Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Since I was last in Galway (maybe 4 years ago), there have been lots of changes. Kenny's, one of my favorite bookstores in the world, has closed its bookshop business and is strictly an art gallery. Kenny's was such a great store with excellent, highly personal service. (I ordered books there for several years; I'd just e-mail Des Kenny what I wanted this quarter, and he'd send a parcel along. If I didn't have anything special in mind, I'd let him pick - and based on the authors I like, he'd always pick new writers that he knew I'd like, too.) But like a lot of small, indy bookstores, they fell prey to the chains. (Eason's is nearby.)
A very pronounced change in Ireland is the number of EU citizens working here, and the number of refugees: lots of African faces in the crowd, including among the gaggle of girls streaming out of the Mercy School. As with the rest of Europe and their "outsiders", it will be interesting to see how the African population integrates with the larger Irish society. One of the genius aspects of American culture has surely been our ability to melt a lot of different people in our big ol' pot. As much as anything, America is about a shared future, not a shared past. We'll see how it goes here.
In some ways, it's still the same old Galway. It's fall, and the smell of peat is in the air. For all the fancy, Euro-fashion shops opening, there are still plenty of ratty little one-offs, half of which seem to have a letter missing from their signs: 4 Star Pizz; a football pub called the Goal Po t; a place that used to be called O'Brien's is now O'Bin's.
The papers still remind you about the continued importance of the agriculture sector here. This week's headlines: "Buoyant weanling trade gets another boost;" "Producing grain is often more efficient than cereal;" and "Outdoor lambing: is it a viable option for you?"
Well, the weather is rotten today, so outdoor lambing is decidedly not an option.
Slan leat! (I think that's Gaelic for so long.)
Sunday, September 24, 2006
But outsourcing was on my mind as I cruised the Boston Sunday Globe, and saw an interview with the president of McDonald's USA.
Q: McDonald's recently started testing the use of call centers to handle drive-through orders at some stores. Why does that make sense? And are there any other major innovations the chain has made recently?
A: Using call centers allows us to provide a high level of service and be able to do that from a remote location in an environment where the crew can be much more comfortable. We go slow with tests like that if they're for efficiency's sake because you can never really replace a friendly smile.
Would you like some fries with your sacred cow?
Come to find out, this is apparently old news. (There was a NY Times piece on it last April.) And the drive-through outsourcing is not yet off-shoring. But isn't working in a fast food restaurant precisely the type of job we thought was immune to outsourcing? Anyway, when they figure out how to automate burger flipping and loading Crisco into the fry-o-lator, I guess we'll kiss those jobs good-bye, too.
McD's is also looking into self-service kiosks. Yet another one of those wonderful efficiencies - like pumping your own gas, or using the Home Depot self-checkout when you buy a tube of grout - that just throws more of the work burden onto the customer. Forget whether "you can't replace a friendly smile or not", I actually don't go to Home Depot or McDonald's to have someone smile at me. It's just that, as far as I can figure out, self-service never manages to save me all that much time and aggravation. When I pump my own gas, my hands smell gasoline-ish. At Home Depot, there's always some screw up..."please remove the item from the bag area" or whatever it is that the robot-voice yells at you.
(Not all self-service is terrible. I really like - make that love - having a FastLane transponder which lets me sail right through an automated turnpike toll. It's so satisfying, especially when there's a huge knot of cars at the toll-taker lanes.)
When follow-on generations started doing the roots thing and began making trips “back”, Nanny thought we were all gone daft.
When I first went to Ireland in the early seventies, it was beautiful and welcoming, but also still poor and depressing (if no longer oppressing). And when I say that Ireland was poor and depressing, I’m not just talking no ice for your Coke, overcooked peas, and waxy toilet paper poor and depressing. There was ample evidence of poverty wherever you looked. When my college roommate and I took the boat back to England, there was social worker interviewing all the Irish young people emigrating, with little hope of getting any of them to stay.
