I’ve mentioned the problems in balancing the Transformational and the Operational in the past. Here’s a great example of a failure: the new Coca Cola machines, designed by Ferrari people.
They look cool. They offer 100 or so different drinks. But they’re terrible. Why? They completely ignore the transactional nature of getting a fountain drink.
First, look at the characteristics of the “old” way of getting a drink:
* People get ice independently.
* People get drinks independently.
* The number of users is only physically limited by the relation of wants to available flavors
* Personal space is the only other limitation and it’s self balanced based on the aggregate needs of the users.
All this equals out to a massively parallel and self balancing transaction. 5 or 6 people can get a soft drink in under a minute.
But now, you’ve replaced this whole setup with a completely serial (linear) path. Every person must individually:
* Get ice
* Decide what they want on the screen (note that the time taken here is a characteristic of a primary feature)
* Select it
* wait for a much slower dispenser to finish.
Some of this will go away as people get more familiar with it. But it doesn’t change that it is now a much longer process where each step must wait on the next, and each user must wait on the next too. I personally observed 8-10 people in line during a busy lunch hour. I waited at least 4 minutes. Not terribly long, but your establishment is not going to make too many friends creating needless waits like that.
How in the world is complicating the high markup world of soft drinks a good idea? Further highlighting the lack of business insight is the Iced Tea factor. If you want ice for your tea, you still have to wait in line with the soft drink people. Tea has absolutely huge margins for a business. Why in the world would you tacitly discourage it?
Failing to understand the multiplying factors in transactions is a very common problem, and we see it in tech all the time:
* Replacing legacy text-based systems with bulky, HTML driven systems.
* going with low cost physical options (such as dot matrix) instead of laser and thermal
* The basic flow of screens and clicks
In my real job, I found that all these little milliseconds were adding up to big time…um…time over a day. In banking and credit union-ing, this means long lines of people waiting to get money. This is not a good thing, particularly when you’re trying to get those people to increase their relationship with your institution. While we will never avoid lines altogether, we made a great deal of progress by switching hardware and systems and eliminating all the small “please waits”.
Early studies in management used techniques such as chronocyclegraphy to assess the efficiency of every little movement by a worker over time. While this is now subtly deemed oppressive and almost inhuman, the concepts still live on in eye tracking and mouse movement analysis. However, I doubt anyone paid even 1 minute of attention to the impact of these Coke machines. “The kids will love ‘em!”
So, in short, it’s just another way people have attached a computer to something and made our lives worse by not using corresponding design technology. Well, unless you think that dis-incentives to gulp about 400 calories of corn syrup are a bad thing. These things could actually save some lives in about 40 years!
As I’ve mentioned, I’m trying out a B&N Nook and an iPad for use in corporate document delivery and overall communications. Here’s a quick snapshot of my findings.
A couple notes, the Kindle didn’t make my initial cut for various reasons, primarily because it’s more of a retail outlet than an e-reader. I probably will try the Sony e-reader eventually. Lastly, I’ll limit comments about the iPad to the evaluated purpose. As a general computing device I find it very cool yet overwhelmingly annoying.
So here is the snapshot eval:
As a book store the B&N option is my choice. B&N books are viewable across several devices (including the iPad), and so far they seem to have a decent selection relative to the other stores (although none have a great selection yet).
As an e-reader the Nook is my choice. The e-ink is a pleasure to read from, especially in sunlight. I’ve used it for a couple hours and it felt like reading a book. The only drawback is that you can’t see it at night, and in dim light it’s a little blurry–unlike a real book. Hopefully this will be better as they improve e-ink screens. But either way with electronic ink you have to have a lamp or use a booklight, which is pretty funny when you realize what you’re doing.
Despite the slowness of the page turns, reading also seemed faster in general because it’s still faster than dealing with pages in a book. And clicking the side buttons was actually alot easier than hitting the touchscreen on the iPad.
The iPad is a TFT screen, which means that it’s like staring at a computer for several hours. I found my eyes feeling strained and tired from looking at the iPad screen, even after adjusting the brightness.
