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Demographics Could Lose Facebook Users

May 31, 2010

In the continuing row over Facebook’s privacy, or lack thereof, a number of interesting perspectives have been offered about shifting demographics and shifting notions of online privacy.

NOTE: The blog has moved. The rest of the post is over here


Autonomy as Motivation

May 26, 2010

It has long been held that firms seeking to be entrepreneurial need to be innovative, risk taking and proactive. In 1996, academics added competitiveness and autonomy to the mix.

The video below — which I found out about by way of Mike Waddell at — offers a different take on autonomy. It turns out that is a powerful motivational tool for knowledge workers. Produced by from the RSA, the piece says money is not a motivator, and that offering it as a reward for anything other than simple tasks is actually counterproductive.

Granted, we were already familiar with Google’s 20-percent time. The RSA video mentions Australian software company, Atlassian, which does something similar: Once a quarter workers are told they can work on anything with anybody they want.

If nothing else, it is a great video. Well worth 11 minutes of your time.

Innovate by Design — Not by Accident

May 24, 2010
Dimensions of Entrepreneurship

The most risk-prone forms of innovation: None and home-run strategies*

Continuing their series of talks at the Irish Computer Society (ICS), Michael O’Duffy of DCU’s Centre for Software Engineering and David Trevitt of Business Knowledge Innovation advised on how to exploit innovation. Their talk was the third in a series on the subject.

O’Duffy cited research that design is the core to market differentiation. Most products are “me too” varieties and rushed to market, he said. The design process, however, can separate a product from its competitors and can also provide a road map for its upgrade and eventual replacement. An example I wrote about recently is General Electric’s process where they now devote significant resources to innovation even to the point of disrupting themselves (PDF) with new, less-expensive products.

Trevitt spoke of the risk-reward balance that must be struck. In addition to the cultural view of risk, innovators must also keep an eye on their customers. How open are they to change?. “You may also have to sell them,” Trevitt said.

Change can be incremental or radical. The greatest rewards come from radical breakthroughs. Apple’s explosion in to the music business with the iPod is a great example. But radical efforts also present the greatest risk. Trevitt advised working on incremental innovation, too. The academic research bears this out. The graph above shows that relying on a break-through innovation is just as risky as not innovating at all.

To address risk, Trevitt advised a raft of tools including modelling, marketing testing (surveys, focus groups, expert views, etc.), pilot markets, and other means to measure a potential product’s viability. However, those tools also have their shortcomings. Trevitt used a quote from Henry Ford to point out the potential pitfalls in relying on focus groups:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

The speakers were asked by one audience member about organisations that have no culture of change. O’Duffy said some had tried a skunkworks approach where a group worked on product development outside the main organisation. “That doesn’t tend to work very well. You want to bring them on board,” he said. Acknowledging innovation can be disruptive, he said innovators were not mavericks.

Another questioner asked who owns the risk and rewards in innovation. Trevitt said it is ultimately the CEO but it is up to the designer to clearly communicate their ideas and the risk involved. He said that architects are generally “very articulate” because they constantly  explain new and abstract ideas to customers. However, an internal innovator will want to be successful and will not intentionally harm the company. After all, their reputation depends on it.

* The graph is from Corporate Entrepreneurship & Innovation, 2nd Edition by Morris, Kuratko & Covin. You can read a sample chapter (PDF) here, or a PowerPoint summary here.

Technology Projects Are All About People

May 19, 2010

Estimations of project complexity bedevilled from the get-go

Well, that was the last of Prof. Joe Peppard’s three-lecture CIO Masterclass at the Irish Computer Society (ICS). The final seminar was on “Managing Change In Large IT Implementations.”  Like his first two talks, this one was less technical and more about how to manage change and the people around it.

My account of the first lecture is here, while the second can be found here. The second lecture covered the politics and stereotypes faced by IT types. In that talk, Peppard noted techies are probably the worst at organisational inter-relationships. Susan Cramm, who writes about IT frequently, has some general tips in a blog posting called How To Get Out Of The Doghouse. Her post is not related specifically to IT this time. And while IT is not in the doghouse by default, political ineptitude or political innocence probably means we could do with some of Cramm’s advice.

As usual, this is not a factual account of the ICS seminars. It is just my recollection of the the pieces that most appealed to me. (ICS members can find a video of the entire event by following the recent videos link on the society’s events web page).

The first point worth relaying from the lecture is the differences in how stakeholders estimate project work. I based the graphic above on Peppard’s slide, and, as you can see, typical project managers over-estimate both change and resources required. More often than not, they will be the diametric opposite of senior management. My opinion, not Peppard’s, is that latter think all the heavy lifting has been done once they make a decision. It reminded me of my role in a $2 million ERP implementation several years ago over in Boston. The technology was all doable. It was the people and their work processes that were the real challenge.