Why stay, where there were precious few jobs to be had?
By the mid-eighties, that tide was, of course, turning. On one trip over, I was “greeted” at Shannon by all sorts of Digital and Wang signs, proudly touting their facilities in Ireland. (As I was working for Wang at the time, I didn’t really feel like I was on vacation until I got away from the airport and all those Wang blue logos.) And now, of course, you can read all about the growing affluence of the country – by some measures, the strongest economy in the EC.
Although I’m sure that there are plenty of people who’ve been left behind by Celtic Tiger success, the changes I’ve seen over the years are dramatic and impressive. Yes, they include the availability of ice, great restaurants with nary an overcooked pea in sight, and toilet paper that absorbs rather than crackles. But they also include a general sense of prosperity and confidence that was lacking when I first went to Ireland. In those days, I barely met any young people who wasn’t planning on leaving.
Ireland’s greatest export is no longer its youth; no more American Wakes for all those sons and daughters. It's a great turnaround story.
Tomorrow, I’m heading to Ireland on vacation – on what will be somewhere between my twelfth and fifteenth trip.
There is much about the new Ireland to love, not the least of which is the positive attitude of the people. (Being Irish, of course, a lot of them still don’t exactly trust their prosperity, but I’m no stranger to that particular attitude.) And I’m not one of those “it was so much more fun to visit when the entire country was poor and thatched.” But as their economy continues to grow, I hope that they’re taking a lesson from Amerikay about sprawl and shopping malls and an automobile-based economy. I hope they can keep their small towns intact, and that all those little hand-knit sweater shops aren’t replaced by Benneton’s. I heard that Bewley’s coffee shops were no more, and that’s a loss. If I want to go to Starbucks, I just have to walk around the corner. I’ll admit I usually make one stop into the Shop Street McDonald’s in Galway for an order of fries, but I hope they keep their Super Mac’s and other home-grown fast food chain-lets, too.
And I hope that their pub culture, with Guinness, chat, laughter, and music stays alive – and not just for the tourists. I love the craic agus ceol in the pubs. A few years back, my husband and I were in a pub. There was some big rugby match on, and the pub had brought in a TV for the occasion. Everyone over the age of thirty ignored the TV; everyone under the age of thirty was glued to it. Get that TV out of here, I wanted to scream. Go back before it’s too late.
Saturday, September 23, 2006
It’s hard to imagine that pretexting doesn’t have at least some kind of a history in messy divorce battles, celebrity stalking, and all kinds of unsavory places. But it’s pretty creepy to think that someone could grab your phone and banking records so easily. Innocuous as mine are - the last 10 are client; sister – cell; voicemail; neighbor in the building; ditto (we’re getting some condo work done); sister – work; friend; husband; painting contractor; client – I don’t want anybody scrutinizing them. (Unless I go missing someday; then, please, have at them.)
But it’s easy to see how this practice could wend its way from spying on leakers “for the greater good”, and enemies, for personal gain, to de rigueur pre-employment (or pre-relationship) screening.
Five years ago or so, I took part in a technology panel. Someone in the audience asked all the panel members to talk about their biggest fear on the techno-front. Mine was privacy. Post 9-11, I’d say that techno-terrorism has surpassed privacy as something I worry about. And I’d have to put Internet perverts preying on children as my number two. But privacy is still right up there as a concern.
Hey, I’m writing on two blogs, so I’m obviously not all that obsessed with privacy. But I don’t want the government, big business, or someone who just wants to brush up on me, snooping around my phone records, bank accounts, or trash bags.
Friday, September 22, 2006
Even though I was seldom on the receiving end – I’m guessing that my career giving-receiving ratio is something like 500:1 – I liked the office celebrations. I liked the goofy cards with everyone’s signature and bon mot. I liked the secret gathering in the conference room. The anxiety about whether I’d get a lots-of-frosting end piece of the sheet cake. The feigned surprise on the honored guest’s face. (Who me? You shouldn’t have.)