The interface for the Nook is a bit atrocious, and I wouldn’t look forward to helping non-techies on the device. However my daughter, an avid reader, also enjoyed the nook. Even with the interface quirks, the B&N Nook is a winner for reading e-books.
As a corporate communication device the iPad edges out the Nook. There’s just too much you can do with an iPad. You can read PDF’s and power point presentations, as well as keep a photo gallery (which look great when viewed) of reference material. You can store video and audio as well.
Having said that the iPad’s maddening limitations and hod-podge data storage would be a severe limitation on corporate use. I ended up having to email stuff to the iPad in order to display it, and it seems that all the viewing apps want to put them in their own little areas. Hopefully they’ll fix this in the anticipated iOS 4 release.
The Nook in comparison was extremely easy to add documents. It connected immediately via USB with a very straightforward file structure. However, the Nook’s screen is also way too small for corporate documents although they’d look great on the e-ink. Word doc and powerpoint viewing isn’t supported as far as I can tell.
iPad wins this one, but they really need some refining before it’s practical in a corporate environment.
So there you have it. I still think the e-readers rapidly falling price is going to make e-books a tougher and tougher selling point for the iPad, but the iPad is clearly a compelling device. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.
Then today I saw this article today about how a school board had made a bad hardware decision and had to void a contract. It contained this quote at the end:
“Some parents weren’t happy about the program, judging by comments left on stories at local news outlets. Some kids’ grades have slipped, one comment said, “because it has become TOO important to socialize on the netbook and not turn in assignments or even do the required work.”
Read more: Indiana school district fights HP over netbooks – San Francisco Business Times “
When I was in 6th grade, our middle school had a big room full of TRS-80 computers. It was impressive, but for the most part the school had no idea what to do with them. We would do these little math quizzes and such, but a few of us spent most of our time hacking them to give us arbitrarily good grades on the quiz.
Thus, there seems to be an built-in rookie mistake in most school systems, which is to place the strategic technology thinkin’ on the hardware and not the software. They seem to be buying these things with very little strategic thought with regard to what they’ll be used for.
If the students are using them for facebook, games, etc. It’s not because they’re slackers. It’s because the slacker software is very well spec’d, designed, written, and implemented. Facebook has scads of developers. I’d wager that most of the educational software is either non-existent or just plain bad in these “every kid gets a laptop” plans.
(In many business organizations, technology is seen as a supporting role. Maintain the printers. Replace a bad network card. Implement software some other department decided on. Personally, I see technology as a huge strategic advantage. A company that integrates tech knowhow into it’s strategic thinking and decision making can absolutely whollop competition through better performance and cost savings. Technology shouldn’t be seen as the cost of doing business, it should be seen as a way to outthink your opposition.)
This is not to say that all schools are like this. While touring my alma mater for our 20 year reunion, it was clear that the rooms full of macs were being used for a purpose (multimedia, etc), and that there was an agenda at work.
It seems to me there needs to be a strategic role for technology in educational planning. Otherwise a ton of money is being wasted and alot of folks are getting rich gaming the system.
I’ve only been in the ‘official’ technology workforce for 15 years, but this is enough for me to sip a beverage, stare at the horizon and wax philosophical about the whole thing.
This involves pondering the patterns of the whole and of the parts, and the mechanics in which they interact. I’ve worked at no less than 8 companies (not including consulting) since 1995, and there has been much to see.
Here’s a key concept that, in retrospect, has shown itself many times. I doubt this observation is unique to me at all, but it’s fascinating to apply it to the world around. I’ll put it in italics so it looks real important:
The success of an organization depends on how it handles the difference and interaction between “operational” and “transformational” activities.
An operational activity is very simple. It involves doing the same tasks over and over very consistently and accurately. A bank teller, for instance, performs many tasks throughout the day….very accurately and consistently. A factory worker might assemble the same part over and over.
A transformational activity is deceptively simple. It takes something from one state, and changes it to another. A painter transforms. A car wash transforms.
These two aspects are very different. Yet they’re also very simple. Every activity can be labeled with one of these two categories. If it can’t, it can be broken down into sub-activities that fit.
..which is where most of the trouble begins. Activities are ‘nested’, which means that activities are made of sub-activities. From the atomic interactions of a cell in in a pilot’s arms, to the change in course of a bazillion ton 747, activities contain other activities.
