Friday, December 16, 2011

How to do still more change

Yesterday we noted the importance of achieving 'short-term wins.' It's important to use each of those as a stepping-stone towards more change on the way to achieving the overall vision for change.
Keep working towards that goal, looking all the while for ways in which processes can be improved. Identify what is working, and what is not, and work with your team to make the necessary course corrections.
And repeat successes: sometimes early 'wins' arise, but from a fluke set of circumstances. Trying to replicate the success will help to check that processes are working and appropriate for the range of situations that you will encounter. And you'll be helping all the while to embed the new way of doing things in the culture of the organization, to make sure that change doesn't fizzle out as soon as you move, or energy starts getting applied in a new direction.

Learning points:

  • Take opportunity to analyze what went right and what needs improving.
  • Set goals to continue building on your momentum.
  • Keep ideas fresh by bringing in new team members and leaders for your change coalition.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Creating short-term 'wins'

Whenever a group embarks on change there's a lot of nervousness around whether or not it will work, normally because the stakes are pretty high.

Nothing motivates more than success so one of the best ways of building and keeping momentum is by striving to ensure that there are some things that people can see are successful quite early on. These 'wins' don't have to be huge, but they do have to be real, and they do have to be relevant. The most important factor, though, is that they are shared successes by the team that you want to continue to drive the change through.

One of the best ways to work on this is to break the bigger goal down into smaller chunks, some with milestones that can be seen and reached within a short time frame, perhaps weeks or months depending on the length of the overall project. Celebrate each success and use it as a springboard to get everyone gathered around reaching the next target.

Important factors:
  • Look for things that you can implement without help from any strong critics of the change.
  • Look for targets the easily justify the (relatively small) investment at each stage.
  • Make sure that the 'wins' you achieve actually matter to key stakeholders, such as your boss.
  • Reward and celebrate with each of those who help you meet the targets.
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How to remove the obstacles to change

As I write this my wife is giving a presentation as part of a job application that she's making. If she sticks with the ideas she was having in her practice run-through earlier then she'll be making the point that she boils down a lot of the fancy phrases and detailed research concepts that she's come across in management training books and articles. In fact, at heart she says that leading a small team is about two things:
  1. Make sure that the team consistently (daily) understands what is expected: not just what to do (task) but how to do it (quality)
  2. Remove the obstacles by making sure that they have the resources they need, and nothing holding them back from doing it
I think that simplification is super. But when it comes to introducing a broad change initiative it's often necessary to go further and consider whether anyone is actively resisting the change. Are there processes or structures that are getting in the way?
More than this:

  • Make sure you have, beyond just you, other leaders whose main role is to bring about change.
  • Look at your organizational structure, job descriptions, and performance and compensation systems to ensure they're in line with your vision.
  • Recognize and reward people for making change happen.
  • Identify people who are resisting the change, and help them see what's needed.
  • Take action to quickly remove barriers (human or otherwise).

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How to communicate a vision for change

Too often leaders spend some time and effort building a vision for change, but take it no further. Perhaps you get together a team to drive the change; maybe you go off-site with the team and plan the steps necessary ... These things, though good, are absolutely not enough to see the change take root.

What you do with your vision after you create it will determine your success. Your message will have strong competition from all the other things going on so you need to communicate it frequently and embed it within everything that you do.

Find ways to talk about the vision at every opportunity you get. Consciously use it daily to influence the decisions you take and the way you solve problems. Be especially careful to explain that this is what you're doing when working with others. This way they'll catch on and see that the vision for change is not just a bright idea that you'll  move on from when other pressures come along, but something that truly is here to stay.

Most importantly, your actions have to reinforce the need for change and the vision for change. If there's any hint of a gap between what you say and what you do then others will pick up on it and notice the gap in integrity. And they won't follow you.

  • Talk as often as possible about the need for change and the vision to achieve it
  • Take as much time as needed to address others' concerns and worries
  • Apply the vision to every aspect of the operation. Tie everything back to the vision
  • Lead by example
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Monday, December 12, 2011

How to create a vision for change

Your vision for change needs to be simple enough for people to grasp and remember.

After all, if it's too complex to grasp it can't be understood and implemented. And if your team needs to go back to notes to remember it then you've added a big barrier of inertia. Most importantly, people need to understand why change is necessary.

To be realistic in your hopes for success
  • Make sure that your proposed change is consistent with the values you want
  • Encapsulate the change in a summary that's ideally just a single, brief, sentence
  • Work with your team to develop a strategy that will bring the vision to being
  • Make sure that your core team can understand the vision and strategy
  • Communicate the vision at every opportunity possible, using different ways to explain or clarify and apply it to specific circumstances so that it doesn't get stale; and so that people who are impacted can more readily grasp what needs to be achieved

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Transformational change needs a strong team

After ensuring people understand that the pain of staying where we are is greater than the cost of moving forward, the next thing a change leader needs to put in place is a powerful coalition of people committed to change.

Leaders are rarely located just at the hierarchical 'top' of an organization. And you're in deep trouble if they are! To build and maintain the change momentum it's necessary to find the key influencers throughout the organization, and build them together as a team committed to seeing the change through. Be aware that their power and influence won't just come from job title or position in the hierarchy, but from their expert knowledge, network of relationships and more...

In leading change you'll need to identify these people and ask for an emotional commitment from them. Then work hard on team building within this change coalition, making sure that the commitment to change doesn't fizzle out when the going begins to get tough. You can't lead change on your own, and it won't be a short-term effort for anything that's going to last.
I've learned some of these lessons the hard way: it's tempting to feel the pressure to make progress and jump into change before ensuring that around three quarters of those impacted grasp the need to make the change; and it's sometimes easy to take glib verbal commitments from the 'change coalition' at face value and realise too late that they're not fully on board or, worse, subtly putting the brakes on, or trying to steer change in a different direction... 
But then, if change leadership was easy, everyone would be doing it!
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Thursday, December 8, 2011

12 qualities of transformational leadership

What are the best traits to look for in a leader?
  • Great leaders have integrity: they say what they mean and do what they say
  • They set clear and unambiguous goals that can be easily understood
  • They clearly communicate a vision that acts as a powerful 'burning imperative'
  • They set a good example that others want to copy
  • They expect the best from the team and set high standards
  • Great leaders are encouraging of those around them, not condemning
  • They recognise good work and good people, and freely give credit where it's due
  • They provide stimulating work that others can engage in creatively
  • They inspire people to see beyond their self interest and focus instead on the team's needs
  • Great leaders are inspirational: difficult to define, but worth working on!
  • Great leaders are great at motivating others
  • Great leaders are trusted
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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Challenge of leading change

The single biggest barrier to change comes from the fact that people don't like it; we always resist it. There's something comforting about the familiar and daunting about the new and, very often, the strongest resistance comes from those currently in positions of power and influence - because they fear that they have most to lose.

My experience is that the kind of change you want to happen doesn't just happen. Normally the first requirement for any change initiative is to build an understanding of the need for change.
  • Perhaps the group has to become unhappy with the way things are right now
  • They probably need a sense of urgency, even of impending doom or difficulty if change doesn't happen
  • At heart, the equation has to change so that the cost of making the change doesn't seem as expensive as the cost of things staying the same
Of course, that's just the first step. But without that there's little chance of success.
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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Business situations need different strategies

Some of us have been working through the different approaches needed in different situations.

'Situational leadership' theory teaches that a good manager should take a different approach with individuals based on how mature they are as workers and how experienced they are in relation to the task or situation they are in.

Similarly, there's no point in trying to treat a business start-up the same way that you'd run an enterprise that has been producing nicely for the last several years and is really just needing to sustain its success with relatively minor modifications.

