I’ve always been a bit suspicious of open plan offices. As far as I can tell, they’re simply a way of packing more people into limited and very expensive office space. It also drives the culture of “presenteeism” that I’ve mentioned before.
OK, so you might say that open plan offices encourage more collaborative working amongst employees, that they foster more communication and improve a company’s culture. But what you really mean is that they allow people to muck around, flirt and gossip. Anything, in fact, other than do their job. Which, being honest, I’ve been more in favour of than against during my career (I’m talking myself out of my argument here, aren’t I?). Yes, it’s true. I’ve always quite liked office distractions. Hell, I even married one of ’em!
But with my serious head on, Aunt Sally, I’ve always felt that open plan hinders rather than helps productivity. But I’m like King Canute against the tide of open plan office solutions. Until now, that is.
Reading this week’s Economist last night, I find a comrade in the battle against workplaces without walls. It’s only Jim Goodnight, co-founder and boss of SAS, the world’s biggest privately-owned software company. And what a brilliant name too! The only other Goodnight I know is Britt Ekland’s character in The Man with the Golden Gun.
(Pause while Mark finds video clip of Britt Ekland in Get Carter. But can’t.)
In his profile, Jim says: “You are so much more productive in your own office than when you are being distracted by the people either side.” Right on, Jim.
And how about this for a knock-on effect of Jim’s decision to give almost everyone of his employees their own office? All that additional wallspace needs filling, so Jim started buying pieces of art and the company now boasts a collection of more than 5,000 pieces! What a smart cookie.
SAS is clearly a company that treats its people very well indeed. For me, it’s partly a function of being a company that has remained privately-owned, some of the advantages of which Jim sums up rather neatly: “We don’t have to deal with Sarbanes-Oxley or minority shareholders suing us every time we turn around, or 25-year-old Wall Street analysts telling us how to run our business.” Rock on, Jim.
Anyway. Who else wants to join me in POOP?
Tim Dyson, CEO of the Next Fifteen Group and therefore my old boss, points to something that he believes to be a world’s first; a company annual report that is also a blog. It’s for his own company, of course. I’ll always take a look at the Next Fifteen annual report as (a) I think, somewhere, I still own some shares (though they’re well underwater, wherever they are) (b) I know for a fact that my mum owns some shares and (c) I’m always keen to see how much Dyson gets paid.
I’m not totally convinced about how innovative the social media annual report is…it’s rather like an online annual report (which the company’s done before) with a bit of blogging literally added onto the side. I mean, it’s not like you can comment on the chairman’s statement or other specific parts of the annual report itself (now wouldn’t that be cool…”so Tim, why did David Dewhurst get a performance related bonus but you didn’t? What did he do that was so much better..?”)
But I’m happy to agree with Dyson when he says that more and more companies will be producing their annual reports in this way. That hand on the front page is a bit odd though…I thought it might be some fancy biometric jobby and now my screen’s covered in sticky hand-prints.
A couple of years ago I had a chat with one of the members of the Egg plc PR team about – as I saw it – a new PR discipline which I rather cunningly called “consumer financial”. The premise was that, as millions of individuals now own shares and are increasingly involved in managing their own share portfolios, quoted companies needed specific communications activities geared towards this audience. Sure, they’d need all the standard financial info and regulatory announcements, but the tone and approach would be very different to those communications, say, pushed to institutional investors in the City. While the numbers clearly matter very much to members of the “consumer financial” audience, they’re also, I believe, more inclined to want to understand the culture and ethics of the company in which they have invested. I see the Next Fifteen annual report/blog mash-up as fitting right into this category.
As I said though, the blogging bit seems a little added on to me. There are posts from key directors in the Next Fifteen Group, such as Dyson himself, “Social media – the new big thing in PR” (hmm…) Grant Currie of Inferno (a good mate of mine) and Aedhmar Hynes of Text 100. They’ve kick-started the conversation by commenting on each other’s posts and roping in a few clients, but you can’t blame them for that (in fact Hynes’ post – about virtual worlds, natch – has two comments, one from Cisco, a client, and the other from a bloke called Tony Hynes. No relation, I’m presuming…or is it?)
What’ll be interesting for me is how well they manage to keep the blog element of the report alive. Neither Dyson or Hynes have exactly been the most prolific bloggers, and Currie’s contributions to the Inferno blog have been, ummm, sporadic.