Often activities contain radically different operational and transformational sub-activities. The car wash, for example, transforms many unique cars from dirty to clean. However, it does this very repetitively and with (hopefully) great operational accuracy.
This is important: Every time action passes from one nested action to the next, the different goals and traits must be seamlessly shifted. This shift routinely throws companies, churches, clubs, schools, banks, non-profits, and groups in general for a big loop.
It is not uncommon to see organizations ignore the shift altogether. Ever call customer support after a large company merger? Chances are that huge (probably individually profitable) transformation completely ignored the day-to-day operations involved in your call.
It is also common to watch organizations spend insane resources trying to make one type of activity act like another type. The federal government is great at operational concepts, but they’ll spend billions trying to transform in an operational way. It’s just not going to work. Instead of ‘nesting’ they just try to brute force it via reams of procedures.
You can also see this in how the government is trying to deal with terrorism. Shoe bomber? New operation: Check for shoe bombs! Liquid bomber? New operation: Ban liquids. If terrorists attack again, success will involve exploiting the disparity in transformational abilities and security operations.
When choosing leaders, management, or other decision makers (and we’re all leaders in some form or fashion), it’s important that they understand this concept. It’s also important to find people who understand their own personality and which way it leans. Most of us tend to find our comfort zone in one type of activity over another.
And that’s about it for a blog post. I could probably write a whole book on this concept alone, but I have some operational tasks to tend to.
In the last b’journal entry I mentioned “black box”. The term “black box” has several meanings but one definition is a “closed system with little understanding of what happens inside”. You feed something into these systems and something comes back out. You don’t know how it works, it just does it.
Our economic system has become a black box. The grand economic theory behind the whole thing is to shove a bunch of borrowed money into the black box, and then um….”when things return to normal” and “when the economy improves”.
Part of this is because the system is so complex. The other part is that it’s been tremendously successful and we just didn’t have a reason to try and understand it anymore, particularly when it’s so profitable to squabble over the output.
So how did this happen over the last few decades? Here’s my take.
Since the 40′s, nukes have freaked everyone out. Anyone who could do serious damage was too afraid to do it. Mutually assured destruction kept everyone relatively calm. The losses and pain of WWII left everyone with no appetite for another global conflict (this time with nukes), and Vietnam convinced people that regional conflicts aren’t all that nice either. Until fairly recently, if conflict was necessary people got in…got out…and moved on.
This provided a great economic environment where even military spending built stuff.
Energy was amazingly cheap. I’ve blogged about this before, but oil is awesome. There is no source of energy like it. It contains huge amounts of energy in an easily accessible form. No matter what people say, nothing can compare. For 2-5 dollars in production cost you can pull it out of the ground and turn it into many thousands of dollars in value. Thus, the more oil you burn the more wealth your society creates. And in the last 50-100 years we really got our oil burnin’ on. People think that burning oil is a symptom of economic growth, but I think it’s a huge, huge cause of it.
As a result of these 2 factors, the industrial age hit full swing. We all got used to it’s luxuries. Then two additional things happened.
First, we had several generations who (in the aggregate) grew up in this new world and never knew what it was like to live in poverty, fear, and/or scarcity. Wanna go to the beach? That’s 2 hours in the Chevy. Wanna live in a house? That’s a 20 minute commute and security is not a concern. Go to Highschool or College and employment is assured. Every year our economy will grow and that means a cost of living adjustment and a raise. Invest enough money and this growth will provide a relaxing retirement for you and your spouse. And if you’re going to murder someone just don’t do it in the front yard because that’s a violation of the neighborhood covenant.
As we got used to this setup, we forgot the economic mechanism of our prosperity. (Spiritually, we decided we didn’t need God because hey…this setup showed alot of promise.) We saw the future of plenty, and they don’t have God or price tags in Star Trek.
Second, we got greedy. Capitalism became about giving stuff to large, established businesses. Populism became government jobs and benefits. We sold off our manufacturing, then mortgaged everything else with personal, corporate, and government debt. When that ran out we changed the rules to allow for risky numbers games called “finance”. When that collapsed we went to the last hope…government debt. This debt is now growing at unsustainable levels which are only possible because there’s no other “safe” place to put money.
