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I am always struck by how powerful it can be to be driven by a single, counterintuitive question.
Consider this one: In early 2007 the Spanish bank BBVA asked IDEO to re-think their self-service channel – the automated teller machine (ATM) from scratch. The question was not how to further automate the teller, but rather how to humanize the machine.
In simply inverting this line of inquiry (let’s focus on humanizing the machine) you find entirely new possibilities for innovation.
Focusing on self-service as a means to lower transaction costs will give you automation. Focusing on simplicity and human needs will give you something remarkable.
This video walks through the process of how a team from IDEO went about rethinking the ATM experience and is worth watching not for the future of the ATM – but for how a company can simply invert their normal question – or objective – and begin striving for something remarkable.
So many of us are driven by an ambition that informs our everyday choices. Choices that, when summed, have a defining effect on every aspect of our lives; our sense of self, the character of our relationships and the very pattern of our everyday life.
Yet if asked “what is success for you? What is the desired product of your ambition?” I imagine many of us would have a hard time giving an adequate or well-considered answer. You would probably hear the standard external markers of money or title. Just as likely you would get the long pause that told you this was the first time the question had been pondered.
And yet it is a critical question. Because ambition is generally mindless - it is rarely connected to any deeper consideration of what will bring you fulfillment. You arrive at each new destination with a sense of wonder and disappointment – how did I get here?
I came across this in an HBR Blog by Bill Taylor and thought it elegantly stated a more complete, rich (no pun intended) definition of success. One worth sharing and considering:
“I think back often to an interview we published in an early issue of Fast Company with the philosopher Jacob Needleman, a professor at San Francisco State University, who wrote a great book called Money and the Meaning of Life.
“What’s your definition of success?” we asked Needleman. His answer: “To be totally engaged with all my functions, all my faculties, all my capacities in life. To me that would be success. I grew up around the Yiddish language, and in Yiddish there are about 1,000 words that mean ‘fool.’ There’s only one word that means an authentic human being: mensch. My grandmother would say, ‘You’ve got to be a mensch,’ and that has to do with what we used to call character. To be successful means to have developed character.”
The title of this post is a quote from Kevin Kelly. I was reminded of it when I read this brief entry in Boing Boing, titled, “Winds howl over the deserted moonscape behind Rupert Murdoch’s UK Newspaper Paywalls”
Newser’s Michael Wolff has a report from behind Rupert Murdoch’s notorious UK paywalls which went up this month around The Times and Sunday Time’s sites, which are apparently ghost-towns, unpeopled even by the print subscribers who get free access but can’t be arsed to log in (and never follow links to Times stories, since chances are anyone in a position to make such a link doesn’t have an account for the site).
Does the idea of charging for a perishable good (news) that exists in overwhelming abundance, can be copied and redistributed at zero cost and only has value for one-time use make sense to any economist on planet earth?
I’ve come to the conclusion that meetings are good. And we need more of them – not less.
Most executives have a knee-jerk reaction against meetings; they are a waste of time. Employees couldn’t agree more; let us get work done.
And yet if you are a manager, a major portion of your job is dedicated to communication… your time is spent either in meetings or preparing for meetings. Most meetings are a mashed-up bag of confusion that leaves people with the mistaken impression that meetings are the problem. They aren’t. It is the way we have meetings that is a problem. The failure of meetings is an indictment of process and leadership… not of the concept.
A well organized meeting in which people are prepared, the process has structure and the desired outcomes are clear (we need to decide X) is second to none in terms of efficiency. Our businesses are the sum product of decision-making; “this is our business”, “this is our customer”, “this is how we reach them”, “this is how we measure value creation” and so on. These decisions are constantly being reassessed and are rarely made alone, they are made in meetings.
I cannot count the number of times in which I have realized after the fact (why do you think I am writing this today?) that a two-week back and forth over email could have been resolved in an hour during a structured meeting. Just as often I am aware that (as a consultant) I have tried to go extremely light on the meetings due the fact that my client(s) hate meetings.
Finally, despite my full embrace of social technologies, we still do not have a surrogate for face to face contact. It contains a density of actionable information that can’t be rivaled. In that regard the most successful technology yet developed for collaboration is the table and chair.
“Video Killed the Radio Star” – The Buggles, Sept 7, 1979
The rise of MTV and the age of video heralded the end of the line for the ugly rock star. Why? Media places selection pressures upon the content that flows through them and a visual medium had no use for the likes of Foghat.
Media is Darwinian. Which is to say the medium of communication inherently enables or inhibits certain traits. Consider the rise of literacy which promoted abstract thinking done in solitude versus orality, which favors skills of memorization and shared experience.
