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Your Boss is best viewed using Netscape Navigator 3.0

As a young consultant, it is highly likely that you’re part of a cohort somewhat patronisingly/hopelessly labelled as Millennials by our esteemed elders. It is also quite likely that you spend a large part of your time in the office working with/for, learning from and perhaps managing a demographic with an average age of around 45, and that you will have noticed a marked difference in the working and communication style of these people when compared to your friends outside of work.

We (Millennials) are generally very good at dealing with and drawing from a deluge of information via an array of devices and platforms because that’s just how it’s been for a large part of our lives. We’re highly mobile and always online. And whilst we’re not quite digital natives, we’re the closest thing the working world’s got.

So, spare a thought for your boss/teammates/clients the next time they struggle to fully embrace the corporation’s social collaboration suite, appear flummoxed by the nuances of Google Drive or curse as the latest iteration of Lotus Notes dutifully crashes before them. It is often said that we are products of our respective environments, and this is what their online world was like a mere 15 years ago…

NB – Thanks to those who offered up their succinct reviews of these ancient company websites. All in good humour, of course!

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Innovation: +1UP

Two of our collective were fortunate enough to attend PA Consulting’s ‘Big Innovation’ evening in London a couple of weeks ago.

The approach was straightforward – part PA sales pitch, part ‘how can we solve the “big and wicked” problems of the world?’ and part networking.

The sales pitch was interesting – PA have basically taken some data analytics tools and applied them to a couple of real-world situations. Big data in action. So I can look at some real-time amateur meteorologists data and some almost-real-time hospital admissions data.

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(photo from http://www.brookrichey.com)

Big deal.

The problem is that these solutions – and the thousands crafted by my firm and yours – are designed to solve a particular problem – or set of problems. They are defined and confined by our client’s requirements. The NHS want better access to admissions data: voila. The Met Office want to collect more data: done.

If we are going to solve the big and ‘wicked’ problems of the world, then surely we need to think a bit bigger? IBM started something with Smarter Planet; where are the other firms at with their efforts to pool solutions, expertise and knowledge into something more altruistic? I know, I know, it’s not our job to do this – but the event just started the ol’ brain synapses firing.

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“What’s the ROI for our consulting firm solving global warming?” (photo from www.networlddirectory.com)

This moves us quite nicely onto the middle part of the event; the meat in this networking sandwich. The panel discussion involved senior executives from Google, TfL, Legal and General, Raspberry Pi and PA themselves. It circled around some familiar questions: social media, the increasing pace of technological change and the role of the ‘individual’ in relation to the ‘organisation’ (member of staff, customer, client, job applicant etc). So far so good, as expected Mr Google was the most forward thinking and eager to embrace innovation in most areas, whereas the traditional insurance firm with a disparate customer demographic were keenest to hold on to traditional channels and methods.

The interesting part came when the discussion stumbled upon the ideas of crowdsourcing and its subsequent gamification. For example, did you know a large pharmaceutical company used a ‘gamified’ scenario to try and identify a drug composite that they’d been working on for 10 years to solve? In the game scenario, it took Joe Public two weeks to find the answer.

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(photo from http://promega.wordpress.com)

This kicked-off the head-neurons again – there’s nigh on 7 billion people in the world that have fresh insights, comment and ways of thinking that can be tapped up. 2 billion (give or take a few hundred-million) of them are already on the internet, 1 billion of them are on Facebook and 200 million are on Twitter. Cookies and digital footprints mean that it’s pretty easy to see what people are buying, reading and watching etc. Using this as a foundation, interests and hobbies can be grouped up and packaged with only basic rudimentary affiliate tracking software.

So we have a huge number of people and we know what they consume. But what do companies do with this information? They sell to us. They sell to us in every single corner of the web. They sell to us in YouTube videos, Facebook and Twitter feeds, in search engine results and on seemingly every website imaginable.

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(photo from http://mktg343.pbworks.com)

But how much effort would it be to use this data differently? What I’m trying to say is how can we use social data to crowdsource answers to wicked problems? And I don’t mean the passive way it’s done at the moment with things like the UK government’s epetitions website; I’m talking about pushing questionnaires, ‘gamified’ scenarios and debates into relevant communities using the data and technology we already have from the world of online advertising.

