing money on the elite few is unlikely to be significantly more effective than standard mass marketing.

Central to Duncan’s argument is the habit we have of taking an event and then working backwards to identify what happened and spot a pattern that can be reproduced. Anyone who has read Freakonomics will recognise the flaws in this approach – correlation does not guarantee cause and effect, and indicators are easy to spot once you know what you are looking for.

Simple demonstration. Go find somebody, find a table or similar surface, ask them to ‘name that tune’ and tap out the Happy Birthday song with your hand. It will be a miracle if they spot the tune when it is tapped in monotone with no words. Tell them what the tune is and then both tap out the tune. It is easy to ‘hear’ it when you know what is being played.

On a related theme, I am currently reading a book about unpredictable events – The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan is all about unpredictable events and why we never see them coming but think we should have (and therefore think we can predict the next one and get it wrong all over again).

In the Financial Times on Friday was yet another example – Last year’s model: Stricken US homeowners confound predictions:

¨…it seems that mathematical models used to predict future default rates, based on past patterns of losses, have gone wrong because they did not adjust to reflect shifts in household behaviour.¨

In the past, when US households struggled to repay debts, they tended to default in a certain order. Credit cards and car loans were the first to suffer. Failing to pay your mortgage was the absolute last resort. (Losing your house = big social no-no.) This time around, people are defaulting on their mortgages before personal loans or credit card bills. (The current climate has created negative equity and changed behaviour – why repay a mortgage for a property you don’t have any stake in anyway.)

There are two technology trends that need to beware this Achilles heel with using the past to predict the future. One is performance management (and its sibling: busines intelligence) – the use of data visualisation to analyse your information sources and gather new insights that should improve decision making. The classic turkey scenario – you get fed every day and expect to be fed again tomorrow. Instead, you get your head chopped off.

The other trend is social networking applications, in particular any that plan on using the ‘Social Graph’ as a method to track and use relationships. And that leads onto the final link (this post is really a collection of links from the week…) an article in VentureBeat – Google’s Marissa Meyer: Social search is the future. Coincidentally(?) it has come out at the same time as a video clip of Google’s new Social Graph API.

You can find out more about the Social Graph API at Google Code.

The example that Brad gives in the short video clip makes sense but let’s change the players. Instead of Brad finding his friend Bob on Twitter, imagine a spam company creating a loooooooong blog roll of ‘friends’ on LiveJournal and then setting up an account on Twitter to find out more contact details for all those ‘friends’. The potential problem with the Social Graph concept is that it reduces social networks down to a logical drawing, when relationships are anything but. Our concept of who is, or isn’t, a ‘friend’ has changed with the arrival of massive social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, and our behaviour has changed with it. The concept (and associated behaviour) will likely change again in the future, when organisations learn to exploit those friendships in new and unexpected ways. Will the API adapt?

Filed in: Social Graph (new topic); Data visualisation

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).

Related blog posts:

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.