Tag Archives: systems

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.

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“Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere”: Paul Mason on the social media, revolt and the connected self… #RSAmason

Paul Mason, talking at the RSA on his new book “Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, supplied the bits that I had felt missing from the recent RSA Job’s Summit: he explained why the great and good – the economists and politicians with whom we entrust management of our economic and social government – don’t (and won’t – can’t) get it. (You can here a recording of his talk here.)

He was trying to explain why around the world – most notably in the “Arab spring”, but also China, Russia, and the west too (with the Occupy movement) – there had been public uprisings of one sort or another. He painted it as a Shakespearean tragedy in which the common people – the “fools” – sounded philosophical and the powerful and elite sound like idiots.

His argument had three strands:

  1. economics
    The “global financial crisis” is not a crisis but the collapse of the neo-liberalism model: the expansion of free markets, deregulation and globalisation since the 1980s lead only to their collapse: the old idea of “get a job, get a house and save for your pension” won’t work any more. The young today will be poorer than their parents, because the nation-states themselves are bankrupt. The never-ending growth of the world economy cannot be sustained, and this is causing a massive rethink in the young. The trouble is that there is no alternative to neo-liberal economic model: religion hasn’t worked, communism hasn’t worked – where else are people going to turn?

    Society’s promises to the young have been broken. The neo-liberal model helped the rich elites to grab more power, but with rampant inflation people are grabbing some back – and it is a growing, disenfranchised middle class who have nothing to lose. Mason quoted Taine from 1879 – “don’t worry about the poor, worry about poor lawyers” – except now in a garrett there is a laptop…

  2. technology
    With easy access through mobile and broadband communications to social media, the elite no longer have control of information. Commodified technology makes anyone a publisher, and governments can’t control it. (Though I couldn’t help but recall Evgeny Morozov’s talk in which he discussed how governments can use these technological tools to manage and control information.)

    To Mason, these new technologies and tools reconfigure the dynamics of power. In Kenya, for instance, the spread of mobile communications is seen as the “same as democratic transition”. Social media allow collaboration and co-operation between tribes who would previously have fought each other – they can foster trust from a distance and highlight similarities.

    Knowledge is now distributed and instantly available, rather than being restricted and controlled.

    These new tools are non-hierarchical – but the power-structures in society, like political parties, unions and global institutions are rigidly hierarchic, and this is why Mason thinks they “don’t get it”: they cannot understand how decentralised, self-organising groups such as the demonstrators in Tahrir Square or Occupy Wall Street can function. They cannot conceive it – no beliefs but a will for massive change, no leaders and no command structure. The demonstrators can move more quickly and fluidly than the police – mediated by social media.

  3. lack of leadership
    Mason quoted Karl Rove describing the world’s leaders as those who create reality – ”when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities”. Now it is out of their hands: it is the those without formal power who create reality, and this is causing a parallel change in behaviour and thinking. Mason drew parallels with the changing perceptions early in the 20th century: a sea-change in society. (He attributed this view to Virginia Woolf – which someone else has verified – but I can’t find anything about Woolf expressing this.) Mason sees a new conception of the self – connected, networked and “leaky”. (Not sure if I really get this, but it is an interesting idea!)

Where does that leave us? In an increasingly uncertain world. Mason drew uncomfortable parallels with late 1920s and 1930s Europe, and we know how ell that ended. Nationalism is on the rise in southern Europe – and in Greece and Italy, elected governments have been replaced by unelected technocrats. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, is reaching scary heights. (This was the starting point for the RSA jobs summit, of course.)

There may be different outcomes in different parts of the world. And it is unknowable, perhaps. Mason questioned whether the nation state may be challenged by technology – but where would this leave the welfare state (the safety net for those unemployed, in the UK and parts of Europe at least)? Twin – and opposing – forces of localisation and globalisation may lead us to new models.

Perhaps we do indeed live in interesting times.

[Mason also gave a talk at the LSE – you can read a transcript here (pdf).]

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.

Big Organisation Processes and Collaboration…

Like many people, I keep a list of subjects I want to blog about. For a long time – several months – I have had a item on the list which I hadn’t been able think into a post. I look at the list, ruminate on that particular topic, and skip it because I couldn’t think how to tackle it. It took a conversation with Maggie, James and Al at Tuttle on Friday to crystalise some of my thoughts. (It’s probably fair to say that there is still more thinking to be done – this is just a beginning…)

We were talking about collaboration (a frequent topic for Tuttle, it must be said: after all, we were at the Centre for Creative Collaboration!), and specifically collaboration in corporate environments. And more specifically still, why it is so hard for corporate organisations to collaborate.

A lot of the problem stems from the structures and processes that large organisations put in place to manage and control their business. In a hierarchy – as most large organisations seem to be – each person in the hierarchy needs to justify their position: this determines their reward. Where I have worked, a lot of this is worked out at the annual (or maybe even quarterly) review.

And annual reviews are always about individual contribution.

Even when “teamwork” is one of the competences being assessed (and there is a whole other post about competences lurking in my list, too…), what is measured in annual reviews is the individual contribution: “what have you done for the team or project…?”

