Ideas for Organizations

Humans and Organizations

Staying ahead of the curve

Yes, I have been missing. It was not related to staying ahead of the curve, rather an attempt to have an alternate experience in a parallel world, or rather just the alternate world, or even only the parallel experience; we traveled through four countries in central and western Europe. France, Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic were fascinating, and inspiring.

Staying ahead doesn't mean just running hard

The  title of this post could potentially mean different things to different people. Recently, I was talking to somebody and discussing the career pathway of one of my colleagues, who happens to report to me and is in line for a promotion. The general consensus that we reached was that this person, though hardworking, is not a good fit at the next level. Both of us felt that probably 15 or so years ago he would do all right at the next level of responsibility. Expectations out of managers and senior leaders have changed since then, and what was good for then is not anymore good for now. What can you then do to prevent this thing from happening to your own career, such that 15 years from now, you are not considered passé .

a) Be with the times – What yields success now, may not necessarily do so a decade from now. The sales techniques that you have used, the management philosophies that are being propagated, the external influences that are of importance, will in all likelihood not continue to look so sterling  as they do now. They would dazzle lesser, even though their efficacy might have remained intact. There would be newer theories challenging Poter’s five forces or improvements over lean and six sigma philosophies. Its important that you are not seen as somebody who is adhering too much to the old way of doing things, even if they were successful in the long past. Accommodate others’ ideas and improvise your own.

b) Look up from your work, sometimes – Hard work pays. It determines success and with it sometimes even richness. But while working hard, it is important not to miss the direction in which the wind is blowing. If risk management is the new in thing then that is a skill-set that you better have on your CV. It doesn’t mean hopping from one role to another, from one task to the next, but rather to have a strategy that leads to an enhanced understanding of the direction of the forces and interactions at play.

c) Innovate – Regular work, whereby the processes have not been changed for months and sometimes even years, is analogous to redundant work. Not necessarily it is redundant, it just seems so. Of course there are exceptions. A highly specialized surgeon who does a vascular repair work or removes clots from his patients’ brain, day in and out, will still never wake up one morning and find that his work has become  redundant, simply because the specific skill-set that he has nurtured has required of him years of professional dedication and even socio-economic privilege. In short, he is not that easily replaceable. But the same cannot be said for most roles in a many professions. You might have been a lucky and successful equities trader, during the heydays of the American economic boom, but you better realize that in 10 years time there will be someone, fresh out of business school with a MBA, willing to do your job at a considerably lesser pay. Under the circumstances, what is your employer likely to do ? The key then is probably to continuously innovate, to bring  a fresher perspective to staid methodologies.

At the end of the day, or the shift, all it boils down to is what value you are bringing to the table, not just now, but what you promise to continue to bring after you have been promoted. That value is measured in incremental terms. The key thing to remember is that career progress is no longer just a reward for past performances, but rather an investment into the promise of future contributions. Most importantly, are you, your contributions and your performances that easily replaceable ?

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Social Media Potency

It doesn’t take very long, of waiting or of fervent activity, for individuals to convey their feelings to each other in these times. Through social media, through Facebook, through Twitter and sometimes even through blogs, men and women convey about how they feel, or don’t feel for that matter, about each other and the world. Social media has played its part in letting people be in touch, express themselves more often, even more openly, and probably talk about a host of topics which I feel they would not have so much wanted to otherwise comment upon. But once you move out of the personal domain of social media, where friends update their status so that others know what they have been up to, while others send out party invites, there is a more complex arena of information exchange out there. Just ask Nestle whose Facebook page was assailed with hardly civil comments when it was alleged that Nestle uses palm oil from suppliers who are a threat to certain rain-forests that are the habitat of orangutans thus endangering the habitat and existence of these orangutans. When Mr. Kevin Smith tweeted about his ordeal on a Southwest Airlines, where he was not allowed to fly for being too obese; the story became an internet obsession within a few hours . And when two Domino’s pizza delivery guys posted a Youtube video showing them doing some inexplicable stuff with Dominos Pizzas, the company ratings took a hit, and even though the company went on a damage control mode clarifying that those pizzas were never delivered to customers, not everybody were convinced. So, what is it that makes Social Media a potent force, which can yield some benefits, but could potentially cause immense hard-to-repair damage?

