Monday, February 24, 2014

Go the Extra Mile - Not Quite What You Thought

During Roman times a soldier could force a peasant to carry his gear for him. It was a heavy load that could be nearly 100 lbs. As time went on this privilege was abused and peasants could find themselves a day away from their intended destination. This, of course, was problematic and a law called the angeria was made that limited the distance a soldier could force a peasant to carry gear up to one mile. A soldier who forced a peasant to go further than that would be in violation of military law.

This puts some interesting context to the Christian idea from the sermon on the mount of going the second mile if someone forces you to go a mile. It isn't necessarily instruction to roll over and passively let someone take advantage of you. It also isn't instruction to just do nice things to people who make demands of you. Instead, perhaps it's a guide for loving resistance. If you carry a soldier's gear the extra mile they get your labor but at the cost of a fine or military punishment. And the Romans were pretty good at punishment.

Think about all the ads, mission statements, and cultures that say a business goes "the extra mile" for their customers. The ancient context changes the meaning quite a lot. Instead of it just being about service there's a sense of resistance as well, perhaps even combativeness. It's sadly appropriate considering how it feels many organizations view their customers. To me, at least, it feels like the planed trajectory for quite a few business ventures goes something like this, especially in the tech sector:

1. Start small, live lean, find ways to survive
2. Growth. Grow big enough to catch the eye of the giants
3. Cash out. Get your billions by selling to Google, Facebook, or whatever. Not really fussy about who it is.

Where is the customer in all this? Why would you go the extra mile? To build your customer base! The customer pays the penalty for using your service when the rug gets pulled out from under them at acquisition. It's modern angeria in a sense as long as we tolerate the 3-step business trajectory rather than businesses standing on their own for the purpose of lasting generations. There's a group of businesses in Europe that are called the Mittelstand that measures growth over a very long period rather than year over year. Leigh Buchanan wrote a great profile of this group for Inc.com and the philosophy of these businesses is something that really speaks to me as a customer.

Among the Mittelstand, 95% of the companies are family owned. They stick to their core competence and prefer to be boring. As one of the people quoted in the article put it:
"A factory that is 'dramatic,' a factory in which the epic of industry is unfolded before the visitor's eyes, is poorly managed," wrote Drucker. "A well-managed factory is boring."
 For the owners of these businesses turning a profit and a big payday at retirement is not the purpose of the organization. Stability, sustainability, and quality are the purpose. Customers are partners rather than sheep to be shorn again and again until it is time to slaughter. Instead of one big harvest for the owners by selling the company the family has many small harvests year over year through the generations. Just like farming there's periods where there is no harvest and in some periods harvests are bigger. The goal is maintaining the investment for the future generations, for the employees, and for the customers.

Do businesses like this go the extra mile? No, in my opinion, they enlisted and are sharing the load running the mule teams behind the troops. Business is about profits and returns on investments; It's about making money. The philosophy of maximizing the investment by sending customers to slaughter is not a sustainable one. If you slaughter your whole herd you have no way to rebuild the herd unless you go out and purchase more animals. That's a risky proposition which requires a great deal of investment (In the old sense of birth to finishing. This isn't necessarily the case for modern herdsmanship of course). As a customer I much prefer the shearing over the slaughtering and I can be much more productive to the vendor over a longer period of time.

Looking long term both as a customer and as a vendor is difficult. Everyone is impatient but stability and sustainability along with a partnership rather than the angeria is very valuable. Don't go the extra mile. I prefer vendors who enlist and share the load.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Mid-sized Quandary

Being a medium sized business is a little like being an adolescent: You're old enough not to be a kid any more but you're still not old enough to drive. And driving really is the measure of adulthood isn't it (at least in the car culture we have here in the US)? For a business this size really presents a problem. You're big enough to have some enterprise needs, small enough to still be agile, but you're not big enough to bend vendors to your will.

I was reading an interesting article shared by +Bob Martens about Kiwibank choosing to move their core banking to the cloud with the SAP behemoth and I felt like I was looking into a mirror. Between the debates of "to cloud or not to cloud" and how should we handle our core systems and even more scary, how do we handle legacy systems that we rely on for day-to-day operations? The burden of legacy core systems is even heavier now with "The Cloud". Not too long ago the legacy system was tolerated long beyond its useful lifespan because of the expense to create a new system to replace it was just too much to stomach. Now there's vendors falling all over themselves to offer small to medium sized businesses a cloud solution to replace these legacy systems.

