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PHOTON COURIER
 
Monday, May 30, 2005  
MEMORIAL DAY, 2005

Here's a collection of posts that I think are worthwhile.

Omar, writing from Iraq, has something he wants to say to Americans.

Sheila has some words from Shakespeare, along with other links.

Powerline tells the story of one American soldier.

Citizen Smash reminds us of the nature of today's enemy. Via army wife Trying to Grok, who offers worthwhile thoughts of her own.

University Diaries remembers a Frenchman who was both a thinker and a fighter.

At Memories of a Jug Driver, Antoine de St-Exupery pays tribute to the American soldier. About halfway down, under the title "Letters to an American." (Jug=P-47 Thunderbolt--lots of other reminiscenses on the site)

See also my posts about the British secret agents Noor Inayat Khan and Violette Szabo.

Finally, ChicagoBoyz has a suggestion for contributions.

12:48 PM

Sunday, May 29, 2005  
DISTRUPTIVE INNOVATION: A DIFFERENT VIEW

A while back, I reviewed The Innovator's Solution, a thought-provoking work on business strategy by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor. In a nushell, the authors argue that "disruptive innovation"--the kind that leads to major change in an industry--usually comes from the bottom up: It originally appears in a form which is inferior in some important way to incumbent technologies. Hence, it is usually undervalued/underemphasized by incumbent companies. Challenger companies, however, make a business out of selling the new technology for markets and applications which are satisfied with its performance characteristics: transistor radios, for example, were originally sold to teenagers, who were willing to accept their relatively poor fidelity and volume characteristics (compared with the incumbent vacuum-tube technology) in exchange for portability. But, over time, the new technology improves, and by that time, for the incumbent companies, it's too late.

Comes now Nicholas G Carr, writing in Strategy and Business (summer 2005 edition). Carr argues that the disruptive innovation that attacks from below is not the whole story--that there are also forms of "top-down disruption." These are innovations that focus on superior performance, and are initially sold to a niche market that needs such performance. As examples, he cites FedEx (overnight document delivery), Wang Labs (word processing), XM and Sirius (satellite radio), and Apple iPod. He goes on to argue that for such top-down disruptive innovations, incumbent companies are at less of a disadvantage compared to challengers--that, indeed, they may often have an advantage over the challengers.

I think he makes a good point about top-down disruptive innovations as a category, but he overstates the case for incumbent advantages. The innovation--even if it has the potential for high margins--is still likely to be small in absolute revenue terms when it is new, and its niche nature means that even the revenue projections are likely to be fairly small. Thus, to a large and successful company, it's likely to seem like a diversion from the main effort, and to get less attention than it will later turn out to have deserved. And even if the incumbent decides to go ahead with the new technology, there are likely to be serious internal organizational and political problems. Engineering, manufacturing, and sales, as currently configured, may well not fit the needs of the new technology, and the functional barons in charge of them are likely to resist change (and even more likely to resist the setting-up of parallel organizations devoted to the new technology and is markets). Although Carr argues that the incumbent's brand may be valuable in pursuing the new opportunity..and it will in some cases..there are also cases where the customer perception of the incumbent brand will conflict with the nature of the new opportunity. And his argument about "ready access to investment capital" on the part of incumbents carries much less weight than it would have 20 years or so ago, before the emergence of today's extensive venture capital industry.

I do agree that incumbents are relatively better off with the top-down disruptive innovations than the bottom-up ones...but, as Carr notes, they have often done a pretty poor job even in those cases (viz, the failure of UPS to quickly capitalize on the overnight document delivery market).

Carr's article is a worthwhile contribution to the literature on strategic thought, and I look forward to a response from Christensen and Raynor.

UPDATE: Lead and Gold has some thoughts on this topic. I particularly like this:

"...business ain't Jeopardy where getting an answer right earns money automatically. The integration of thought and action is vital."