Take a small-scale example: Microsoft have your data; they know you are a tablet-using gamer who owns an Xbox. Say Microsoft are trying to build a new OS for mobile devices, they could push a link into your timeline on your social media platform of choice, offering you something like Xbox live points as reward for playing a game that analysed where and how your intuition leads you to navigate menus, functions and buttons on a mocked up tablet. Hey presto, Microsoft know how x many millions of people tend to use tablets that can inform their OS design, the user is happy as they get 1) Xbox live points 2) The satisfaction of completing a game 3) The knowledge that they’ve contributed to the build of a ‘new thing’. And the social media platform is happy as they have Microsoft’s money for the promoted advert.

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Happy gamers, happy Mark Zuckerberg, happy Microsoft/estate of Bill Gates

Or say you read an article on the guardian’s website about a new government initiative, you retweet the article, then you get a promoted tweet come up in your feed inviting you to comment/debate/vote on that particular initiative – maybe it’s been worked into a series of scenarios for you to play out. Here the incentive is purely self-motivation and therefore doesn’t even need rewarding or monetising – you’ve clicked the link so are likely to feel strongly about it already. The ‘So What?’ here is that policy-makers get to road-test initiatives, pollsters can use them as a litmus test and think-tank’s can crowdsource new ideas.

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Rather than going on a march or making a sign, you could actually have the opportunity to constructively influence something. (photo from http://www.sabotagetimes.com)

So how long until someone takes this small scale idea and makes it bigger? How long until SimCity players are cultivated by city mayors for their town planning expertise? How long until I play a game that sees me contribute to alleviating the burgeoning pension crisis? The budget deficit? Third World famine?

So the event was good; but it wasn’t good or big enough to even start conceptualising these problems. We need bigger ideas and bigger thinking that don’t fit with 99% of consulting firms mantras – we’re (rightly) too client-focused… And no client is ever going to ask us to find world peace.

So apologies for the lack of ideas around how we make this happen – this is why I’m a humble management consultant and not a Nobel laureate.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to play FIFA 2013 in the hope that the FA crowdsource me as the next England manager…

If you want to enact change, you’ve got to understand technology

Whatever area of consulting you’re in; if you want to be effective in organisational change then an understanding of how technology impacts our daily lives and shapes the way that we move through the world is essential.


Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Initially puzzling, this question is actually rather easy to answer as it offers a false dichotomy; the egg obviously came first because eggs predate chickens (chickens evolved from egg-laying reptiles and a protochicken must have laid the first chicken egg*).
*A more interesting question then, would be: when did the protochicken become a chicken? But I digress…

Much harder to explain – and much more pressing if you’re looking to enact change – is the issue of whether society shapes technology or whether it is in fact the other way around. Do people merely build and use machines and tools or are they somehow shaped by them as well?

If that sounds like a grand question, consider the parallels that are so often drawn between the workings of the world and the workings of technology: ‘the brain as a computer,’ or, perhaps pre-Darwin, ‘the universe as like a mechanical clock built by a Divine Watchmaker.’ If our mental models for making sense of the world are rooted in manmade technological artefacts, then clearly the impact of technology on humankind is profound. And at this point I wish to reassure the reader that this isn’t an article about IT Services or (heaven forbid!) Intelligent Design. No, I am instead talking about the consultant’s bread and butter: organisational change.

Image: Chicken or Egg?

Chicken or Egg? via Photobucket, Goodstuff1852

If you’re reading this online then the technology involved is relatively easy to identify as The Internet, but supposing you were reading it from a manuscript, then you should consider that the pen (or even feather quill) and paper are also still examples of technologies.

Technology is anything which makes our lives easier. It is the great enabler. It makes us superhuman, allowing us to fly, breathe under water, repel bullets, manipulate the weather or go to the moon (if that is what we wish to do). Just as the internet, by enabling the instantaneous sharing of information, has proven one of the most significant technological developments of all time, the printing press and even the pen and paper or stylus and beeswax combo of yore were arguably every bit as influential to the society of their times.