So here we are…a few hundred million people used to a world of constant economic growth, cheap energy, and easy money. All three of these are very much at risk, and the loss of just one would be catastrophic to this world view. The only thing keeping this going is government debt, and that’s not going to last.
If we look very closely at our assumptions about the world, we’ll find that they are based not on any understanding of the way it works. Almost all of them are based on how the world has affected us–extrapolated into the future. We better pop the hood on this thing, and quick. Sooner or later the phrase “when things return to normal” might not have that same zing to it.
Here’s a great article about the problems we’re having in copyright. It’s something I’ve written on in the past, and we’re just now starting to see how truly destructive our copyright policies are.
They give their own summary, but the basic gist is this. A long time ago copyright was simple: Give the people who make content a short monopoly to make money from their work, and then release that content into the public domain so that everyone can benefit.
So eventually Mickey Mouse would become public domain. It’s how we have some of the great works of our time.
Now, however Disney and crew have gradually boiled the frog of sane copyright and turned it into a giant moneymaking scheme designed to perpetuate profits for companies at the expense of fair use and the public domain. (It’s a monstrosity of misplaced moral imperative that is all-too-often embraced by Christian ‘content producers’, IMHO).
The problem arises when there are works that have value, but no original copyright holder to ‘release’ the works. They’re stuck.
As the article suggests, we now have mountains of works that are in danger of either being lost, relegated to a shelf somewhere, or trapped in a proprietary digital, controlled, pay-to-read library. Why? So Mickey Mouse can generate billions for centuries to come and no content can ever…EVER result in not making someone money.
Centuries ago the most intellectually damaging event to content was the burning of books or the destruction of a library. Today it’s the completely legal “protection” of content.
Yet if you ask the average person, we have no idea how many fair use rights we’ve already lost (and continue to lose).
Everyone loves to hate Wal-Mart. And really, I’m not a fan. You go there when you have to or when you need some commodity that will be more expensive somewhere else. Historically the sheer overhead and trouble of getting there, parking, finding the thing, checking out, and simply leaving the parking lot….well, it’s just not worth it.
But now Wal-Mart has gone completely insane with their redesign. I mean…insane.
First of all, everything is absolute lowest common denominator. They’ve completely given up on any higher end items. This is a recession, man.
Second, there isn’t generally much selection. There might be 3 or 4 models or brands but that’s it. They typically offer a “small” and a “large” of anything, but medium doesn’t exist.
Lastly–and this is the craziest thing–there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to the organization. Furniture is by the car stuff. Dog food is by the office supplies. Clothing is right next to the electronics. This makes it seem completely random.
But then you see the same items are now in multiple places. We’re searching for a cooler for our next beach trip, and I saw them in 3 places. (all the same, low-end model.) This makes it less random. Instead, the layout is like some Arkansas computer’s first attempt to figure out how to throw consumables in the path of consumers.
By their calculations, consumers must be stumbling around with around 45 bucks to spend and a handful of arbitrary rules to follow. We have all become randomized, shopping Roombas and if they get it juuuuust right they’ll maximize our consumption.
The funny thing is, this whole escapade made me want to visit Wal-Mart again. Not because I need anything, but because I want to try and figure out just what is going on in the mind of Wal-Mart executives and planners. Nothing they do really matters anymore. Consumers are apparently going to meander into the widened, flourescent aisles and buy stuff anyway. So it’s interesting to see what they’ll come up with.
My ‘official’ job and career is CTO of a financial institution….so I’m always studying how people use technology. Here’s a great article by a friend of mine on technology (in this case, databases) in the church.
I thought I’d add a couple tidbits to Eugene’s very insightful analysis of databases.
First, a good technology solution solves many problems. All over the world folks are reading entry level programming books, and striking out to make their fortune in writing applications. Many of these people are successful.
Unfortunately, many of the mistakes early on in the life of a product are never solved. And some of the things that were not mistakes are not updated to keep up with the application. And sometimes the solution is too successful and the company grows too quickly. Other times the company gets so drunk with success they siphon of the cash and don’t invest in the product.