9:31 AM

Saturday, May 28, 2005  
NEW FRONTIERS IN SHALLOWNESS

This year is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar--one of the most important naval battles in history--in which the British fleet under Lord Nelson defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets. A reenactment is planned--but, in deference to modern sensibilities, the opposing fleets will be called the "red fleet" and the "blue fleet" and the reenactment (which is being organized by the Royal Navy) is being referred to as merely "an early 19th century sea battle."

The stated objective is to avoid any "embarrassment" to French dignitaries attending the event. "This will not be a French-bashing opporunity," said a navy spokeswoman.

Huh? Who could be "embarrassed" about a defeat that occurred 200 years ago? And why is it "bashing" anyone to call things by their proper names?

This is what you get when you combine the tenets of modern "progressivism" (self-esteem subdivision) with any bureaucracy. It's a combination which sucks the life out of everything it touches.

7:24 PM

Wednesday, May 25, 2005  
DRUCKER ON SECOND CAREERS

A while back, there was a discussion at Bitch, Phd which centered largely around career change and second careers. It reminded me of something Peter Drucker wrote many years ago, so I pulled it off the shelf and am excerpting it for anyone who might be interested. This is from Prof Drucker's book The Age of Discontinuity, published in 1969 and still very much worth reading.

...the great many members of the educated middle class are only too susceptible to a modern version of the affliction known to the Middle Ages as accidie: the emotional malaise and subacute despair that was the typical disease of the clerc who realized, around age thirty or so, that he would be neither saint nor abbot.

Similarly, knowledge workers who, wile successful, remain within a specific function or specific discipline until around forty-five or so, often become tired, dispirited, and bored with themselves and the job. There is, for example, the director of market research in a business or the head of quality control; the comproller of a navy yard or a training officer in the army with the rank of lieutenant colonel...even the good "sound" professor on the university faculty.


On the subject of second careers, Prof Drucker continues:

It is difficult to exaggerate the extent of this need. I touched upon this need for second knowledge careers in an interview which appeared in the May 1968 issue of Psychology Today (a magazine which then had only limited circulation). This provoked an outpouring of letters and telephone calls from all over the United States--I received at least seven hundred personal letters and hundreds of telephone calls--from ministers of all faiths, university professors, military offices, school principals, accountants, middle managers, civil servants, and so on. Yet all asked: "Now that I am forty-seven, how can I start doing something new and challenging?"

The accomplished knowledge journeyman, at forty-five or fifty is in his physical and mental prime. If he is tired and bored, it is because he has reached the limit of contribution and growth in his first career--and he knows it. he is likely to deteriorate rapidly if left doing what no longer truly challenges him. It is of little use to look to "hobbies" or to "cultural interests" to keep him alive. Being an amateur does not satisfy a man who has learned to be a professional....To be a dilettante has to be learned in childhood as all aristocraties have known.


Much more on the topic in the book, along with many other worthwhile thoughts on society, work, and education.

8:40 AM

 
CARNIVAL TIME!

The Carnival of Education is up.

7:57 AM

Tuesday, May 24, 2005  
PENNY IN THE FUSEBOX

A few weeks ago, there was a widely-reported story about a girl in kindergarten who was led away in handcuffs by the police. Apparently, there have been several incidents like this recently. In a thoughtful article in The Wall Street Journal (5/24, subscription required), Philip Howard addresses the reasons for such happenings. Basically, he argues that two factors have converged: (1)The fear of being sued on the part of schools, their administrators, and their teachers, and (2)The attempt to manage schools through a comprehensive rulebook, leaving little or no role for human judgment or authority. Linking these two factors together, Howard says "The downward spiral of of public education has withstood the efforts of reformers. Yet no one proposes this most obvious reform--to restore the authority of teachers to maintain order--because we don't admit that teachers have lost authority. Tachers, we're told, just have to follow the rules. Schools are managed under a detailed legal code. This 1960s innovation was designed to guarante fairness through uniform rules and individual rights. But rules are rigid, and rarely fit the complexities of real life."