First and foremost social media provides reach, literally to millions of people. Unlike traditional outlets, this scalability of reach is available to both organizations and their customers. No one party can completely control the outflow of information, but organizations could be at a disadvantage because related negative information about them that is disbursed by customers over the internet could have a multiplier effect; whereby, once customer tweets, a few followers pick up and re-tweet the information, and the cycle repeats itself resulting in what could be termed as manic information deployment. Not all publicity is necessarily good publicity.

Easy accessibility is another feature that defines social media. If you want to take out an ad in the local newspaper you do end up paying real money. You pay even more if you were to use airtime on radio or TV. Most social media tools – for blogging, tweeting, uploading files and hosting forums, are essentially free. Not just free, success with information dissemination is just a few mouse-clicks away. A low threshold, both in terms of accountability and effort, can become an interesting cocktail. And something that we have mentioned earlier as well, social media is about immediacy and before organizations can embark upon post-incident damage control, a whole lot of information and misinformation will be out to a significant number of people. And that brings us to the point about enforced withdrawal of information. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have been contemplating a separation for the better part of 2009 and 2010, if the tabloids are to be believed. There is some succor in knowing that the print, radio and television media-houses could be challenged, at least in a court of law, through a favorite pastime of this era – lawsuits. But who will you simply go after, rather how many would you simply go after, if you feel that’s things that are being said over the internet about you are in fact hurting you, and not just emotionally.

Conclusion – Ease of use and accessibility,rapid global reach, the information multiplier effect, low accountability and effort threshold, low possibility of enforced withdrawal of information and the immediate nature of information availability, are factors that make social media a potent market force. In the next few weeks we would examine how companies can protect themselves and mitigate the effects of unfavourable social media exposure, and ways in which they could harness the potency of social media over the internet to further their business interests.

Image Source – Spoon Graphics

eleven – Thou Shalt Seek Variety

Seeking variety is often construed as something unique, a deviation that could threaten the normal structure of society. We often like to think of our desire for change as something not primal and instinctive, but rather acquired, developed and nurtured. Mostly we are proud to have this trait within our own selves, but in others we sometimes consider the tendency to seek variety or pursue change as an unnecessary distraction; one that the concerned person could do very well without. For example, when someone asks us about the reasons for a recent change in job, we cite such phrases as ‘to try something new’ or ‘wanted a change in environment’. We say it with pride, imagining ourselves to be explorers and adventurers, but we hear it with disguised consternation. We disclose to others in private that maybe the person is being that little bit foolhardy to even seek change ‘in the current economic climate’ or ‘when he has everything going for him’. There it is; so much for change, and so much for variety. But organizations do need to take this seeking variety aspect seriously because it influences their businesses in considerable ways – from customer satisfaction to employee retention, from marketing strategy to human resource practice.

Research has shown that there are both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations as to why people seek variety. Take for example the case of customers. Quite interestingly, the marital status of individuals influences the extent of variety-seeking in their consumption patterns. It has been seen that customers who are divorced change brands often in order to try various available options. But consumers who are separated (but not legally divorced) have a much lower tendency to change brands with variety-seeking in mind. It is possible that with an increase in the availability of liquid money for those who are divorced, be it in the form of support or having to now spend less on the spouse, people develop the wish and the inclination to experiment on experiencing new products – Coke Zero in place of a Pepsi Light, or a Wrangler in place of a Levis, or a Creed in place of a Dior. For a consumer who is separated but not yet legally divorced, maybe the uncertainty of the future has made him or her that bit more frugal, or it is possible that mentally and emotionally they are not just up to trying out various products.

So, if consumers, inherently or based on their circumstances, tend to seek variety, what are the key issues that an organization needs to be aware in order to understand the consumption behaviour patterns and brand loyalties of its customers?

Context of consumption – A recent seminar that I happened to attend dealt with the variety seeking behaviour of wine consumers in Australia. During the course of our discussion it became apparent that in the Australian context wine is consumed more regularly by a greater number of consumers than wine is say for example in South-East Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. As a result more people in Australia have the tendency to try out ever different and ever fanciful varieties of wine, simply because they have too many opportunities to try out something different, or should we say too many opportunities to not try out the same thing ad infinitum. As a side-note, an important and relevant concern is the occasion of the consumption along with the risk appetite of the individual. For a dinner with the prospective in-laws not many would uncork a wine that they have not tried before, or will they?

