Category Archives: Business strategy

On bad complexity

How many times have you had to do a task and throughout the experience say to yourself, “there must be an easier way to do this – why do they make it so complex when it should be so simple”?  I often have this very thought when paying a bill or searching for a product on a website – why is it so difficult to get what I want done?  After all, don’t these people want my money?

Web expert, Gerry McGovern, offers an explanation in his recent blog post, Eliminating bad complexity. Gerry is not talking about complexity science but rather how complex an activity or task is.  Does the activity or task have to be that complex if it doesn’t lead to good customer experience?  Gerry makes the distinction between good complexity and bad complexity.   “Good complexity leads to greater convenience, choice and options. Bad complexity leads to frustration, wasted time and wasted money”.  I can definitiely say that I have often experienced bad complexity.

There are people responsible for providing services, especially on the web, who are not thinking of the customer but are thinking of their own personal agendas.  Tasks and activities are more difficult  than they have to be because the provider wants to do something else than serve the needs of the customer.

And this type of behaviour also occurs within organisations.  Gerry goes on to say: “Many organizations have enemies within. Departments and divisions care only for themselves. They will introduce complexity that makes the organization as a whole more dependent on them. In fact, the way modern organizations are structured rewards bad complexity”.

I often wonder whether organisations really care about good customer experience. 

I appreciate that understanding the customer and their needs is difficult.  Making complex organisations work together to maximise good customer experience is also not easy – but it can be done. is a great example.  Amazon has a simple (and ugly) website that makes it easy for the customer to buy products; usually books in my case.  In addition, Amazon gives me the occasional alert on books I might be interested in based on my searching and buying history; a service that is not intrusive and where I have often found a book that might otherwise have remained unknown to me.  The work behind the scenes at Amazon is probably a complicated and complex set of interactions and behavious but the customer experience is simple and fulfilling.

It seems clear to me that maximising good customer experience should lead to more sales and greater revenue.  However, perhaps increasing revenue is still not enough motivation to change “bad complexity” within organisations or in service provision.  There are obviously other motives in play…motives we see all the time as a customer, at work, in sport, and in politics.

Perhaps it is the customer experience that is “bad complexity”….. well, at least for many organisations.


On internal and external sources of knowledge

I just received my latest Gurteen Knowledge Newsletter from David Gurteen.  David alerts us to a new book by Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell  entitled No more consultants: we know more than we think.  I have already ordered the book for my personal library and look forward to reading the book when the order arrives.

I have often wondered what the appeal of hiring external consultants is when people already working within an organisation could do the same or even better job at solving a perceived problem.  There seems to be an attitude that only good knowledge exists outside the organisation; a situation that I feel undervalues the existing knowledge assets of an organistion, or at best, underutilises that existing knowledge capability. And perhaps this is where knowledge management needs to make more of an inroad – in bringing these knowledge assets out in the open so that they get the righful attention of decision-makers.

Of course there will be times when people are busy working on other things and so a consultancy allows for an issue to be looked at sooner rather than later. But in many situations, it’s almost like the organisation doesn’t think highly of it’s own staff being able to undertake the work, something a bit strange when the staff are best placed to consider the workplace context.

Now before readers get the wrong idea, I do think that consultants have an important role to play, especially in offering a new approach to problems and in looking at issues in a different light.  Good consultants really want to help their clients overcome obstacles, look for new opportunities, and solve problems that really matter to an organistion.

I often take on the “consultancy role” when I start a new job or where I want to begin a new project: I seek to determine the current position of the organistion; what are the problems, constraints or concerns about the project or activity; what are the priorities and capabilities within the organisation; how this all fits within the organistion or business unit’s overall strategy and desired outcomes; and then I look at solving problems and issues within the organisational context using whatever combination of people and resources is required for the task at hand. 

Management certainly need to consider the effective utilisation of knowledge assets that exist within the organisation as well as what external knowledge assets can bring to an organistion.

