Tag Archives: Inefficiency

Communication in the Information Age

Note: the plate says - "The quick brown f...

Image via Wikipedia

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 heralded the start of mass communication – for the first time, text could be reproduced quickly and inexpensively for a large audience. Of course, very few people could read in those days and many authorities were against it, fearing the impact of mass uncontrolled communication on their rule, so it took a few hundred years for this to spread.

The introduction of broadcast radio from 1920 started to spread information even more quickly and widely, marking a significant jump in the speed of communication.

But it was the Information Age which has really accelerated global communication.  Widely accepted to have started in the 1970s with the advent of the microprocessor, it took the introduction of the Internet Browser in the early 1990s for the Information Age to really become as integral to life as it is today.

And yet, it seems, the Information Age is just a quicker way to spread the same sort of information as before. Certainly our main sources of news seemed to have missed the point – news bulletins rely on “sound bites” or their video equivalents to relay information with the result that this is often inaccurate or, at best, unbalanced. Newspapers, too, have not really worked out how to embrace the digital age fully – you either get print (almost as in 1440, albeit more quickly), or the same articles available online, missing the opportunity to have summaries of stories and the ability to drill down for more information.

This is the key – we’re bombarded with information from multiple channels but have not developed the tools to effectively sift it. Long messages are often ignored as we don’t have time for them, while short messages are frequently taken out of context missing the real point that was being made. What’s needed is the ability to capture the essence of a point in a short burst and then enable people to get more information as they require it – almost an inside-out onion, with successive layers giving more and more detail.

Twitter is a great example of the modern communication paradigm – 140 characters to get the basic message across, including a link to more detail, which you can access if you wish. That more detailed message, in turn, could have links to other sources for even more information, and so on…

Nowhere, perhaps, is this communication problem more evident than in politics. There’s no argument with the fact that the UK, like many other countries globally, has woefully overspent and has to completely revisit its bloated public sector spending (how can a majority of the workforce be civil servants – effectively paid for by the minority?).  And yet it, like so many others, is facing widespread revolt at the prospect – look at the pension reform issue, for example…

Why?

Primarily because the government is incapable of effective communication. White papers, government statements and debates are far too long and not suitable for the news media or the viewing/listening/reading public, so people simply don’t understand the issues. I absolutely believe that the vast majority of people are decent, willing to work hard to get ahead and happy to help those less fortunate (but NOT those that are not prepared to help themselves).

But, for as long as governments cannot get the message out in a way that the media can carry without distortion and people can understand in just seconds, they will be unable to implement the changes that are needed, worsening the financial state of their countries, prolonging the agony and the economic downturn.

It’s time to turn traditional communication on its head and embrace “the 140 character world.”

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BAA Humbug – The short- and long-term effects of greed and ineptitude

BAA staff work feverishly to clear the snow at Heathrow

Image via yfrog: BAA staff work feverishly to clear the snow at Heathrow

I’m going to try not to make this too much of a rant, but I’m both extremely disappointed and annoyed – not for me personally (thankfully I wasn’t directly affected), but for the thousands of people who’ve had their holiday plans, reunions and Christmas spoilt through a combination of woeful ineptitude and greed.

And, I think, there’s a real danger of this ineptitude and greed having long-term effects that are several orders of magnitude more serious for the country as a whole.

I’m talking here, for those of you who’ve not yet guessed, about BAA and Heathrow.

How can a company entrusted with managing the world’s busiest international airport be so unprepared for winter? It’s certainly not through lack of money – BAA is on track for an operating income of nearly £1 billion this year, and yet their total expenditure on preparing for snow and winter conditions this year was just £500 000…  (an amount the board has just allowed to be increased to £10 million – still only 1% of their operating profit!). In my view this is a typical case of short-term profit focus, at the expense of long-term sustainability (see my post: The Perils of Quarteritis).

It’s not as if they didn’t have warning. The first cold snap hit at the end of November and there were already warnings that heavy snow and icy conditions could be expected for the rest of the year. Granted, by then it was probably too late to have been able to source much new equipment in time (although they should have learned a lesson from January & February), but they put no contingency plans in place at all.

What about a deal with farmers nearby to use their tractors and grading equipment in an emergency? What about stockpiling grit, salt, glycol, etc.? Then they compounded things by turning down offers of help to clear the runways and taxiways from the military.