For a lot of people, the office is the neighborhood – it always was for me – and I enjoyed celebrating with my neighbors. But I do understand why some people object to any office-wide celebrations. Sometimes it does seem like a shakedown by and on behalf of someone you barely know. But in most cases, my guess is that the pan-office collections occur because the celebratee’s friends don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by not inviting them. But when someone’s collecting directly, there can be an intimidation factor in play, and it does put some people in the awkward position of explaining why they’re not chipping in – don’t know the person, can’t really afford it – or caving in and throwing in a few bucks. This is best avoided.
Which is why I like the anonymously circulating envelope. You can put some money in or not. You can sign the card or not. When the big day comes, you can give a busy signal so that you don’t have to go to the party. Or you can weasel in and grab a piece of the sheet cake that you didn’t chip in on.
I especially like the hokey cards (almost always lobby-shop quality). It’s agony to be the first person to sign the card. No one wants to take the most prominent place, where you’d sign if you were the only signatory. You especially don’t want this spot if you don’t know the person the card is for very well. On the other hand, if you have any ego at all you don’t want to take some remote spot that could be overlooked when the recipient tries to read all the messages.
It’s also hard to be the last person to sign. You stand there, twisting and turning the card, to read what everyone else has written, because you just don’t want to duplicate what anyone else has had to say. Whatever the case, most people don’t have any issue with “signing the card”. It’s just something you do at the office. (And, I think, the minimum entry point for grabbing a piece of cake.)
The only problem I’ve ever had with the group card was when I was asked to sign a card for someone whose father had just died. There it was: “I’m sorry for your loss, Jeannie,” slanting across one corner. “If there’s anything I can do, Bill” slanting across another. I didn’t see any smiley faces, but I still decided to get the other lobby-shop sympathy card and send it on my own. When I told my sister this story, she was easily able to one-up me.
Someone in her office circulated a sympathy card after a colleague’s son was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Some nincompoop wrote “Ouch! Steve”.
I’m sure that was a real comfort.
I understand, of course, why companies are moving to 401Ks. What firm wants to get trapped in some defined benefits pay-out hell, which is at its most hellacious in companies that have downsized? Pension costs can cripple the ability of American business to compete effectively, especially in an economy driven by race-to-the-bottom pricing. (I get it, I get it.)
An undercurrent of much of the discussion around pension plans is that somehow it’s the irresponsible, greedy workers (worse yet: they’re sometimes unionized) who are at the root of the current crisis.
For a better understanding of the US pension crisis, people should take a look at an excellent New Yorker article by the estimable Malcolm Gladwell. The article deals with the pure demographics of how pensions work, and shows that in a company with fewer workers – which may well be the result of higher productivity – the burden on current workers can indeed be too great. Gladwell also writes at length about something called the “dependency ratio” – i.e., how many workers - across an entire national economy - there are supporting non-workers (retirees and children).
But what I found most interesting was his discussion of how America’s pension crisis came into being.
Anyway, Solidarity Forever and go read Malcolm Gladwell.
In the uncertain nineteen-forties, in the wake of the Depression and the war, workers wanted security, and in 1949 the head of the Toledo, Ohio, local of the United Auto Workers, Richard Gosser, came up with a proposal. The workers of Toledo needed pensions. But, he said, the pension plan should be regional, spread across the many small auto-parts makers, electrical-appliance manufacturers, and plastics shops in the Toledo area. That way, if workers switched jobs they could take their pension credits with them, and if a company went bankrupt its workers’ retirement would be safe. Every company in the area, Gosser proposed, should pay ten cents an hour, per worker, into a centralized fund.
The business owners of Toledo reacted immediately. “They were terrified,” says Jennifer Klein, a labor historian at Yale University, who has written about the Toledo case. “They organized a trade association to stop the plan. In the business press, they actually said, ‘This idea might be efficient and rational. But it’s too dangerous.’ Some of the larger employers stepped forward and said, ‘We’ll offer you a company pension. Forget about that whole other idea.’ They took on the costs of setting up an individual company pension, at great expense, in order to head off what they saw as too much organized power for workers in the region.”