However, a big part of any complex will be managing stakeholders and their expectations. Peppard said one of the most successful implementations he saw was in New Zealand where “change preparation,” or work on the users rather than the project per se, began two years before go live.

In discussing projects with stakeholders, Peppard had some initial advice for IT: Stop talking about providing “solutions” and start talking about “capabilities.” He cited a newspaper ad, pitched at Marketing managers, where Oracle claimed it could implement a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system in 90 days. The neglect to mention that it will take a lot longer to load it with legacy data, and up to three years before it is fully loaded and the benefits are routinely realised.

Peppard said the the technical implementation itself does not add value. If IT starts talking about capabilities, they and the stakeholders should be better able to draw up a benefits analysis in the planning stage. The benefits should be spelled out, rather than everyone assuming the “solution” will automatically generate cost savings or increased productivity or whatever business case has been put forward.

Another area to watch is what Peppard calls the “shakedown phase.” This is where performance will take a dip after go live because people are getting used to the new system. It is highly unusual to go live and see performance take off, he said. However, project management work typically ramps down at this point. All the professor’s research shows that performance will take a knock after go live. People need to be ready, plan for it and tell stakeholders to expect it.

All in all, I enjoyed the lectures. They were short but crammed full of information. He returns to Ireland frequently and Peppard’s talks are well worth attending if you ever get the chance.

Innovation In Action and A Needless Struggle

May 17, 2010

There were some inspiring stories about innovation in this week’s Sunday Business Post, and then there was one cautionary tale from David McWilliams on how harmful government can be to struggling businesses.

First the good news: Innovation does not have to come in the form of a blockbuster company like Nokia or Apple to pull us out of recession or keep companies afloat. It comes in many forms from inside entrepreneurial organisations, and we will probably need thousands of them if the country is to start moving again.

Kevin O’Brien, a dentist based in Cork, was feeling the pinch when the government cut back on PRSI payments for dental work. He teamed up with another Cork dentist, Kevin O’Grady, they formed Winning Smiles*, and expanded their service offerings to include cosmetic dental treatments and botox injections. Dentistry had become very conservative, O’Brien told the newspaper, and the PRSI cutbacks will shake up the profession. He also revamped customer service to make dentistry “more approachable and more friendly.” As for the botox thingy, O’Brien told the Post it was a logical expansion.

Our specialist area is the head and neck and we are giving injections all day.

Feeling the pain from the construction-industry implosion, a Naas steel company, Nugent Manufacturing, expanded its product offerings to target the residential and agricultural sectors. With almost half his staff lost — they went from 23 to 12 workers — owner Stephen Nugent started making dog enclosures. However, these proved to be popular with urban chicken owners. Other new products are enclosures for farm animals. They capitalised quickly on this past winter’s snowy conditions by getting sleds to the market quickly. Nugent has also set up to show off his products.

The hotel sector has taken a pummeling during the recession and occupancy rates are at low levels last seen in the early 1980s. Excess capacity and newly price-sensitive customers were a challenge for Patrick Dillon and Paul O’Shea at the Quality Resort in Killarney. They added amenities for a tough crowd: Teenagers. In came Playstations, Wiis, crazy golf and bucking broncos. They also looked to older clients who would be inclined to take breaks off season. The hotel got rid of the single supplement for people travelling on their own.

And the bad news: McWilliams tells the story of a businessman “slashing prices and doing deals to stay afloat.” He hopes to make it through provided the economy has bottomed out by now. However, he rents some land from a local council and they hiked up his rent this year. Their logic, McWilliams says, is that if he is in business, he can afford to pay. If he goes under, someone else will make up the slack. While the council is also hurting:

It sees the businessman a revenue source, rather than a wealth generator.

This kind of thinking will have to change. The council may be cash starved, too, but it should not be allowed to sink the country’s businesses.

* Lads, you need a website.

Innovation in Ireland: Are We Up To The Challenge?

May 13, 2010

I read an interesting article on reverse innovation on the Harvard Business Review (HBR) website, and this led to an October 2009 article from the magazine itself, and that led me to worry that little ol’ Ireland could very easily get left behind in the innovation stakes.

The blog piece by Vijay Govindarajan, professor of international business at the Tuck School of Business in Dartmouth, N.H., tells of how Bharti Airtel Ltd.,  India’s largest telecom operator, decided to “strategically outsource its core functions.” It sounds a bit mad, but Bharti Airtel:

Chose Ericsson, Nokia, and Siemens … to build up and manage its telecom network. It chose IBM to build and manage the IT network.

This was done to leverage stronger technological capabilities that existed elsewhere, and because the telco felt its core capabilities were not technical but understanding its customers and building its brand. Govindarajan held that up as an example of reverse innovation (RI) — a term he coined along with Prof. Chris Trimble and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt in the HBR article. RI is basically a process where breakthroughs are likely to be seen and used in the developing world first before they spread to the industrialised world. Essentially it’s the opposite of what typically happens.

