Bertie Day

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Today marks the 101st anniversary of my grandfather’s birth. It also marks the end of the first year of my foray into the world of entreprenuerism.

A year down, and it has to be said that it’s been hard. I was utterly over optimistic about how and where clients would come from, and although I am now bringing in revenue, it’s a long way from where I was predicting this time last year. But I’ve built on an already strong network, and have pivoted wildly as I work out what’s likely to work and what’s not.

If I were to be offered the “perfect” full-time job tomorrow, would I take it? Probably, yes. Whilst the start-up life is thrilling and ever-changing, the uncertainty that it brings places a huge load onto family life. Will I have to take a full-time job? We’ll see, but signs are looking more positive (but that might just be me suffering from sunk-cost fallacy).

Am I closer to my goal? Am I doing “stampable” projects? Well, not quite yet. But I’m definitely getting there.

Mixed virtues

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I don’t often get to listen to the “Thought for the Day” slot on Radio 4′s Today Programme – and I tend to mentally switch off if I do because I’m irked by the idea that only  the religious can display morality that seems to underpin the whole shebang. However one did catch my ear late last week in which the speaker made reference to an idea propagated by David Brooks about the split between Resume Virtues and Eulogy Virtues.

This distinction, between the careerist, success-hungry self and the more altruistic self, and explored in this TED talk, for me better explains the gap that seems to have emerged in how we describe ourselves at work and outside.

Earlier this year I got a professional CV-writer to re-write my own resume. What came back seemed deeply alien to me, a series of platitudinous clichés about self-motivation and delivery-focus and so on. I’m not a milkman, so such nonsense seems lost on me, but I also know that getting through first or even second sifts in recruitment exercises requires a piece of self-marketing that will make it through the “recruiter stages”.

Curriculum Vitae means “course of life”. How has that narrative ended up in such mealy-mouthed nonsense? Why aren’t we able to express more about our selves and our stories in these documents (other than the final pot of clichéd nonsense, the “Other Interests” section)?

Weeknote 204: promoted

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This week I have learned:

- there’s an amazing amount of digital transformation happening in the credit card world (well, one part of it, at least)
- Wonga are even more devious than I had first thought
- PR people like pink drinks
- getting a promoted post on LinkedIn seriously drives some traffic
- the start of school for my eldest appears to be heralding a new social life for me

Next week: working from The Lakes

The Enterprise App

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News this morning that IBM and Apple have entered into a new partnership that “will see the two firms co-develop business-centric apps for iPhones and iPads.” Given the history of the two brands, this is big news, but given Big Blue has been out of the devices market for some time since it divested its PC business to Lenovo, it strikes me a little bit like the new that the Post Office was offering telephones again. It doesn’t mean the GPO is reborn.

The strategic intent behind the partnership, though, appears to be cracking the stubborn nut that is “enterprise apps”. Enterprise software is big business with big margins, that Apple (as it continues its metamorphosis from lifestyle brand back to computer company) wants a piece of, and IBM presumably wants to protect.

But developing mobile- and touch-centric apps isn’t just about bunging a new user interface on top of your ERP system. I wonder, to some extent, if such things will ever really exist?

Some examples.

Take “productivity” solutions – your common or garden office suite. It’s not coincidence that Microsoft, for example, have struggled to produce a touch-first version of it’s blockbuster product even for it’s own Windows 8 platform. Productivity suites are artefacts of the PC era – they rely heavily on keyboard and mouse data entry and manipulation, they often are geared to produce print or projected output (I’ve given up expecting to be able to plug my HDMI phone into a projector at an event), and quite frankly we’ve found ways in the mobile world to get around using them. Why spend hours knocking up a slide deck when you can take a few photos of a flipchart?

Take the “bung it all in” approach. Most enterprise software is based on the idea of a client that has every bit of functionality possible built in, and then various bits turned off depending on permissions, licensing and so on. That’s an efficient model when you’ve got yards of screen space (and when distribution of software and updates has been restricted on grounds of practicality and change management). This is not the way that mobile apps work: they tend to be much more focused on user requirements, smaller, and more contextual. Well, the good ones anyway. Enterprise apps aren’t just another re-skinning, they require deeper thought into how people might want to use things in specific instances.

Which brings me to the biggest issue of all – the world of touch devices and mobile apps is empowering (relatively), and driven by positive reinforcement. The world of traditional Enterprise apps tends to treat users as subservient data providers and process nodes. We have really deep emotional bonds with our mobiles… it’s sad (possibly), but true. Start buggering around with draconian enterprise software that starts barking orders, and you’re going to have quite significant cognitive dissonance amongst users – and a massive sense of intrusion.