And, on top of this, they apparently gave out poor information to airlines such as BA which could have operated more flights than they did, and so reduce the backlog somewhat.

So, this corporate greed and ineptitude directly ruined the holidays for thousands of people, apart from costing hard-pressed airlines a good deal of money (can they sue BAA?)…

But the long-term effects could be even more serious. With some 30 million people a year visiting Britain, annual tourism expenditure of some £90 billion and almost 8% of jobs supported by tourism, this is a vital sector of the economy. However, the unreliability of British airports – especially one as important as Heathrow – is bound to make travellers think twice about using Britain as a stopover point, or even as a destination.

And airports in the Middle East such as Dubai and Qatar are eager to take these passengers. For example, Dubai is already the 4th busiest international airport in the world, with huge expansion already underway, and one of the youngest fleets in the world (and a flexible one, as Emirates was apparently able to put on 3 extra flights a day to clear their backlog once Heathrow reopened).

The impact of a diversion of disgruntled passengers from Heathrow to Dubai, for example, would have an enormous impact on Britain and on the struggling BA.

BAA needs to wake up, stop being so greedy and to accept proper responsibility for its role in running strategically important airports – or it needs to be replaced by a company that will do so, and quickly.

What do you think – should the company, its leadership, or both be replaced?

Whither the Welfare State?

Sea wall and railway
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Or should that be “wither” as it’s clearly time to change the model dramatically – a model which was developed after the last war, in a very different world?

As Dr Adrian Rogers quite famously put it, “You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the industrious out of it. You don’t multiply wealth by dividing it. Government cannot give anything to anybody that it doesn’t first take from somebody else. Whenever somebody receives something without working for it, somebody else has to work for it without receiving. The worst thing that can happen to a nation is for half of the people to get the idea they don’t have to work because somebody else will work for them, and the other half to get the idea that it does no good to work because they don’t get to enjoy the fruits of their labour.”

Having only moved to England a few weeks ago, I find it’s interesting to listen to what people here are saying about the “welfare state” issues, particularly at the moment when it’s clear that the new government has no chance but to make some dramatic changes to the way things have been done in the past 13 years of Labour Party rule.

But it seems that it’s not just the country that Labour has brought to the edge of bankruptcy: former Deputy Prime Minister under Tony Blair, John Prescott, has told us that the Labour Party itself is in danger of bankruptcy, with debts of some £20M ($30M) through a combination of over-spending and poor accounting: ironically making the announcement on the day that Tony Blair’s new investment bank was being registered… At least the party was consistent with its approach to finance, even if the former Prime Minister seems to have profited most handsomely from his time in office.

However, I digress. The basic issue, as Dr Rogers so succinctly put it, is that Governments can’t just create money magically, but can only redistribute money from one part of society to another, and the more that people want to take, the more that others are forced to give.

Few people doubt that societies should help those within them that are unable to fend for themselves – this compassion, after all, is what is supposed to make us human – but the question today is how much help should be given and to whom. I find it astonishing, for example, that there are families in England who have not worked at all for three generations, and simply live off benefits. Others, who receive free housing, believe it should be their right to pass these houses onto other family members. Girls find that being a single parent is a profitable enterprise, and start to have babies at a very young age, then turn to the state for housing and benefits, and are able to live comfortably without working. The list of abuses to the system is endless…

Clearly this is wrong. We should protect those unable to work for reasons of frailty, but those who are healthy should have a defined maximum period – say 6 months – on “free” benefits and then should start “earning their keep.” If they can’t find a paying job within that period, the welfare authorities should have them working for the society that is housing and feeding them – there is so much that needs to be done, from infrastructure development and maintenance to helping the elderly and the sick (hospital porters, for example), and would provide benefits in return for such work. This would not only help motivate them to find more steady (and, perhaps, comfortable) work, but reduce the costs of running local authorities as much of the work could be done by those on benefits.

What do you think – should benefits be given without restriction, or should recipients who are able to do so be obliged to “earn” their benefits, and help the society that is providing them in return?

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Small Customers – A Neglected Resource

The efficiency focus of the past 18 months may well have added substantially to the risk profile of companies, while simultaneously reducing their profitability.