In fact, be prepared to think through and take decisive action for each of four different scenarios:
  1. Start-up is the entrepreneurial beginning that is common to all
  2. Sustainable success is where everyone would like to get to, and remain
  3. Very often though some degree of re-positioning or realignment is necessary
  4. And, if there's a hiccup, then some degree of turn around and recovery may be required
Which phase is your operation in? What are the different skills and strategies you need to employ?
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Monday, December 5, 2011

Branding and communications

My wife works in Britain's National Health Service and today showed me the Person Specification for a role that NHS recruitment is seeking to fill. One of the bullet-point requirements in the 'Leadership Essence' section simply reads 'Clear personal brand' (while another is, 'Ability to use different leadership styles as and when required;' still another, 'Integrity, genuineness and trustworthiness in all interactions').

This was in stark contrast to another organization I worked with recently. They want to overhaul their web and other communications, but show little appreciation of branding, still less the way that communications styles support or detract from strategic leadership.

There are undoubtedly arguments that branding is over-stated and too-widely prioritised, but I still found it encouraging that one of the UK's biggest public-sector employers is demonstrating an appreciation of how branding can complement other skills to bolster leadership effectiveness.

Situational leadership is a critical skill to deploy when influencing teams to excel beyond the ordinary. And how encouraging to see the Person Spec. emphasizing the importance of integrity.

Expect further transfer of ideas and skills between private and public sector as cost-cutting forces transformation of traditional ways of doing things: other aspects of this same job specification call for demonstrable experience of entrepreneurialism and managing complex change, process improvement and high performance culture to set up a new public sector venture with 'commercial strength and clear strategy.' Fabulous!
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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Check out assumptions

Surprise results from a workplace survey. The middle managers thought there would be a big difference: they expected that line workers would have money and not working too hard at the top of their list of things they value about work. Middle management said they, by contrast, would prioritise things like 'challenging task' and 'being creative.'

The surprise was that both lists looked a lot more like the managers' list, with money way down the pecking order for both groups. What we want from work.

It's easy to assume negative stuff about others. But it's equally easy to assume that everyone else thinks, feels and acts the same way that we do. Senior leaders often assume the same intensity and passion in those elsewhere in the organization without realising that it's their job in part to instil that passion through casting vision.

It's too easy to act on assumptions without checking them out first. The more we can bring expectations out into the open and reach shared agreement the easier it is to work with people.
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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Good teams collect differences

No-one assembles a soccer team of eleven goalkeepers. Teams that just have the brightest people, or the most technically skilled, will not outperform others.

Instead, successful teams must contain all the different technical skills required to do the task, along with the right personalities and priorities. I've appreciated the insights from researcher Meredith Belbin that teams need to cover eight basic roles:
  • A Chairperson is necessary to pick the people, to listen, encourage and focus and co-ordinate the effort.
  • Then there's what Belbin calls the 'Shaper' who is task-oriented and can (sometimes impatiently) act as the spur for action.
  • A generator of Ideas and proposals, someone who can be quite creative and intelligent, but not necessarily bound in details that could hold the creativity back.
  • Belbin's Monitor-Evaluator is almost the opposite, better at analysis than creativity. This is the person who checks things out, points out flaws in an argument and keeps an eye on the clock!
  • Without a Resource Investigator little progress can be made: this role involves keeping the team in touch with the world around it and marshalling the raw materials and other resources necessary to make progress.
  • The Team Worker is usually likeable and popular, keeping everyone going by encouragement and understanding and support.
  • The Implementer is a practical organizer and administrator who turns ideas into action.
  • The Completer-Finisher helps the team to meet its deadlines with a relentless focus on follow-through.
If those are the general roles that have to be covered, most teams also need access to a technical Specialist who brings access to scarce knowledge or skills.
No one is equally strong in each of these areas; but most of us can do reasonably well in several of them, even if we are best at just one or two. An important emphasis, though, is to ensure that each of these roles is covered in practice. 
In the teams I run it's something I now consciously pay attention to and, though I naturally do best at the Chairman, Implementer and Ideas roles, I'll make sure that the others get done, even if I have to do the Monitor-Evaluator stuff because no-one else is!! 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Problems facing the bottom billion

So  life's pretty miserable in the Western world right now and the UK Chancellor's Autumn Statement is depressing, along with the markets and the news in general. I've spoken with four business leaders today, all separately, and all very scared about the next two months and beyond. But, still, our problems pale...

Part of my 'light reading' is a book, The Bottom Billion, from my old university professor Paul Collier. He talks about the systemic and structural problems for one seventh of the world's population, problems that mean they have almost no choices and almost no hope of escape. He shows how hard it is to break the cycle of destruction for countries that are locked in conflict, or with natural resources plundered, or landlocked with 'bad neighbors' or with poor government with few checks and balances.

It's hard work getting through the depressive, if accurate, analysis: I'm hoping for some more encouragement in the final chapter that promises 'An Agenda for Action!'

Perhaps, though, the key is to start small and to do what we can with what we've got, and to become less self-absorbed in the process :)
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

What we want from work

Few of us work for just the money: once the basics of life are covered, then money transforms, for some, into a measure of success. But, for most, there are other factors that come into play and reward us more.
  • Personal freedom - Few of us likes to be micro-managed. We prefer to understand and agree vision and values and strategy and, within limits, to be accountable for how we organize and deliver the results.
  • Respect of colleagues - Even someone who works entirely alone, like an artist, craves the affirmation of a job well done from customers and others. Most of us appreciate knowing that our work makes a difference and is valued by others.
  • Learning something new - Grounded in the IT industry, I rapidly learned that 'everything' changes every few months. We can't be effective without a commitment to lifelong learning and the ability to assimilate new information and assess its significant implications.
  • Challenge - Most of us appreciate the challenge of getting something accomplished despite risks and adversity. Even more important is when the challenge is viewed as somehow significant.
  • Completing a project - We have to celebrate success and break down bigger tasks into smaller milestone chunks that can be achieved in a reasonable time and effort. That sense of accomplishment fuels the sense of progress and spurs us on to new achievements.
  • Helping other people - When I was younger I ruled out a number of career choices because I just couldn't see how they made the world a better place. Most of us release our best potential when what we do is seen as worthwhile and makes a difference to others.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Facebook tracking details

Thanks to @MarkDansie for spotting an explanation of Facebook information tracking:

About logged in Facebook users: 
  • Facebook keeps a timestamped list of the web URLs you visit, paired with your name, 
  • Lists of friends, Facebook preferences, email address, IP address, screen resolution, operating system, and browser.
About Facebook users who are logged out:
  • Facebook still captures everything except your name, list of friends, and Facebook preferences. Instead, it uses a unique alphanumeric identifier to track you.
Now, though Facebook could still match a name to that 'unique alphanumeric identifier' the company says that it doesn't. But they probably retain the capability to make that match if, say, law enforcement asks them to. And, besides, studies have shown that the information about IP address, screen resolution, operating system and browser configurations is almost certainly sufficient to identify Internet users uniquely.

Why do this? Because Facebook is a business engaged in selling stuff: both information about users and advertising to users. The richer and more complete the information they have, the more valuable their business and the higher their share price when they float. You are what's being sold.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Confidence crisis

Each day the news from the world economy seems more grim. And it doesn't look as though things will get much better in 2012. What we're experiencing is a crisis of confidence, and it's a crisis at the personal (micro) level as much as the national/global (macro) level.

For example, the pound coin or dollar in my pocket is only worth that much if, when I hand it over, you believe that you can get a pound or dollar worth of goods and services from someone else...Our money supply is no longer backed by anything hard and tangible (like gold) and so it's only worth the value stamped on it if we believe it's worth that value to other people too.