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – i.e. that it is astonishing and little understood. However, once an innovation becomes widely adopted a curious thing happens. Whilst it is no longer considered to be advanced and so generally fails to amaze, it does not necessarily become any better understood. The somewhat ironic result being that, as the populace as a whole – consumers, users, employees – have become more (hi-)tech savvy, the general level of understanding around technology has actually decreased (in relative terms). We build evermore encompassing metaphorical black boxes within which the magic happens. Few people could fail to understand how a type-writer functions, but even fewer would even attempt to work out the intricacies behind wireless/networked printing.

 

So why is this important if you want to make or manage change?

Well, because the pace of technological development is now just so blisteringly fast – witness The Tablet, 3D Printing, Cloud Computing, Crowdfunding** etc – and if we want to do more by using technology (not always a choice) then we must accept its ability to determine or compel certain actions, regardless of our depth of understanding as to how it works. As our use of technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, its impact on people is greater than ever before, whether we understand it or not.
**incidentally, those last two are not technologies, but technology-enabled business models!

Image: Evolution: Humans and Technology

Evolution: Humans and Technology via evolution-man-computer

The French anthropologist Bruno Latour, who expertly illustrates his argument by explaining the sociology of a door-closer, proposes that technological artefacts (nonhumans) are inherently anthropomorphic in that they are shaped by, and give shape to humans, because:

  1. They are made by humans
  2. They substitute the actions of humans (as humans delegate to them)
  3. They shape human action through prescribing human behaviours (resulting from prejudices inscribed in their design)

 

So, whilst it is true that humans must first build a technology, it is equally true that that same technology, once built, will continue to impact those who use it in the future. Even technologies that are so commonplace that we don’t even think about them can shape the decisions we make, the effects our actions have, and the way we move through the world. Technologies play such an important role in mediating human relationships, Latour argues, that we cannot understand how societies work without an understanding of how technologies shape our everyday lives.

Our near-universal use of the QWERTY keyboard, for example, a hangover from the mid-19th century standardisation of key positioning for the type-writer, impacts on the speed, creativity and overall course of the language that we use. It was not designed with ergonomics or efficiency in mind – the most pressing need was to prevent the mechanical typebars clashing – and there have even been suggestions that its inventor intentionally configured the letters to slow the user down. It is, according to Stephen Fry, “a deliberate spanner in the works of language, metaphorically and technologically,” and a good example of how technology influences and lends shape to the way in which we communicate and express our thoughts (as well as to our health whilst we do so). And if you don’t type – or read – then think instead of how different your life would be without the light bulb.

Google is changing the way our brains work, and the current generation of toddlers have already been dubbed, ‘digital natives,’ as they will be the first exposed to our all day, every day use of the World Wide Web from the moment they are born. They will know nothing of being stumped by trivia or of having to calculate and remember their location on a map as all the information they need is instantly accessible any time, any place and anywhere. To them, a magazine is just a broken iPad (or other tablet-like device of your preference) because, “Steve Jobs has coded a part of their OS.”

Image: Invisible Cats

Invisible Cats via KnowYourMeme

I was in a discussion with a client recently as part of a workshop to define their strategic vision for ICT. At the end of the (long) session, it was sort of decided that, if the IT function was running BAU effectively in future, then it should be invisible; seamless; taken for granted.

For the beneficiaries of techno-organisational change, this should certainly be so, but for those of us who want to initiate and drive that change, it must be anything but.

The most difficult part of any change programme invariably lies in people and culture. But, if you are a Management Consultant – or indeed any professional in the business of changing business – then you need to understand technology as an intrinsic part of that people and culture, and that just as an erroneous focus on kit (instrumental rationality) won’t fix business problems, treating ICT as a standalone and separate realm is likely to contribute to a rise in the prevalence of unintended consequences and therefore the potential for disaster.

Any business change is techno-organisational. Whilst I’m not suggesting that you need to go out and learn C++, open a Data Centre or start flogging cloud services, taking a holistic view of the world as an interconnected whole, in which altering one component – be that people, process or technology – is likely to have a fundamental and potentially unpredictable impact on another, might just help reduce that frequency of serious and negative unintended consequences.

Whether you are into strategy, finance, HR or marketing, whatever, if you deal with change then you should make sure that you can open the black box and understand and truly value technology.

