Finding Intelligence in a Data-rich Universe

24 01 2011

Sarah and I went to see Trans-Cool Tokyo at the Singapore Art Musuem this week. There was much to intrigue, but the item I found most impactful was an installation of 10 data-projectors, projecting… data. Data.matrix [no 1-10] by Ryoji Ikeda comprises screens packed with data, sometimes all in sync, more often covering different subjects. So one screen would be plotting the positions of stars across the night sky, another comparing DNA chromosones, a third rotating a giant hydro-carbon molecule in 3d and a fourth a complex building structure. Sounds like something only a database programmer could love (okay, I confess) but to me it also connected at a much deeper level. This universe is so big beyond our experience that we almost can’t see it; seeing this rich sampling of the universe as datum-points (within their various  conceptual and analytical frameworks) somehow made the universe itself more tangible – and yet quite undiminshed.

Which brings me to the mundane: does your organisation have a universe of data; or is there intelligence as well? I am regularly astonished by the number of organisations which collect extensive or even comprehensive data and then base their operations upon everyone’s perceptions of how their business works. One of those perceptions tends to be “yes, we looked at the data”; the reality tends to be far short of even an impressionistic overview of the data.

As Mark Twain so helpfully pointed out, there are indeed “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics”. Data analysis with an agenda (other than the agenda of trying to find out what the truth is) can be a pretty dangerous matter; and we cannot be expected to police ourselves when it comes to tendentiousness – it can be entirely unconscious. But data can yield insights when properly handled;  especially insightful questions. (The strength of Action Learning as originally formulated by Reg Revans, is its emphasis on “Q” – Questing Insight over and above “P” – Programmed Knowledge.)

So, good, you have data. Data on your operations, data on your people, data on your finances. What were the three best questions you asked your data in each of those domains in the last 90 days. If you struggle to answer that, it might be time to relaunch the search for Intelligence in your Data Universe…

Playing in a Low Key

17 01 2011

Are you low key? Do you communicate in an indirect manner? Are people left wondering sometimes what you were really getting at?

Of course, the problem is that you may not even know. One of the hallmarks of being low key is that you will often feel that you have essentially done everthing possible short of slapping the other person and nailing a memo to their forehead; while they will be thinking, “okay, that’s an interesting thought you are hinting at there – I will give it some consideration when I have time.” In the end the penny will drop for you when you notice that noone ever seems to realise when they have been told off, or that you were laying down the law, not inviting a discussion. (I have a close friend who used to have to tell people they were being “let go” and they would come out of the meeting thinking they had just received a good performance review! His partner would then have to fire them all over again…)

There are at least two key components to being genuinely low key. One is that you are very aware of the need to protect other people’s dignity; the other is a great awareness of potential ambiguity and therefore of the need to give consideration to every angle of a story before taking action. A third element is often being highly subjective, as opposed to objective. You will notice that none of these things are negative in themselves; what we are dealing with in this article is simply how to counteract the potentially negative impact of this combination on situations that demand clear real-time communication, especially those involving “difficult” content.

So – some thoughts for the low-key among us (and that may be you!)

  1. Never use email to deal with an issue. (This is a fundamental law of the universe). Low-key people get “braver” when using email, and tend to resort to email when a fair amount of frustration has already built up. They then have to deal with the consequences face-to-face (or in more emails, which can be even worse). Email is for neutral information or good news – nothing else.
  2. Never use blanket communication to address a personal issue. If Fred is consistently late into the office (if you are still running that kind of weird, jacket-on-the-chair, outcome-blind environment – read Drive or google ROWE) then address the issue in person or by phone with Fred; don’t send out a memo or group email emphasising the importance of being on time. Everyone knows who it is aimed at and thinks you are weak or ineffectual for failing to talk directly to the person concerned.
  3. Get objective help in monitoring and increasing your directness. When someone asks you, “did you talk to so and so about such and such”, don’t just say “yes”. Give them a summary of the conversation; they may well be able to reflect back to you that the recipient may not have got the message based on what you have just recounted. Even better, for important communication get someone else to sit in on the session with you.
  4. Get the person you are communicating with to summarise for you what you have said (i.e. what they have heard). Spotting the gap will give you the opportunity to home in on the core of your message to them.
  5. In situations where you suddenly see a problem with someone’s behaviour, you may be tempted either to make some immediate comment (which may be both sharply pointed and obliquely directed – the worst of all worlds) or to just leave it altogether, hoping it will sort itself out (vain hope 99.99% of the time). Instead count ten, turn away, turn back and say “actually Jane, can we have a quick chat (after this meeting / after lunch / tomorrow)”. That wins you some time to think about how you want to tackle things, flags to them that there is an issue, and doesn’t leave you with a situation you will regret afterwards (either because you spoke or because you didn’t!)
  6. Above all, make sure you can write down on the back of an envelope, in objective and non-emotive terms, the actual issue that needs to be addressed – including the action you want the other person to take. No, it isn’t obvious to them just because it is to you! If the worst comes to the worst, give them the back of the envelope to read!

If any of this has hurt your feelings – please call me or wait till we next meet 🙂

Does your clever customer service system negate your hard-won talent?

4 01 2011

31st December started for me with a dead motherboard. The new box I bought wouldn’t boot from my old hard drive, so I have spent a lot of time re-building my software installations. And even longer interacting with a range of software company customer support systems, on account of needing to reactivate software without having been able to deactivate the old installation first.

First, big hand for Microsoft. Fully automated system, yes I had to type in and then copy an awful lot of code groups, but they knew what I needed, their system worked and they didn’t make me hate them. (Which is a big change from a few years back; well done Redmond)

Now for the rest of you: what is the point in hiring capable people and then making them appear stupid because of the way your system works? For example, if you ask me to state the problem in a box before the chat starts, and if I actually take the time to give your agent all the details I know they will need, why on earth do you structure your system such that they then have to act as if none of that information has been given and go step by step through a scripted programme which is apparently based on the assumption that neither of us could tie our own shoe-laces unaided?

There are other gripes – the worst company (remaining nameless on this occasion) simply has agents identifying what needs to happen and promising that  they will; but has no system to keep them accountable for actioning things. Each time the live chat ended my support ticket was an orphan again. And even though I gave the ticket identifier each time I went back to them, each agent seemed unable to abandon the script and simply access what had gone before, so we had to start from first principles.

After 5 days I am more or less back in business, just slightly more deranged than I had planned to be at this point in the year. Big deal; except that this is not just about software support. It is entirely consistent with my every interaction with all of my banks, credit card processors, most government agencies etc etc. There is a long-running crisis in customer service, and it is based on a misunderstanding of how problems get solved. More and more effort is poured into systems projects which attempt to do what systems (as such) can never do – namely, deal with complex reality by trying to make it conform to a simplified template – and which (no surprise) run years over time and then only succeed in annoying customers and staff alike. (Read The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist if you want some serious insight into why this might be happen so consistently). Microsoft, in my example above, only succeeded because the system was designed to deal with one and only one very specific, well-defined problem.

So in 2011, if you want to make a difference to the world: hire great people and equip them with the tools they need to apply their intelligence to solving customer problems. Don’t think you can build a system to make them smarter; you will only drive us all further towards distraction.