What we're seeing at the level of nations and global banking corporations is an erosion of confidence in their intrinsic value, or ability to service the debt that they've incurred. And it's affecting lots of things, including very small, local decisions about what individual consumers buy and, at a slightly bigger scale, what projects business leaders invest in.

Trouble is, there's no easy or quick solution once the confidence begins to slip as it has done. The bottom line is that there's money and investment around for businesses that are demonstrably already making money, but little or none for those where there's a risk to be taken. And business is very largely about taking risks and making investments. Tough.
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Monday, November 21, 2011

Accelerating transformation

It's a bit of a paradox, but the best way to accelerate transformational change is to pause long enough to form a plan. Change will certainly 'just happen,' but it's unlikely to be the change that you want, or the best that it could be if you'd tackled things a bit differently.

So, in preparing to tackle a new situation, take time out well in advance to prepare and to plan: don't just turn up on the first day hoping that things will work out nicely from that point on. That way breeds disaster!
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Monday, November 14, 2011

Challenges to IT service provision

CIOs and colleagues responsible for supporting dispersed users face increasing challenges. And it got more complicated last week when Adobe announced that its Flash technology is now a dead-end (only, officially, mobile platforms: but, as they are growing massively to outnumber conventional computers it's only a matter of time).

Trouble is, the HTML5 swirl of technology is not yet ready to replace it: sure, you can use HTML5 now to serve up video. But Flash technology has been used to do much more than just that; for example to provide smart applications that run in a browser and make less demands of the network and central services.

Business applications can't afford to wait a few years for HTML to catch up, still less for the standards-compliance politics to be worked through. So we'll have to bear the cost of continuing some measured use of Flash and being prepared to write off the investment over a shorter period, as well as bear the costs of re-development when the new tools become available.
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Friday, November 11, 2011

Strategic change demands adaptability

We had a lengthy internal meeting yesterday to plan our tactical response to the latest round of changes in the IT landscape that we operate in. The trigger was Adobe's announcement this week that its Flash technology is essentially dead.

Of course, the official Adobe news was only that it would not develop Flash for mobile platforms; but as mobile (smartphone and tablet) outnumbers other personal computing platforms by a factor of 4:1 it's really only a matter of time before Flash ceases to be dominant on PC-accessed versions of the Web, too. Once HTML5 gets up to speed and becomes a real contender, not just for video delivery but for the sort of applications that Flash has been used to build, then there's no reason why anyone would build new stuff for Flash when HTML5 will work nicely on mobile and 'desktop' platforms equally.

So, the analogy that came to mind - again - yesterday was that of a ship's "helmsman." The helmsman's job is to get the ship to the destination, with the cargo and crew, on behalf of the owner; even though the wind and the waves will be trying to blow things off course and the currents and other conditions will be constantly changing.

This is what happened with Adobe's Flash announcement this week. A still-great technology has suddenly become a dead-end and, in response to the changing circumstances around us, we need to adapt our tactics, while holding to the strategy and the cargo-destination combination from the helmsman analogy.
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Maslow's hierarchy hits the 'net

You've probably heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the idea that physiological needs (breathing, food, water, sex, etc) are more important than those of security which in turn form the base for more rarified needs like love, belonging, esteem and 'self-actualization.'

The interesting news from a recent Cisco report is that 'one in three college students and young professionals consider the Internet to be as important as air, water, food, and shelter' - They're saying that access to the Internet is a fundamental building-block of life now. Thanks to @MarkDansie for Tweeting the link to the report: he notes that electricity is missing from the list, and pretty fundamental before the Internet can be delivered!

I guess the view from the survey respondents is a bit distorted by taking the air, water, food and shelter stuff for granted: we recently had our hot water heater blow up and we were taking cold showers each day for two weeks until it was fixed. Certainly, as I washed each day my mind was far from the Internet and I resolved to try not to take warm water in cold weather for granted again! And I'd be even less interested in web surfing if I actually had to carry water from a dirty river or well each day; or protect my family from civil war and unrest ...

But, despite the fact that the fundamental importance of Internet connectivity is highlighted in a report commissioned by one of the dominant companies that supplies that sort of connectivity, it's certainly my experience that I feel a little lost and disoriented without the ability swiftly to research or communicate that the Internet provides. And it will only become more important globally as time goes by.

Expect access to the Internet to become required much sooner than previously, once those basic physiological and security needs are met.
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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Walk or run?

I've always been advised "Don't run before you can walk" and in putting together a business deal for a new industry sector it certainly seems wise to start small. After all, the key players don't yet know each other and it's wise to let revenue grow, trust develop and to minimise the investment required. It's not just financial; the more features we add to the opportunity, the longer it will take to get all the agreements straight.

However, as I spent the latter part of the afternoon drafting an outline paper for the CEO of one of our proposed partner companies I couldn't help but dream of where all this could lead; and set some markers for the future that others can begin to grasp, too.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Win-win negotiation

Just out of a great meeting with the CEO of a potential partner company, gaining us access to a new industry vertical...

Part of the key to success here is going to be following the principles I got taught years back in the classic book Getting to Yes where the simple message is to look for what they call "win-win" situations: look for a way in which each party to an agreement is going to get something out of the result.

By making sure that the customer gets what is needed, at a great value price; and each of the other parties in the distribution and delivery chain also gets the opportunity to make money, then there is the set of necessary incentives to build mutual success.
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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Entrepreneurs think widely

Part of the way to achieve that all-important lateral thinking is for entrepreneurs to listen, read, learn from as many sources as possible.

That's what is giving us the ability to take an innovative solution that cuts costs and increases revenue in one industry to entirely new sectors. And each sector we operate in has its own particular needs and challenges; in turn, meeting these can often translate across to other sectors, propelling innovation.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Entrepreneurs run counter-culture

With the global macro-economy beyond chaotic, those who haven't already lost money are sitting on their cash. Confidence is in free-fall and risk-taking is low.

Against this background, entrepreneurs run counter-culture. Both Google and Microsoft were founded in (less) difficult economic circumstances. Trying to find external sources of working capital is probably a poor return on the time involved at present, so bootstrapping a business is one of the most rewarding ways forward.

But those who are prepared to take the risks, and can innovate a response to market needs, stand to gain once they've solved the usual route-to-market issues as well, of course!
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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Entrepreneurs spot gaps

I sometimes find myself explaining that part of my role is to look at the marketplace around, and to try to see into the future, hunting for problems that need to be solved.

For me, this is a critical part of the marketing process, market research. It's something that we then take to innovate a solution that we can bring to market at a profit to sustain operations and further growth.

One of the biggest challenges, surprisingly, is in explaining the opportunity to others. If I were proposing a vacuum cleaner, it would be easy. Because people know what a vacuum cleaner is, the question at once focuses on why this new cleaner is better than Dyson or Hoover.

But if people have no frame of reference, this is a genuine innovation, then the process becomes more complex and lengthy; and only the equally innovative or visionary grasp the potential.
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Monday, October 31, 2011

Entrepreneurs are lateral

Edward de Bono's writing on 'lateral thinking' was popular some years back, encouraging a creative approach to problem solving rather than simple logic. It's something I took to heart and have tried increasingly to practice.

But it seems to me that it's an approach that is of crucial importance to the entrepreneur. It's great to spend time with successful entrepreneurs and to share ideas because typically these people have a positive attitude and are willing to help. Talking through an idea often leads to others providing generous input, just for the sheer fun of it.

For example, I was describing our products to a successful business leader recently. We were thinking of taking things into a third industry sector and, with a background there, he helped to identify some problems and issues that we need to overcome in order to make it work. But then, quite unexpectedly, he suggested a completely different sector where we can make a difference ...

