Tag Archives: organisations

Models, Metaphors and Analogies.

It is common to consider business structures by metaphors to other things. For instance, some people discuss organisations as if they are machines, where if you were to pull a handle a specific outcome will happen. Others consider societal models – battalions, tribes and so on. (Business leaders in particular seen to like military metaphors. Perhaps they like to imagine themselves as generals deploying the troops. Misguided, I’d say.) Yet others see medical metaphors, discussing organisations as if they were diseased bodies with issues to be cured.

Metaphors do serve a purpose: they help us to understand an organisation by thinking about it in a different way.

But they can also confuse. Organisations are made up of people, they are not strictly controlled and limited machines. They rarely work in the way you expect them to.

The more you know about the original subject of the metaphor, the weaker the metaphor can seem. There are two biological – botanical – metaphors that I have regularly come across that baffle me. Because I have been knowledgeable of botany (I have two degrees in the subject); and when I hear people using them, it seems that maybe the words don’t mean what they think they mean.

Let’s start with “rhizomes“. Rhizomes are, botanically, underground stems. They grow through the soil, occasionally putting up the visible bits of the plant. Iris have rhizomes; banana plants have rhizomes; bracken, the plant I am most familiar with, has rhizomes. I spent five years working with rhizomes. Whole hillsides can be covered by bracken, the visible fronds rising up from the subterranean rhizome. The rhizome grows through the soil, occasionally dividing, unseen. It divides and divides, growing on. The old rhizome rots away, and, reaching a dividing point, the divided rhizomes become two separate (though genetically identical, save for any random mutations that might have occurred).

Not a rhizome.
Photo by Tylerfinvold on Wikimedia, used under CC free licence GFDL. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13160509

When people talk to me about organisations with rhizome structures, what I see is a hillside covered in bracken, the rhizomes underground. True, it might be that my knowledge of bracken and other rhizomatous plants fogs the discussion somewhat. I’m sure that’s not the meaning they intended. But then I can’t help thinking maybe I know more about rhizomes than they do. And perhaps they should use a different model.

Not a “mycelium“, though. Mycelia might be considered to be the fungal equivalent of rhizomes. They are one of the fundamental parts of many (though not all) fungi: they grow as unseen filaments through a substrate – the soil, a dead tree, your skin. (Athlete’s Foot is a fungal infection, the fungus mycelia growing in your skin.) Mycelia are multi nucleate – fungi have a very different form to most organisms we’re familiar with – and they divide and reconnect. The visible parts of fungi we’re familiar with, mushrooms and toadstools growing above the ground, are specialised reproductive structures formed from mycelia: the fibres of the mushrooms we eat are composed of mycelia.

Not a mycelium.
Photo by chris_73Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19658

When business people talk to me about mycelium organisation structures, what I see is athlete’s foot, or a fairy ring, the outward sign of fungal mycelia growing out from a point in the soil.

I can’t help but wonder what it actually is that they’re trying to describe, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that. (I have tried to understand, but the use of the word seems woolly; I got several pages in on Google before I found a definition, unclear as it is.)

The thing is, the mental models we create to explain and describe the world matter. If we think of organisations using a doctor-patient metaphor, it will lead to examining them in that way; if we instead use a mechanical metaphor, or a military one, we will find something different.

There’s no right answer, of course. Models, metaphors and analogies help us investigate the world around us. But they also skew our thinking. And they need to be used with care.

“Anarchists in the Boardroom”: It’s Not You, It’s Me!

I read Anarchists in the Boardroom towards the end of last year, and I have been trying to get my head around writing about it.

First, a disclosure. I know Liam Barrington-Bush, and we have had lots of conversations about the ideas in his book; he shared some early drafts of a couple of chapters with me. I know many of the people he has spoken to in researching this book, and have been involved in some of the very many stories he tells.

It comes as no surprise, then, that I agree with many of the ideas he has about the power of social media to change organisations, and the way people relate to them.

That said, though, I have some problems with this. Worse still, I think their problem is – ME. That hurts…

Let’s take a step back. Liam comes from a not-for-profit background, and his focus is on changing the not-profit sector. Specifically, he wants to stop the damage he sees done in the name of “professionalism”, which he feels stops organisations being more like people. (He calls his social media campaign #morelikepeople. I am not sure I completely agree with his thesis around this – lots of people do bad things; making organisations more like people doesn’t mean they’ll behave more responsibly. Even sociopaths are people…)

I come from twenty five years working within or for corporates – I’m part of the professional management class at which Liam lays the blame. I have professional qualifications and a business degree. So it’s not surprising that…

What I didn’t like about the book was that it wasn’t – professional! It has a chatty, informal style which, for me, obscured the benefit of the experiences Liam describes, and how others could use them and harness social media (together with flatter structures, open communication, autonomy, and emergent and contingent change) to be more effective.

