The Power of Systems Thinking

I spent yesterday at Vanguard Consulting’s Leaders Summit on Systems Thinking.  John Seddon chaired the day brilliantly, with eight case studies on Systems Thinking.  It is not really systems thinking the way that Peter Senge created – it is more a method for improving service organisations – with roots in Demming and Taichi Ohno (the master behind the Toyota Production System).

It is difficult to describe each of the cases in such a small space, but one animated video was shown to everyone by Advice UK that is fun to watch and gives a real-life example of Systems Thinking as applied to the public sector.  Enjoy!

It is so important that we get more organisations both understanding and using these ideas and I will be digging deeper into John Seddon’s work in later posts.

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Home Ownership in the Connected Kingdom

I got up yesterday morning questioning why it was that BT will take at least another five and possibly ten years to upgrade my broadband from 2MB to 10 or perhaps even 40 (on their current unpublished, un-thought-about plans).  I run an information intensive business from home and I need faster broadband – now.  And I am not alone!  Why should I wait?  And I thought who owns this problem anyway?

It triggered a thought.  A Thursday Thought!

In the early days of Telecoms deregulation, BT was forced to move the ownership of the (plain-old-bog-standard-you-can-have-it-in-any-colour-so-long-as-it-is-black) Telephone to the person owning the number.  Standards were created and innovation thrived with new types of telephone being connected to the network – so long as they conformed to standards.

When Openreach was created,  management of the equipment on the end of the line was handed over to other so-called “Service Providers” and (a little known fact), BT was forced to auction-off the actually ownership of about 60% of their lines – which were predominantly won by the French company, Orange.  However, for those in the Final Third, this line ownership trick is irrelevant.  We are still at the beck-and-call of BT Openreach’s exchange upgrade programme.

A few weeks ago I had lunch with the Chief Engineer at BT Openreach (George Williamson).  I asked him how it was possible to unlock BT’s investment bottleneck and accelerate the rollout of broadband to the final third.  But he simply said the current plans for upgrading would take all of BT’s resources in the next three years and that the programme put BT’s implementation teams at maximum stretch.  So there is an implementation capacity problem here too.  Which is why more local infrastructure building (with or without BT) looks interesting.  There is a market for it, if only BT Openreach were prepared to publish their plans of where (and where not) they intend to go.

So I thought, what about me owning my own line – like in the days when I ownership of the telephone passed from BT to the private sector?  What if I could then do a deal with BT (or another service provider) to pay them double to upgrade the line (rather than pay Sky to watch football).  What if I paid them treble (and not buy a new car)?  What if I bought new shares in a community bond scheme which would partner with BT (or another builder) to accelerate the rollout?  What if (like in some parts of Europe) a mortgage company will extend a mortgage to include the cost of a Next Generation connection?  What if there were people in my community who would underwrite the scheme?  What if….

So I leave the question hanging – why shouldn’t I be able to by and own my own line?  I don’t want it owned by some service provider or some company that themselves are totally dependent on a part of BT Group that is not the slightest bit interested in my line – until about 2108 if I am lucky!

Time to re-think “home ownership” and what a connected home really means in the connected kingdom!

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Digital Scotland Rocks!

I was away in Edinburgh last week at the launch of the Digital Scotland report.  A fine piece of work which creates a new way of looking at Next Generation Access in the UK by suggesting that Scotland creates a Digtial Scotland Trust with a number of internet hubs which serve 2,000 people or about 800 households.

The report was refreshing – but what I found most interesting (and at the same time most frustrating) is that many of the ideas, issues and blockages on the deployment of Next Generation Access are not new.  The same ideas were being talked about back in 2002!  Yet this time around there are a whole new set of academics and enlightened individuals in the wider society beginning to take much more of an interest because Next Generation Broadband Access is at the heart of the UK’s competitive position in the world and we are seen to be slipping behind.

Professor Michael Fourman kicked-off his talk with the report commissioned by Google which came out that day called the Connected Kingdom – which says that the UK is Number 1 for e-commerce.