Apps that allow people in organisations to work more effectively will arise. Some of them are there already (I keep banging on about Expensify, but it really is that good as a model for what enterprise apps could be). But the transition from legacy to the modern world is going to be slow and painful – and it’s not just a matter of a new UI.

Some pointers for what makes a valuable app in the eyes of the user? You can start by looking at the Seven Reasons to App that I developed whilst at  Microsoft (not that anyone there took any great notice, it has to be said).

There is a great gulf between enterprise technology and what we now expect from consumer services. I’ve said it before, but the traditional meaning of those two terms has switched in the past few years where “Consumer Grade” now often means the best, not the cut down and hobbled. Generating a new breed of apps in the enterprise is going to take quite some time – and it’s not a technology issue at the core. Just look at Enterprise Social Networks to see how business constrains usable technologies.

Changing leaders

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And so the Cabinet reshuffle happens. Farewell “voice of reason” Ken Clarke (although if your idea of “reason” is fag-smoking, Hush Puppy-wearing and jazz-listening, then you need to have a good hard look at yourself). And farewell, too (from the Department for Education) for Michael Gove, architect of some of the most significant changes to teaching in the UK in my lifetime.

New Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan has some tough times ahead. Putting aside the possibly deeply sexist-stereotyping of her maintaining her role as Minister for Women as well as the new brief in Education, September sees the roll-out of the new National Curriculum across schools in England. Gove is inextricably linked to these changes, pushing through despite widespread opposition across the teaching profession. Losing the figurehead of the initiative now is a risky step.

Getting people to change is an art. One challenge that I’ve seen many times in business is that the instigators of the change are emotionally and temporally distant from those who need to actually do something to make the change happen. Put simply, a bunch of people have been working at it in detail for months or even years, so assume everyone else is at the same stage of understanding. Astonishment is then the reaction when the subjects of change don’t do the things that have been so meticulously planned.

Changing the leader at this point has challenges. In this case, Morgan will be behind the curve in terms of understanding of what has come to pass so far. Sure she’ll be briefed, but she won’t have lived and breathed this stuff for the past 4 years. Secondly, the ownership of this vision becomes blurred – the curriculum changes are completely associated with Gove (in fact, there is possibly more association with the individual politician than in any other area for the current government). It’s Gove’s plan, without Gove to deliver.

I’ve got a vested interest here – my eldest starts school in September. I don’t know at the moment if I have a view on the new curriculum – my innate political compass tells me I shouldn’t like it, but my mind was opened a great deal when I recently read Ian Leslie’s book Curious. What I fear, though, is chaos. Chaos because the changes haven’t yet happened and without clear leadership run the risk of becoming a hotch-potch of stuff that nobody quite believes in or can deliver. It’s not to say that Morgan can’t be a good leader – it’s just it’s really hard to lead on what was someone else’s brainchild.

Change doesn’t happen at the issuing of a policy or the publishing of a curriculum, no more than in business does it happen from the publishing of a strategy or the issuing of some corporate values.  The proposed changes in education are seismic, and shifting the delivery onto a new Secretary of State at this crucial time is deeply worrying.

Six hurdles

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Last week I got into yet another spirited conversation on Facebook – this time about the barriers to success in Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs). Think Yammer, Huddl, Sharepoint and so on.

Den Howlett has written a very thoughtful piece on the subject as a result here on Diginomica, and has created six hurdles that are placed between ESN projects and success. To continue the debate, here are my thoughts…

Why are we doing any of this? Unless there is a strategic outcome in mind that makes sense to everyone then all you will ever do is tinker around the edges. But then you can still pick off elements of that strategy as a starting point.

Ever the iconoclast, I’m not convinced that successful delivery of collaboration tools and services is predicated by have a clear strategic outcome, other than “surely we can do things a bit better around here?” How teams interact in themselves, and with others, is something that is remarkably situational. Technology may well have give the possibilities for more effective ways of working, but I’m increasingly of the view that the only people who’ll be able to work out not only how, but what are the people themselves.

Can management rid itself of the concentration of attention to short term metrics? Playing to the financial community alone is a guaranteed course of failure. Management that is strong enough and smart enough to clearly communicate value to all stakeholders stands a much better chance than the CEO whose only purpose in life is to brown nose Wall Street. Unfortunately, I suspect the vast majority of managements are too weak to get past this one.