The article highlighted two recent product introductions from GE Healthcare: a $1,000 handheld electrocardiogram and a $15,000 portable, PC-based ultrasound machine. The latter cost less than 15% of the company’s high-end ultrasounds. Both were developed in India for use in rural India and China. However, they were being introduced to the States as part of a $3 billion plan by GE to “substantially lower costs, increase access, and improve quality.” They were developed in India primarily to head off local competition by matching competitors’ products with comparably priced equipment.

Elsewhere, the article spoke of the huge and growing populations in those countries and the sustainability problems they face. So, instead of tackling environmental issues in a trendy or hand-wringing manner, they are urgently seeking solutions. As a result, India and China are “likely to tackle many environmental issues years or even decades before the developed world.”

So where does all this leave Ireland? Weren’t we going to fix the world with windmills, wavebobs and the like? I doubt it. I also doubt that we can become some kind of international R&D centre. The principle reason is that we do not have the manufacturing base. R&D may get farmed out to us in little bits and pieces. But it really belongs in two places: At corporate HQ because it is sexy and the head honchos want to take credit for breakthroughs, or close to manufacturing where researchers can quickly make prototypes and resolve production issues before they go live.

Another reason to move research close to manufacturing can be found for the same reason (NY Times) the factories went first: lower costs. There is more to competitiveness than wages alone, but can the Republic with a population of 4.5 million compete with this:

Xi’an … has 47 universities and other institutions of higher learning, churning out engineers with master’s degrees who can be hired for $730 a month.

As Michael O’Duffy asked at his innovation workshop recently, the Irish are considered creative, but can we do anything with it? Having read the HBR article, the challenge is a lot stiffer than I previously thought. We cannot compete on manufacturing costs. Why should we do any better on R&D costs? It’s a pessimistic view, so I will gladly stand corrected.

IT: Leading Innovation & Change From The Rear?

May 12, 2010

More excitement — politics and stereotypes — at the Irish Computer Society (ICS) this week. This time, it came in the form of Prof. Joe Peppard of Cranfield University School of Management. His seminar was Leading and implementing change in IT projects: Politics and the IT Stereotype. Engaging and informative, Peppard tackled the problem of how “IT guys,” with their stereotypes and baggage, can successfully deliver innovation for an organisation.

But first they need to get out a bit more.

As the blurb for the seminar said, leading change can be “a challenge for IT professionals.” During the talk, Peppard presented academic and anecdotal evidence to caution IT guys (and gals) that we are probably the most politically inept group in any organisation. He cited the example of the lunchroom where the crowd from Marketing is usually seen yukking it up with just about everyone else in the company. And the IT crowd’s lunch? Sitting at their desks, eating over their keyboards, catching up on Techtarget or maybe a  website that has to do with one of their tech-related pass times.

Politics 101

As Peppard noted, many people in IT see themselves as above politics and choose to “opt out.” But, that, in itself, is a political decision —  one he described as either “inept” or “naive.” We all need to interact with each other in our working lives. Part of the problem is the negative connotation associated with the word politics. Peppard asked the attendees how else they would describe someone labeled as “a political manager.” Words like manipulative and self-interested were used. But citing Gareth Morgan’s book, Images of Organization, Peppard reminded us that the original Greek word was very positive. Those who are good at politics are rarely judged as such. Instead they are called “team players” who can devise win-win situations.

Peppard had one amusing but interesting graphic. I was hoping to find it online but failed. So Four behavioral setsI ended up having to replicate one myself. Basically, there are two axes called reading and carrying. Once they intersect, we end up with four behavioural sets. Reading refers to our ability to read situations and read others, while carrying is the degree to which people are prone to politicking from its most negative sense up to its most mutually beneficial.

The animals pretty much say it all. The fox is to be avoided, the owl is the best at reading situations and working with others, etc. The sheep can be likened to a well-meaning politician who consistently gets things wrong. And the gorilla? He’s in IT, according to Peppard. He misreads personal and organisational situations. Then he compounds it by being bad at politics. He forms alliances with the clueless or powerless. Ouch.

Stereotypes 101

We all do it, and apparently there is a good evolutionary reason. Peppard said it is a challenge to overcome, because people see IT, accountants, politicians, traffic wardens or whoever in a certain light. We may not realise people in other departments have wonderful computer skills. Likewise, they may not know we have any skills other than the technical. That is an impediment if you are seeking to innovate or change. Their view of IT can be a barrier.

Another person who writes extensively about the nature of IT’s relationship with the rest of the organisation is Susan Cramm. In a blog post on the Harvard Business Review website, she lists some tips to help encourage smarter use of IT within the organisation.