I think the audience – and impact – of this book could be wider than the not-for-profits Liam is targeting. But to reach deeper into the corporate world, you need to talk their language, and I am not certain that those in (or who aspire to in) the corporate boardroom will pick up this book. The things that has driven Liam to write it – the desire for organisations to me “more like people” – to have a human feel, about communication rather than data – will stop them

This is of course a paradox: to access those able to bring about change (top down or – preferably – bottom up), one needs to become more like them – exactly what Liam is trying to get away from.

Many organisations and the professionals within them actively resist change. One of the powerful things about organisation culture – “the way we do things” – is that it acts as homeostat, bringing the organisation back to its core and, sometimes, preventing change. Culture acts to keep the organisation on course. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of an organisation’s culture – it is all the below the surface stuff that is so obvious to those within it that they are oblivious.

Most of all, culture is rarely questionned. What social media can do is create the space to open up communications. Liam gives several examples where senior executives have taken to Twitter (by its nature it facilitates conversations) and the effect it has had on them – by allowing their staff and customers direct access. Just using a medium like Twitter allows the informal organisation to change – and can subvert the culture. That’s one way it has the potential to change organisations.

Liam’s book covers all this; my main issue with it is that it probably won’t reach the people who I think need to read it.

“The Dark Arts of Innovation” – Or Not?

After excellent sessions on play and improvisation, I suppose I was only setting myself up for disappointment with the third of the series of talks at the ScienceFestival that I accidentally curated for myself: “the Dark Arts of Innovation. The talk’s title hints at secret recipes or innovation-magick, but whilst interesting and engaging, on that count it didn’t deliver. There were no secret tricks or short cuts, no quick fixes – though a fair bit of common sense.

I think this in part reflects the nature of the institutions represented by the three speakers: a university, a research institute and a private sector (and privately owned) company.

Light Bulb
Image from Olga Reznik on flickr.
Used under Creative Commons licence.

As Alan Miller, deputy principal (and responsibile for knowledge transfer) at Heriot Watt, pointed out, universities are steeped in tradition and conservative in nature; not necessarily the most innovative of institutions. Still, the Watt in Heriot Watt refers to James Watt, who whilst he didn’t invent the steam engine (that was Thomas Savery, apparently – I thought it was Newcomen, which proves that one really can learn stuff from the internet!), came up with an innovative design made greatly improved its efficiency and reduced its size, and enabled others to deploy it in many new ways – the power behind the industrial revolution.

Of course, once more the question of semantics came up. What exactly is innovation? Miller reckoned it was seeing the practical benefits of research – taking original research and creating products from it: exploiting experimental research and commercialising novelty. (As far as I recall, during my MBA the working definition of innovation we used was along the lines of seeing the potential products of new research, methods or processes, and then actually getting the product to market. Others define innovation as the generation of wealth from ideas.)

Either way, researchers are not necessarily the best innovators, and nor are universities the best at exploiting and commercialising their research. It has long been said that Britain is great at research but poor at exploiting it. Miller reckoned that Scottish universities are actually on a par with the US counterparts (a view which is consistent with this research into UK manufacturing from Southampton University). The UK parliament investigated the translation of research into commercial products last year, and produced a second report just last month. Others reckon the UK has no coherent policy on innovation. Part of the problem, I think, is whether a government can actually promote innovation specifically – they can make the economy as attractive for entrepreneurs and innovators (fat lot of success they’ve had there – though I guess they might argue the recent cut of the top rate of income tax is an effort to improve the incentives for entrepreneurs) – but I can’t help feeling that there is little governments can do to stimulate the process of innovation itself.

Heriot Watt tries to do this in various ways, though mostly by spinning off possible commercial outcomes from research into independent companies. The university doesn’t expect to to profit (though it hopes it will in the long term), but removing the removing the ties of bureaucracy and adding the profit motive seem to be beneficial.

The missing gap for me seemed to be how to identify those who were good at innvoation – clearly, not necessarily the same as those undertaking the initial research. My guess would be that most academics are motivated to a great extent by profit, but if one removes the results of their research and passes to someone else – even another (spin off) body – to commercialise, how does one recognise and reward to original researchers? Do they also profit from it?

Working out which bits of research actually have the potential also seems problematic: are there university committees assessing which bits of research might yield commercial results? Miller pointed out that the fruits of research may come a long time after the research itself – the development of transistors after WW2 relied on esoteric research into quantum mechanics decades earlier, for instance.

Fundamentally, though, Miller saw innovation as being all about people: they need to be stimulated to innovate. Unfortunately, how to actually do that doesn’t seem clear.