A year later, the same issue came up in Detroit. The president of General Motors at the time was Charles E. Wilson…was in contract talks with Walter Reuther, the national president of the U.A.W. The two men had already agreed on a cost-of-living allowance. Now Wilson went one step further, and, for the first time, offered every G.M. employee health-care benefits and a pension. Reuther had his doubts… His inclination was to fight for changes that benefitted every worker, not just those lucky enough to be employed by General Motors. In the nineteen-thirties, unions had launched a number of health-care plans, many of which cut across individual company and industry lines. In the nineteen-forties, they argued for expanding Social Security. In 1945, when President Truman first proposed national health insurance, they cheered. In 1947, when Ford offered its workers a pension, the union voted it down. The labor movement believed that the safest and most efficient way to provide insurance against ill health or old age was to spread the costs and risks of benefits over the biggest and most diverse group possible. Walter Reuther, as Nelson Lichtenstein argues in his definitive biography, believed that risk ought to be broadly collectivized. Charlie Wilson, on the other hand, felt the way the business leaders of Toledo did: that collectivization was a threat to the free market and to the autonomy of business owners. In his view, companies themselves ought to assume the risks of providing insurance.
America’s private pension system is now in crisis…This crisis is sometimes portrayed as the result of corporate America’s excessive generosity in making promises to its workers. But when it comes to retirement, health, disability, and unemployment benefits there is nothing exceptional about the United States: it is average among industrialized countries—more generous than Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Italy, just behind Finland and the United Kingdom, and on a par with the Netherlands and Denmark. The difference is that in most countries the government, or large groups of companies, provides pensions and health insurance. The United States, by contrast, has over the past fifty years followed the lead of Charlie Wilson and the bosses of Toledo and made individual companies responsible for the care of their retirees. It is this fact, as much as any other, that explains the current crisis. In 1950, Charlie Wilson was wrong, and Walter Reuther was right.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
I partricularly liked one of this week’s strips – the one where Alice was asked to take a communications seminar because of her negative body language. It reminded me of a story that a Genuity colleague once told me about an encounter he’d had with his boss.
They’d been in a meeting with a fellow from a group that Eric’s boss considered a hostile entity. The nominal purpose of the meeting was to see how the two groups could work better together. After the meeting, Eric’s boss reprimanded him for his “terrible body language.” Eric replayed the meeting in his mind and couldn’t come up with any mea culpa’s. He thought he’d been positive and engaged throughout. That was the problem. “You were giving all the wrong signals,” Eric was told. “You were leaning forward, making eye contact, and nodding in agreement with everything Dave said. Don’t let it happen again.”
Monday, September 18, 2006
But the real reason the article struck me was that it reminded me of my many years with yet another company that no longer exists, where I spent the better part of a decade. Softbridge was full of very brainy techies with great ideas, but for years we stayed afloat largely through tin-cupping our investors for what turned out to be pretty something akin to a McArthur Foundation Genius Grant for all of us. At one point, the someone (investors? management?) decided that we needed to get a little more rigorous and business like, so Softbridge imported a real-live, just retired admiral in the US Navy to become our COO. Jim seemed like a very nice guy, and I recall him quite fondly, but did he ever meet his match at Softbridge. I'm sure there were others, but the one accomplishment of his regime that I remember was an elaborate process for ordering supplies (complete with flow charts). Everyone ignored it.
So, let all the Babson Admirals beware: if they do leave the Navy and take up employment in a business, make sure that it's one with some semblance of lines of authority and accountability to begin with. It's really not all that easy to make order out of chaos when chaos is the organization's lifeblood. (As was once observed to Softbridge's Admiral: if you had 17 legs your couldn't kick ass fast enough and hard enough to get anything done around here. And the Admiral agreed.)