 

FYI – You’ve just been exposed to a small aspect of Information Systems thinking. If you enjoyed it, read more about:

  1. Social Constructivism vs Technological Determinism
  2. The Structurational Model of Technology
  3. Black Boxing and Technological Frames
  4. Actor Network Theory

Specialist Vs Generalist

Hi everyone this is an old post from an internal networking site, it got a good response so I am keen to put it out to the wider world and get some thoughts.

I was having a look through the news on LinkedIn today and a fascinating article came to light. The discussion of Specialist VS Generalist is one the rages on through all industries but none more than Consulting. On the one side deep knowledge allows us (consultants) to add great value to clients, after all how we can we expect them to pay us if we know less about their industry than we do, are we not meant to be the experts?? Conversely being so eager to understand the minutia often results missing that ever present “bigger picture”.

A really interesting point raised in the article for me is that generalists are considered to be better at navigating uncertainty, in my view that’s absolutely key to providing guidance to client, in my view the very essence of being a consultant, in fact my company seems to agree in terms of my core competencies one of which is of dealing with ambiguity.

Either way it would be great to some views on this, where do you stand Generalist or SME? It’s a tough call……

Here is the long hand for those who missed it,   click here

Mark, Larry I want my money…

I use Facebook, I use Google, do you? Probably.

If you do you will be used to seeing adverts and, as I am sure you know, the platforms (Google and Facebook) get paid for these, they get paid more when they are targeted at you by your web history and get paid even more if for some crazy reason you actually click on them.  Now, these companies don’t have many ways to make money so they must make quite a bit from these adverts.

How much? Click here to find out. Privacyfix is a Chrome add on, I should also point out at this juncture that it was Mark Masterson who showed me this, check out his blog here. So this site is interesting, its designed to encourage you  (via a bit of gameification (see below)) to lock down your social networks, and protect your privacy.

It does that. What it also does is tell you what your worth to Facebook and Google.  I am not worth much, I use Adblocker and don’t really want to share my life with the world through Facebook, so it’s locked down. But having asked a few people; Facebook can generate over £1000 from some people’s accounts.

 

 

 

 

Check out our poll and see where you fit.  With over a billion users that’s a lot of cash. Oddly enough Facebook don’t want to let go, Google are a bit less heavy-handed and let you change whatever you want (see below).

So my online identity has a clear monetary value. Mark, Larry, Anybody are you listening? Until I get something out of it I am keeping it locked down and nobody is making any money out of my identity. It’s my asset!

21st Century Banking and the Medieval Catholic Church

Odd title, no?

Well believe it or not, this topic actually came up in an internal meeting and – as the historian amongst our collective of bloggers – it got me thinking.

Let me set the scene for you:

I am currently working with a client that operate in the realms of capital markets and trading and I, like many of you out there, have some prior knowledge of the financial services sector.

Or at least so I thought.

The layers and complexity of the transactions being made within these organisations are beyond comprehension of most people. There’s a great exchange in Robert ‘Pesto’ Peston’s new book where he asks a senior banker to explain particular derivatives products in a way his grandparents could follow and not even the great man himself, with 30 years’ experience in the city, could understand the explanation offered!

(Incidentally, there’s a beer on offer for anyone that can explain Credit Default Swaps to me)

So how is this like the Catholic Church? Well, you see, the church had similar layers and complexities in the medieval times – most practicing Catholics couldn’t event speak the language of the church, so opportunities to question, validate and improve were limited by the closed-off and isolated nature of the church and it’s hierarchy.

Like modern-day banks, Catholicism meant big bucks and it became an instrument of control over the populace.

Yes, I know its tenuous and derivative (*snort*) but it arguably serves a good point.

Now I’m not some grass-smoking hippy trying to bring down the world of financial services, but I do see young consultants almost as modern-day Luthers and Calvins, questioning the status quo to bring about changes in the way financial services operate.

Peston lists five ways that banks can be fixed, and as people who work in the realm of advisory and consultancy services, I firmly believe consultancy firms are best-placed to challenge the current state and instigate changes that go beyond those listed below in fixing the state of our financial services and markets.