It seems to me that the "progressive" approach to the schools--like the progressive approach to much of society--resembles the old practice of putting a penny in the fusebox. (Fusebox: an archaic electrical device that was used--and is sometimes still used--to perform functions similar to those now performed by circuit breakers, except that fuses can't be reset--when they blow, you have to put in a new one.) There were always idiots who would respond to a blown fuse by simply putting a penny in the fusebox. The penny wouldn't melt, and you might get the lights back on or the toaster toasting again--but meanwhile, your house might well burn down. Because the penny in the fusebox defeated the whole purpose of the circuit-protection system, which was and is to isolate problems before they could do great damage.

Similarly, the policies of "progressives" (aided and abetted by greedy lawyers and irresponsible parents) often make it impossible for teachers to deal with behavior problems while they are still fixable--with malign results both for the individual and for the learning climate of the school.

2:44 PM

 
WORTH PONDERING

The great 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky wrote, in The Poetics of Music, "You cannot create against a yielding medium." Stravinsky's innovations were nothing if not revolutionary, but he knew that he could not have produced them if he had not be constrained by the traditions of music and the mathematical strictures of tone. "Let me have something finite, definite," he wrote. "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength."

--Nicholas G Carr
Strategy + Business (Spring, 2005 issue)

Previous Worth Pondering

7:45 AM

Saturday, May 21, 2005  
IMPORTANT READING

Spiegel Online has an article about the epidemic of "honor killings" among immigrants in Germany. The article shows how "liberalism"--as practiced in modern Germany--has not only failed to inhibit such atrocities, it has actually acted as an enabler for them.

It would be very dangerous to assume that this is only a German issue, or only a European issue.

UPDATE: See also this.

7:53 AM

Friday, May 20, 2005  
INTERESTING ANALOGY

Rose explains why some critics of America are like a certain kind of really bad boyfriend.

6:27 PM

 
REBOOT YOUR CAR

There have been several reports of Toyota Prius hybrids shutting down abruptly while travelling at highway speeds--the problem may be due to a software problem in the car's engine control computer. Last year Toyota identified a problem in the system and asked owners to bring their cars in to have the fix installed: it's not clear whether the recently-reported problems are due to cars that didn't have the fix installed, or whether there is also another problem now being manifested.

There's a whole category of computer systems, called "embedded systems," which are usually out of sight and out of mind. As the name suggests, these systems exist not on a stand-alone basis, but as part of a larger system. They are in elevator controllers, aircraft autopilots, industrial robots and machine tools, even kitchen appliances. By and large, the software for these systems--as well as the hardware--has proven to be highly reliable. When was the last time you got stuck between floors in an elevator because the controller had to reboot? In fact, I've often thought that the designers of our desktop software could benefit from spending some quality time with their embedded-systems counterparts.

Hopefully, the problems with the Toyota engine controller will get fixed and stay fixed before somebody gets hurt, and this kind of thing will continue to be a rare exception.

8:11 AM

Thursday, May 19, 2005  
NEW FRONTIERS IN IGNORANCE

ABC News posted an item on their web site which included the following statement:

The filibuster has been used historically by the minority party, which can't win with a vote count. Democrats have opposed the filibuster before — in the 1960s, they accused Republicans of using it to block civil rights legislation.

In reality, of course, it was southern Democrats who filibustered against civil rights legislation.

ABC has quietly changed their web site to correct the item--without, as near as I can tell, any acknowledgment that their original post was incorrect. See analysis here--if you follow the first link under the trackbacks, you will find a saved image of the original page. Fortunately, Orwell's "memory holes" turn out to be not so easy to implement.

7:59 PM

 
WORTH PONDERING

Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people.

--W B Yeats (quoted in IBD 5/11)

It strikes me that all too many people today are doing the opposite: ie, thinking simplistically but attempting to make their thoughts sound profound through the use of esoteric and convoluted language.

