The power of authority

stanley_milgramI got into an interesting discussion last week about an incident in a friend’s local supermarket. An elderly neighbour had locked herself out of her house, and in a state of distress went to the supermarket (a small branch of one of the massive chains) to ask to use their telephone. The request was flatly refused.

My friend couldn’t understand how the supermarket staff could be so cruel and callous. My thoughts, having worked many years ago for a supermarket, was that that was utterly expected in an organisation that used such draconian process-centred management. “Oh, but we need processes.” said my friend…

A few days later I was reading Will Storr’s intriguing book The Heretics and was reminded of Stanley Milgram’s iconic social psychology experiments in the early 1960s into how authority leads to many people doing things that would be completely unacceptable to them and others otherwise. The power of uniform, the power of the teacher… and then I suddenly realised, the power of organisational process.

In my time working in large-scale organisations I’ve spent much of my time pretty much baffled. Baffled by the stupidity of so much that goes on. Baffled by the dehumanised nature of so much that goes on. Baffled by the sometimes near psychopathic behaviours. But authority in organisations, whether vested through the power of management rank, or by the dehumanised power of process, is Milgram’s experimentation writ large.

And that power is immense. I like to think of myself as someone who is fairly happy with challenging the status quo. I’ve had former bosses who have gone on public record to verify that. And yet, when push comes to shove, I’ve done things at work that I personally found morally unacceptable because the process-pressure and peer-pressure to conform was too great to withstand.

Whilst there is much talk around at the moment about how to create “manager-less” organisations, even those movements seem to still put great faith in the idea of rules and regulations – take the Holocracy concept, for example, which bills itself as “…is a comprehensive practice for structuring, governing, and running an organization“. That sounds as good a culture for the fermenting of Milgram-esque compliance as any traditional organisation.

Is this a big deal? Am I just showing my soft inner-liberal? Well, maybe. But when a distraught grandmother is turned away from an outpost of a massive multinational, don’t be surprised. And even more, don’t say that the poor sod at the end of that chain of command “should have used their initiative”. The power of authority is very, very hard to disobey.

Career planning


About four years ago I decided to take my career on a new path. I had spent much of the preceding two decades working in IT of one form or another, but needed to change.

In my early thirties I’d set myself the goal of becoming a CIO by the age of 40. When I was interviewed for a feature about me by CIO Magazine just before my 40th birthday I figured I’d hit that target.

The question then became “Now what?”. Continuing down a CIO-career meant either doing the same job again at a larger scale, or stepping down a position or two to work my way up in a really big organisation. Neither sounded particularly appealing.

But there was more of an existential crisis going on as I thought about what should happen next. Having spent some time working to deliver Cloud-based services, and having been aware for some time that consumer technology was fast outpacing that in the world of business, it struck me that the world of IT was going through a profound and irreversible change. The CIO/IT path was one that not only looked repetitive, but also one where the scope for doing things that would keep me interested would diminish over time too.

So I took a leap – first to spend some time working on the supplier side of the industry with Microsoft, and more recently under my own steam. My career aims have now become much less precise, and much longer term.

I’ve been thinking about all of this a fair bit recently, as next week I’ve been invited to host an event taking place at the Regent Street Apple Store being run by FileMaker - the now Apple-owned database company. Anyone who has worked in a mixed Apple & PC environment over the years may well have come  FileMaker – and if that time was in the late 90s it might well be with gritted teeth.

These days, however, multi-platform is the norm not the exception, especially for smaller businesses where PC, Mac, Android and iOS will probably all intermingle. That’s the segment of the market that FileMaker appear to be targeting.

But why all the career reminiscing? Well, the event on Tuesday 5th will be talking to people who have become FileMaker developers, and so in turn have taken something of a different career path. Some come from “proper” IT backgrounds, some don’t. Most are working with small- or medium-sized businesses, some in house, some as service providers. All of them are doing things that are interesting, and providing value to their clients.

When I was a lad (which is becoming an increasingly distant memory) you could work your way up in IT. I myself started doing photocopying, migrated into photocopying and stapling, and from there was able to get a job on an IT helpdesk. a few years in the world of service support gave me enough insight to start to work in development, then into development management and so on.

Today, that kind of route is probably still possible, but as outsourcing and software as a service and off-shoring and whatever take their place, that well-rounded experience becomes harder to get. And one thing that I’m certain of is that understanding how people use technology, rather than just the technology per se, will become the skills of greatest value.

I’m interested to hear next week if the FileMaker developers are, though their backgrounds, their choice of tools and the clients they work for, are achieving that (and, at the same time, finding purposeful and meaningful work in their careers).

Full disclosure: FileMaker are paying me to host the event next week. All of the words above, though, are mine.  As they will be on the evening itself.

You can come along to the event on Tuesday 5th August by registering at
(scroll half-way down the page to the Upcoming Store Events section and filter by “Events”)

Bertie Day


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


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


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


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.

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


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