Peston’s Lessons:

  1. Banks must split their investment and retail operations.
  2. Business leaders advocate government spending on infrastructure as a means of lessening austerity.
  3. Buy today, pay tomorrow is no longer feasible as an option – stop society’s reliance on credit
  4. The Germans have the economic strength to create a banking union — the prelude to a full merger of Eurozone balance sheets – and could theoretically take it on the chin. (OK, admittedly not much the average consultant can do to influence this one!)
  5. The widespread shareholder uprising in early 2012 was a start — we nearly all own shares (often via pension funds) and can all leverage pressure on big business and encourage greater responsibility and accountability

 

His lessons aren’t exactly a revelation (sorry, getting carried away with the puns), but they are useful to bear in mind for those of us that do consultancy roles in financial services. We’re not going to nail our theses on the doors of the Bank of England, but we can suggest, advise and influence the decision makers that matter and help them make the changes as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Think about it, even if you’re a BA working on a small efficiency programme being run in a the back-office of a small investment bank, you are working to lower that bank’s overheads; meaning they don’t need to rely on high-risk, high-margin transactions – it involves everyone!

So let’s arm ourselves, as young consultants, with the necessary tools: Develop subject-matter expertise in an area that interests you, understand how your (and your firms’) expertise and specialisms lend themselves to aiding changes in financial services and lastly, get governance , communications and risk management absolutely nailed down – this isn’t a journey that can be taken in discrete steps, it is a sea change. Share your successes and start building a groundswell of evidence and opinion that financial services can be changed to better suit the needs of the economy!

Peston asks the banker in charge to explain these products in a way his grandparents could follow. But after a while he realises — and if this was on film, it would be a sort of slow-motion zoom moment — that “I was actually finding it incredibly difficult to understand what the hell he was talking about”. And if Peston, with almost 30 years’ experience of City jargon, wasn’t getting it, then who on earth was?

“If those guys on that trading floor were doing something that was marginal to the global economy, then of course it wouldn’t have mattered,” he says now, wearily nursing a cup of black coffee at his publisher’s office on Euston Road. “But this was a huge global industry, with hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of these products being created. I know people who sit on the boards of banks and most of them have the same level of sophistication and knowledge of these things as I have… and it was at that point, a sort of Damascene moment, that I first realised the scale of this industry and started thinking how incredibly dangerous it might be.”

The future of social media

Two things today sparked off a debate at work; the first was an article in the FT citing financial services institutions as being slow off the mark to embrace social media as a communication tool, the second was a viral email around O2’s creative use of Twitter in handling a particular customer’s ‘enquiry’. You can see both articles here (FT is behind a paywall):

http://on.ft.com/VIiaad

http://huff.to/WzCkRr


They raised an interesting question around how businesses are going to engage with their target markets in the future. The more experienced heads saw social as just being ‘one channel of many’, a sales and marketing tool to be treated the same as traditional channels, whereas it tended to be the younger consultants who perceived this as a genuine move towards a new normal in fusing sales, marketing and customer services into a one-stop shop.

Let’s take Twitter as a foundation for discussion. In the current state of the world, companies appear to be using Twitter in two distinct ways: as PR tools and as a social customer service. The example from O2 takes the first step of fusing the two concepts together; as does this one from Douwe Egberts coffee:

http://bit.ly/VIjGcd

The first group of companies using the platform as a PR tool, generate buzz about the companies in traditional ways, whether that’s directly promoting their products, using endorsements or by just being so downright bizarre that they generate attention (Betfairpoker and Arena Flowers being my two personal favourites)

The second are using the ‘social’ aspect to engage with customers directly – I’d sooner tweet a company with a complaint or query as it’s quick, direct and puts the onus on the company to respond in such a public forum. How many of you have seen irate tweets directed at train operators or national rail when confronted with delays and cancellations?

But how much longevity does either approach have? Will Twitter PR campaigns become less of a novelty as they become a standard channel for marketers? How scalable and feasible is it to run a customer contact centre in such a public forum (and with only 140 characters to play with?). How will this merging of sales and marketing – traditionally two separate business units – play out in organisations?

I’d be really interested if anyone has any views on the future state in this area; this is the sort of cutting edge thinking that we, as young consultants should look to be leading on!

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