Lee Innes from the Moredun Institute gave some excellent examples of the way they have innovated. Firstly, they are very close to their ultimate costumers – farmers: indeed, they were established by the agricultural industry and are managed, in part, by farmers; they are aware of the issues facing farmers, and work with them on technological solutions. The profits of their innovation are channelled back into further research projects.

The institute also sifts ideas using evaluation criteria before product development and implementation – a long, and, she reckoned, potentially cruel process: you need to be willing to dump good, workable ideas if they might not come to fruition or would drain resources. “Killing the babies”, she called it.

The critical steps – necessary, even – seemed to be working in collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams, and for those teams to be small and flexible. She gave an example of a brainstorming session between the institute’s researchers and engineers from (I think) Heriot Watt where the engineers had picked up on a problem the researchers had thought of as insoluble – and a rapid diagnostic for toxoplasma is now in development. Being open to new ideas from unlikely sources seems to be beneficial – and I like the idea of innovation rising from random conversations! Spinning out potential products allows the innovators to work in flexible, dynamic, high performance teams to get the product to market – like any start up, perhaps. They are also open to unintended consequences – and exploit the novel application of them.

Promoting that sense of interdisciplinary collaboration in a high performing environment seems crucial to W L Gore. I have heard people from Gore speak before, and it has always seemed both an inspirational organisation – and completely down to earth. Gore’s Gerry Mulligan added to the passion for ideas I have seen from the firm before. It does sound like a truly innovative organisation, with a novel culture that has innovation at its core. (The first thing you see on their website is “A Commitment to Innovation Shapes Everything We Do” – quite a statement.) It eschews hierarchy and works with a minimum of bureacracy – no time sheets, for instance. Its teams are self-organising and wholly empowered; the only leaders are those who get followers (someone once said that Gore doesn’t do leadership training – they do followership training instead – though Mulligan did describe the leadership training those in senior positions get – clearly there is some recognition of hierarchy). Peers are involved in the annual review process – and are responsible for setting remuneration, too. Everyone gets 10% of time to work – or “dabble” – on their own projects.

This could also make it a harsh place to work, too – it may not be the best environment for introverts, perhaps. (I may be completely wrong, of course: if you are judged on your contribution to results by your peers, regardless of how loud you shout and how sociable you are, it could be that introverts may fly!)

It was, Mulligan said, all about the culture – and the people: without bureaucracy, hierarchy and “command and control”, innovation was able to flourish within small, flexible – and cross-disciplinary – teams based around relationships. Informal networks are key to sharing knowledge and enabling the teams to coalesce. All those conversations again…

There was long discussion about the nature of intellectual property, and who benefits from it. Gore uses patents a lot, and – in some jurisdictions – are bound to share the profits of IP with its developers (not in the UK). Mulligan described some bad experiences the firm had working with others and sharing IP, which had to be resolved in court, and felt it best to keep working relationships in house.

The speakers also felt that Scotland and the UK more generally had become risk averse: failure is a dirty word. Instead, they thought we ought to celebrate failure. At Gore, when a project closes because it fails, they have a party to celebrate. Of course, we can learn from failure – but to really learn, we need to share the knowledge of the failure. Researchers don’t publish details of experiments that fail, only those that succeed.

Condensing down what was said into that all elusive recipe for innovation, then…

  • small…
  • open…
  • collaborative…
  • flexible…
  • cross-disciplinary…
  • high performing…
  • empowered…
  • self managed teams
  • minimal bureaucracy
  • unafraid to fail
    And know when to stop!

But you still need to instill all that into your culture – and work with people who are creative innovators. Whoever they are.

Post Script. Whilst I have been writing this, my mind has kept returning to the Centre for Creative Collaboration, which I used to visit frequently when I was in London. C4CC acted (and, I presume, still acts!) a space promoting many of the themes of innovation that the speakers at this talk covered – particularly the open discussion and conversation. C4CC was set up in partnership with several of London’s higher education institutions, but is largely independent of them. Perhaps could be a model – only one many possible, mind – for incubation of innovation.

Thoughts on “Shareholder Value”…

A couple of weeks ago, after yet another corporate tax avoidance wheeze came to light, I was having a Twitter-based conversation with Steve and Gordon about “shareholder value” – specifically, whether the need to maximise shareholder value was dictated by company law. (The answer, by the way, is – predictably – “it depends”. More on that later!) It echoed something that economist Robert Shiller said when he spoke at he spoke at the RSA last May – he said something like the pursuit of shareholder value was so enshrined in (US common) law that social entrepreneurs needed new legal forms of organisation structures to do what they wanted to do – otherwise they could be sued for failing to maximise shareholder value. (I wasn’t convinced by Shiller’s argument that a new form of company was needed, at least within the UK.)

These exchanges made me question the concept of shareholder value: my background in finance meant that I took shareholder value for granted – a no-brainer: it was the orthodoxy when I was training, over twenty five years ago (that’s the late 1980s, in case you can’t do the maths!), and again, fifteen years later when I did my MBA. It struck me as being good to review my understanding of shareholder value.