It was a perfect moment of lateral thinking creative genius; and it cost neither of us anything more than a few minutes and some mutual generosity of ideas. Too often, novice entrepreneurs and business leaders are scared to share, fearing that their ideas will be stolen by others. Occasionally that happens, and I've certainly had experience of being badly abused over the years by colleagues in business. But the risks of continuing to trust are worth taking - just occasionally they lead to a spectacular opportunity opening up, something that otherwise would be missed.
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

When integrity breaks down

One of the best definitions I heard is that integrity means saying what you'll do and doing what you say.

It's a quality that's actually quite hard to find: people say they'll call, or email, or pay, or turn up to a meeting ...

And what if they don't? Our clients and others notice the gap; they see how we behave with the little things; and then they make judgments about how we will operate with the big things. So the little stuff matters: they, too, need to be handled with integrity.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yet another number

So today I'm desperately in need of some telecoms rationalisation, but can't work out how to achieve it - I've even acquired yet another phone number; and I shudder at the proportion of household and business finances that telecoms soaks up.

I can do some cool things like call for an hour or more while driving (using a hands-free kit) to speak internationally to a landline, all as part of a flat-rate monthly charge of a few dollars. Or there have been times when I've called from 30,000 feet on an international flight and spoken to a cellphone in another country, at no charge. But it's getting a lot to manage, and I'm not sure I'm using all the services I pay for, and I don't know how anyone could unravel what I've established to figure it all out if they had to!

Here's what it looks like - any suggestions for improvements?
  • Landline home phone, without which I couldn't get broadband Internet, and for which I had to sign a 12-month minimum contract. I use the phone so rarely that I don't know the number.
  • The landline comes with a built-in VOIP (Voice over IP) phone number on which I can make incoming and outgoing calls; but I never do. I could hook that up to my fax machine, but I never send and receive faxes these days, either. And I have to check that my outgoing calls are made over the regular landline number (which has a call bundle attached) rather than the per-minute charges for the VOIP line.
  • Two iPhones (3GS with contracts expiring in 1Q 2012). Despite my travels my phone is almost always using WiFi and I make precious few incoming or outgoing voice calls as most contacts are by email, SMS or similar. And I'm pretty much surgically-attached to the iPhone 24/7
  • An Android phone, to which my daughter is surgically-attached. Again, mostly SMS rather than voice.
  • An incoming VOIP number in London, England; and another in New York City, USA. Both are for business use, but rarely ring as we've established that most contacts take place in some written form rather than voice.
  • Outgoing Skype 'Unlimited World' bundle, chiefly for calls to cell phones and landlines in America. Maybe I don't use all of each month's allowance, but I'm paying for the convenience.
  • Again, for convenience, I've got a local number I can call (from the iPhone, say) to dial out to a cell phone or landline internationally at no extra charge. It's part of the Skype bundle, along with voice mail.
  • I use Skype for voice, video and computer screen-sharing almost daily. But I've got two other screen-sharing programs also, in case the person I'm talking to doesn't have Skype. Neither costs me anything and I almost never need them, but they're a stand-by...
  • Now, today, I've got yet another gadget to the mix: when visiting a client I connected to their internal WiFi network, but found that some of the extra security we've wrapped around the network traffic our software generates wouldn't get through their firewall ... So today I've purchased a USB 'dongle' that lets me connect a laptop to the 3G phone network. I know I could have 'tethered' the iPhone(s) to the laptop to achieve a similar thing, but I didn't want to commit to that on an iPhone contract that's got less than six months left to run... Trouble is, I've now got yet another phone number that I can use to send and receive SMS, this time via my laptop.
  • I've still got 800+ SMS text message credits left over from a project we folded a while back. They're not going to expire any time soon, but I do need to find a use for them as I won't get my money back.
It feels like I've missed something(s) out, but there's plenty here to keep track of: and that's even after I cancelled the ten VOIP direct dial numbers for the business that just weren't getting enough use to justify their cost!
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Visionary or gatekeeper?

Back when I was starting out it was fashionable to talk about 'leaders' and 'laggards' or those 'on the bleeding edge.' Now, though, there's a more insidious problem: the visionaries are being held back by the gatekeepers.

One of my clients is headed up by a visionary CEO. This individual really grasps the importance of staying a step ahead of the competition and making a bet on ways of innovating business process to achieve an edge and  maximize profit.

Trouble is, the CEO is held back by others in the organization who just don't 'get it.' They're the gatekeepers, not always in the Finance department, who want proof that the innovation will work before they'll sign off on pushing forward. Their caution leaves the goal wide open for someone else's striker to score first and risks them playing catch-up when they could have been setting the pace.

So what to do? I'm proposing a way forward that involves bite-sized steps, an 'agile' approach that doesn't make too many demands - or commitments - and enables the organization to try things out slowly.
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Monday, October 17, 2011

Don't try to sell through social media

It doesn't take much experience of the online world for people to get wise to how it works: many of us automatically 'tune out' the advertisements that appear on so many web pages. And it's even more important not to try to sell directly through Twitter and Facebook - it's one of the fastest ways to get un-followed or un-friended.

Instead, try to demonstrate expertise and knowledge. Or use it as a way to distribute content that adds value to your audience.

It'll be found via Google; and it'll be shared and linked to; and eventually the phone might ring or an email might come through, though it's certainly hard to measure tangible returns for the time that goes into the activity.
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Polishing the pitch: benefits make this a no-brainer

So I've got a couple of important meetings with prospects next week and today I've been polishing the pitch. At the moment I think the opening should be something along the lines of

"If I could show you a way to increase your customer retention rate, increase your revenue through cross-sell and up-sell opportunities while increasing customer contact at a lower cost, would you be interested?"

How does that sound? I think that with our team's ability to deliver on those things, working with us should be a bit of a no-brainer; but there's no accounting for all the things that can throw a spanner in the works, especially in this uncertain economic climate.
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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Never seen a vacuum cleaner?

I had an interesting meeting this morning with the buying manager of a multi-national. Naturally, part of his role is to play hardball and not to care about anything much beyond his financial bottom line. But, after putting forward our proposition, I thought of a useful analogy:

If I'm selling you a vacuum cleaner your natural question is why mine is better than Hoover or Dyson. But if you've never seen a vacuum cleaner before I've got to start further back and convince you that there's a better alternative to a broom and dustpan.

We've built something that breaks new ground and pioneers a new way of doing things that cuts costs, increases revenue and delivers competitive edge. But because there's no Hoover or Dyson to compare us to we've got to find the visionary, pioneering early adopters who are willing to steal a march on their competition and get ahead of the game.

Challenging. And a longer sales cycle than I'd like!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Limiting how you are tracked

There have been recent revelations that Facebook is capable of tracking your moves across the Internet. Apparently, this is true whether you have a Facebook account or not. It works whether you are logged in to Facebook or not; and you can be identified just from details of your computer's browser. Here's my source for these claims.

In response, the EFF produced this checklist of things you can do to limit (not stop) the tracking:
  • Install Firefox addons like Ghostery, ShareMeNot, Abine’s Taco, and/or AdBlockPlus to limit online tracking. None of these is perfect and each works a little different; check out this guide for a discussion. Also consider installing the Priv3 Firefox extension, which is still in beta.
  • Use private browsing mode.
  • Adjust the settings in your browser to delete all cookies upon closing. Clear your cookies when leaving a social networking site, and log out of Facebook before browsing the web. 
  • You should consider having one browser strictly for logging into your Facebook account and one browser for the rest of your web usage.
  • Support privacy legislation which will give users a voice when it comes to online tracking.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Robert @Peston entertains on the economy

My father-in-law's bruised knee was my good fortune last Saturday as I gained his ticket to hear Robert Peston, Business Editor for the BBC, speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

I'd recently read Peston's book Who runs Britain? and have been alarmed at the number of friends in the banking world who have found his insights in the book have educated them about their own industry!