Previous Worth Pondering

8:36 AM

 
THE DEHUMANIZATION OF ART, CONTINUED

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a post on Art, Discomfort, and Dehumanization, which linked to the essay "Against the Dehumanization of Art," by novelist Mark Helprin. I linked to this post in a discussion thread over at ChicagoBoyz, and it seems to have struck a chord. To spare your clicking finger, here's the original post again:

ART, DISCOMFORT, AND DEHUMANIZATION
Originally posted 11/25/2003

Brian Micklethwait writes:

As for the endlessly repeated claim that art is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, I don't buy that. And I don't believe the people who say that they do buy it are being honest. I think that a picture which they have no problem with, but which they believe makes other people whom they disapprove of uncomfortable, makes them very comfortable indeed, and that that is the kind of discomfort (i.e. not discomfort at all, for them) which they like, and are referring to with all this discomfort propaganda.

Very astute point about the difference between making other people uncomfortable and making oneself uncomfortable. Those who make a religion of the first rarely seem to practice the second.

As to the broader question: is art supposed to make you feel uncomfortable?...I would say that great art may make you feel uncomfortable, but if the artist creates a work with the objective of making people uncomfortable, then he is unlikely to produce great (or even good) art.

Brian's post reminded me of an important essay "Against the Dehumanization of Art," by the novelist Mark Helprin (originally presented as a lecture in 1994.) Sample:

Art that imitates the rigor of science forgoes an infinite wealth of variables that pure nature, in its constancy and nobility, does not present, for if man is more limited in his capacities he is more interesting in his unpredictability. Art that accepts human limitations is empowered and enriched by the very discipline that the modernists ignore.

For example, the Hofburg and the Astrodome each are of immense volume, but the Hofburg is apportioned to human scale. Whereas the Astrodome makes its single point in a minute, you can wander for years in the Hofburg. This is because we are of a certain size. Certain proportions are right for us, while others are not. Modernism has forgotten this, forgotten that we cannot survive at certain temperatures, that we disintegrate at certain speeds, that we cannot fit in some spaces or fill others, that our understanding is tethered to our mortality, that part of what we call art is the tempering of ideas and notions by the facts of our existence and the existence of our limitations
.

and

Modernism is by necessity obsessed with form, much like a craftsman obsessed with his tools and materials. In my climbing days we used to call people like that “equipment weenies.” These days you can see it in fly-fishing, where not a few people go out once a year with $5,000-worth of equipment to catch (maybe) $5-worth of fish. What should have been the story of the man, the stream, and the fish becomes instead a romance between the man and his tools. In this century the same thing happened in art.

and finally

When I was in the army, many years ago, I was an infantryman, and in the course of what I saw, and did, and came to understand, I was broken. Sometime after I had returned to the United States and my life had resumed, I rounded a corner in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and saw a painting I had known all my life but which I had not until that moment been able to understand. This was Winslow Homer’s masterfully restrained portrait of a veteran returning to his fields. The generation touched by fire in the Civil War understood the great import of this painting, they knew why the veteran had his back turned to the painter, why he was alone, why he worked in utter quiet, why the light was so clear, the scene so tranquil. After years of war and destruction, they understood, and after having passed this painting for the first time as a man, so did I.

As if there had never been a Gettysburg, an Antietam, or a Chancellorsville, the light struck the soil and the wheat grew. The world was the same. The essential rules had not changed. Devastation had not triumphed. The veteran could return to his fields, and the answer to his tentativeness was that, as if by a miracle, they were now even richer than he had remembered them.


Read the whole thing.

6:56 AM

Tuesday, May 17, 2005  
LIBRARIES WITHOUT BOOKS

The New York Times reports on a trend: the elimination of books in college libraries. At the University of Texas at Austin, "almost all" of the 90,000 volumes in the undergraduate library will be removed. (The article says they will be "dispersed to other university collections"--it's not clear how many of them will be at other libraries on the same campus vs being sent to other campuses.)

This is nuts.

Anyone doing serious research will soon find that all information is not on the Internet; it doesn't even approximate all being on the Internet. I can't think of a single subject area when an Internet-only approach would be anything like all-inclusive.

Furthermore, the nature of on-screen presentation means that a bookless environment will tend to discourage the reading of lengthy documents.