“Shareholder value” – there are many definitions, but this one seems simplest:

the value that a shareholder is able to obtain from his/her investment in a company. This is made up of capital gains, dividend payments, proceeds from buyback programs and any other payouts that a firm might make to a shareholder

– is the be all and end all of management. It stems from the separation of ownership of an limited companies by shareholders from the management of those companies – the principal-agent problem. By focusing on shareholder value, managers should align their interest with shareholders.

I still think this is simply stating the bleedin’ obvious: managers of a firm should manage the firm in the interests of the owners (the shareholders). It is the same for all employees – if you behave in a way that is detrimental to the company whilst performing your duties, you are likely to be sanctioned.

In financial decision making, maximising shareholder value is often synonymous with maximising the net present value of future income streams – calculating the discounted cash flows of a company. That is essentially how the market prices of share are estimated (and they go up and down as the market reassesses those future values). Allegedly.

This gives a relatively simple way to estimate shareholder value, and companies regularly assess new projects to maximise shareholder value.

The duties of directors to act for the advantage of shareholders is set out in the UK Companies Act 2006 (and previous versions of it, too!). But CA 2006 goes beyond its predecessors by establishing “enlightened shareholder value”. Section 172 of the CA 2006 states

(1) A director of a company must act in the way he considers, in good faith, would be most likely to promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole, and in doing so have regard (amongst other matters) to—
(a) the likely consequences of any decision in the long term,
(b) the interests of the company’s employees,
(c) the need to foster the company’s business relationships with suppliers, customers and others,
(d) the impact of the company’s operations on the community and the environment,
(e) the desirability of the company maintaining a reputation for high standards of business conduct, and
(f) the need to act fairly as between members of the company.
(2) Where or to the extent that the purposes of the company consist of or include purposes other than the benefit of its members, subsection (1) has effect as if the reference to promoting the success of the company for the benefit of its members were to achieving those purposes.

So whilst the company is to be run for the benefit of its members [shareholders] (s172.1), it requires a long term view (s172.1.a), consideration of employees (s172.1.b) and other stakeholders (s172.1.c and d), and maintaining a reputation for high standards (s172.1.e). Shareholders come first, but clearly CA 2006 reckons that the best way to maximise the benefit for shareholders is through its relationships with others. And, though I’m not a lawyer, I reckon that s172.2 means that the directors have discretion to do things other than in the immediate interest of shareholders for a longer term benefit. (Like making contributions to charity, perhaps?)

In the US, corporate law is set at a state level; for historic reasons, though, the small state of Delaware has over 50% of company registrations, and they are determined by Delaware General Corporation Law ((DGCL). This doesn’t set out directors’ duties, which are governed instead by common law.

The key ruling seems to be Dodge v Ford Motor Co (1919): Henry Ford wanted to expand production the company (of which he was the major shareholder) for the benefit of employees and customers – cutting prices in the process. (A strategy of going for growth and market share at the expense of profits.) The Dodge Brothers objected, and the court ruled in their favour:

A business corporation is organised and carried on primarily for the profit of shareholders. The powers of directors are to be employed for that end.

Shareholders have primacy.

This might seem unequivocal, but of course it isn’t. There is a huge amount of discretion for directors.

In public companies shareholders will have a huge range of objectives. Some may want a stream of dividends to supplement their income now; some might want future capital growth; some might simply want to have a say in what a company is doing (like protester at BP’s AGM). The CA 2006 covers this in s172.1.f – “the need to act fairly as between members of the company”.

But most shareholders are shareholders because they want some form of their wealth to increase through income or capital growth. The UK stockmarket was, in 2010, owned 11.5% by individuals, 41% by financial companies and institutions (pension funds, unit trusts, insurance companies and banks) and 41% by “rest of the world” (overseas financial companies and individuals). Anyone with a pension plan or investment has a direct or indirect investment in listed public companies.

Those financial institutions are increasingly measured by their relative, often short term performance: fund managers (the people managing the share portfolios of those unit trusts, pension funds and insurance companies) are measured on their quarterly performance, and so they assess the shares in those portfolios on quarterly performance as well. Focussing on “shareholder value” allows them to do this.

Additional focus on shareholder value has come from the rise of shareholder activism – particularly from hedge funds. Activist shareholders are nothing new – the Dodge brothers in Dodge v Ford were activist shareholders: they wanted to influence the company’s strategy in a particular direction.

There is no time-frame for shareholder value, which is what makes it rightly subjective: focus on the short term profit, like many hedge fund managers, and you’ll stuff future value. Focus on customers, employees, suppliers and (erm…) the broader community – focus on relationships, if you will – and your business will grow for the future but perhaps at the loss of those short term gains.