After all, efficiency for most means focusing on the largest customers – allowing one to reduce headcount (less people, managing fewer customers), reduce transaction costs (fewer, larger transactions) and, in many eyes, reduce risk (bigger customers are more trustworthy).

However, aren’t your biggest customers the ones that demand, and generally get, the best prices? Do your biggest customers not get the longer payment terms they request? Are your biggest customers really less work than others?

And what about the impact on your business of the failure to pay of one of your biggest customers? As we’ve seen, they’re far from invincible.

Conversely, most businesses will find that their smaller customers:
• Deliver better margins;
• Will pay more promptly (if for no other reason than you have more leverage);
• Are no more work than the larger ones, and often less so as they are less demanding;

On top of this, the impact of a failure on your business is far less severe, and you substantially reduce your overall business risk by spreading a given value across a number of customers, instead of concentrating it in one place.

What’s more, as business starts to pick up, the companies likely to grow most quickly will be the small ones – a 20% growth on $1 Million revenue is generally a good deal easier to find than a 20% growth on $1 Billion revenue. So having a good number of smaller customers will improve your growth prospects, too.

Analyse the true profitability (return on working capital, including all costs) by customer segment: you’ll find it a very interesting exercise.

I’m not for a moment advocating that you fire all your biggest customers, but rather that you not just focus on larger customers at the expense of smaller ones. As with all things in life, you need to achieve a balance.

Small customers should be embraced as much as large ones – after all, if you have a ready resource that will help you grow faster than the market average while improving your profitability and simultaneously reducing your risk, shouldn’t you make the best use of it?

Is there value in a Repeat Customer?

Why is it that although every marketing book / article I’ve ever read tells me with authority that it costs 5 (or more!) times as much to get a new customer as to sell to an existing one, so few companies understand this?

Do their executives and marketing people not read?

I know you’ll have many examples of such wasted opportunity, and I’d love to hear those that stand out in your mind, so to get the ball rolling, let me give you a couple of – to me – amazing ones…

Newsweek is top of mind at the moment as I have just received my annual renewal notice. This ongoing piece of optimism on their part really baffles me as the renewal fee is almost exactly TWICE what I would pay to take out a new gift subscription, and that excludes the (admittedly dubious) value of the little extras they send with gift subscriptions.

When I queried this with the “Customer Service” people at Newsweek a couple of years ago, all I got was a rather terse note saying that the renewal price is the best available offer for my country. This in spite of me providing them URLs to prove otherwise in my original query… So, each year for the past several years I’ve allowed a subscription to lapse and taken out a new gift one, saving myself a tidy sum in the process.

This is, of course, a lot more expensive for Newsweek: apart from the trinkets, they always allow a lapsing subscription to run on for a few issues while they send out several reminder letters.

Why not just give subscribers the same deal (without the trinkets) and save on the letters, too?

Another great example is that of Consumer Electronics stores – full disclosure: I love gadgets and electronics stores. The opportunities they miss to get steady repeat business are legion! Let’s face it: they have my information as I invariably pay by credit card and they could easily ask me to sign up for a “loyalty card” or just permission marketing.

But they don’t.

Each time I visit, I’m treated as a brand new customer (not a great experience in most cases to be honest). They miss opportunities to sell me upgrades or add-ons for products I’ve previously purchased (unless that’s the purpose of my visit). They don’t keep records of what sort of things attract me so I can be carefully guided by the marketing people to buy more. In fact, they have no idea who I am at all – and yet the company executives that I’ve come to know from some of these stores are searching for extra sales, especially in these tough economic times…

When are companies going to wake up to the real, lifetime value of their customers?

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Putting a Spring into Business Models

Are we thinking wrongly about business models and, for that matter, about the models that apply to many other activities, too?

While most of us think in linear terms, we respond to stimuli in a very non-linear way and this is why our models fail us.

A good example is that of traffic – the way it bunches up and stretches out as drivers slow and speed up, with each reacting to the vehicle in front – it’s much more like a spring or elastic band being stretched and let go, than linear.

Look at how consumers react to shortages of items. It really is much the same – an impending shortage leads to people purchasing a little more to tide them over, while a stock-out position either leads to brand switching or to buying extra once the item is back in stock, so the consumer doesn’t run out again. This, of course, means demand that follow a wave pattern, rather than a straight line.

However, every inventory-ordering system I’ve seen works in a linear fashion, leading to inevitable periods of over-stock after a shortage and accelerated stock-out if an impending shortage is discerned.