Here's what I Tweeted as Peston spoke last Saturday:
  • Robert Peston at #cheltlitfest starting out humorously. Interview format talking re his dad Lord Peston
  • Peston arguing for high ethics: as a business journalist he refuses to own shares in a company, even if disclosed cd case bias [Peston feels that even if he disclosed his share ownership people might think that his journalism was influenced by the ownership: so he chooses not to own shares in the first place.]
  • Peston #cheltlitfest "If you can't explain in simple terms what you do, you don't understand what you do." [I don't think I'd heard it put this way before, but I completely agree: there's a great talent to be able to explain complex stuff in simple terms. And Peston went on to argue that the bankers fundamentally failed to understand the complexities of their products in simple terms.]
  • Peston #cheltlitfest world mess = "Too much debt (all of us) in the rich West" Borrowed 400% of what we earn! [Peston argued that it wasn't just bankers or governments, but ordinary
    borrowers too who binged on debt.]
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest "We maintained living standards by borrowing to buy what we want" > Illusion we are getting wealthier
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest eg China made stuff; sold stuff; saved income... We borrowed (from them) to buy the stuff they made
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest we must save more, spend less; but not q now else economy will stall - Dependent on consumer spending
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest UK consumers ratio of debt to income is 165%
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest we can't live on debt for ever. But politics now about making tough choices w scarce resources
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest Germany essentially has to be prepared to use it's resources to bail out all other European countries! ;)
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest German wealth recently built up by selling stuff to Greece etc and by loaning them money [so "don't feel too sorry for them" was his point!]
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest Banking at its best is a socially v useful function.
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest But banks played major role in crisis by hiding degree of risk & money creation to boost own pay
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest but anger doesn't get us v far even if it is legitimate
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest real capitalism is about allowing rewards of success but also results of failure.
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest in the good years bankers have taken the bonuses; in the bad years tax payers have been made to take losses [So the bankers were reckless, knowing that they'd win big if their bets were successful; and that they'd be bailed out by tax payers if they failed.]
  • @Peston #cheltlitfest rest of world thought eurozone was working so allowed weaker countries to borrow at favorable (German) rates [So one of the eurozone failures is simply that the level of risk across the economic zone is not homogenous; but interest rates and currency levels do not fluctuate within the zone to price for that variance.]
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Friday, October 7, 2011

your data: gain control

One of the emerging trends that businesses must acknowledge and capitalise on is that users own their data and should be able to to control what is done with it.

Too often, data is broadcast or leaked without a full understanding of the implications: many web services and smart phone applications don't even publish a Privacy Policy, still less one that's clear to understand and succinct.

Expect businesses that grasp the importance of this emerging trend to profit ahead of those that don't.
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Thursday, October 6, 2011

The life of an entrepreneur is hard

"Business is just in general harder these days, and the life of an entrepreneur is harder still."

A friend and experienced businessman wrote these words to me overnight from South America where he's been pursuing some interesting opportunities these past few months.

They struck a chord with me, echoing my own experience: it all just moves so much more slowly in these times of great economic uncertainty. Typically, small entrepreneurial companies can see an opportunity and move fast. But sooner or later, we need to engage with more established businesses, often for distribution arrangements or direct sales. And they move at glacial pace!

Even with support from the most senior executive, many organizations are stuck almost in paralysis:
  • An IT director responded to his boss's request to set up a meeting with me suggesting February of next year! (I think they might have other issues than simply busyness!)
  • Another company recently indicated that their due diligence process is likely to last more than six months, by which time the marketplace - and their competitors - will have moved on.
  • The more people who get involved in a decision (necessary to make sure all angles are covered, and no one neck is on a chopping block) the more easily derailed progress can be: today's meeting got pushed back a couple of weeks because of a re-scheduled board meeting and it'll be two weeks before we can get everyone together again...
With issues like these, entrepreneurs need to retain vision and enthusiasm and dogged persistence. Today's news and Twitter streams are bombarded with tributes to Steve Jobs of Apple whose death was reported today. One of his greatest achievements was in modelling this kind of self-belief and persistence in the face of adversity.

I'm grateful for those around me who "get it" and believe in what we're doing. Their enthusiasm often tops mine up and together we are better than we could be individually.
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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tech cutting costs of business

We've had incoming calls this week, wanting to take #StarfishCI to new industry verticals and new customers. Great!

Now, there's no substitute for in-person meetings where the detail can be tailored to a customer's or prospect's individual circumstances. We still take those opportunities whenever we can.

However, it's not always possible to schedule the travel or get the time booked in calendars in a reasonable time frame. For that reason, we are making extensive use of screen-capture software and video technology to host short movies that others can view on demand, at a time that suits. Coupled with interactive meeting software, including video calls, and our travel bill has gone way down!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Data-mining on Kindle

I can't decide whether or not to buy an Amazon Kindle. Having replaced all my CDs with digital files on my iPhone and similar, it seems like a good idea to save shelf space (and trips to Ikea to buy the shelves) by using digital books, too.

But there's something a bit creepy about claims that Kindle 'phones home' to Amazon to report on a regular basis ... Apparently, it doesn't just record what I read, but how long I spend on each page of a book, and whether I highlight text, or make notes ...

And the new 'Silk' browser for the Amazon Kindle 'Fire' will know even more: not just about the books I read, but the web pages I visit, and the prices that others quote for the things I'm interested in, and which Amazon might want to sell to me...

It's true that other browser suppliers could do the same data-mining; but, so far, they haven't and - unlike Amazon - they don't already have my credit card details on file!

Here's a guide to e-book privacy.
How much loss of privacy is convenience and space-saving worth?
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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Overwhelming personal data volumes

Under European data protection legislation it's possible to request a copy of the information held about you on any given service. Yesterday I saw reports that one such request to Facebook yielded more than 800 pages of information!

The detailed report showed that Facebook stores
  • Name, address, date of birth, friends
  • Messages you have deleted and private messages
  • Which events you decided not to attend as well as those you did
  • The last location you accessed Facebook from
  • A list of every single machine you ever logged into Facebook from
  • Who has poked you
  • Political and religious, and much more...
Of course, this is pretty much just the information that the user has entered into Facebook; it's just a bit odd when you see it all collated nicely together! For what it's worth, I heard someone describe how the equivalent information from Amazon ran to a similar length, including what passages they'd highlighted in the Kindle books they'd read, and the notes they'd made.
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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Selfishness and greed reduce privacy; or transparency yields personalisation

Here's a thought as to why personal privacy is mostly given up freely:
  • "I want" (or think I want) to be treated as an individual. I want stuff to be personalised for me.
  • But you can't personalise stuff for me unless I reveal who I am, and what my likes, wants and needs are.
  • So my demand for personalisation leads inevitably to greater transparency or, looked at the other way, less privacy.
There's almost a sliding scale, a trade-off, between the amount of privacy I have and the degree of custom experience I get. To get the most tailored, custom, service I need to let an all-seeing butler into my life. Alternatively, the higher my privacy, the more my experience is generic - the same as everyone else's - because there's no information with which to differentiate between us.

And just why do I want this personalisation that demands transparency? Because, in common with every other human being, I'm both greedy and intensely selfish: I want it all, my way, and now.

Internet users are not stupid. As an economist, I think they make rational choices between alternatives. They know they are not the customer but the product that's being sold; and they're happy to pay the price because their wants are being met. They've decided to agree with the famous Gordon Gekko line from the Wall Street movie that 'Greed is good.'

So users will continue to reveal more of their life to Facebook and Google because by doing so they'll get more stuff how and when they want it. Those motivations of greed and selfishness are more powerful than the pull of privacy, until an unexpected straw breaks the camel's back when suddenly it's too late.
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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Facebook "Likes" to know all about us

Facebook seems to have a track record of stealthily launching new features that work massively in the company's advantage, then doing some sort of back track if the outcry becomes too loud.

