Why you should think like a hair stylist…

foilOne of the essential tools for a hair stylist is the foil strip used to separate layers of hair while dye is applied and gets to work. The foil comes in a pre-formed strip and is simply torn off at the length required.

I asked a stylist friend why she bought this rather than turkey foil? After all turkey foil can be used to cook a turkey, or any other large meat like product, and it can be cut into strips to use on hair! Turkey foil is a much more comprehensive and diverse product… Well you can imagine the look she gave me, I could see she was weighing up whether my question even deserved an answer or not, in the end she simply said:

Cutting foil into strips takes time and time is money!

It’s a pretty obvious assessment and yet we confuse the convenience of hair foil over the flexibility of turkey foil all the time when choosing tools to help us in business. One example of this is in the field of user interface/experience design:

Wireframing tools make the process of creating an app or website fundamentally easier, by visually stripping the product down and allowing all involved to focus purely on functions and user interactivity.

You can read about the plethora of wireframing products available here on the Creative BloqSome of the tools listed do exactly as described while others, such as Microsoft’s Visio, go much further allowing you to model everything from the layout of your new kitchen, business processes to creating realistic looking mockups of Windows apps.

My favorite product on the list is balsamiq, it’s simple, it’s specifically for wireframing and doesn’t do anything else. It’s like the hair foil to Microsoft Visio’s turkey foil. Working with customers and stakeholders I can use balsamiq to mockup hypothetical applications and features, in minutes, live in the meeting. We can alter, update and deconstruct while we discuss the pros and cons of each approach. While I can’t create a seating plan for a wedding, as I can with Visio, I simply couldn’t use Visio to create mockups live in this way, it’s too clunky for that.

And the same is true for many of the different types of model you can create in Visio, there are very often more specific tools for the job, tools that make it faster and easier to create and add more value. But this doesn’t make Visio, or other similar comprehensive tools, bad it just means you have to consider your use case and whether it matches the features of the tool.

If you’re doing lots of wireframing consider a product like balsamiq, it will save you a lot of time. But if you’re only going to create one or two mockups and you may also need to model a business process at some point and maybe a UML diagram  in the future then you’re probably better off investing in Visio.

My wife is not a stylist but she does, every now and then, put color in her own hair and for this she needs strips of foil. But she never uses enough to justify buying a specialist product, instead she cuts strips of turkey foil as we always have it in the cupboard for cooking!

Want to improve loyalty? improve the experience

I’m told that customer loyalty is the new battle ground for the retail industry. New predictive technologies allow your favorite retailer to send you updates and offers before you even need them. They will know when you’re in or near a store and update you accordingly with latest offers so you have an irresistible desire to go into the shop and part with your cash for something you don’t need.

I find it all a bit creepy.

Last weekend I was doing my ‘weekly’ and got talking to the Computer Science undergrad working the checkout. It seems we had a lot of interests in common. Anyway he pointed out the new system being installed to help reduce queues at checkout.

Asda, Walmart’s UK supermarket chain, have always been a no frills supermarket. No loyalty program, large out of town stores, extensive product range and consistently low prices, the last of which is what brings us back here most weeks. The length of time we spend waiting to checkout is testament to the fact many others agree.

Well over the last 2 years the innovation guys at Asda have been doing something about that. Their new system, Queue Clarity, tracks the number of shoppers entering the store, how long they take to fill their trolleys and predict how many checkouts they need open before the queues start to form. They’re improving the shopping experience, making it easier for me to get in there, get what I want and get out again as painlessly as possible. And no need for me to signup to a loyalty program, no concerns about what they are doing with my data and who they are selling it to.

ps. I don’t shop online, I prefer to choose my own fresh groceries and I like to go to the store for inspiration for the next week’s meals.

Will we ever learn…

…to recognize the signs of change early enough to respond adequately? Probably not…

In a recent post Ian Gotts highlighted again the now well understood changes, to traditional business models, in publishing from print media to music and films. As everyone in the tech industry knows everything is different, the pace of change is so rapid that your business model can disappear virtually overnight without any apparent warning. We’ve seen it happen so often now we’re sure to see it coming when it affects us.

Is that really the case? Are we kidding ourselves while we choose to ignore the warning signs and desperately hang on to the past?

The dark economy

This year the value of Bitcoins spiked at an all time high against the US Dollar. The virtual currency is used to trade goods and services over the internet with a growing number of well known organizations adopting it as a payment method.

But Bitcoins are unlike traditional currencies, they are not centrally managed by national banks, they are untracable (making them popular for trading illegal goods and services) and they are finite (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitcoin). The structure of the system is fundamentally different from the currency systems that dominate trade today. In other words it has good disruption credentials and the evidence shows that it is being adopted.

