We all take Google for granted. We expect it to work, and work really well, each time we use it. But imagine the hardware and software that are needed to keep this leviathan operating at such a level with the kind of usage it gets today – mindboggling. And I discovered, when researching my series of lectures on Leadership, Teambuilding and Managerial Creativity, that Google has not always found it easy to keep pace with demand.
Some years ago now, Google’s head of engineering needed to solve the problem of data storage – an ongoing problem – and rather than seeking a technical solution, he chose a creative approach. He formed two teams to work on the problem, each working independently, and stepped back while they set about the task. And when one of the teams came up with a solution – which was implemented – he kept the other team working on the next solution. A kind of rolling contract. It has obviously proved to be a successful model. I’m sure that, like me, you find Google works pretty well, whenever you need it.
Being of a generation that grew up with vinyl and hi-fi systems, I grieve the loss of all those record shops and the happy hours spent reorganising my collection. But I have recently become something of a convert to music streaming, and can see plenty of advantages. When researching subjects for my series of lectures on Leadership, Teambuilding and Managerial Creativity, I came across the story of Daniel Ek and Spotify, which makes for fascinating reading.
Although Apple, with its iTunes app, had already turned the music industry on its head by selling music in a completely different way, Ek’s vision was to provide music for free. Funded by paid advertising, Spotify aims to offer users the concept of having ‘all the world’s music on their hard drive’, at no cost. If users prefer to listen without ads, they can upgrade to a monthly subscription model. What makes Ek extra special, in my eyes, is that he claims to have known nothing about the music business when he started out. What he had was extraordinary vision and determination, and it has paid off in spades. A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but no knowledge, I believe, can be the secret of success.
Not surprisingly, Oculus has been sued for half a billion dollars by ZeniMax, parent company of ID Software (maker of the Doom and Quake games), whose co-founder John Carmack is now with Oculus. The dispute concerned improper use of code, developed at ZeniMax and used in the Oculus Rift headset. While this might have signalled the end for Oculus as an independent start-up, it is a drop in the ocean for parent Facebook. Just one more example of power shifting to the few in this new, and uncharted, digital world.
In the world of computing, making routers and hardware is not sexy. People are excited by the possibilities opened up by new software. They take the back room stuff for granted. So imagine what a mountain US networking and telecoms giant CISCO had to climb when it decided to rebrand itself as a market leader in The Internet of Things – the futuristic vision of total connectivity that promises to change lives. This made a perfect case study in my series of lectures on Leadership, Teambuilding and Managerial Creativity.
One of the ways in which CISCO have tackled their ‘image problem’ is to run a series of eye-catching, contemporary ‘advertorials’ in high profile magazines, running to 4 pages and aiming to explain how the Internet of Things (or pretty much everything) will work in practice, and what the advantages will be for both businesses and end users. No surprise, then, that they have attracted the attention of major players Apple, Microsoft and Google, all wanting a piece of the action. Suddenly, CISCO are hot again – but they never had to worry about their business. They just wanted to be loved, too.
Successful product design consultancy IDEO, based in California, have come up with an unusual concept as a cornerstone of their company culture. They believe in ‘collaborative helping’ – essentially, sharing knowledge and ideas, not only with fellow workers but with clients too. To me, when I first came across it when researching my series of lectures on Leadership, Teambuilding and Managerial Creativity, this seemed like the antithesis of good business practice, and I wanted to know how they had managed to make it work.
In my early career, knowledge was king. The best way to protect your own job and keep your company one step ahead was to keep your knowledge to yourself – to make yourself indispensable. Not so these days, it seems. IDEO have found that by encouraging the exchange of ideas and knowledge, employees complete tasks more quickly, grow in confidence, and enjoy a feeling of ‘ownership’ of projects, however peripheral their involvement. And to do this, the company has to build ‘slack’ into the system, to allow time for all this helping, which they claim then leads to greater efficiency overall. Maybe it’s time, then, for all of us to ‘let it go’.