One of the latest difficulties is the revelation in the last few days that the "Like" buttons that have been springing up on most major sites over the last few months reveal information about us, even if we are not logged in to Facebook. Even if we have never registered at Facebook, our computer's IP address is still recorded along with the information about the web pages we're visiting, when and for how long ...

Last week's announcement of the Open Graph technology allows third-party websites to tell Facebook what people are doing. It extends Facebook's "Like" button to include any action that the site owners think might be interesting to Facebook. As a Facebook user you can opt not to have that information published (don't allow this publishing to start with); but you can't stop those sites you visit implementing Open Graph and sending the information to Facebook in the first place!

Over time this information can build up to be quite a large dossier on each Internet user. Something Adrian Short describes as 'silent total surveillance.' We can't opt out because the information is automatically shipped to Facebook the moment we land on a web page that's included the "Like" button.

Web site owners who implement "Like" are selling their users' web surfing information in the hope of a few more page views. Now I know, I've removed the "Like" feature from the web properties I own.

Here's how it works: Facebook gets web publishers to insert an iframe or JavaScript in the HTML for their Web pages. As soon as the page is loaded, the code invokes a PHP script at that records information including the URL for the Web page, your IP address, and your Facebook ID (if you're authenticated).
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Monday, September 26, 2011

Facebook tracking and auto-sharing

This weekend there's been a report that Facebook can track where you go on the web, even if you are not logged in to Facebook.

It's all about how Facebook tracking cookies stored on the user's computer can be read by the 'Like' buttons scattered over a million or more web sites, picking up the details of those who browse by.

Today a Facebook engineer has poured water, trying to put out the firestorm, claiming 'We don't track logged-out users.'

But, the point is that Facebook can use this technique. And so can other dominant Internet players (Google). And that user trust in Facebook is slipping: anecdotally, I know of a number of people gradually dis-engaging from Facebook, reading and not posting ... Surprisingly, friends who have just had a baby have decided not to publish the child's photos online. Is this a growing trend in the Friends generation who are becoming more aware of how their data is shared without their control?

Last week Facebook revealed more plans to introduce 'frictionless sharing:' it sounds great, amidst the hoopla and bright lights of announcements, until the penny drops that this implies that news about the books and articles I read, or music and films I enjoy, or applications I use, and more might be published automatically without my intervention to an activity stream.

Combine that with the fact that random individuals can now 'Subscribe' to my Facebook feed without me first agreeing that they are a 'Friend.' No wonder that renowned pundit and 'protoblogger' Dave Winer declared last Saturday that 'Facebook is scaring me.'
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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How's it for you, Truman?

We were talking today about how life in social media is like starring in our very own The Truman Show. It's not just Facebook, but Twitter and the rest also ... We publish our photos, feelings, thoughts, plans and schedules; many of us find our mood swings depending on how many 'Likes' our stuff gets ... And it's similar to starring in our own reality show where we make the 'cameras' follow us pretty much everywhere.

What will it take for us, like the character Truman Burbank in the movie, to get uncomfortable and feel that there's some reality somehow 'out there' that we're not in touch with?
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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mobile application vulnerabilities

Mobile devices outnumber traditional computers at a ratio of about 3:1 and, by 2015, it's estimated that 30% of them will be 'smart phone' devices, including tablets. That's just too tempting a target for bad guys for users not to be vigilant. This is especially true of users with commercially sensitive information to process, especially in industries such as financial services.

Already, the Skype application on the iOS (iPhone and iPad) is open to abuse: the bad guys can get at data on your phone, including its address book.

And, for regular computer users, there's a report today by the BBC that a UK firm is accused of supplying surveillance technology to the pre-revolution Egyptian authorities. The firm denies it, but the interesting piece in the report is that their technology allows monitoring of Skype calls, together with popular services such as Hotmail, Yahoo! and Gmail.
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Friday, September 16, 2011

Help when you get stuck

I like the insight from visionary Elon Musk (really) that a teacher's role should be to help you when you get stuck.

It reminded me of my conversation yesterday with @patrickjpr where he described Twitter as his "virtual watercooler" where conversations can range from philosophy or last night's TV/sports through to the practical and technical ...

We're moving so rapidly to a world where collaboration and mutual help and support is what's valued and valuable.

When I was taught at school, working with others was considered cheating and university teaching was mostly through quite gladiatorial tutorials where we took it in turns each week to defend an essay in front of the tutor while the other student would spar and score points ...

Against this background, training in IBM was such a shock where the only thing that got rewarded was team work. This is the right approach: we all need others around us to help us when we get stuck; and the best way to build that support base is to begin by giving help freely to others. In a world developing the need for portfolio careers instead of lifelong wage slavery, we have to learn to give our expertise away freely, at first, in order to develop reputation and contacts and, eventually, the monetary - and other - rewards.
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Power of serendipity

There really isn't just one way to use social media tools: there are many potential benefits and, like the shifting tides and weather patterns, you experience different things on different days.

Today, my 11:30 meeting in London got pushed back to late afternoon, leaving me free until my 2pm meeting.

From my public transport into the city I wrote a Tweet about it, with the hash-tag #bored.

By the time I'd arrived in town, just a few minutes later, I had a Tweet back from @patrickjpr who suggested that we meet for a coffee. Patrick runs a PR agency and is currently setting up and it was great to share some business start-up stories and begin to figure out how we might help each other succeed.

As an added bonus, he introduced me to #LikeMinds, a social co-working space designed to make physical connections from virtual conversations located in the heart of London’s West End. It's got WiFi, the ever-necessary power sockets, and a quiet, comfortable ambience where one can get business done, individually or in small meeting spaces. I may well join myself after such a positive experience.

And as a further added bonus, I briefly met a second Patrick Smith, this one the editor and chief analyst of He's a London-based journalist who has covered the changing nature of the media industry since 2005.

Much more use out of my hour or so of unexpected free time than wondering the streets of London, sitting in a park or taking in a museum or gallery ... and I got my phone charged at the same time ... and all down to a spontaneous Tweet and someone who took the trouble to notice and respond.
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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

No one makes a list of web sites to visit before they die

Remember that it's so important to focus on the value that end users will receive, whatever your product - even if it's "only" a web site.

A contemporary example of getting things the wrong way round is QR Codes: they are useful in tracking items through a supply chain, especially in situations where RFID tags are not appropriate, and the barrier to entry is really low: you can get started with a black and white printer and a free or cheap smartphone app.

But when they're offered to end users as part of a brand's marketing campaign, they're solving a problem for the marketer, not the end user.

Do we really expect a user to download an app; start it; scan a code; then wait for some random content to be pushed to them? If the code links only to a regular website then it's not likely to be a great browsing experience on the smartphone; and if they've scanned the code from an ad on the subway or London Tube then they won't have Internet access to reach the content anyway. When they do get the content, will they be glad they did? If it's just another ad then probably not.

There are just so many more intuitive and easy ways for users to get the content that they want. Meanwhile, the QR Code in this scenario is really only benefiting the campaign manager who wants to track real time viewing statistics; and users are tired of giving up measurement info for such small reward.

So, focus on what users want, and will benefit from. They're not sitting around compiling a list of websites they want to visit and ads they want to 'experience' before they die. Build and deliver something that helps your users to live better instead.
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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Young firms create jobs

I lived for more than three years in Kansas City where the renowned Kauffman Foundation is based so my eye was drawn to the quotation as part of the special report on the 'Future of Jobs' in this week's edition of The Economist.

"Research funded by the Kauffman Foundation shows that between 1980 and 2005 all net new private-sector jobs in America were created by companies less than five years old." Take note of that little word, 'All.'