Still, credit to them. I do think it’s original and more companies will do something similar. Of course, it would have been really cool if Next Fifteen itself had a digital team as part of the group that could’ve developed the social media annual report concept; I could have seen that leading to a load of new business. But it doesn’t, so used a company called CGI Squared instead.
One of my favourite chat-up lines. In theory at least. I’ve never had the balls to use it. And of course, I never would. Ahem.
Chat-up lines are designed as conversation starters though, aren’t they? Make ’em laugh…get them in a conversation…see where it leads. If they don’t kick off a conversation, they’ve failed. It’s a bit like social media. In fact (Swiss Toni voice), “social media is very much like chatting up a beautiful woman…”
See those two fellas above having a conversation? I wonder what they’re saying?
“It’s like this big!”
“Whoa! But I’d have to like hold it in my hand like this, open up my mouth real wide…”
Talking about an early iPhone prototype, no doubt.
I don’t suppose those two have to fish around for too long to spark a conversation. It’s more difficult when you’re a business and you want to strike one up with an individual, or audience, that you don’t know terribly well (and let’s face it, most businesses don’t).
You need a decent conversation starter. Doing a bit more these days in the area of “conversational marketing”, I’ve been putting some thought into what makes a good conversation starter. And if you believe that conversations are central to the new world of marketing and communications, pondering on conversation starters is a fantastic way of highlighting the difference between “old” and “new” PR. Because most of what companies shove out as PR is about as far from kicking off a decent chat as you can get.
Think about the great conversations that you’ve had. How did they start? Probably with a brilliant question. Or a forthright opinion. Or a piece of honest feedback. Or a good joke. Or maybe even a chat-up line. Great conversation starters are thought-provoking, controversial, funny, divisive, sincere, candid, direct, contentious. Now how much PR pushed out these days is any of those things? Not much. It’s all very bland.
The new world demands that we provoke a reaction – an emotional reaction – because that’s the only way we’ll be able to enter into a conversation. And let’s not be afraid to provoke both negative and positive reactions (though on balance, obviously, we’d prefer that the positive ones came out on top). Negative reactions can be very useful…because you very quickly learn what the audience doesn’t like and can change your behaviour accordingly.
Let’s forget about trying to please all of the audience all of the time. Hell, let’s forget about pleasing all of the audience some of the time, or even some of the audience all of the time. Pleasing some of the audience some of the time is enough, as long as we listen to those that we’ve pissed off.
I had to do a bit of work over the weekend – something of a rush job for a client of mine. As I was online, I logged into Facebook. It’s extraordinary…somehow, it manages to recreate in an online environment the exact same feeling you get when you go into the office on a Sunday to catch up. In comparison to the working week, it’s weirdly quiet…just a few weekend workers like myself floating around. Tells you almost all you need to know about where and how people are using Facebook.
Yes, we all know it can be huge time-waster – particularly in the honeymoon phase when you’re gathering friends and catching up with old contacts – but should it be banned from the workplace? Not as far as I’m concerned. At least, not more than any other website or internet resource. If people are going to muck around online, they’ll do it anyway.
What I reckon needs to change are management practices. I was involved in a piece of work a few years ago for Microsoft. Dr Carsten Sorensen of the London School of Economics (a top boffin, if you’re ever in need, and great fun too) produced a paper identifying the changes needed in UK management practices if the brave new world of mobile and remote working was ever going to come to fruition.
Central to these was the need to change from the current culture of management by sight to management by outcome (or words to that effect…the doc’s actual terminology escapes me). Basically, he identified that British organisations, in the main, are hotbeds of “presenteeism” – i.e. if you’re seen to be at work you must be working and if you’re not, well, you’re not.
Obviously this attitude is entirely outdated. OK, so when you manned a machine in a factory, being there meant you were doing your job. But these days, how many people can spend a day in the office and actually achieve very little? Hell, I’ve done it myself on many occasions. But it’s stuff like the internet – as a distraction for those people in the office – that becomes the target as “costing UK business billions of pounds in lost productivity…” But, like I say, if people want to be distracted, they’ll find the distractions. Christ, a few years back, my team and I spent the best part of a day turning our island of desks into a snow-covered mountain range, complete with cable car.
The good doctor’s conclusion was that, if mobile and remote working is going to succeed, we need to change to a culture of management by outcome, i.e. if people have specific results that they have to achieve, their performance and effectiveness is measured on these results rather than their attendance. Which makes a lot of sense.