For instance, Starbucks may have maximised its current shareholder value by legally minimising its corporation tax liability, but at the expense of its reputation once the story broke and, if customers act on this knowledge and choose to buy someone else’s coffee, future profits.

I know which I prefer.

“Caring Capitalism”?

There was a bit of an unintentional theme running through a couple of events and conversations I’ve been to over the past few weeks regarding the future of capitalism and corporations, and then last week Ed Miliband’s speech at this year’s Labour conference continued his emphasis last year on “predatory capitalism“.

Miliband was talking about aggressive capitalism which he saw as damaging the economy, and I doubt anyone could really disagree right now.

Last month I went to a talk on “caring capitalism” – perhaps the antidote to Miliband’s “predatory capitalism”. Focusing on social enterprise – as the speakers pointed out, a broad term with no real definition (though Wikipedia has a go) – as a means to create a more just society, a few different models were explored: though frankly none of them seemed particularly new.

For Helen Chambers and Mary Duffy, a social enterprise is one which exists specifically for social purposes, working within a commercial, for profit model – with a commnon principle “to do good”. Two specific organisations – Haven Products and Rag Tag ‘n’ Textile – were used as examples though the latter is a registered charity (and hence a not-for profit – although presumably just as many charities run retail, for profit operations, it does too). Both these organisations work largely for the benefit of their employees, providing opportunities to those who might otherwise not find employment.

Other objectives for social enterprises include working for the benefit of employees more generally, suppliers (such as fairtrade), the environment, and the wider community.

Whilst social enterprises might explicitly have such objectives, I can’t help thinking that most commercial corporations implicitly act in a similar fashion: a business which works against customers, suppliers or the community should not prosper, at least in the long term: if you work against customers, they will move (that’s what competition is about). Many commercial, profit-seeking organisations make large donations to charity – including banks such as the near-collapsed RBS. The rising interest in corporate social responsibility has focused investors, managers, employees and other “stakeholders” on organisations’ governance, ethics, ways of working and their internal and external relationships. (Much of this may be mere window dressing, though…)

Much of the talk was about social investment. It sounded like a wall of philanthropic finance was pouring into a small, undeveloped and fragmented sector: this could distort the economics and lead to imperfect allocation (one of the things markets are supposed to be good at – though the economic crisis has clearly dented that particular claim). But the amounts of money are still chickenfeed compared to the amounts spent by governments.

Nor is philanthropy anything new – Andrew Carnegie distributed his large wealth, endowing libraries, museums and universities; other “robber barons” such as Frick, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt did the same. Indeed, contrite financiers such as Michael Milken have tried to make amends through charitable donations and work, though the rich have long been using the gains – ill-gotten or not – to buy forgiveness.

Most social enterprises are small: perhaps it is easier of small organisations working outside the usual constraints of (non-social) investors “to be good”. Certainly large, international corporations seem to suffer from much of the criticism – perhaps because they are further from their suppliers, customers and communities: and of course one of the main advantages of large organisations – the ability to leverage economies of scale – means that someone, somewhere is paying more or getting less than smaller firms.

I still believe that outside a few industries – tobacco, arms and extractive industries, perhaps – all businesses benefit from “doing good”, if they want returning customers. Perhaps some organisation structures are better fitted for this than others – cooperatives, employee-owned firms or mutuals, perhaps. With businesses focused on customers, employees and suppliers, all organisations would be “social enterprises”: exploitation of one or oanother of these key groups would be to the detriment of the business.

Or what am I missing?

Trying to Understand the Financial Crisis…

Some time back, someone shared a new acronym with me: GFC. For those, like me, not in the know, this is apparently the hip shorthand for the global financial crisis – the economic mire that engulfs us all. It has been going on, more or less, for five years now, with every indication that it will get worse. It is its evolution from a banking crisis to a sovereign debt crisis – at least within the Eurozone – that gives me my optimistic outlook. I’ve been trying to write this post for ages, but every time I do, the story gets bigger and and seem to be constantly changing. It still is.

I have written this in an attempt to understand how we got here. I must stress that, whilst I have taken a couple of classes in economics, I am not an economist. I am sure I am missing large chunks, and I look forward to being corrected by people who have a greater understanding of these matters than I have.
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“The Future Is Already Here”: looking at future trends

July saw the Edinburgh University Business School alumni conference, the topic this year being futurology and “Trends”.

It started off with a panel discussion on “Futurology”, in which all three speakers were very careful not to talk about the future. They did though have much to say that was interesting about the past and present, and what that might mean for the future…

Murray Calder told a great story of American Scotch whisky salesmen asking why it wasn’t possible to simply make some more… of a 25 year old malt! Coming from an industry where current possibilities are clearly shaped by decisions made years – decades – before, Murray described the future as a range of outcomes and opportunities – I pictured the diagrams used by the Bank of England to describe possible inflation rates.