The crude explanation is given by Carl Schramm, the Foundation's president, saying, 'Big firms destroy jobs to become more productive. Small firms need people to find opportunities to scale. That is why they create jobs.'

Certainly this chimes with my own experience. I had seven years with IBM and saw how (at that time) those of us on 'Permanent' headcount were semi-safe because the company could manage its demand for overall employment by changing its demand level for temporary contract workers.

Since then I've mostly worked in small business, including a couple of brand new startups, and know how everyone involved has to roll up their sleeves to get the job done, learning lots of additional skills, until such time as a co-worker can be brought on to the team.

The challenge remains, especially in these straightened times, funding the working capital to make confident investment decisions. We've got a great product, and great demand building in the marketplace, but it's hard to make those investment calls when the economic outlook is so challenging.
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Monday, September 12, 2011

Privacy is good business

We often hear the naive - and wrong - assertion that you don't need privacy unless you're guilty of doing something that you need to hide. Google it - there are a lot of articles, including some excellent thinking by renowned guru Bruce Schneier, that prove this false.

But there's a much more fundamental set of reasons: privacy is vital to help business work.

  • We've been approached by someone who wants an exclusive agreement to distribute our software in an industry vertical; 
  • Prior to our public beta launch, we had a number of sensitive commercial conversations with a different company, in a different industry;
  • As I work with a management accountant and other business advisers, we need to transfer financial and other information between us - and we recognise the need to keep the conversations between us, rather than utterly public!
If privacy were not needed to help business transactions develop then we wouldn't have the proliferation of confidentiality and non-compete agreements signed between business parties.

By making it harder for companies to use encryption technologies to protect their information as it travels, Pakistan and other countries banning the technology can only harm their economic life: outside investors will be more wary of trading with companies in those countries; and companies in those jurisdictions will be tempted - or forced - to ignore the ban.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Reliability of cloud computing - #LaptopFriday

It's often interesting to plan some 'light' work that I can do in the coffee shop context where fellow digital professionals gather each week for Cheltenham's #LaptopFriday.

Today, part of the general conversation was from someone lamenting that he'd attended a 'cloud computing' event where - amazingly - there was no WiFi provision. So the delegates could hear about cloud, but not actually use it from their mobile devices!

And then I turn to today's BBC News where there's a report of Microsoft's Hotmail, Office 365 and Skydrive and other services taken offline, preventing millions of users from accessing their stored files and emails and other services. The BBC notes, 'Such a major problem is likely to raise questions about the reliability of cloud computing versus local storage.'

Such problems don't just affect Microsoft. Much of the cloud infrastructure runs on services provided by Amazon and they've had several major outages this year, taking services that use them off line. And well-publicised breaches of security, such as the hacking of Sony Playstation user account details earlier this year, cause thoughtful users to question the services we're being sold.

The bottom line is that it's not all about the cloud. But cloud is far from over. It's appropriate for some - but, critically, not all - scenarios. Expect users to become more sophisticated and to demand greater control of their privacy and their ability to trust service suppliers.
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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

No clothes on GeoSocial location services?

Remember the little boy who cried out that the emperor had no clothes on? It seems the same may be true of location-based services like Foursquare, Gowalla and the now defunct Facebook Places.

With only 12% of adult smart phone users using a geolocation service like Foursquare or Gowalla, checking in is the least popular activity in the table published by Mashable yesterday. Why?
  • Privacy and safety concerns - folk are worried that in broadcasting their location they're advertising where they are not, and that the stuff they care about might be left unattended.
  • There just aren't enough users to make it useful: even a few million users worldwide translates to just a very few locally and, outside the geek circle, not many mainstream users. There just aren't enough users to make a consistent appreciable difference to the revenue of any one business.
  • Although many small businesses have been experimenting with deals and offers, it seems that users don't feel there are enough rewards to justify the cost of their time and privacy. My own experience is that checking in was fun for the first month or so, but my use rapidly fell from being active several times each day to a few times each week, then less - and now I've deleted Foursquare from my phone completely. Seems I'm not the only one with this pattern.
So, it's too early to claim that Foursquare is the next MySpace; or that Gowalla is dead already. But it's not quite the Internet gold rush that people were predicting a few months back.
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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Starfish beating Spiders in the Arab Spring

Watch it quickly on BBC iPlayer before it expires, if you're in the UK. Monday's episode of How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring: Episode 1 contains a great quote 28 minutes in:

The programme interviews Nawara Negm who says, 'The problem with the old school thinking of the Mubarak regime is that it thought that only factions that had a pyramid structure were dangerous. That is why it was confronting parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamic factions, because they were traditional organizations with a hierarchical structure. He thought that because the Internet had no structure and leadership that it wasn't a threat.'

The counter-argument is put by Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion and, back in January this year when the events unfolded so rapidly, hour by hour, it was difficult to get a perspective on what was happening. But the argument in the BBC programme is that the protesters, at least in Egypt, were very aware that everything they wrote on the Internet was monitored by government forces; and they claim to have used that to their advantage quite deliberately.

Now this BBC production gives a perfect, pretty much contemporary, further illustration of the thesis put out by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom in The Starfish and the Spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.

In the book, they give examples of the battles between centralized music labels and file sharing networks; they draw illustrations from Skype, eBay, Craig's List, Amazon and others. But it's their contrast between the ease with which Cortez wiped out the centralized Aztec society and the difficulty faced by those trying to 'tame' the Apache Indian society which was organized much more loosely that comes most close to helping us to understand what's gone in this year's Arab Spring revolutions across North Africa.

See also
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Greed, or fear?

You know the famous quote from the character played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street that 'Greed is good' ... and the follow-on quote in the successor movie of 2010 that 'Someone reminded me I once said "Greed is good". Now it seems it's legal...'

Robert Peston makes a similar claim in the final chapter of Who runs Britain? that 'It may not be pretty but, on the whole, greed is good.'

It's an appeal to greed, dressed up in the language of features and benefits, that underpins most of the marketing industry. The thesis goes that, as a marketer, I need to work out what will appeal to my prospects' wants so that they desire my offering enough to part with money for it. Of course, we don't present their wants as anything other than legitimate - even necessary - because to imply that wants fuel greed is a negative judgment, and no one gets anywhere by insulting customers or talking quite so baldly.

However, there's an equally powerful motivator, that of fear. It's less frequently talked about, but it's the flip side of the deodorant ad that subtly promises I'll get the girls swooning over me if I spray this brand ... Alongside the implicit promise to resolve greed (and sex!) is the fear that I'll not get the girls if I don't use this brand to smell this way!

I'm interested in the growing fear around the Internet world, particularly in the world of social media and online networking tools. Not only are we seeing a limited rise of celebrity voices questioning whether Facebook and the like are good or "dangerous," but there's an increasing flurry of articles questioning whether social media is 'eroding our privacy' and offering some how-to responses.

Rather than marketing on the basis of benefits (greed) or on the basis of fear, I prefer that powerful insight from Drucker that marketing is, in fact, all about listening to what the market wants and then innovating a solution in response to it.

Expect canny operators who are listening to what people want to respond to the greed/fear around the under-served themes of privacy and trust. Increasingly, as the world seems to get less stable, it seems that these are things people want and solutions like Starfish are making a response.
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Monday, September 5, 2011

Is Facebook "dangerous"?

According to The Drum today, the Queen's eldest granddaughter, Zara Phillips, has declared, “I think Facebook’s dangerous. So many people I know get into trouble with Facebook...I’d rather just pick up the phone. Or Skype.”

Beyond the somewhat elusive claim "so many people I know get into trouble" there are not many clues here. I want to know what kind of trouble, exactly?!