Perception of factors that influence the quality of the product – Maybe cost? In our example above, some consumers might go for a wine that is more expensive than what they have ever tried before simply because they associate higher price with better quality. Or probably it could be the origin of the wine? For example Bordeaux usually conjures up images of a wine unparalleled in taste and texture. People tend to forget that Bordeaux has around 8500 wine producers or châteaux producing on an average more than 700 million bottles of wine spread over a fifty square kilometre region per year. And such imposing numbers ensure that there is a great deal of variety – some very good and some not so good.

Feel and look – Taste makes a difference as far as wanting a product is concerned, but it is also one of the primary factors driving variety seeking behaviour regarding human consumption patterns. New type of food, a different colour for the bedroom walls, fountain pens to ball-point pens – the wish to try out something new could very well be dependent on the desire to ever better the ‘experience’ related to a particular class of product.

Nature of need – An often overlooked but an important determinant, it represents the values that we attach to our consumptions or our behaviours. For example, a doctor with whom we have had a good experience, we don’t mind going back to her/him every time we fall sick, but irrespective of how much we have liked a particular stay in a city, very few of us would want to go back to the same city every time we take a holiday. We don’t mind trying a new cake, or a new type of tea, a new brand of denim or sunglasses, but we often take a while before we decide to vote for a different party. Are we as humans prone to seeking variety in matters that we might not consider that profound or important to society or self? When we do believe in a cause, however abstract, can we sway away from our urge to seek variety? How can companies utilize these factors to retain customers and yet indulge their quest for variety? We will look at that and more in a future article piece on this site titled “Companies and their Variety-Seeking Customers”.

Image Source – Yenra

The Need for Robust Analytics

Source: hsa.ie

You might wonder why organizations need data analytics. The answer quite simply is that organizations rely on data analytics to gain a deeper understanding, call it ‘insight’, about their businesses. The understanding could be about their customers, finances, competitors, the market in general, or the employees working for them. Organizations by and large love collecting data. Usually, the larger the organization, the greater is the emphasis on collecting data related to it. It is almost akin to an obsession, albeit of a good kind. An uncle, still alive and healthy, used to collect pebbles as a child; I am told. And all he used to do with those pebbles was that on any given day, he would transfer them from one pouch to another, making no attempt to disguise the loud clack of a count that he would make while transferring one pebble at a time. It’s the same with organizations. If they collect data, and do little with it, but store and just process and present them from time to time in the form of charts and tables, the massive effort spent on collecting large amounts of data serve little purpose. It is not just about efforts wasted, but also about opportunities lost. Data is power; I have often heard this from countless number of people. The same people who look into fanciful charts with the mean and median plodded in and consider the data to be sufficiently analyzed. Well, they could be right if what they are looking for is fairly simple. But it still is a waste of opportunities, of developing a better understanding of the circumstances that an organization finds itself in. I have often wondered why there is a bias and excitement towards the collection of data, but a relative apathy towards performing a rigorous analysis of the data after it has been collected? Is it because data collectors come in cheap, and data analysts (at least the good ones) are a tad bit more expensive?

When faced with analyzing large chunks of data, the usual questions that one wants answered are the what, why and how of things. Organizations often end up seeking an answer to what (mean, median, and standard deviation) and ignore the why and how bit. This is a fallacy, because irrespective of whether the purpose of the data analysis is to conduct a post mortem of an incident or it is to develop an understanding of the business environment, the most important reason why an organization should undertake any analysis is to be able to foretell the future; to be able to predict. This helps an organization plan ahead and be ready.