From www.clearonmoney.com

Looked at this way, the future is necessarily contingent – possibilities looking like quantum maps rather than binary outcomes. And as we are all too frequently reminded, the past is no predictor of future performance (though it may be the best model we have!). Murray described the future in Darwinian terms: those best adapted to change are likely to survive.

Alan Fowler similarly viewed the future as a range of options – but options which we can shape. By taking control and envisaging the future we wanted to create, he proposed “backcasting” to work out how to get there. For organisations, tying in strategy and workstreams to the hoped-for future could lead to big rewards; it also needed constant re-planning, since of course the starting point will have changed the moment one finishes planing. (He expanded this in his talk later in the day – the Isochron website outlines their approach to change management.)

William Nelson also concentrated on clients’ strategic objectives. Starting from a quantitative perspective, his clients want – need – narratives that they can work with: stories that can help define their future. (Francesca Elston recently wrote eloquently on the power of stories to shape our thoughts.) The need to create compelling narrative to help effect change is a powerful story of its own. Interestingly, Nelson also said that PR people and journalists need facts rather than the general story: they want solid information, despite there being a lot of evidence that journalists don’t know what to do with data.

They were each asked to identify the top trends they saw emerging; all picked some variation on mobile technology and social interaction. For Murray, “social” was nothing new, but we had access to new tools to accomplish these interactions; as mobile devices become ubiquitous, access to information and networks changes the way we behave in social situations, on- and offline. (We must all have seen people sitting in a bar with their friends – all interacting with people elsewhere through their mobile smartphohes.) Google, Wikipedia and IMDB have killed many old-form pub conversations…

Willie reckoned that smartphones have the capacity to become universal controls in our homes, allowing us to interact with otherwise “dumb” tools like central heating through an interactive hub. His really interesting take on this was that it would probably be a utility firm like British Gas which would get first mover advantage on this, not a technology giant or an ISP. Technology firms have been predicting the “internet of things” for a long while – Microsoft thinks we’ll have thinking mobiles, 3d screens and wholly integrated lives whilst Ericsonn foresees sentient hoovers, bickering cookers and interactive tv – all vying for our attention – and they may be right (at least for a tiny percentage on the top of the ladder); but I agree with Willie that using our phones to switch on the heating when we’re on the bus home or switching on lights at home when we’re away on holiday seems a much more likely future for most.

Willie’s other key trend was the changing structure of families – as cohabitation and divorce become more common, different ways of organising in social structures may emerge. (I have friends who talk about “their family of choice” – albeit that’s what I think I call friends…) As people marry or settle down later (if at all), and the economy continues its sideways slide, different ways of organising homes might increase – such as “co-living” or (for the less well-off?) squatting (the latter especially if the sympathy for the Occupy movement and the opprobrium heaped on rich bankers continue). Willie looked at both these trends in more detail in a later session.

Alan’s take was somewhat different: he saw mobile technology disrupting as well as strengthening social interactions, to the extent that it could damage community. (At these point all those who see “online community” as the future will be throwing their arms up in disgust.) He definitely saw technology increasing the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” – the government certainly sees access to technology as a driver of economic growth – and those without access by economic situation, location or choice are at risk of getting left behind. Alan foresaw an increasing gap between those at the front edge of technological innovation and those at the back.

The questions raised many more issues, such as

  • is democracy hard wired to think short term only – politicians rarely have a horizon beyond the next election (although Alan pointed that in his experience working with the public sector, ministers and their civil servants are often involved in considering the impact of policies and planning for decades ahead)
  • envisioning the future often leads to its crystallisation – we create our own futures (the point of Alan’s session in the afternoon – a way of making that happen)
  • technological change prompts behavioural change – but behavioural change takes a lot of time, and may happen in ways that are not foreseen
  • “the future” needs defining – it starts now; unless something catastrophic happens tomorrow will be much like today for nearly all of us – so it makes sense to keep doing what works today (though continuing to be adaptable to change)
  • large organisations don’t seem adept at managing the unforeseen – catastrophic outages at RBS in June and O2 in July were surprising in that backup plans didn’t seem to work

The main takeaway message was never make predictions – because you’ll be wrong – but coming at trends laterally and challenging the assumptions may produce some interesting ideas.

I went to three other sessions: one each by Alan and Willie, and another by a digital agency, entitled “Digital Futures: Trends in Social Media”. They did discuss trends in social media, but they didn’t discuss the future at all: everything covered already existed, even if some of the content may have been new to some attendees. William Gibson is quoted as saying “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” – maybe it’s just difficult picking out which future will actually come to be.

Two Changed Processes That Fail Badly

I have recently been surprised by the way two – very -different – process have been changed that make things way, way more difficult for the user.