Employees aren’t rewarded for teamwork or collaboration. They are rewarded for their individual contribution. They are rewarded for claiming their role in a project’s success – and let’s face it, they are rewarded for claiming others’ contributions, too.

Collaboration and teamwork need a different way of working and thinking; ways which aren’t usually rewarded within corporate structures. This may be why so many start-ups seem to be more collaborative than well-established organisations – without the rigid structures and processes and large numbers of people to get things done, they have to be. In small organisations, people have to be flexible and adaptable, take on different roles and collaborate if they want to achieve their (and the organisation’s) goals.

Maybe this is just a truism; but large org

Maybe this is just a truism; but large organisations just aren’t designed for collaboration.

“Engineering the Future”: climate change and infrastructure #EarthHour

Tonight, in a couple of hours, is Earth Hour. Last summer and autumn, I spent several days working with engineers, discussing climate change and its effects on national infrastructure. Now that the report has been published, “Engineering the Future”, I want to describe what I learned from the process. (These are my own views, prompted by the published paper; I have only described things which are in the public domain.)

My role was small – I and a colleague acted as rapporteurs, making notes and then pulling together early drafts for reports from a series of workshops. This was very much a recording exercise for me. It wasn’t my usual sort of gig, but it sounded (and was) interesting, and tied in with my interest in climate change.

There were four workshops, focused respectively on transport, information technology and communications, water and energy infrastructure, and then a final washup pulling it all together. The essential assumption – the basis of the workshops – was that climate change is a fact. Taking the UK climate projections as their starting point, what would the impact of the projected changes on our climate be in the long term? What would it mean for society? And how could society adapt its infrastructure to manage this change?

I was impressed by the calibre of the people attending the workshops; their views ranged from conservative to revolutionary, and there was active debate between them. They were all very engaged in thinking about the issues.

That said, little of what they discussed required much technical input: there were occasional detailed discussions – about the effect of increased atmospheric humidity on the attenuation of phone signals, for instance – but most of what was talked about flowed logically from the key assumptions without needing to know much about how the infrastructure actually works.

The big take-away lessons for me were

  • everything is connected. All our infrastructure systems need energy (mostly electricity); energy generation and distribution depends on computers and telecoms. Without either – and loss of one generally means loss of the other – and things grind to a halt pretty quickly
  • society is fragile. Analysis of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans showed how quickly society can break down. In New Orleans, flooding meant a loss of electricity, so cash machines stopped working. People ran out of money. Even if they had money, shops’ payment and till systems depended on energy, so shops stopped selling anything. People quickly ran out of food, and resorted to looting just to find food. It didn’t take long for people to change their behaviour in order to survive
  • significantly increasing infrastructure resilience will cost money. Obvious, really: increasing resilience means building in excess capacity, the opposite of the drive in recent decades to improve efficiency
  • there is a lot that could be done today, sometimes simply and sometimes cheaply. For instance, if rainfall patterns change as the UK climate projections suggest, water may become scarce in some parts of the country. Technologies already exist for dramatically reducing water consumption, such as low-flow appliances
  • increasing resilience may mean devolving projects down to a local level, with networked rather than hierarchical systems
  • much if not all we would need to do is being done elsewhere in the world now – the changes needed are not necessarily ground breaking
  • the way we behave – and I guess that means the sum total of human behaviour (the world is a single, closed system) – will have to change radically over the next few years. This might be decades away, but it will change how we live. Social factors, not technological changes to our infrastructure, will determine whether we successfully adapt to climate change

Indeed, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have grown up in western Europe in the second half of the 20th century: those technological developments that have now become part of the way we live – televisions; telephones; refrigeration; computers; clean, accessible water; constant availability of energy (as electricity, gas and petrol) – seem essential to us. It wouldn’t take much to lose a lot of them.

The world – at least, the developed world, my world – could be a very different place without always-available energy. Many of the things we currently do – driving when we feel like it, putting on air conditioning, maybe even switching on a light – could become expensive or even unsustainable. (I must emphasise that these are my thoughts, not the reports!) We live our lives based on expectations which are dependent on assumptions from the late 20th century, which are probably not appropriate to the mid 21st century.

There are broader implications for society, too. Migration from parts of the world where the impact of climate change could be more severe could strain our infrastructure further. Immigration is already a major political issue, but it could be bigger.

There is clear linkage without many of the things that Vinay Gupta and Dougald Hine talk about – the “collapsonomics” agenda. They describe a post-collapse society, exploring ways we might get by.

It could of course be a scary future.

Which leads me to my last observation. After all this talk of climate change over the last few years, the workshops’ discussions of infrastructure and its resilience, and others talking through ways in which we may survive – after all this, I don’t think my behaviour has changed much in the last couple of years. I live my life in ways which, in the future – near or far – won’t be sustainable. Even looking at Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, and the impact that they had on infrastructure (not least the capacity to generate energy), I doubt I will change my behaviour.

So do we need to wait for a major infrastructure failure here before we change our behaviour? Or will we just blame someone else – utility suppliers, engineers, government… – and wait for them to fix it?