This is no fortune-telling, as in the process of drawing a rabbit out of a hat. Rather it has more to do with establishing correlations and causations, and sometimes distinguishing between the two. It is about being able to make associations and being able to draw conclusions about the future from them. For example, if an organization manages to establish that the behavior of its managers influences the work/life balance of its employees, and that the work/life balance of its employees is an important factor influencing its employee attrition rate, then it could take measures to influence managerial behavior such that employee attrition rates are impacted in a positive way. This could in turn impact the way an organization goes about its business. And as is evident from this example itself, the very nature of a business environment make it impossible for one to focus on just two variables at a time. For example, it is intuitive that employee attrition rates are affected by factors other than work/life balance issues. It could be that their remuneration influences their decision to stay on with their employer, or it could be that their decision to move was due to inadequate schooling opportunities for their children. That is where multivariate analysis come into play, for observing and analyzing the simultaneous effect of multiple variables on each other.


Image Source – Health and Safety Authority; Rutgers University

Networking – Meeting Arnie

Networking is an important necessity; it is also a very subtle necessity. Do it too little, and you are regarded as an antisocial; do it too much and you are considered a desperate leech. In the organizational context (and mind you only that context) why do people have the need to network? Maybe to get a new lead resulting in a job; or maybe to get a new business contact with the aim of boosting sales. It could also be to find out and establish contact with other people with a similar mindset or interest so as to ensure that the workplace becomes a little more interesting. It could very well be to satisfy that very basic human need of being heard from (where art thou Maslow ?). If you are a manager, sometimes you need to network within the organization to smoothen out certain processes, and get them done right and on time. Whatever the motivation, there is a the reality that while working one needs to reach out to other people. Maybe if you are on the ISS or in a lab at Antarctica, your dimensions and motivations for networking would vary; but not necessarily the necessity of it. What do we need then to network effectively ?

There is no first and foremost, but to have an essence of timing is important. To know when to reach out to somebody at the workplace is a skill that is part intuitive and part common sense. You drop an email with the words

“Hi Mr. Schwarzenegger, I am so-and-so, and I work in your company (or XYZ company) as a business development manager. Would you like to grab a cuppa this Friday? Cheers so-and-so.”

All fine and good, crisp and to the point, you could’t have gone wrong, or so you think. Well, what you didn’t consider are the messages in his inbox around seven or eight emails before your ‘Hi Mr. Schwarzenegger’ email. One read

“Sorry Arnie, We have decided not to put you up for re-election. We need fresh ideas for the state, and hence we need a new nominee.”

or even,

“..I had to write to your office address. I just can’t take this anymore. After four children and our so many years together, you do this to me. I am leaving”.

Would you still be interested in having coffee with Arnie, if you knew about these emails. If you do, well you are incredibly driven or maybe it is possible, just that little bit, that you are being incosiderate and insensitive. More importantly, what would Arnie think when he sees your email? Would he be that interested and keen to meet up with you for a latte?

Not all of us are blessed with the intuition as to whats the heat like in someone else’s inbox. And if we had, then we should be playing the stock market or taking part in poker tournaments (aka Mel Gibson in Maverick ). But if we don’t; then at least we should spend some time finding out a litte bit about the person, about his background , to understand where Arnie finds himself in life. Just don’t be all self-centred and think of how and what you will benefit through the encounter. Find ways in which you could be of use, or in other words you are a value proposition, to the other party as well. And who knows, over coffee you might even develop a connection there.

The Good, The Bad and the iPad

The iPad was meant to fail. Reasons for its impending non-success were many – it doesn’t fit in the pocket, there is no real need for an iPad for most people, it’s too expensive, it can’t replace the notebook (or for that matter the netbook), there are too few I/O features, it’s not scalable (aka it can’t accommodate changing needs)and of course it can’t be used as a phone or a camera. And the fact that it doesn’t support flash, and thus hampers the internet experience , because without flash videos, advertisements and applications that run on websites would become redundant.

Yet, it did not fail. And,some have argued that it is not due to the product or the concept, but due to the person and the brand. And there is truth to it. It reminds one of whats said in that Simpson episode – Steve Mobs is god and he knows what we want. Good satire, and maybe true. But that is not all. If we look deeper, Apple relies on some fundamental marketing instincts and that is what helps them to churn out products, which yield such unconventional successes.