So, from a bit of Google searching today (thanks, Google, for the Freddie Mercury 65th birthday Doodle!)
  • Like email, it's all too easy for others to interpret my Facebook status updates in a way I didn't intend: there's no "tone of voice" (hence the proliferation of emoticon smiley faces ;)
  • It can all get a bit false as we self-consciously promote what we want others to think of us, editing out the photos and updates that don't support our desired image.
  • The "Like" button has become an immediate gauge of my popularity: "Why have I only got 2 likes for that...?" is the insecure response of many a kid nervously isolated online.
  • Who exactly are the people on that large "friends" list? Many names just slip my memory, or are friends of friends and random, one-off or temporary, acquaintances.
  • It's all a bit of a treadmill because there is such a constant barrage of updates that it's hard to keep up, yet we can feel socially isolated if we've not got the latest news. Someone I know Tweeted today that after two weeks' holiday in France he'd got out of the whole social media scene. I wonder, was his life richer or poorer because of it? (I rather hope the holiday was better than the treadmill!)
  • It certainly soaks up a huge amount of time; an average hour a day according to some claims. For many, it's the first thing they do (from their phone, in bed, on waking) and the last thing they do at night!
  • The constantly-shifting privacy rules mean that I can enjoy "stalking" others and peering into their life; while conveniently forgetting that random others are seeing me back.
  • Of course, we've been alarmed by tales of cyber-bullying - even leading to suicides; and there are cases every now and then of those who have lost a job or a promotion because of their online presentation. These things don't only happen on Facebook, but they are the down-side of the world's largest social media platform.
  • And then we've got to face the fact that there's huge monetary value in all that Facebook data. If there weren't then Mr Zuckerberg and his company wouldn't have such stratospheric valuations. But we also have to acknowledge that they are the ones making money off our data, paying us with a "free" service that increasingly feels like an expensive deal.
I wonder what sort of impact an un-endorsement from a Royal will have? Expect some reactions: there are already some claims that Facebook usage is reaching saturation point, possibly even tailing off in some key markets, especially in USA and UK, the early-adopter nations.
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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Response to a friend's encouragement

Having sat on a sofa for the last twenty years I have actually played two games of badminton one afternoon when bullied by some friends. And this week Cathy and I have together accomplished Week One of the NHS "Couch to 5k" programme.

Have you come across it? We think it's brilliant: thirteen podcasts, and some great encouragement to accompany music that we are choosing to regard as catchy instead of cheesy. Of course, we have only done the three runs of the first week so far; but we have done it without a call to 999 or an oxygen infusion. (We are concerned, though, that we may be the ones responsible for the Japanese earth tremors this week.)

Anyway, we are doing the programme together, to the mild surprise of the kids, and convincing ourselves that we don't look ridiculous. (I only have bright blue swim shorts to run in at present as my pairs of Crew and Eddie Bauer canvas shorts are too heavy!)

The best bit, of course, are the rest days in between. I really look forward to those.

But Cathy tells me I'm becoming a bit of a bore now I've found out I'd have to run for over an hour to lose the calories from the Twix I ate the other day. At least I was able to put a pair of work trousers on the other day without cutting off the blood supply to my most precious parts.

So, cheer us on: and hope you won't recognise me when you see us next!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Concentrated power

The web promised a level playing field, a democratic free-for-all where all voices were equal.

Despite the proliferation of web sites and Internet broadcast channels, most web users regularly visit just a handful of sites. I met a client recently who just didn't "get" that his customers aren't interested enough in a regular "relationship" that they're unlikely to keep returning to his website, or remember their login credentials when they do... (He needs to innovate ways to reach them, but that's another story that we are working on with him.)

But there's a more insidious problem: there's a hunger for power that concentrates information in the hands of just a few key players on the Internet. Google, Facebook and Apple dominate, though there are others. They're battling to know all about us, to own those relationships and control the revenue flows.

The latest move is from The Financial Times, withdrawing their apps for iPhone and iPad from Apple's store. The company lived with giving 30% of gross revenue to Apple; but changed Apple Terms and Conditions required the subscription process - and hence the customer data and relationship - to be mediated through Apple, too.

This would enhance Apple's cash-cow with increasingly valuable customer relationship data, strengthening it in the battle with Facebook and Google.

Most players in the Market just have to live with Apple's changed demands. The FT has just declared that enough is enough.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Back on the treadmill

Well, it's been great to have a few days vacation time, getting away from the daily pressures and gaining some perspective.

We made sure that the holiday rental had WiFi because I had some conference calls scheduled in the away-time and I can't quite bring myself to drop out of touch completely. The recent BBC article on "worlidays" (a combination of work on holidays) struck a chord.

However, it was great to unplug from the fire-hose barrage of info through Twitter and the other channels for a few days, even though it was tempting to reach for the nearest electronic device in the down-time. Initially it was an effort of will to choose not to check for updates; it became easier as the days of August wore on.

Now, though, I'm back to the constant flitting from channel to channel, afraid to miss the next vital update. Sure, it was great today in London when an afternoon meeting fell through to turn to Twitter and text and the other tools on my iPhone - and I was glad the tools enabled a spontaneous meeting over lunch with the chair of a brokerage firm...

But I can't help but feel that our 24-7 news cycles, where everyone is now a publisher in their own right, has enslaved us in a way that even the great period of historic industrialisation in factories could not: at least factory workers could leave the conveyor belt behind when the whistle blew at the end of the shift.

Now, I take the conveyor belt of constant work and information flow with me 24-7. It's the first thing I check each morning and the last thing I switch off at night and with me in my shirt pocket in between,; even on the beach.

Progress? Or modern-day information worker slavery?

Thursday, August 18, 2011


One of the great benefits of bringing a product to Market as soon as possible is that you can begin to get reactions and feedback.

I'm so grateful for comments and questions that indicate where extra training support will be required; and for feature requests - with some indication of priorities ...

It's all about putting Drucker's maxim into practice: marketing is about listening, then responding.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Business model challenges

"Information wants to be free" is the rather lazy call from those who focus on the costs of distribution without factoring in the costs of production. It's certainly near-free to distribute an electronic newspaper, but the journalists who fill its pages still have food, housing and other bills that need to be paid somehow.

One of the challenges of the Internet economy is that users have become conditioned to paying zero, in purely monetary terms, for the services they consume. Mostly they currently accept advertising based on an increasingly intrusive data-gathering model that harvests their personal profile details so that ads can be targeted more precisely.

But in the smartphone 'apps' world, users have become conditioned to paying small amounts for applications.

I'm intrigued, though, by the experience of Hungry Shark publisher Future Games of London who switched from a paid-for app with 1,000 daily downloads at $1 to 250,000 daily active users of their free version who can be 'monetized' through in-app purchases of upgrades.

Firstly, it's nice to be getting $1,000 per day of gross revenue; but nicer still to increase revenue from $1 to a claimed average $3.26 per gamer.

However, doesn't this model rely on the supplier having to find ways to continue to get the consumer to buy 'stuff' within the app?
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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On or Off; asset or threat?

The riots in London last week have stirred controversy about the role of social media and modern network communication tools.

Earlier this year we heard the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, preaching on the value of social media to empower those revolting in the 'Arab Spring.'

Now, in Britain, there is debate about whether to continue to allow social media/network communications because they provide such a valuable intelligence monitoring asset; or whether to restrict or disable access at times, as the BART did in San Francisco last week. Or as the former USSR members are doing:

 Evgeny Morozov 

What do you think?
Are the tools we use like a knife that can be used to prepare a meal or stab a victim?
In other words, are the tools morally neutral?
Or do we say that only responsible adults (or chefs) can use knives?
In which case, who makes that call?
Who gets to decide who is the parent here?
And what do we do if we disagree?
Is it true that 'everyone has something to hide?'
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