Haringay Parking Permits

I live in Haringay, and like many other urban boroughs, there are parking restrictions. I don’t have a car, but I occasionally need visitors’ parking permits, which I can buy from the council.

How It Used To Work

  • go to the council offices
  • queue for a while
  • fill out a form
  • hand form to council worker
  • pay for the permits using credit card
  • receive permits from council worker, up to the limit I’m allowed if I so wish

There may have been an online option, but since this was the first time I needed permits and I needed some quickly, it made sense for me to pick them up from the office and register in person.

How It Works Now

  • go to the council offices
  • queue for a while
  • fill out a form detailing how many permits I wanted (32 in this instance)
  • hand form to council worker
  • council worker explains that they can’t take payment at the office
  • receive eight two-hourly permits from council worker – all she was allowed to distribute – without paying for them
  • another council workers makes repeated phone calls to my phone (which I ignore, because I don’t recognise the number)
  • council worker finally leaves a message on my voicemail
  • I call council back
  • I give the council worker my credit card details
  • council worker takes payment from my credit card
  • council worker puts 24 permits in an envelope (32-8, since I already took 8 permits)
  • council worker puts envelope in the post
  • postman delivers envelope
  • I receive permits

The whole process has been redesigned to create more touch points from the council, meaning much more work for them, much less convenience for me, and decreased security since I have to give my credit card details to someone over the phone (who could be using my card right now…). What’s more, they had to wait three weeks for their money: I wanted to give them money, and the council didn’t want it. It is, frankly, bonkers, and I can’t work out why they would have designed it the way they have: separating out the supply of permits from the payment, and restricting the number of permits that can be given in person, imply there were some issues with the face-to-face parts of the original process. How these were solved by greatly increasing the complexity – and the work done by the council – baffles me.

Photographs from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum

At last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, they had some great interactive software that allowed you to select your favourite pictures. They had something similar this year. Except that they completely broke it.

How It Worked Last Year

I think. As much as I can remember…

  • sit at a console at the end of the exhibition
  • select favourite pictures
  • type in your email address
  • go home
  • log into email
  • open email
  • click links
  • look at favourite pictures online

Simple. Really.

How It Worked This Year

  • sit at a console at the end of the exhibition
  • select favourite pictures
  • scan barcode on ticket stub
  • go home
  • go to http://www.nhm.ac.uk
  • click on the link to the exhibition
  • click on the link which said something like “how to view your favourite pictures”
  • type in 16 digit number from ticket stub – yes, a sixteen digit identifier – were they really expecting trillions of visitors?
  • register to join the Natural History Museum’s “Wildlife Photographer of the Year community”, which required giving my email address and a password (which must include an upper case character, a lower case character, and a number)
  • wait for them to send a confirmation email
  • log into email
  • click link to confirm my email address
  • log into the community site
  • look for the link to access my favourite photographs (which the instructions said would be at the bottom of the community page)

Guess what: no link, no photographs.

So the Natural History Museum took a process which was so simple it impressed me last year and did exactly what it needed to do – and which I raved about, sharing the photographs with friends and giving the exhibition free publicity – and ruined it.

What’s more, why do I require a password? Why does the museum make me choose a variety of characters to secure an account which I do not want with a community I have no interest in joining which contains no information about me except my email. What is the security risk? That someone might pretend to be me to look at some pictures which the system has singularly failed to deliver? (Actually, my guess is that the community is open to children of all ages, so they feel the need for some control: but their process has not verified my identify at all. And I am trying to imagine young children navigating this process.

The thing is, I can look at all the pictures without this process anyhow, by going to the exhibition’s online gallery. You could have told me that before going through all this bloody process!

The whole thing has been a waste of time.

I can only think that the Natural History Museum has been told by some social media consultant that they need to have a community, and that they have decided the best way to do this is to force visitors to the exhibition to do this.

Of course, maybe I have been doing something wrong. The process is so complicated – unnecessarily so – that I may have made a mistake. So I’ve just logged in again, following the instructions once more. No photographs, no link.

And apparently no way to delete my account.

Great job there.

Richard Sennett on “Together”

Once more at the RSA, to hear Richard Sennett talk about his new book “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation”. (Audio here.) He had some very interesting things to say – it was thought provoking – but I was not necessarily convinced.

Sennett reckons that cooperation and collaboration is natural to people – indeed, he said he believed that it might be genetic in nature (though I’d have thought it would be easily explained through culture, especially as Sennett said it develops as we learn – a lot of play is about developing cooperation).

But he then said it is difficult and requires practice – if it is innate, there is clearly a learnt element. Still, it is clearly a complex skill: Sennett focused on three attributes which he contrasted with their modern antithesis, to show where we might be going wrong.