So the story gets confusing as those looking at this video will say “we are not slipping behind, we are number 1 for e-commerce – which is what really matters”.

The critical next step is to find a way to educate the politicians on the benefits of NGA and wider ICT to their (drastically reduced) public sector programmes and to see if we can bridge the investment gap of about £10-15 bn to accelerate rollout to the Final Third (both geographically disconnected and socially excluded). A trivial amount for a five year programme in an industry that is worth over £100bn to the UK economy each year. We need to move from a connected kingdom to a hyper-connected kingdom which includes everyone, not just the digitally advantaged.

Although BT has committed a substantial amount of new investment, it cannot crack the problem on its own.  In many ways, the real test for success will be how “open” the so-called OpenReach really is.

The additional investment is needed over-and-above the (approximately £5bn committed by BT,  Virgin Media and the government’s BDUK division with any match-funding from Europe).  It is needed to implement the difficult bits of the 20 year programme which we are half-way through.  And it needs to be invested alongside some new thinking on business models, shared assets, shared investment schemes and business rates rationalisation.

The difficult part of the implementation (of the final third) has started.  It is time for the more enlightened thinking from the Royal Society of Edinburgh (and the August report from the Scottish Reform Trust) as well as the Foundation for Science and Technology to bring new thinking and political momentum to this old problem.  With right political alignment and the realisation that the public sector cuts can only be achieved by investing in a Hyper-Connected Kingdom the required new money will flow in to fill the gap.

As some of you may know, Scotland is (geologically) part of Canada – and only joined Europe relatively recently (in earth time). Rod Mitchell, my namesake, pointed out to me that much of the thinking that went into the Welsh Assembly Government’s commissioning of the FibreSpeed network in North Wales came from Scotland.   I hope this time around that Scotland actually benefits from its own thinking – rather than exporting the ideas without getting the true benefits of implementing them at home!

Putting the UK back at the front with the “Best Broadband in Europe in this government” is totally possible.  It is a simple matter of some clear thinking, a few politicians who “get” it and a bit of rocket fuel under the BDUK and Ofcom to tweak some of the industry structures!

Watch this space!

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What Makes A Loyal Customer?

I had a interesting dinner on Tuesday night this week with a group of executives from various Telecoms companies discussing the subject of customer loyalty.  The discussion ranged from offshore contact centres through social media to large databases with customer information and “intelligence”.

How Can I Help You?

When asked to sum up, I thought deeply about what really made me loyal to the brands that I hold dear.  I have had good and bad experiences with both onshore and offshore centres.  I have seen social media used well (and badly).  I am using the emerging tools of webchat more and more to fix problems and find out information without talking to a call centre agent.  In the past I have helped to build very large databases about customers.  But none of these, for me, were the root-idea of what made me loyal.

It struck me that current trends on “fixing processes” and “KPI measurement” and “culture” also often completely miss the point by looking backwards – a bit like driving a car through the rear view mirror.

What made me loyal, I concluded was “An authentic response in the moment”.  The idea went down well.

Very interested to know what other readers might think is the single thing that helps to make them loyal to a service provider…

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Digital Scotland and The Royal Society of Edinburgh

Just returned from the Next Gen ’10 roadshow in Edinburgh.

The most interesting thing for me ( which I had compeletely missed before I went there) is that Scotland has approached this whole problem of upgrading the broadband network by commissioning the Royal Society of Edinburgh to look at the problem afresh.  Unlike The Royal Society (based in London), the RSE has maintained the “Scottish Generalist Tradition” and have brought an eclectic set of wise folk to apply new thought and rigour to working through the issue of broadband in Scotland so that it serves the wider context of society and the economy.  Technology is a means to a greater end, not an end in itself.