‘How are the mighty fallen’ – or so we all thought when news erupted about Volkswagen’s emissions scandal, right at the height of their world domination of the auto industry, spearheaded by their ‘Think Blue’ manifesto (and for ‘Blue’, read ‘Green’). I was so impressed by their commitment to excellence across the board that, pre-scandal, I chose VW as a case study for my series of lectures on Leadership, Teambuilding and Managerial Creativity. So, if it had all gone very wrong, where did that leave my lecture?
A couple of years down the line from the breaking news, VW seem to be doing OK. They have obviously paid out billions in penalties, and top executives have been charged, but they are moving ahead on all fronts and are planning to become the world’s number 1 producer of electric cars. The emissions scandal has become yesterday’s news in a world where news, these days, has the power to knock you sideways. Perhaps, then, some of the messages from their manifesto made a lasting impression with the workforce, who remain loyal and determined to pull the company round. In any event, it makes for an interesting case study.
When the old Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite back in 1957, it beat its rival US into space, and prompted the creation of a special unit in the Pentagon that was designed to make sure this never happened again. Called the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – or DARPA – the unit was making significant progress until it was side lined by the creation of NASA in late 1958, and funding shifted. How could DARPA continue to function on a much reduced budget, and with little public awareness?
This is what really interested me, and prompted me to include it as a case study in my series of lectures on Innovation and Design Management. What I discovered was that DARPA adopted a completely revolutionary business model, appointing specialist teams on a project by project basis, all working to fixed budgets and deadlines. It was not always necessary to have people working on site, and team members left mid-project if they were no longer required. Yet DARPA has racked up a string of successes, proving that creative management leads to greater creativity. Good to know.
We’re all familiar with Netflix and the services it provides. From the early (not so long ago) days of supplying DVDs through the post, Netflix has gone on to become a major media streaming service and creator of original material, with huge international reach. What is less familiar is the story behind their company culture – ‘Freedom and Responsibility’ – which I discovered when researching my series of lectures on Leadership, Teambuilding and Managerial Creativity.
Netflix started an HR revolution when their 128-slide presentation went viral. Music to the ears of employees everywhere, it shifted the responsibility for holidays, hours worked, expenses, share options and more, onto the employee, in the belief that ‘97% of people will behave in a responsible manner, and always do the right thing for the company’. This was radical creative thinking for what has become a very creative company, and it has allowed them to attract the best creative talent in a hugely competitive area. And what of the 3% who fail to make the grade? They get a generous pay off and leave quickly – so it’s a win win situation.
There is no escaping social media when thinking of examples of success stories for my series of lectures on Innovation and Design Management. One of my favourites is the story of WhatsApp, the brainchild of US-based but Ukrainian born Jan Koum and his colleague Brian Acton. Born out of the need to communicate cheaply and easily with his father back in the Ukraine, WhatsApp was developed by Koum as a cross-platform, ‘family-friendly’ messaging app with no passwords, no advertising, and, most remarkably, no data collection.
What a pity, then, that since being bought out by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014, WhatsApp has been forced to relax some of its early principles that made it so attractive to users. There have been changes to allow Facebook access to WhatsApp’s Contacts database, providing vital marketing information to Facebook’s advertisers. Early adopters, understandably, are not happy. But over a billion users worldwide seem to be happy enough, and that no doubt makes Facebook happy – and richer, of course.
A course on Retail and Merchandising now has to include a study of a purely online retailer, and I chose to look more closely at fashion retailer Zappos as an interesting example for my recent series of lectures. This wholly-owned subsidiary of Amazon started out as an online shoe retailer, and quickly gained traction with the young set. The company has a reputation for extraordinary customer service, going ‘above and beyond’ in an area where expectations are generally low, and so are able to maintain a loyal customer base. But what is their real USP?
From early days in the noughties, Zappos recognised the value of social media in building strong customer relationships. CEO Tony Hsieh regularly tweets – and not just about the business – and encourages all his employees to do the same. The effect has been to retain customers who feel they are part of the Zappos family, with genuine involvement and value, and with less of the prevailing feeling of being just a ‘number’ and the product of some clever algorithms. The long-term trick for Zappos will be in finding a good balance between keeping in touch and becoming intrusive, but for the younger generation, that day still seems to be a long way off.