In today's "letters" page, a professor at Boston University says: "I have found an almost direct correlation between the best grades and whether students used books as well as materials accessible by computer." Of course, this kind of correlation never makes it totally clear in which direction the arrow of causality is pointing--maybe use of books makes for better papers...or maybe the kind of superior student who turns in better papers will tend to make more use of books. I feel fairly sure that both are true. But it's hard to imagine people developing serious research and scholarship skills in a bookless environment.

And what's the point? Most kids already know the basics of Internet searching. Isn't the whole point of our (very expensive) academic enterprise to teach people things they don't already know?

At University of Texas at Austin, the former library space is being reconstructed as a "24-hour electronic information commons." Why? The whole nature of the Internet is that it isn't dependent on locality. Setting up buildings for people to use the Internet within seems like a really strange thing to do.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing in the whole article is the statement that university librarians tend to approve of the whole trend. Why are so many academics so willing to destroy intellectual capital in the name of momentary trendiness?

8:12 PM

Sunday, May 15, 2005  
SIGNS & PORTENTS

According to BusinessWeek (5/23), many American companies are cutting investments in Western Europe. Emerson Electric, for example, has about 1/4 of its worldwide revenue in that region, together with 1/6 of its worldwide assets. Due to lackluster performance of West European markets (combined no doubt with higher costs and structural rigidities), the company has halted new investment in Western Europe and is now focusing more on the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Emerson has opened 10 plants in Eastern and Central Europe in the last five years.

The article says that many U.S. companies "from McDonald's to Caterpillar to Wal-Mart" complain that their Western European operations (particularly in Germany) are dragging down overall results.

Although it's difficult and expensive to lay people off in Western Europe, many companies are going ahead with it anyway, including IBM and GM. And foreign direct investment in the core EU member countries fell almost 50% last year, to $165B...while FDI in the Eastern and Central European countries that just joined the EU rose by a third, to $36 billion.

A survey by Boston Consulting Group indicates that one in five U.S. companies in Germany plans to relocate some activities eastward, particularly automobile & parts manufacturers and applicance and furniture makers.

2:52 PM

 
INTERESTING READING

The Pew Research Center has produced an interesting report, "Beyond Red and Blue," on American political opinions. Particularly intriguing is the typology of opinions that is developed in the report--people are classified into the following categories:

Enterprisers, social conservatives, pro-government conservatives, upbeats, disaffected, liberals, conservative democrats, disadvantaged democrats, bystanders.

As near as I can tell, the typology was not established a priori but rather emerged from the data using statistical methods which seek explanatory patterns among data elements. (The names given to the categories obviously reflect human judgment.)

As an example, here's a description of the people in one category:

UPBEATS: Upbeats express positive views about the economy, government and society. Satisfied with their own financial situation and the direction the nation is heading, these voters support George W. Bush's leadership in economic matters more than on moral or foreign policy issues. Combining highly favorable views of government with equally positive views of business and the marketplace, Upbeats believe that success is in people's own hands, and that businesses make a positive contribution to society. This group also has a very favorable view of immigrants.

Very favorable views of government performance and responsiveness defines the group, along with similarly positive outlook on the role of business in society. While most support the war in Iraq, Upbeats have mixed views on foreign policy ­ but most favor preemptive military action against countries that threaten the U.S. Religious, but decidedly moderate in views about morality.


(hat tip: Bitch, PhD)

Interesting stuff. I'd like to see more analysis like this, looking at patterns of opinion as they actually exist rather than fitting them into simplistic and often outdated conceptual frameworks.

7:54 AM

Saturday, May 14, 2005  
SELF-IMPROVEMENT, 1947-STYLE

Tom Watson Jr, longtime head of IBM, produced a very fine autobiography under the title "Father, Son, & Co." One of the many people profiled in the book is Watson's friend Al Williams, a senior financial executive who later became Executive Vice President of IBM. He came from a rough mining town in Pennsylvania--his father, once a section boss in a mine, had been fired and blackballed during the Depression for siding with the miners--and he had never been able to attend college. Watson, whose position at the time could best be defined by the phrase "boss's son," was impressed with the man's savoir-faire, and asked him how he, with his background, had become so smooth. The answer: "I found out people I admired bought their clothes at Brooks Brothers, so that's where I started buying mine. I noticed I couldn't talk easily at dinner parties, so I began to read the classics." Williams also made a practice of listening to classical music every evening.