When software goes bad, people find a way to get the job done. This leads to the data cliques Eugene mentions. It’s also a reason the data is not reliable.
Good software will eliminate outright many of the problems Eugene mentions.
Second, Good software doesn’t require alot of training. The web is a huge example of this. The most successful sites are those that are easy to use. Ease of use almost always gets whacked in demos. It may be easy to find the buttons, and the page may look pretty, but how easy is it to write a report? How easy is it to find data?
Craigslist is the ugliest website out there, but it’s popular because it works and it’s easy.
Lastly…again, what’s underneath the hood matters. For the aforementioned reasons and others, the world is rife with bad software solutions. Some of them look great, but under the hood they’re terrible.
Many decision makers think the nuts, bolts, bits, and bytes of a computer system aren’t their concern. But inflexibility, poor database layout, difficulty in use, bugginess, bad architecture, and all sorts of other problems are a direct result of the underlying technology.
Listen to your tech people. Or hire a technical consultant. If you’re about to spend huge bucks (and untold bucks in hidden human costs) on software, getting an independent 3rd party opinion is worth it.
Lastly, software has a profound impact on the culture of your organization. My wife and I are always laughing at older movies (as in 20 or so years ago) where people don’t have computers on their desk. These days, everyone has a computer, and chances are they’re staring at it all day.
Here’s the trick though, they aren’t staring. They’re working. And software is affecting everything they do. There’s plenty more to be written on this, but that’s a whole other post.
Anyway, I’m really enjoying the Communicorps blog. Check it out, and add it to your RSS reader if you’re one of the cool kids.
Now everyone is trying to figure out ways to get all that AIG money back.
Good luck. That’s the problem with bailing things out instead of letting them fail. Why not pay people bonuses? Because it’s “not right”?
In a normal market system these bonuses wouldn’t be paid because the company would be bankrupt. But when you just kind of pump cash into them….well did anyone expect anything different?
The source of all of this is that things were allowed to get too big. It’s pretty well established that free markets, as good as they are, lead to monopolies and monster trusts, etc. There is absolutely no good reason to have a huge Trillion + monster like AIG.
But because there is something that big, the mismanagement becomes all of our problem. The free market can’t provide a trillion dollar competitor to come in and clean up an AIG failure. So we’re stuck in a nowhereville of economic theory where we write checks and get confusing and maddening results.
If there’s anything we should learn from all this, it’s that huge merged, conglomerated monsters distort (and possibly destroy) the free market. Alot of regulation can be eliminated just by keeping everything at a normal size and ensuring markets have plenty of competitors.
Which of these options scares you more?
A picture of you in college. You are holding a “beverage” and pumping your fist in the air. Your eyes are kind of blankly staring off camera.
A huge company that has a database of everything you’ve ever bought…your browsing habits…your viewing habits….your income….every demographic tidbit…..and all of this info about your family members too. This company makes this available for a few dollars, or swaps it and trades it like Star Wars cards.
I don’t know about you, but I’d choose “huge company”. Yet I’m always amused when I hear people say they don’t want to be on facebook (or similar) for privacy reasons. Guess, what? You ain’t got no privacy. (ignore the logic of that double negative. It’s just there for effect.)
A friend of mine started a marketing company for financial institutions, and interfaced with one of these “huge companies”. He was amazed at what information was available. Everything about you and your family (and much more than you could possibly think) is catalogued, databased, warehoused, and indexed.
Do you have a discount card on your keychain? Several? All of your purchasing information is cross referenced and consolodated into these marketing databases.
This information is available for sale to anyone who wants it (including the government). And they can use it for whatever they want.
Cablevision matches households to demographic data to divide its customers, using the data-collection company Experian.
Have you ever applied for a mortgage or car loan? Yes, it’s that Experian. That same company is going to provide information to cable companies to customize advertising. Just for you!
None of this is illegal, so who knows what all is happening behind closed doors of big buildings?
So next time you’re worried about “online privacy”, get over it. For a few bucks anyone can know more about you than a lifetime of facebook statuses and youthful pictures can convey.