So I’m thinking, why should management by outcome just relate to mobile workers? If all workers were managed in this way, it wouldn’t matter whether they were office-based, mobile, home workers or a mixture of all of these. They’d just have specific things to do and as long as they did them, they could spend the rest of their time doing whatever they fancied. Like going home early. Or taking a long lunch. Or mucking around with Facebook.
I’m a freelance and I work (mainly) from home. So I’m a huge advocate of working to a set of very specific tasks and, when they’re done, doing something else rather than sit at my desk because it’s not yet 5.30pm. If all businesses managed their people in a similar way, the debates about people wasting time at work would quickly disappear (as would those people who don’t get through their task lists as efficiently as they should…)
The pic of Hendrix is the clue. Yep, they are (or were) all left-handed.
I’m back on Microtrends again, I’m afraid, and I’ve just read a chapter that’s quite close to my heart – the increase in the number of left-handed people. It’s important to me not because I’m left-handed myself, but because my 5 year old daughter is. It was very evident from an early age. When she was literally weeks old you could already see that she was favouring her left hand over her right (when painting landscapes…she’s very advanced).
The book doesn’t touch on what makes one person left-handed and another right-handed (which I’m planning on looking up on t’internet very soon), but rather on the steady increase in left-handed people in society. Let’s be clear, a lot of the apparent increase is cultural. It’s much less common these days to force a naturally left-handed child into being right-handed – it’s part of society’s increasing tolerance of many things – but there are also some scientific reasons. For instance, children born to mothers over 40 are, according to one study, 128% more likely to be left-handed than those born to mothers in their 20s. And the average age of mums is on the up.
I can tell you from personal experience, you don’t have to watch your daughter struggling with a pair of right-handed scissors for very long to seek out a left-handed pair. And this is what I love about Microtrends. If you’re a manufacturer of any product that is designed to be used in one hand, then you’d better think about making a left-handed version pretty soon, and getting it into some mainstream retailers. Ever tried using a BlackBerry as a leftie? And that given the company’s co-CEO is left-handed!
Still, it’s nice to know that my little girl is in good company. Look at this list of lefties…Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Picasso, Michelangelo, Beethoven, John McEnroe, Navratilova, Seinfeld and every US President since Gerald Ford, save peanut-farmer Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush (thank the Lord).
Mind you, I’m ignoring The Boston Strangler (who surely needed to use both hands?) and Jack the Ripper…
There have been three pretty high profile (I hesitate to use the word ‘seminal’) texts over recent years that the web 2.0 crowd has latched onto. The first one was The Cluetrain Manifesto; the second one The Long Tail. I have to admit, though I’ve read quite a bit about both of them, I’ve never actually read either (so feel free to discount this post as the ramblings of an ill-informed imbecile). However, the third one in the list – the cover of which is pictured here – is a book that currently resides upon my bedside table – and a terribly good read it is too. It’s Microtrends, by Mark J. Penn.
If each were taken in isolation, I can understand how they might be dismissed, particularly by large businesses.
The Cluetrain Manifesto claimed that all markets are conversations. But hang on a minute…if we’ve got 100,000 customers, how are we supposed to have a proper, valuable, individual conversation with each of them? And if we try to have a single conversation with all of them, then that’s not really a conversation, is it? It’ll just be us telling them what we want them to hear, the same as always. Let’s ignore that.
The Long Tail asserted that the world of online has given consumers infinite choice, and the ability to seek out entirely personalised and specialised products and services…and that for even the most niche product there’s a big enough global market to make it worthwhile. But just wait a minute. We’ve got a broad enough product range already (with at least a dozen different options)…I’m not about to start tailoring my product for every single customer. Forget that one too.
Then along comes Microtrends. Here’s the book that delivers the research (or at least examples of it) behind the explosion in niches in the global marketplace. It contains seventy-odd cases where an apparently tiny trend actually earmarks a significant market. The examples are primarily from the USA…and a microtrend can mean just 1% of the population. But in the US, that means more that 3 million people. And if you understand the microtrend, that market can be yours.
Now, think of these three texts together. Global markets are exploding into millions of little niches (The Long Tail). With the right research, you can understand the motivations, values and drivers within each of these niches (Microtrends). And the market niches are small enough – with such a consistent set of values – that you might, just might, be able to have a valuable conversation with them (The Cluetrain Manifesto). Now it starts to get interesting.