And this is where we seem to be making the same mistakes. Edward Castronova, a professor of telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington was quoted in The Guardian

It [Bitcoins] just isn’t very fun. We’ve learned from game currencies that people like a little inflation in their economies. But Bitcoin is built to deflate. And we’ve just seen, culturally, people don’t like deflation.

That may be true but it would be easy for those reliant on the status quo to take this as evidence that they can safely ignore it. When the internet began to change the way we consumed music some people noted that Vinyl, cassete tapes or CDs hadn’t destroyed the radio.

The warning signs are there, Bitcoins already fuel a thriving underground economy and as usual governments, and other large organizations, are late to the party. Already on the back foot these organizations will once again be playing catchup on a rapidly changing business model. It seems we never learn to heed the signs of change until it’s too late for those most affected.

The Selfish Community

Social Collaboration

Like many I have found the power of social collaboration on projects such as Linux, Wikipedia and many others awe inspiring. As described by Clay Shirky in “Here Comes Everybody” modern technology has taken away the friction from connecting with people, based on a common interest, and working toward a common goal. Creating communities and groups has never been easier, publishing information and thoughts is as simple as pushing a button.

Social in the Enterprise

But in recent years the focus, for many of us, has been on how we can apply these models  in the enterprise. How can we harness the seemingly awesome power of the social community to improve the way our businesses work? McKinsey report that:

by fully implementing social technologies, companies have an opportunity to raise the productivity of interaction workers—high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals—by 20 to 25 percent.

So far social networking has been most effective, and to some destructive, in the marketing space. Social savvy marketers have used these networks to raise awareness and drive traffic. At the same time many businesses have stood by powerless to influence these social networks one way or the other.

But what about the promise of self organizing groups within the enterprise? Getting work done more efficiently, providing value and adding new intellectual property where it hadn’t previously existed? This should be easy right? We already have goals and objectives, teams and organization, social media should just make that easier.

There still appears to be a great deal of skepticism surrounding the effectiveness of social media tools in the workplace, specifically Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) built especially for the workplace. Vendors provide services and direction to help embed these tools and build a case for return on investment. Some commentators argue that the grass roots movements, that drive some of the internet’s most successful mass collaborations, are not possible in the enterprise and that you need to provide senior management direction and organize social collaboration around a specific project.

Using the Enterprise Social Network

Here I wanted to share my own thoughts and experience using ESNs. Many of my colleagues have been generally skeptical about the use of these tools, arguments, or rather excuses, range from; I don’t have time, there’s nothing in it for me, I miss things, there’s too much information, information gets lost, the tool doesn’t support a feature I want, etc.

For many of these I think the problem lies in the fact that people have possibly been oversold the value versus effort. They expect to login on day one and get value from it straight away. Individuals must invest valuable time in the network, valuable time that is being pressured from every direction. ESNs are not like other software tools where the value is easy to define, take a word processor for instance, the choice is to write something by hand/typewriter or use the new tool.

By contrast the argument “better collaboration” or “better networking/communication” is a difficult thing to place value on, especially for workers that do not use social tools regularly in their personal life or don’t believe they necessarily have a problem with “collaboration” or “communication” today. And yet I personally have found these tools incredibly valuable, in one company I used a micro-blog to gather feedback in an open forum. Feedback was asynchronous,  fitting in with other’s schedules, there was little duplication and it was focused.

That company was acquired by a much larger organization that also used an ESN. And this, for me, was when it really got interesting. We suddenly became a very small corner of a larger city. Using the tool I steadily built up a network of connections through brief conversations and comments by taking part in open conversations. I gradually got to know people and learnt about projects that I simply wouldn’t have known about any other way.

This benefitted me in the long term as when I needed help or advice in a particular area I knew where to find it, instantly. That conversation may have taken place over the phone or on instant messenger but it wouldn’t have taken place at all had I not made the connections in the first place.

And for my team there were benefits, aside from improving my own productivity, as we integrated, sales opportunities arose across the larger organization. People that normally would have had to work to find contacts in our team knew me already. In the first six months I brokered many conversations between our own sales team and those of the larger business.

Focus On Your Own Objectives

There are many other examples I could give but the value to my team grew out of my selfish desire for self-improvement by improving my own network. This was my reason for using the ESN and the reason I continued to use it. Self organized communities spring up out of chaos as the selfish needs of many are closely enough aligned that they can work together. It is not necessarily that they are working toward a common goal, they all have their own objective. The product of this effort is the sum of these disorganized goals and objectives.

By contrast, in business, workers are working toward common goals and objectives and they’ve been doing this since people organized in order to turn a profit. Trying to sell the benefit of a social network as improving work through collaboration to an experienced business person is pretty weak. The way I have sold the ESN to colleagues is purely on a selfish basis, use it for yourself and get your own benefit from it, if you don’t engage it’s only really you that will lose out. The more people individually benefit from it the more value the organization will realize in it.