I fear Den might be right here. And for all of the talk of radical new approaches to management and leadership that appear to be in vogue at the moment, one elephant perpetually crapping in the corner are the business leaders beholden to the analysts. To be frank, I don’t think it’s even “the markets” these days.

How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the bulb has got to want to change. In other words, management cannot simply like the idea, it must want change and want it badly.

Not only must they want the change, but leadership must also consistently demonstrate that they themselves can change. The evidence around public social networks from my #socialCEO research is that they predominantly don’t.

Looking at employees – what’s in it for them? Without clear value for me, I ain’t playing the way you want me to. I’ll revert to type and game the system. Ergo, the business loses albeit it may not see that until it is too late. How many organizations do you know that claim they hate works politics yet are riven with a jockeying for position among management layers?

Eight years ago when I was working at Reuters, there was a lobby asking to create “LinkedIn” for the internal organisation. I simply answered “Just use LinkedIn”.

There’s way more benefit to the individual in using external services (for the most part) than internal ones. Organisations should try to leverage that, rather than constantly thinking that information about networks in their organisations is some sort of proprietary secret.

Does management truly value its employees? The sad answer is often no. We see this across multiple dimensions not least the furore around Hobby Lobby. If you don’t care or care enough, you won’t succeed.

Our staff are our most important asset is a platitude in most organisations at the scale of almost Customers are at the heart of everything we do.  A rapidly changed communications landscape, from internal networks to LinkedIn to Glassdoor to Facebook make it all transparent. If you are going to say such things, you’d better really be living them.

Where are the substantially influential groups of forward thinkers that can provide solid counsel? Right now, I see most of them on Facebook yet I can guarantee that’s not the place the decision makers turn in order to find knowledge or insight. What’s worse, that group doesn’t seem to be growing substantially. Instead, I see plenty of ESN mavens doing little more than trotting out ‘the obvious’ but with little depth to their understanding of business dynamics. Or worse still, yelling about some mythical oncoming revolution.

Well, personally, I’m trying to get my take on all of this out to as many different groups as I possibly can. I work with people in the technology space, the HR space, internal comms, marketing, PR, customer engagement, and my own career background is equally diverse. That, though, sometimes is the the challenge.

Big organisations crave specialism. What’s going on with ESN is (for it to have impact) truly cross-disciplinary (technology, marketing, organisational development, management and leadership development and a bit of social science in the mix too). But specialism craves experts, not generalists who can join the dots. I’m definitely making headway, but my work life would be a lot easier if I’d set myself up as someone who configured a product, selling project services into IT departments.

Regulation and innovation

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I’ve spoken to a few people in the last week who are in the financial services industry, and it is striking how regulation of the industry is acting as a massive inhibitor to innovation in that industry. Given the seismic impact of a very liberal approach to regulating banks over the past half decade, this is probably a good thing.

However, it doesn’t prevent innovation from happening, and it puts the traditional financial institutions at a huge risk of being marginalised as services that use their data (but aren’t themselves financial institutions) become our first port of call.

Let me give you an example. In running my business, one service that I use quite extensively is the expenses app Expensify. Expensify allows me to manage my business outgoings, scanning receipts and then reconciling against my spending on my American Express card. Amex provide an API service through which Expensify pulls my data. As a result (and because Expensify provides functionality with which I can actually do things with my data, rather than just look at it), I never look at the Amex site any more. American Express have been intermediated. My needs for an alternative credit card provider now have become their ability to provide open APIs that Expensify can read (interest rates aren’t important to me because I settle the balance every month).

This seems akin to what’s happened to a large extent to, say, mobile phone operators in the age of the smartphone. Whilst once our brand loyalty was to Orange or Vodafone or O2, now our brand allegiance is to iPhone or Samsung or Google. Meanwhile, mobile operators run either a race to the bottom in terms of pricing (see O2′s GiffGaff), or a challenging world of “experiences” to try to keep customer loyalty. The heavily regulated London taxi market is going through similar pain at the moment, witnessed by the furore around Uber.

The pressure for banks and other financial institutions to provide APIs to customer data will be relentless – particularly because their own ability to provide value-added functionality appears to be so hamstrung by the regulators. Opening up data, though, turns underlying banking into a commodity – and if the way in which your customer interacts with your commodity service is through third parties, you ability to build loyalty and retain customers becomes incredibly difficult.

Matt Ballantine's thoughts about technology, marketing, management and other stuff…

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