  1. dialogics v dialectics: education and legal systems (and much else) lead us to dialectic debate, often confrontational (anyone listen to the “Today” programme or watch “Question Time”: they may then understand that confrontational debate does little to promote understanding and collaboration…); in contrast, dialogic requires the exercise of listening skills – more listening than talking, and what talking there is is questioning and probing. Co-operation requires understanding built on dialogue
  2. subjunctive v declarative: Sennett lambasted the “fetish of assertion” – aggressively asserting “I think…” or “I believe…” demanding for a (usually confrontational) response. Instead of confronting others with our convictions, Sennett advised using subjunctive propositions – “It seems to me…” to open discussion and invite participation – building collaboration and teamwork rather than confrontation
  3. empathy v sympathy: identifying with others – sympathetically feeling their pain – closes down discussion: understanding another’s position without being able to identify with it, but accepting their need to attend to it, sends messages and builds understanding, It requires curiosity rather than compassion – an interest in other people

[I’m not sure that I am in total agreement with Sennett about these, particular his second and third assertions, though he maintained there is research to support his position.]

Sennett proceeded to discuss co-operation in urban society and workplaces; once more, he was interesting if not (to my mind), wholly convincing. He asserted that the way that we organise work and (his word!) community in modern [western?] society reduces and disables learning to co-operate with those who differ from us.

With regard to work, the focus on project work with short term timeframes plays lip-service to teamwork, but doesn’t let us develop the understanding required of each other to actually pull it off. We don’t have the time to spend with others building that understanding, instead focussing on our short term objectives – after which we move off to work on the next project. We do not have enough invested in the success of our enterprise, instead seeking the next fix.

I disagree about this: those working in a project environment rely on others in the team to deliver the result. We have to co-operate – and having the skills to do so is crucial to our success: those informal “people” skills which might not appear in the job description are necessary to help us build our reputation.

Sennett believed that despite cities being full of difference, we are living in more and more homogenised societies, and rarely mix with those from different races, religions or classes. We are segregating ourselves.

Whilst I can see some aspects of this, I do not believe it is new: surely society was much more homogenous one hundred or two hundred years ago? There are many more opportunities to mix in today’s multicultural society: it might be easier not, but the opportunities are still there.

Sennett had some interesting things to say about the Occupy movement – he has taken an active interest in the movement in the USA, and it seems to fit his model of dialogic, subjunctive, empathetic behaviour. Politicians of all flavours – the dialectics supreme – literally don’t get it: non-hierachical, self-organising, learning, the Occupy movement is about experiences rather than demands, and growing from the shared experience.

Much of what Sennett had to say resonated – particularly stemming from conversations at Tuttle and the C4CC, as well as institutions like the RSA itself creating space for discussion – but the very existence of these fora actually weakens Sennett’s thesis.

The Fallacy of “Security”: anything but…

I’ve had two recent experiences involving organisation processes in the name of “security” that were deeply insecure and added no value – and no security – at all.

The first was in my local supermarket. I wanted cash-back in a debit card transaction. The cashier printed off the receipt, asked me to sign it to authorise the transaction – which I did – and then handed the signed receipt back to me to dispose of anyway I liked.

This process added nothing. In other supermarkets, I have been asked to sign the stores’ copy of the receipt – in which case they then have evidence that I authorised the transaction and had accepted the cash. This presumably formed part of those organisations’ audit trail – though I never believed that any supermarket retained a paper copy of the transactions, relying instead on their electronic systems. (I’ll happily be disabused of this.)

But for my local supermarket to get me to sign the receipt and then hand it back to me makes no sense whatsoever. It is, frankly, bonkers. I can only assume that the cashier was incorrectly completing the process, or the store management had instigated a process without understanding why or what outcome they wanted. Instead, they just held up the queue a little.

[Edit: Joanne Jacobs has pointed out that by the shop making me sign my receipt, they may be protecting themselves against my returning with the receipt and claiming I didn’t receive the money. This is true – although by getting me to sign the receipt before I’ve received the money, it is still open to abuse by the check-out person…]

The other experience involved my bank. I called them to arrange payment of my tax bill. The operator asked for my phone number, which I gave them. And today I had a phone message from my bank saying that the payment hadn’t been made because they wanted to check that it wasn’t fraudulent. Aside from the unlikely scenario that a fraudster would be paying a tax bill – I mean, really! – my bank phoned the number that someone they thought might be a fraudster had given them to check that person wasn’t a fraudster. Their security check involved information that I imagine anyone determined to pretend to be me would be able to find out. (Though it is a good idea to keep a lot of that kind of stuff hidden on Facebook!)

I completely accept the need for security, but having “security” processes that do anything but provide security is dangerous: if my bank actually believes that what they do is providing them and their customers security from fraud, then they really do have big problems.