The Digital Scotland interim report can be found by first clicking on the RSE logo below and then clicking on the link right at the bottom of the page “Read Interim Report”:

Unlike the Digital Britain report which was written in the time of a dying administration by economist-politicians, bureaucrats and quangos, and then attacked by the new administration to become a nearly totally ineffective set of recommendations, Scotland has approached the problem with refreshing renaissance-style method that only a body like the RSE can do.  It is an elegant combination of mathematical logic combined with rounded, objective reasoning – and moves the debate forward so that Scotland might well take the thought-leadership position when it publishes its final report once the current comments have been digested.

One conclusion that I came away with is that the whole debate about where fibre goes should be re-focused around Fibre to the Community.  Many of the more rural areas in Scotland would benefit tremendously by digging a single fibre into the community.  The current ambitions of Jeremy Hunt and the Con-Lib coalition government for the UK to become the leader in Europe for broadband by 2015 – without any central government funding – becomes even more challenging when one compares us to Finland – which was very well articulated by Professor Michael Fourman in his detailed analysis backing up Digital Scotland at the conference.

One of the strange things is that the interim report talks of Fiber, not Fibre.  I am not sure how this American English has managed to get into a perfectly good Scottish-English Language document.  But Hey Ho – the world moves on!

The Scots, Edinburgh and the RSE have a long tradition of great invention and enlightened thinking.  This blog will keep a keen eye on developments North of the Border.

(P.S.  The talk that I gave on Sir Patrick Geddes will be put onto this post once I transcribe and edit it.)

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The Next Decade: The Decade of Games

It is well worth watching this latest TED video from Seth Priebatsch:

Seth cites four dynamics:

1. Appointment Dynamic

Where players have to do something at a pre-defined time/place…..I really like the way to create a game to take medicine as a real-world application.  I don’t play Farmville on Facebook – but my children do and I can see it is addictive.  The business world relies more and more on virtual appointments – but this area is surely still in its infancy.

2. Influence and Status Dynamic

Enough said!

3.  Progression Dynamic

“The average player spends 6.5 hours a day on World of Warcraft”……I constatly ask what does this mean for work and the next generation of folk in the workplace?  Players in this new world will demand more interactive, 3D experiences at work.  They will not be willing to take jobs that are considered “boring”.   This gap between the gaming world and the current tools and practices in the workplace is going to be a big challenge to bridge.  But lots of opportunities present themselves as well.

I also really like the new way of ascribing grades so they are not pass or fail but encourage you to develop to the next stage.  I am sure that good schools understand this already anyway!  It takes a Princeton drop-out not to see this perhaps!

4. Communal Discovery – everyone has to work together to achieve something

The DARPA Balloon Challenge sounds fascinating as a really effective search mechanism – not sure I fully understand it, but what a great way to collect information quickly by rewarding those along the chain of collection.

The question I have is what are the other three dynamics?

Comments welcome!

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Why do some organisations drive us totally bonkers?

Most of us can relate to examples of when customer service organisations have driven us completely bonkers: being passed off to another department that does not answer your call and drops you into a black hole; getting through to an Indian call centre that has not a clue how to address your problem; orders placed and fulfilled incorrectly……the list is endless.

With the so-called customer relationship being such a fundamental component to the success of any business, why do companies behave in such a maddening way? The answer may well lie in some interesting new research from psychology. It describes a model that helps to diagnose the roots of certain common mental health problems but can also be extended to help us understand some of the more general dysfunctions that we see within organisations.

The New Psychology of Caetextia (or Context Blindness)

Recent psychological research in the UK has come up with a new model for us to understand better what is going on with people suffering from a range of mental health conditions such as Asbergers’ syndrome, Autism and schizophrenia. In summary, these symptoms are best expressed by the inability of people to switch easily between several foci of attention – and to track them against the history and context that relates to them. This new line of research has been called ‘caetextia’ by the researchers: coming from the two Latin words caecus, (meaning ‘blind’) and contextus, (meaning ‘context’). Further details can be found at www.caetextia.com.

It would appear that organisations can also demonstrate the symptoms of caetextia (or context-blindness). Organisational Caetextia (or OC as we will call it from now on) can help us understand why some organisations exhibit a sort of madness when dealing with their customers and employees – yet give us a clue as to why they remain blind to the significant consequences of acting in such a crazy way.