On purpose and need: an example

In my previous blog post I strongly advocated the need to determine purpose and need in our knowledge management planning and strategic thinking.  In fact, purpose and need are important in most business contexts.

To illustrate the point more, I was pleased to read in my latest Good Experience newsletter about how a major US hotel chain (Courtyard by Marriott) went about reinventing itself in order to deliver a better service to meet customer need.  You can read the interview from the Good Experience blog.  Also of interest, and something I have advocated previously, is thinking about marketing principles and practices and how we can use this in our knowledge management activities.

The key message from the interview was in defining a purpose (who is our customer and how do we service that customer to ensure they prefer to stay at Courtyard by Marriott) and working out the best way of meeting that particular need.  The method Courtyard by Marriott took to undertake this transformation was in good market and customer research.  Out of this research came “a set of insights based on what we learned from our segmentation, interviews, and ethnography”. Courtyard by Marriott calls these results the “brand blueprint” and the rest of the interview talks about how the hotel chain went to work making the “brand blueprint” come to reality.

And the result: “We’ve seen a dramatic change in our market share, almost 10%, a 28% increase in guest satisfaction from the new lobby, and average food profit has increased 113%”.

The classic marketing approach to determine who really is your customer is something that practitioners in knowledge management should also consider seriously.  Sometimes, it is important to realise that one cannot service everybody to the same extent or in the same way.  It is certainly the case that people have different needs even inside the one organisation.  When the hotel chain determined who was the main game, they sought to understand this particular segment in order to determine how best they could match their needs.  I am curious to find out if they used any form of archetype analysis in their research. 

As a consequence of the research and analysis, the company worked out strategies and designs that would support the now-recognised needs of the customer.  Listening to your customers is very important and doing what is best for them (and not just for yourself) is critical.

I think that those of us in knowledge management can take some lessons from this essentially marketing experience to enhance our own abilities to rethink our purpose and meet the needs of our particular client groups.

On determining purpose and need

I was reading the latest blog post from Gerry McGovern this morning. Gerry highlights the fact that Craigslist is an immensely popular website, even more popular than bookselling behemoth Amazon, but the site is incredibly ugly.  Craigslist, in case you don’t already know, is a webite for localised classified ads and discussion forums. Craigslist is successful not because it looks good; it works because it serves a particular purpose that satisfies a particular need that people find easy to use and which gets results.

I don’t want to get into the merits of website content and aesthetics right now but I do want to reinforce the absolutely essential task of determining purpose and need. What is the purpose of this activity and what need will it fulfil?  In my field of knowledge management, establishing purpose and need are vital to any effective strategy or activity.  Purpose and need should be key determinants not only for websites, but also for intranets, document  libraries, discussion lists, and communities of practice.

Craigslist (and Googlefor that matter) succeed with pretty basic and boring interfaces because they do what the customer wants them to do in a simple and consistent manner.  There is consistency in terms of use and in what outcomes can be expected.  There is no mystery – no lack of clarity nor uncertainty about what people using Craigslist and Google are actually there to do.

Half the battle of getting people involved in a knowledge management or content management endeavour is to ensure that these activities serve a particular purpose to meet a definite user or client need.  Having something somewhere for the sake of it, or on the off-chance, is not good enough. Clarity of purpose and establishing activities and facilitating solutions based on need are far more effective ways to use time and resources.  And if there is a need that is served by a particular service or activity, you will find there will be no shortage of use.  Craigslist is indeed the proof.

On a writer in residence and the airport experience

The bods at Heathrow Airport in London are reported to have hired author Alain de Botton as a writer-in-residence. The idea is to give de Botton unfettered access to the airport so that he can write about the modern experience of airport life. As de Botton says in the article, airports are a good microcosm of the global themes of human life (ok, I paraphrased a bit here).