  • generate an artificial need for a product
  • rely on the appeal of aesthetics
  • advertise not just the product but the hype surrounding it
  • secrecy nurtures expectations
  • look beyond traditional consumer segments

There was no need of a new product category between a phone and a laptop. The netbook does just fine. But, the iPad has shown that by simply tweaking a few things such as an increased screen size as compared to a phone, and increased portability and better aesthetics as compared to a netbook, you could in fact create an additional product category. You end up generating a new type of need, which seemed non-existent before the product came out.The iPad in its current first edition is in reality closer to a phone than a netbook and has little content creation ability, but it does provide for a better experience, specifically with respect to content consumption and data communication, when compared to both the phone as well as the netbook. More importantly, what the ipad and the rather long line of Apple products have shown is that you don’t need to reinvent a completely new product to maintain success; just take a successful and popular product, offer incremental changes and keep on churning out newer versions, aligning it smartly with the product life cycle. For example, I was one of the early users of the iPhone, and fast forward two years and as my contract with the service provider is about to expire (having successfully resisted the temptation of the 3GS upgrade), I was thinking of getting another smartphone. That is up untill iPhone 4 knocked on my door. And, for those who got the iPhone 3GS in the first place I am sure there is an iPhone 4S version around the corner. Thus alignment of a product’s life-cycle with incremental updates has served Apple well.

A good-looking and well designed product sells. Period. This applies specifically if you want to expand your consumer base, and make your product palatable to men,women,young,old and the rest. Some products become niche very early, and then struggle to widen their appeal. But not so with Apple. They make products for the mass market, where aesthetics and design are important considerations. In their products there is always something for everyone – new technology for the techohobs, ease of use for the technophobes, good looks for everyone and competitive pricing for just about everybody.

Steve Job’s innate ability to drum up a product was in full display while unveiling the iPad, calling it a “magical and legendary device”. But what others see as RDF(Reality Distortion Field), I see it as an absolutely integral part of a marketing campaign where the aim is not to just capture or enhance market share, but augment and fuel people’s imaginations and expectations. If you have been given a stage with representatives from every conceivable media outlet dying to hear you out, it would be foolish to not indulge in some self-aggrandizing. But Apple takes it a step further and makes good use of the hype as well. Quoting the wall street journal regarding their own product – “The last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it “, is a clear example of legitimizing the hype surrounding a product. I guess it took a little less time for people to find out about the iPhone than it took about the commandments, with prototypes being left at pubs and such. But almost to a fault Apple is secretive about its products, and usually that builds up expectations. In some ways it is interesting; intuitively if you drum up expectations then your chances of dissappointing are higher. But ,with Apple products the effect seems to be opposite. It’s almost as if the sages and scientists had to congregate at some secluded cave in order to come up with something very special. Secrecy, effectively helps market hype.

Finally, when you come to think of it, what is the single biggest contribution of Apple to the Electronics world? Yes, it redefined ‘gadget’ and made it synonymous with style and oomph. Though not the first one to do so, it indeed successfully contributed to the concept of the e-marketplace. It also contributed immensely to the philosophy of shared application development. Large and small businesses are into sharing the efforts (and the spoils) of providing a more varied and better customer experience. Yes, Apple is a successful example of these and more. Above everything though,Apple has shown that a product, with the right tweaking, right packaging and right branding, can indeed be for everyone.

Image Source: Mashable

Confines of Creation

A brief discussion got me thinking. What is the limit of creativity, or rather why is creation such a challenge? Of course we are talking here of something big, something even massive, not your everyday baking of a cake, or your writing of a blog post, or creating a tune, or running a mile. Or maybe we need to talk about them as well. You see, when you bake a cake, you would presumably want it to taste good to your folks, your family and possibly friends, and that is where the fun ends. If they like it, you feel validated; If they don’t, you are just going to tell yourself ‘Oh well ! next time’ and that’s it. Its the same when you are running a mile. If you don’t meet your time targets, its just that. Nothing else depends on the fact that you are a rather slow runner (maybe when I am older and have some serious cardiac issues I would change my mind on this).

Contrast this with when you are on a bigger stage, aka James Cameron with Avatar, you just don’t know where to stop – What are indeed the confines of creation ? Its interesting to consider that he took 10 years to complete the movie. When you think of it, maybe there were times when he thought that ‘this is it, and there’s nothing more that I would want to add to or better Avatar with’. Of course, we would never know whether the name avatar was an early or a late christening. Nor would we ever know, that if he would have called it as ‘a love story’ or even ‘the war of times’, would that have had a bigger impact on the movie – a few less box office sales, but a few more Oscar statuettes; maybe? Did he really have a road-map for the entire decade of his creation. Did he even know that it would take him close to a decade to come up with Avatar. We would never know.