In cases of caetextia in individuals, the new research has uncovered two types of context blindness – and OC can also be observed in two distinct types of dysfunctional behaviour. Before we look at these two types, though, it is worth looking in more detail at the part of the brain that allows us to process context.

Parallel Processing in the Human Brain

In order for us to have context, we need to be able to see events from different points of view. Recent research into how the brain works has revealed that all mammals have a part of the brain that can process masses of information at the same time – similar to the new ways that we configure parallel processing in computers. This part of the brain developed millions of years ago to guage the risks associated by processing multiple streams of information and unconsciously comparing them to previous experiences. This is something we take for granted today, but millons of years ago it was the key to any mammal’s survival and conserve energy by not reacting to every stimulus that came along.

The research has concluded that this parallel processing part of the brain can become impaired – and this is particularly prevalent in people who demonstrate symptoms on the autistic spectrum. In such cases the brain cannot do the parallel processing necessary to keep separate streams of attention, switching effortlessly between each of them to assess their relevance to what is actually happening in the here-and-now. This form of parallel processing requires the brain to dissociate: in other words to be able to to review what it knows about something that it has come across before, whilst also paying attention to that something in the present. It is no wonder that such people often suffer from learning difficulties!

Two types of Organisational Caetextia (OC)

The research has also uncovered two types of Caetextia: front-of-brain or straight-line thinking blindness and back-of-brain random association blindness. What is interesting is that these types of caetextia can also be applied to organisations and can help us understand why some organisations are so disconnected.

The first type can be called “Process OC”. This is where an organisation processes work in logical straight lines without taking into account the wider organisational implications of doing so. This type of OC is fixated in the front of the brain. Examples might be a call centre agent who does not know which person or department to hand-off someone to and simply puts them into a telephone black hole. Another example might be an agent who says “I am really sorry that this has happened to you, I will get someone to ring you back” – and they never do.

Organisational Caetextia of the process type tends to happen lower-down organisatons (for instance someone in the back-office saying: “that’s not my job, I only process this type of transaction”. Front line workers will often be encouraged to adopt to this type of thinking with phrases such as “You are not paid to think. Just do what I say”. This dysfunctionality is exacerbated by outsourcing arrangements where the supplier organisation fulfills its minimum service level obligations and is very much driven by the mantra “if it is not in the contract, then I can do it, but it will cost you more”.

The second type “Informational OC” tends to be found higher-up in organisations. This type of OC is based in the back of the brain. The symptoms of this type of organisational madness is driven by managers and “leaders” defining a whole world of information they need to run the business that is of very litle value other than to those managers holding their jobs down or playing the politics of the given day. Often the amount of information needed expands without any understanding on the cost associated with gathering it. The information is then dressed up as targets to “motivate” those lower down the organisation to stretch themselves to meet those targets and get a bonus. Vast parts of the organisation chase numbers that have no bearing on the reality of what is actually happening to customers on a day-to-day basis.

In times of stress, the information will often be used to create random associations between the data sets, coming to rapid conclusions to reinforce otherwise illogical assumptions and then finding it rather difficult to justify their decisions after the event. The whole saga of justifying Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq is a good example of this. Organisations also use such pools of information to get rid of people lower down in the organisation who are not “conforming”… even if the data bears no resemblence to reality and the people are doing valuable work with customers.

Conclusion

Successful organisations use back-brain (information = innovation) with front-brain (process = delivery) in a combination that drives continuous improvement. A well-known example of this is Google who allow each employee to spend 20% of their time on their own projects.

In less successful organisations, these two frameworks of OC might be useful in alerting organisations, managers and employees or service workers to the madness that is around them – and perhaps give them a perspective to stop some of the maddening things they are doing to their customers and suppliers at the moment!

References

More on the basic and ongoing research at Mindfields College (now Human Givens College) at: http://www.caetextia.com

The main ideas in this article were first published with Mark Richards (ex:pw consulting) in an article for the CRM evaluation centre.

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