However, de Botton will only have full access to Heathrow Airport for a week so perhaps the tag writer-in-residence is a little on the exagerated side. I guess that the term short-term publicist doesn’t have the same sort of public interest as writer-in-residence for those high brow types in London. But let’s wait and see what de Botton gets to the bottom of at Heathrow first before speculating any further as to the outcome of the exercise…

I suppose the bods at Heathrow Airport are hoping that de Botton can write something positive about the airport experience since it has continually underperformed passenger expectations. The opening of Terminal Five last year was a disaster. And when I travelled through Heathrow in 1986 on the day Terminal 4 opened, there was a baggage handlers strike and the best part of the Heathrow experience back then was leaving it!

Yet now in this modern age I am surprised that de Botton wouldn’t just blog or tweet about his airport experience. The fact that he has been contracted to write a book based on his one week tour of duty at Heathrow smells suspiciously like a publicity stunt to me. Moreover, the chap needs to be given more time – let’s say a writer-in-residence for three months. We all know that one week doesn’t make a summer!

So de Botton will write a book that will be published and all will be revealed then – hopefully including the answers to many a passenger problem at Europe’s busiest airport epicentre.

But speaking of answers, Heathrow Airport should just listen to the thousands of customers that use the airport each day if they really want to know what goes on in the airport and what people really think. Having a well-known author intermediate these airport experiences in the 21st century is no longer necessary – go straight to the source and get the information direct from the people using your services and respond accordingly. I am sure there would be plenty of narrative fragments (stories) that could be collected from customers and suppliers,and then aggregated to identify common patterns or themes that the airport owners would need to address.

That is, of course, if you’re really serious about understanding the true airport experience.

On outcomes and impact

There are many ways to find out about things. Research is obviously part of that. And research likes to use quantitative measures in order to maximise objectivity, even if these measures don’t give you much meaning.

Let’s look at hit rates on a website – a metric commonly used for “statistical purposes”. What does it mean? Well, it means that a website or page view has been looked at a certain amount of times. The inference is that the more hits you have the better must be the result. But what is the result?

If the intended result is to have as many hits as possible since one assumes hit rates equate with “eyeballs”, then surely high hit rate numbers are great. But is this the result an organisation really wants from it’s website? What happens as a consequence of the “eyeballs” is the question I really want to get an answer to. In reality, high hit rates could indicate a bad website. Your website visitors and customers are clicking away, frustrated by their inability to reach an outcome they want to achieve. Just get those click rates up and everything will be fine….hmmmmm.

Let’s do a survey then. A survey is actually pretty limiting.  A questionnaire is bounded by the construction of the questions and limited answer options. In nearly all cases, one could answer a question yes or no, depending on the particular circumstances at some point in time. Surveys also don’t do a great job in measuring continuous change over time. And conducting surveys or focus groups with large numbers of people are often difficult and time consuming, certinly if a continuous process is required.

Yet these methods are still held to be superior to more qualitative approaches to research. However, if you actually asked your website users what they thought of the website, perhaps they might tell you that it takes a lot of clicking to get through to complete the task at hand. They might tell you that your website is poorly organised, with lousy navigation and confusing labels. They might tell you that the photos on the home page add nothing to their customer experience. They might tell you that your website could better… for them. And if you have a continuous dialogue with them, they will be even more insightful as to how to improve or validate what you are trying to do. Observation at point of impact is a good way of thinking about this.

I can see some meaning from getting those kind of responses! Click rate numbers – forget it. Now I have real information that can make an impact to the people I say (and the organisation) I am trying to serve.

So what we are interested in finding out is impact. What is the  impact that occurs from what we are doing? This is different to outcome. Click rates are an outcome. Obtaining continuous feedback to ensure satisfied customers buy from you, recommend you, and stay loyal, is another.

Now what if we could get this feedback quickly, continually over time, on a large scale, context-sensitive, and in a way where the person giving us the information gives it in terms of how it affects them, and not through some intermediary or stilted survey method?