Great books and classical music. A bit different from today's typical "self-improvement" recommendations...

(As I've noted before, one of America's leading management consultants does recommend the classics for aspiring business leaders...but for reasons of intellectual development rather than dinner-party conversation.)

7:44 PM

Friday, May 13, 2005  
NOT GOOD

Financial Times (5/12) reports that hundreds of container loads of tsunami relief supplies are still sitting at ports in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. For example, eight 20-foot containers of Diago water (donated by the company) have been sitting at the port of Medan since the end of January.

To some extent, these delays reflect the capacity problems attendent on any "surge' operation...but an awful lot of the problem appears to be a result of bureaucratic inflexibility and even corruption. For example, a rice shipment from Singapore has been waiting since January 16...rice is a product whose imports to Indonesia are restricted, and it needs a special import permit before customs officials will release it.

These bureaucratic problems don't only cause damage during disaster relief operations, of course--they also cause serious harm to the economy on an everyday basis. Poverty is seriously exacerbated by such things.

7:41 AM

 
WORTH PONDERING

It is our choices...that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

J K Rowling
Quoted in Investors Business Daily (5/11)

Previous Worth Pondering

7:11 AM

Thursday, May 12, 2005  
EDITORIAL OBFUSCATION

USA TODAY (5/9) has an editorial on social security which includes the following paragraph:

Government of and for the retired. Forty cents of every federal dollar spent go to a retired person. That includes Social Security, Medicare and benefits for retired government workers. This amount, about $800 billion, is almost 10 times what government spends on education at all levels from Head Start to post-doctoral fellowships.

The line about "10 times what government spends on education" would imply that government spending on education is about $80 billion. This is wrong...by a very large factor. Total government spending on K-12 education alone is about $500 billion, and higher education is probably an additional $100 billion or more. What USA Today apparently did is to look at Federal government spending alone, and compare that with its "retired person" spending total...a meaningless comparison, since most education spending in the U.S. is done by state and local governments. And in any event, USA TODAY should have disclosed what it meant when it used the term "government"--as they wrote it, the line is both misleading and literally false. This kind of analysis--focusing only on the Federal contribution to education--is frequently used by those who wish to make education look much more impoverished than it in fact is.

There's also another potential problem with the paragraph. When they talk about the spending on "retired persons," are they talking about a gross or a net number? That is, when the government writes a social security check, are they counting the entire amount of the check in the $800 billion total, or are they offsetting it by the contributions made by that individual over time, with appropriate interest adjustments? I suspect that it is the former...in any case, it seems to me that a good financial journalist would have made it clear which number he was using, and a responsible editorialist should do the same.

Indeed, this editorial inadvertantly point out one of the major issues with today's Social Security system. Since you have no contractual right to your social security benefits (as established by court decisions) it is always likely that, at some future time, some editorialist or politician will refer to those payments as an "expense," without reference to the contributions you have made into the system or the increase in value of those payments resulting from the time value of money.

7:12 AM

Tuesday, May 10, 2005  
NEW FRONTIERS IN SNOBBERY

In Tom Wolfe's novel "A Man in Full," which came out a few years ago, there is a vignette centering on an article in a local Atlanta magazine. The article is titled "The Prams What Am," and it's about upscale baby carriages--with names like the Silver Cross--that are being purchased by Atlanta socialites.

I thought this was a parody, and a pretty funny one, of a certain kind of snob and of the magazines designed to appeal to such people.

Well, a couple of days ago I saw a short item in USA Today. Turns out there actually is a baby carriage called the Silver Cross--it goes for $2800, has been made in England since 1877, and is now enjoying success in the U.S. There are at least two other companies making "hot" high-end strollers, although these come in at significantly lower price points.