Doesn’t this equally apply to investors? Think about how the stock market reacts to news – it almost always over-reacts, whether positively or negatively, and then settles down. Again, although, we expect a “rational” (read: linear) response and our models are built in this way, the actual pattern of prices is anything but linear.

I have little doubt that it is this that leads to huge market “melt-downs” as automatic sales are triggered in response to the over-reaction to an event which leads to more automatic sales, and so on. Look at global stock markets early this year – do we honestly believe that the total value of companies was half (or less) what it had been six or seven months earlier? There’s no question they were worth less as earnings were impaired, but were they really worth so much less? The answer might be found in the big increase in share prices from March – perhaps it wasn’t a bull market as some were calling, but simply a correction to the over-reaction during the last half of last year, and things seem now to have stabilised. At least until the next piece of news…

The answer, it seems to me, is to rework our models to allow for human response to situations: the inevitable over-reaction and consequent wave patterns in demand, share prices, traffic and just about everything else. By allowing for this sort of response and predicting the effects, we can dampen them in the same way that a car’s shock absorbers dampen the effect of a bump on the suspension/springs.

Bad Processes Kill Business

While I argued last week that oversight of business is necessary to move us to a longer-term approach to growth, too much oversight is even worse for a business.

I’ve come across countless examples in my own, IT, industry where companies seem to try very hard to prevent sales, rather than make them – all as a result of too much oversight. Let me illustrate this with an excellent example.

The company in question, let’s call it ABSC (A Big Software Company) is a very significant multinational software vendor, with offerings targeted at a range of companies, from the very largest down to a mid-size level – and it is this mid-size level where the powers-that-be are expecting significant growth. The only problem is that their processes and procedures effectively kill sales in this market and make them extremely difficult in their traditional high-end one, too.

Let’s assume that an end-user, we’ll call it Widgets Inc., wants to purchase a 100-user system from this company after being sold on the concept by a Reseller of ABSC – in line with ABSC’s policies that all SMB sales go through the channel. The outline of the process is as follows:

  • Reseller calls ABSC and requests a quote (they cannot yet provide a quote to Widgets Inc. as there are no official price lists).
  • The Account Manager for Reseller at ABSC in turn requests a quote from ABSC EMEA HQ as even he has no pricelists. The turnaround time for this quote is typically 2-5 working days (not helped by different working days in different countries).
  • The Account Manager receives the quote from ABSC’s EMEA HQ and emails it to Reseller who can then provide an official quote to Widgets Inc.
  • Widgets Inc., accepts the quote and asks to place the order. Because Widgets Inc., is a new customer (as are most SMBs!), Reseller has to supply Account Manager with extremely comprehensive information on Widgets Inc., in order that this can be properly recorded on the ABSC systems for, amongst other things, credit purposes (even though ABSC is not providing Widgets Inc., with credit as that is up to the Reseller).
  • Account Manager enters all the data and applies for the software licenses. This approval process generally takes some 10 working days to go through the various internal levels in EMEA HQ (although 4-6 weeks is not unusual). Eventually, approval for the sale is granted and Reseller can download the software licenses. Total turnaround time from when the customer firsts wants to buy until delivery is some 4 weeks on average, and up to 2 months if there are any problems.

Apparently, the rate of lost/cancelled sales as a result of this tedious process is very high – customers simply go with their #2 option for the solution, where that solution can be provided more quickly.

Of course, what should happen is that Widgets Inc. expresses interest, Reseller gives immediate quote from its own pricelist, Widgets Inc. agrees and places order on Reseller who places this on Account Manager at ABSC and is then given the licenses within a day (after checks are made that Widgets Inc. is not prohibited by US Law from accessing the software).

Unfortunately, though, this streamlined approach to business is the exception rather than the rule in our industry. ABSC is, admittedly, an extreme example (although absolutely factual), but most IT vendors have degrees of this sort of inefficiency built-in. We might sell software and/or hardware to make [other] companies more efficient, but our own processes leave a great deal to be desired instead of showing the way.

Isn’t it time the customers started expecting the vendors to practice what they preach? It would not only allow them to get what they want, when they actually want it, but should reduce prices, too, as the sort of process described above is extremely expensive in terms of manpower and, therefore, cost.