In similar fashion, Social media is placing selection pressures on business (along with every aspect of society). As more and more of our friends, customers and business colleagues begin participating on the web (as opposed to just reading on it) it has become a fundamentally social medium; its operating principles now follow social norms more than they do traditional business norms.
What’s the difference?
Social contracts are founded upon trust, authenticity, reputation and reciprocity to name a substantive few. While these traits have always governed our personal relationships, until the rise of social media most of business that was transacted was remarkably impersonal and asocial.
This leads to an obvious assertion that has huge implications: Over time businesses that “get” social and adhere to a social contract will thrive – while those that do not, will wither.
In 2008 I delivered a keynote at a conference on law and journalism. The mood among the journalists present was one of palpable contempt for blogging and “citizen journalism.” You would think we were witnessing the undermining of Western civilization at the hands of a rabble of pajama-wearing, due diligence-ignoring amateur (God forbid!) know-nothing ideologues. During the post-talk Q&A I felt compelled to tell the audience that I was quite happy with my news choices and I sought online alternatives in large part because I had lost faith in traditional media’s role as the fourth estate. This new study from several Harvard students at the Kennedy School puts a fine point on that loss of faith. You can read it here (pdf) but the abstract is devastating:
“The current debate over waterboarding has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles in the last two years alone. However, waterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.”
While there is plenty of need to discuss the business models under which proper journalism can thrive (that was the purpose of my keynote two years ago) it would be good for those in the journalism business to be thinking about how to maintain public credibility by focusing on the purpose of journalism rather than just the business of it…
I received an email today letting me know that a friend had just passed away after complications arose during her surgery last week. She was part of the community of friends Yvette and I have made after we bought our home in France and while we were not intimate; she was always someone I looked forward to seeing. She will be greatly missed.
I was set on the path of buying that home in France after a business lunch about four years ago. There was nothing remarkable or unusual about the lunch, the company or the circumstances – but after a conversation about travel, I realized in an instant that I no longer lived life with spontaneity or adventure. Rather, I lived a life of plans… long term plans stretching years into the future and centered on career, financial stability and one-week vacations. These are all worthy things but they aren’t the only things worth consideration when living a life.
We get lost in our planning; thinking that we can control the future if we can just find the right method – be it the Atkins diet or Six Sigma. Of course this is folly. There are too many unknown unknowns that evade the best of plans. In that battle for the future we often lose the present, timeless joys that are almost always near at hand – a well-cooked meal, conversation with friends, a quiet, lazy afternoon with a book.
We also labor hard without really knowing why. Our work life increasingly consumes our attention and, like ants working on a project whose outer precincts we cannot conceive, we toil for some obscure institutional good that isn’t personally gratifying and that takes us away from the immediacy of life.
So with that jolt that only a death seems to initiate, I am recommitting to planning my life in months – not years; and to finding the good things near-at-hand.
BPGlobalPR, the fake Twitter account mocking BP has , at the time of this writing, over 150,000 followers. It is dark humor – but it is humorous.
Many people have taken to social media to vent their frustration and anger over the oil spill. There are myriad blog posts, great ongoing conversation at the OilDrum, and the Twitter hashtags (#oilspill and #oilpocalypse) are a steady stream of regular people discussing the disaster.
BP’s response? Its war-room legions of crisis managers have bought keywords in order to direct search queries to its own story (“learn more about how BP is helping”), it has tried to shut down the fake Twitter account and it has produced pricey television ads (links to aforementioned are intentionally absent). In both cases the predictable result has been more bad press and ill will.
I have seen many back channel emails. tweets and posts from the social media cognoscenti on the subject of how BP should be using social media. In one sense the entire question seems misplaced – after all, who cares how BP uses social media during a crisis of biblical proportion? Isn’t the more potent question how society can benefit from social media rather than the offending corporation? The answer to why so much time is spent on what BP can do resides in no small part I believe to the fact that social media consultants earn their bread from corporations. Fair enough.
But my original and still current opinion is that BP should be doing nothing with social media. They should be doing nothing other than trying to fix their apocalyptic problem. Any other actions appear to detract from the task at hand and BP has proven itself incapable of wielding social tools (more on that later). Beyond my sage words of wisdom for BP, I have a bigger issue with the nature of the advice being given by my colleagues.
A few days ago one of leading proponents of social business, The Dachis Group, posted Would Being More Social Help BP? The article suggests many ways in which BP could utilize social technologies to address the oil spill – and implicitly (as the title suggests) improve their reputation.
In the technical, jargon-heavy language that typifies the Dachis Group’s approach to social business the post states:
BP can leverage the power of social tools to help their current situation – but only if all current business processes are aligned and calibrated for social activation.