I set the scene this way to introduce some thoughts from a presentation at the ANU yesterday by Dave Snowden,  special guest speaker at the ACT-KM forum. Dave talked about a number of current projects he was working on. The common element from his talk was the importance of  determining impact and how then to take relevant action as a consequence.

I will use the example of the Liverpool Slavery Museum in the UK from Dave’s talk yesterday; albeit the Children of the world project was for me the most fascinating.

One could count the number of people going through the museum each month and year. The numbers might indicate level of popularity but one can’t be sure. At best, they show that “x” number of people came and paid “y” number of UK pounds to do so.  One could do a simple accounting calculation at this point and perhaps leave it at that.

But what if you wanted to know what effect the museum had on people? What if you wanted to know how successful the museum was in educating visitors about slavery, or in providing a unique experience? What really was the impact of the museum visit?

[It is of course true that if you don’t want to know about your customers’ experiences and are happy with just throughput figures – akin to an assembly line – then impact will have very little interest for you. The process will be sufficient].

Dave told us how there are computer screens and keyboards at the museum where people can record their experiences and feelings about the museum exhibits. People can nominate any of the individual exhibits to make a comment or express a feeling. The people making these comments are then able to “index” or tag their comments using terms chosen freely that signify meaning to them. Nobody  is interpretating what they say and adding any bias. At the same time, this information capture is continuous and provides for scale, something a static survey couldn’t do. The museum now has thousands of narrative fragments “indexed” by the individuals themselves. This information is aggregated and patterns observed. These patterns may suggest a change to a particular exhibit, or perhaps some alteration to how a museum education officer conducts a group tour.

In the Liverpool Museum case, they have both quantitative information (number of visitors and monies received) AND what impact the museum had on the visitors.

Yet still there are detractors:

  • stories (narrative fragments is the preferred method used by Dave Snowden) are not real facts
  • some people may just write junk and not tell the truth
  • it’s all so subjective

All three statements might be true. The point is, if we want to measure impact, then we need to know what people think and what effect something had on them. And we need to know what they think, not what what we might guess at. The capture and aggregation of narrative fragments is a good way of doing this. “Junk” can be easily discarded but sometimes “junk” may be of interest as a weak signal, something we should pay attention to. Where you want to establish an impact on people, of course there is subjectivity. However, how the narrative fragments are captured, aggregated and used is quite a rigorous and objective method in itself.

Lastly, no matter what the method, unless people use the tools correctly and respond appropriately, no research activity will have any validity.

On social media – the Euan Semple interview on guruonline

Social media is a topic that should be of interest to anyone working in organisations. It still amazes me that social media remains unknown or is treated with suspicion from senior management-types when social media is just an extension of the ways in which people operate in the real world.

People like making connections. People like socialising and sharing experiences. People trust other people they know, and whose opinions they value. And people realise that getting things done or finding out about something can be achieved by relying on their friends, contacts, and networks. Indeed, as choice and decision-making in one’s personal life becomes more complex, so the reliance on personal connections and trusted contacts increases in importance.  Why not amplify these norms for the benefit of getting things done and solving problems more efficiently and effectively within an organisation?

So I was very pleased to receive an email earlier today from a friend about an interview with Euan Semple on social media. Euan Semple is an excellent speaker and authority on the use of social media within organisations. The interview is based on fifteen questions that Euan answers in his usual thoughtful, personable, and considered way. Questions range from why organisations should get involved with social media, how organisations can use social media, what are the tools, and what will be the benefits.

The interview is on guruonline , a web-based service that provides free information on a range of topics from experts in the field. I really like the way the interviews have been presented on the site. Each question is answered as a single slice so that one can choose the questions and responses of interest. I certainly recommend the guruonline interview with Euan to managers in business and government who don’t really understand the benefits and opportunities offered by social media.

I will spend some time in the next few days looking at guruonline and some of the other topics of interest on the web site. But for now, I thoroughly recommend listening to Euan Semple talk about social media and why it is important for business and other organisations to consider for their own workplace situations.