My mum – who’s 62 years old – bought herself an iPod Nano last year. She’s not especially techie…she’s very happy with email and ecommerce, but she would be able to set up, say, a POP3 email account. She absolutely loves her Nano though. Why? Because she loves her music. And she’s not only got the Nano, but she’s got a Bose SoundDock in the lounge and anotherone (yes, another one) in the kitchen. And she raves about it to all her friends. Now, how difficult would it be for Apple to start a conversation with a market niche of over-60s women with a bit of cash to burn who love their music? Not very, I’d have thought – and not that expensive either. iPod Nana anyone?
That’s what we’re talking about.
First post, first post. What to do? Personal stuff? Professional stuff? Bit of a mix? I think so. I’ve had a full weekend which has managed to combine a bit of everything, so this’ll probably be a mess.
I went to Berlin for a summit organised by Edelman Public Relations called PR2.0 (bit of disclosure here: I’ve done some work on a freelance basis for Edelman in the past). Edelman wanted to get a bunch of people either involved or interested in how the world of social media is changing the PR profession to see if we could come up with any answers, because to a greater or lesser extent, we’re all struggling with it a bit at the mo’. And let’s be honest, they were also using it as a (very, as it turned out) soft recruitment exercise. Fair play to them though. We were put up in a very nice hotel, fed and watered liberally and weren’t asked to work too hard…
I can’t go naming any of the other delegates as half of them were probably there without their current employer’s knowledge (which is why the event took place over a weekend) but there was a good line up of speakers from organisations as diverse as Nike and the World Wildlife Fund. Hugh MacLeod was also there speaking. For those of you that don’t know (ha! As if…) MacLeod is one of the UK’s most celebrated bloggers. It’s quite extraordinary. In the real world, he draws cartoons on the back of business cards (don’t necessarily expect belly laughs, mind…). He’s also a marketing consultant to a South African wine maker, an English bespoke tailor and Microsoft. Work that out.
Anyway, MacLeod did his speech and, as I’d been led to believe it would, it centred around what he calls ‘Social Objects’. A cartoon can be a Social Object. As can a bottle of wine. Or a mobile phone. Or a book. Or a meal. Or a newspaper article. A Social Object is something…anything…that two or more people want to talk about; that prompts a conversation. And conversations are important in the new world of social media. In fact, it’s all about conversations.
I buy that. I just think Social Object is a bit of a wanky phrase to describe stuff that people want to talk about. But it’s right, and appeals to my view of the new world of social media. Though I also hate the phrase ‘social media’. I’m a content man, you see, and social media (for me, at least) is about the technology and not the content. I’d prefer a phrase like ‘conversational marketing’, though accept that might be regarded as wanky in itself. But the concept of organisations needing to create things (‘Social Objects’) that tap into the interests, values and emotions of two or more people is spot on.
It was a good weekend. I’ve come away having learnt stuff, but also being confident in the fact that I know more about it all than I thought I did. I also met some truly nice people. Some of them German.
The highlight of the weekend was, of course, Berlin’s striking architecture. No it wasn’t. It was England beating France in the Rugby World Cup semi-final! Thankfully – despite their clear and total mystification – our German hosts recognised the raw passion in the eyes of the English and French delegates and we were allowed to escape from the official evening out and seek out an Irish pub to watch the game. It was quite an evening as, at the same time as the French and English rugby teams were doing battle, the German and Irish football teams were doing the same. Luckily the pub had enough TVs to go around. And beer. The Guinness was served in 400ml glasses. These were exactly the same shape as a traditional Guinness pint glass, but obviously about a third smaller. This made it look like I had enormous hands, to my childish amusement every time a new one arrived.
But what a result! Our joyous momentum carried us well into the early hours of Sunday morning, where I literally danced myself to a standstill in the Felix nightclub. My contribution to the summit’s Sunday sessions was more than slightly affected. Indeed, when I did decide to chip in with a question, I found my voicebox rendered useless through my constant screaming at the television the previous evening and simply emitted a sad stream of raspy whispers. Quite pathetic.
However, the essence of the question still remains. Are there the companies out there with the balls to give up enough control of their brands and messages to properly participate in the new world of conversational marketing? I’m not sure there are.