Huh? The post puts forward a series of one-line ideas for BP – some ideas are as interesting as they are unlikely; “an app to let people report affected areas and wildlife” for example seems a bit far-fetched when you consider that BP is actively trying to minimize assessments of damage in order to maintain their prime directive, shareholder value (each barrel may cost BP up to $40K). Some ideas are slightly appalling, “a private market research community made up of carefully selected consumers to begin to test public messaging” — do we really need message testing on this one?
This leads me to the heart of my issue with this specific post – and by extension all posts of its ilk that speculate about what BP could do without trying to come to terms with who BP are as an institution. BP is a profit-engine. BP is not a social business. And “helping BP” has nothing to do with technology, tools, apps or “social calibration.” Being social as a business is a way of treading lightly because you recognize your interconnection with the world around you. BP is not structured to be social – it is structured to be profitable at all costs… and structure drives behavior. The Gulf Coast is currently bearing the brunt of their corporate behavior. What’s more, the moment to help itself has long passed…
To be clear, I believe that social technologies put selection pressures on businesses over the long run – and will make it harder and harder for corporate profiteers to thrive. This to me is the promise of social business — over time, businesses that abide by a social contract (respect, authenticity, reciprocity, earned trust etc.) will outperform those that abide by a strictly corporate (or legal) contract.
BP has consistently shown a tin ear to the outrage, hurt and devastation that they are causing. That again emanates from a business culture – and no amount of technology will be a balm to that malady.
I understand that BP is a stand-in for “corporate crisis” and social media pundits (I am not exempt) are using it to speculate on just how they might utilize these tools in a crisis setting. I am also not trying to single out this single post. But for me it is exemplary of how much and how often the social media conversation misses the entire point. The post ends:
Of course, for these efforts to be successful, they would have to be planned, heavily moderated, highly coordinated, and integrated with current data and information systems – then communicated to consumers, franchise owners, the media, and government officials. In other words, all social business systems would have needed to be in place before disaster struck.
Best of luck with that. BP’s entire culture appears to have been one in denial about this being possible in the first place (for more on that see Cheney‘s energy task force statement on the riskless nature of deep water drilling)…
The nature of public outrage is not something that BP can (or should) try to game for their own benefit. The more BP tries to enter a conversation, the more they will be torn apart. Like the angry mobs that drove Emperor Justinian from the Hippodrome to barricade himself in his palace… this mob doesn’t want conversation… they want blood.
I don’t want BP to “join the conversation.” I want them to fix the problem.
I was struck by a posting in the New York Times on how the food industry is responding to calls to reduce the use of salt in processed food. It seemed the industry’s response is mirror of how Facebook has responded to privacy concerns. From the article:
Now, the [food] industry is blaming consumers for resisting efforts to reduce salt in all foods, pointing to, as Kellogg put it in a letter to a federal nutrition advisory committee, “the virtually intractable nature of the appetite for salt”
The food industry’s argument is best summarized as follows,”People want salt – and we are just following the demand.” Yet salt is a cheap ingredient that serves a multiplicity of purposes that redound to the industry’s benefit:
Beyond its own taste, salt also masks bitter flavors and counters a side effect of processed food production called “warmed-over flavor,” which, the scientists said, can make meat taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”
Salt also works in tandem with fat and sugar to achieve flavors that grip the consumer and do not let go — an allure the industry has recognized for decades. “Once a preference is acquired,” a top scientist at Frito-Lay wrote in a 1979 internal memorandum, “most people do not change it, but simply obey it.”
The issue here is that the food industry is (rather transparently) protecting their own self interest by claiming that rather than leading, they are simply following customer demand. This total abdication of (1) reality and (2) responsibility is reprehensible when what lies on the other side of the equation is a human death toll. As the article points out, “Government health experts estimate that deep cuts in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives a year.”
Now here comes the stretch… What is the difference between the food industry’s stance on salt and Facebook’s stance on privacy?
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stated,
People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.
The consistent argument is that people have an “insatiable appetite” for sharing, that privacy is dead and that this is a positive social development. This spin on privacy is also an abdication of reality and corporate responsibility. Studies (and common sense) show that people ARE concerned with privacy (see the Pew Study below). While it is true that people love to share – they are also concerned with their privacy.
Facebook’s value as a business is all about harvesting their user’s data for targeted advertising, sale to search engines, and intranetwork commerce (mainly in virtual goods etc). The argument of trailing social norms is an argument of convenience and it is one we shouldn’t accept.
I am a digital strategist focused on how technology opens new possibilities for social transformation and innovation within business. I am a Partner and Director of Digital, EMEA for Fleishman Hillard. I blog here, on O’Reilly Radar, and am a contributor for Forbes.com.