The siren song is all too familiar: "Tired of all the cost?", "Want to get rid of those expensive employees who maintain your legacy?", "What happens if it goes down? Who's left to save you anymore?", and so on.

Worse yet are the vendors who put lipstick on the pig and retrofitted their legacy systems into the cloud and slapped a web interface on it and offer it as a side step into cost savings and reliability without the need to ditch your current legacy. There you are, still stuck with the same limitations that the old RPG system running on an ancient release version of OS/400 because that's what it still is behind the scenes.

The problem is that cloud all to often delivers the one-size-fits-all design. It's the new mass production. Start small, grow huge, sell off to another dreadnought-class conglomerate, lather, rinse, repeat. Its very effective at raising money for investors but terrible for the business customers that rely on the cloud services. And that lack of flexibility to meet the individual needs of a particular business or even business sector doesn't help the organizations that need the flexibility most of all.

Mr. Wiggs is maybe overly optimistic about the do-it-yourself approach. If you asked a local team of developers to create a new bespoke core system for a bank you will almost certainly experience failure in its most pure and epic form. Double that failure level if that team has no experience in banking or financial cores. Some specialty systems can be a trouble to develop no matter who does the work. The point I like most about his perspective is that you shouldn't rule out the locally sourced talent, do-it-yourself approach.

Not too long ago (late 90's early 2000's) small local dev teams made a huge splash in the world writing software for companies in need of solutions. Those were still the pioneering days of computer systems but despite the complexities of modern technology and regulation there's no reason we can't have more of that today. Perhaps the patent landscape is too filled with perils to allow that to happen today? I don't know but if we want to grow small and medium businesses, one-size-fits-all does not.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Culture You Never Forget

Effective culture is the kind that affects you deeply, and lasts a lifetime.

During a meeting today a co-worker brought up an occasion where they were in a discount retail store (yes, that gigantic discount retailer) early one morning and happened to encounter a group of employees in the middle of a staff meeting. He was very impressed how passionate an employee was as they described to the group the work she had done to increase pencil sales over 150%. Pencils.

I'll admit that I spent a summer working at a different store location for this same discount retail store so I'd been through what my co-worker described. This particular retailer, at the time, gave employees a chance to find products to feature on end-caps to find ways to drive up sales and move inventory. It's a good system and it got run-of-the-mill employees a chance to make a difference and get excited about their involvement. There were things I didn't like about the experience I had working there, but the culture of that retailer left a mark on me. Some good things, some not as good.

The cultures you experience leave an indelible mark on you. If you've worked in an organization with a distinct culture you never forget that the rest of your life. Just like travelling or living abroad - your life is flavored by that culture forever.

How does your organization transfer it's culture on to employees? Is it a good culture? Will it positively impact people for the rest of their life? Very good questions to ask.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Culture Change: You May As Well Start a New Company

I wrote a document lately that was seen by a bunch of people and it got the idea of a culture change started. As author it's assumed that I should be part of the team that leads that charge. That's a little daunting to me - This isn't a technical project. I like to start projects with use cases and technical documentation. That's probably not how this one is going to happen.

Knowing there's a push for a culture change got me to thinking: How does a person or a team change the culture of an organization? Like they say about large ships, you have to slow down first before you can turn. I suspect that may be the case with an organization's culture. You certainly can't dictate it. Flip the switch and, voilĂ !

This definitely means I need to move outside of the IT comfort zone.

It's easy to propose a culture change, quite an other thing to implement it. Now that I've had some time to reflect on it, it seems like it would be easier to start an entirely new organization from scratch than to change what we already have. That's throwing the baby out with the bathwater and it definitely doesn't give credit to the many, many things that are going well and shine within the organization. There's qualities that make the current culture very good. It's served the organization very well for 78 years so far! Better to try to change direction now to prepare for the even larger changes yet to come.

I've read a lot of people's thoughts about changing IT culture. It will be interesting to try to apply a little bit of IT culture to a broader organization. Standard+Case has some interesting relevance when you think about how the broader corporation supplies services. Gonna be an interesting time.