Now, let us go back to the cake baking. I am sure, women reading this might be feeling somewhat peeved that I have considered Cameron’s Avatar a greater achievement than their very own home-baked sweet chocolate fudge cakes. I conclude here with the question to them – at what point during their baking did they decide that the cake was now good enough; a minute more of baking, or a few extra almond flakes, or some more chocolate sauce, or a little less tenderness, was not going to make it any better. Therein lies the challenges with creation; exactly along its boundaries and confines.

Image Source: ArtChive

The Resident Evil

Managers come in , not shapes nor sizes, but types. I would talk about the various types on a separate day in a separate piece. But amongst the many variants, there are two rather obvious ones. The ones who try to do good to those who report to them at work – the employee friendly managers. They are more concerned about developing their wards’ careers, and aim to ensure that employees have better life/work balance and are generally happy. And these managers argue broadly that a happy workforce equates to a more productive workforce, which in turn equates to a better everything for the organization. So, it is kind of a win-win situation. One could suggest that the basic premise of these managers is that employees generally are interested in doing their work well and want good for their organizations,and managers and supervisors should just help facilitate their achieving what they would like to for their organizations. We assume here these managers albeit kind are not necessarily altruistic enough to want the good of their employees if it comes at the expense of the organizations.

Then we have managers at the other extreme – the full metal jacket managers. They adopt the stick approach, characterized by not being overtly concerned about the welfare of their staff. They believe in browbeating their sub-ordinates, and often their other colleagues, into submission. It could be reasonably supposed that they don’t trust their employees in general and think of them as eager and willing to look after their self-interests without a care for the organization. And if these managers fall short of finding folly with their employees, they at least believe that the best way to obtain results is through shock and awe. Not interested in the careers or well-being of their wards, their allegiance is to ensure their own success, and as a byproduct their organization’s success. There are of course the other variants – the forgetful manager, the ambitious manager, the disrespectful manager, the always away manager,to name a few.

Mind you, its not easy for managers either. If you are too soft and you are regarded as a pushover, a whimp. If you are too strict, and you are regarded as an evil dictator. To add another dimension, a manager himself is also being managed, and often how one is treated becomes the blueprint of how one would treat others when his or her turn comes up. Add to this the pressures of performing and getting results for the organization, the necessity of having to be absent from the regular work-floor for long periods on international assignments, the culturally diverse employee group that is the norm at most modern organizations, the complexity of one’s personal life and you find a manager’s cup full. Although there is no set course of action, and the specter of the situation plays a big part in a manager’s actions, there could be some ways that a manager can choose to live – not solutions, merely suggestions. And most of them I have learnt from those who have managed me, and I have done all right.

Its important to have a sense of empathy – to understand what an employee is going through, where he or she is from an emotional and psychological standing. And its not that difficult, simply because its not perfect. How we view what others are going through is heavily dependent on our own value systems and our perceptions. But a sense of empathy does act as a check, to remind ourselves that maybe this is not the right time to talk about an intense project or even a not so stellar on-the-job performance.

Next in line would be to earn your employees’ respect. An easy way is to be a content expert, prove it to them that you simply know much more than them in whatever they are doing. One could argue that it is the intimidating way of doing things, and they might actually be right. A better way would probably be to win their trust, make them believe in you, agree with your vision regarding the team and the organization.

Demonstrate to them that you care. Its not as easy as it sounds, for sometimes you will need to take a stand against the views of your own supervisors or other important people. Defiance usually garners admirers, but if ever it is worthwhile then it is for this. Besides it is also important to be proactive in terms of care. What this means is that look out for issues that might come up regarding the welfare of your staff, and don’t wait for something to happen and then react to it. In other words, be a proactive welfare seeker.

And finally, be prepared to lose sometimes to those whom you manage, and come second. As a manager, neither you nor your ideas are infallible.

Image Source: Book Fiesta