Who buys these things? USA Today quotes a marketing expert: "These are te girls who had manicures and carried Coach bags when they were 18-year-olds."

Parody as a literary form may be in jeopardy; these days, you can never be sure it's not the real thing.

8:01 PM

Sunday, May 08, 2005  
MAY 8, 1945

VE day--the surrender of Nazi Germany--finally came on May 8, 1945. You can hear Edward R Murrow's live report on the occasion by going here and then clicking on the headphone symbol.

5:07 PM

Friday, May 06, 2005  
PAJAMA PEOPLE ON KUDLOW

Roger L Simon and Charles Johnson will be on the CNBC-TV program "Kudlow & Company" this afternoon. It's on at 5:00 PM east coast time.

I think they'll be talking about the new enterprise Pajamas Media...more about this at Roger's site if you don't catch the program.

Not clear if actual pajamas will be worn or not...probably not, as Larry Kudlow seems to be a fairly formal kind of guy.

10:51 AM

Wednesday, May 04, 2005  
WELL PUT

Writing about the relationship between a company and its customers, Tom Peters has this to say:

In fact, we'd be much better off if we could pretend that our customers are foreigners who do not speak our langauge. They don't. Take a person who comes from the world of commercial banking. One of his customers might come from the world of contractors; the next from the world of women's wear boutiques. The language and customs are dramatically different for each. Few of the banker's customers will speak "Banker."

Sadly, most of us don't really listen to our "foreigners." Worse still, we act as we all too frequently do when we're around a foreign person who doesn't speak our language and tries to ask us direcions. As soon as it becomes clear that we aren't getting through, we should even louder in our own tongue. He or she speaks just enough of our language (for example, the customer knows where the accelerator pedal is in the car) to convince us that if only we could yell a little louder, the advantages of the new overhead cam design would get through his or her obviously thick skull.

Each of us carries around a crippling disadvantage--we know and probably cherish our product. After all, we live with it day in and day out. But that blinds us to why the customer may hate it--or love it. Our customers see the product through an entirely different set of lenses. Education is not the answer; listening and adapting is.


From his book Thriving on Chaos (1987)

7:38 PM

Monday, May 02, 2005  
HBR ARTICLE, CONTINUED

My post below on the HBR article and the international-relations study was linked by Sheila. It looks like a good discussion is getting started over there, if you're interested in participating.

5:22 AM

Sunday, May 01, 2005  
DUMB COMPANY TRICKS

Do you use a voicemail system provided by a telephone company? I've used at least 3 of them, and they all have the following attribute: When you save a message for later reference, the system says something like "Message saved for 5 days." For some of the systems, the number-of-days-saved value seems to change, probably based on how much storage you're already using...so at one time you might hear "Message saved for 9 days" and at another time "Message saved for 3 days."

My question is this: What is a customer supposed to do with this information? Do they really think anyone is going to take out their calendar and mark the date at which a particular message is going to be deleted?

Wouldn't it be smarter to have a default--say, messages are saved for 14 days--and have the system notify the customer on an exception basis if his storage use has become excessive?

This probably seems like a trivial issue and, yeah, it is. But these systems are used by tens of millions of people. Can't we expect a little more thought to be put into the user interaction process? Far too often, there seems to be little thought given to the sequence of events as it will be encountered in detail by the human trying to use the system.

In general, I think we have an epidemic of mediocre-to-bad systems design, and it is significantly reducing productivity and increasing consumer frustration throughout our entire society. This isn't anywhere near the worst example I've encountered lately, but I just got the dumb message again, and thought I'd write about it.

UPDATE: Yes, I'm aware that these voicemail systems aren't usually developed by the telcos but rather purchased from outside vendors. That doesn't really provide much of an excuse, though: the telcos are in a strong negotiating position when they buy things like this, and should be able to insist on reasonable enhancements thereto.

5:34 PM

 
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