A third note on the Globe article: if we want admirals to "think like executives" let's make sure we pick the right executives as models!
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Just another case of a stressed out manager who lets their "wanna get this over with" compulsion get in the way of human, humane behavior. (The company was AltaVista, as I recall. Still around but not quite the hotty they once were. Serves them right!)
Monday, September 11, 2006
Fortunately, my colleague and I were able to get on an Amtrak train heading North – we only knew it was going as far as Richmond. We spent the night of the 11th trying to piece together what had happened through brief battery-conserving calls home and through what the conductors could tell us. Fortunately, we made it to Washington, with one minute to spare in catching the Acela to Boston. Not that it hadn’t been subdued up to that point, but when the train pulled out of Newark late afternoon on the 12th, the car I was in went dead silent as we got our first glimpse of Manhattan weirdly imbalanced without WTC, and with a lowering, black cloud hanging over the island.
The next morning I retrieved my car from Logan Airport – eerie: no planes, no traffic, and oddly no charge for parking. I wondered how many of the cars parked near mine had been driven there by people on the LA flights… At work, I learned that three of my company’s employees had been killed. I didn’t know them, or anyone else who died, but it brought the event closer to home. Folks I did know, working in the Genuity network operations center, had been talking to our colleagues in NY when their Tower collapsed. At least they died with hope: they had been told to go to the roof of the building for evacuation by helicopter. This hope of rescue – whatever comfort I’ve drawn from that terrible day comes from the thought of those three men from Genuity’s network hub, heading for the roof, knowing that they’d be safe soon.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
The Xobni software, which should be available for individual use Sept. 20 and is expected to be rolled out to businesses starting this winter, works by measuring the amount of time people spend reading and writing e-mails. From there, Xobni (that's inbox spelled backward) can chart when people send and receive e-mails, as well as how long it takes them to reply to messages (woe to the desk jockey who replies instantly to co-workers but takes hours to get back to the boss).Much of the article talked about whether this would constitute yet another invasion of employee privacy, with a bit about whether anyone would actually pay for this capability, but I think a key point was missed: Just how worthwhile is it to have managers spending time reviewing e-mail usage reports? Personally, it's hard for me to imagine something less worth using management cycles on, unless it's monitoring bathroom breaks. Maybe it's worthwhile if you're managing lots of helpdesk/support people, but other than that...
It strikes me that most "e-mail problems" are solved by "sender-and-recipient pressure." Who wants to get flamed for sending a reply-to-all that should have been a reply to sender (or no reply at all)? Who wants a ticked-off boss appearing at their door to follow up on that e-mail you didn't respond to?
The guys who founded Xobni sound like very bright fellows, but I ain't so sure about this idea. To me it sounds like technology in search of a need.
Hey, I’ve been on the giving and receiving end, and there’s no good way to do lay-offs, but this method seems particularly callous. The only story I’ve heard that comes close to this level of depersonalization is one that a former colleague told me years ago (and which would, of course, be manageable only in a small company). A company wide meeting was called, and as the employees got to the meeting room door, each was handed a pink slip or a blue slip. Pink slips proceeded to the lay-off room for processing. Blue slips went into the survivors’ session to hear about how the company was turning a corner, was now on the right track, had right-sized – all the blah-di-blah that always turns out to be a complete crock. But that one had at least some human, mano-a-mano touch.
As noted in the Seattle Times, Radio Shack, of course, shot back with their spin on it. The way they handled things was ‘fast and private.’
Fast, absolutely. But private? Sure, no manager or HR minion actually got to see the look on the victim's face, but just how private is it when you pack up your cube and do the “dead man walking” thing out to your car while your now former colleagues try not to stare?
Still, I can see this type of lay-off taking hold, with the impersonal ‘fast and “private”’ notification process becoming more commonplace. It’s a virtual world, so why not virtualize this task, too?
(My friend John, in his excellent blog, By the Bayou, did a brief blog on this, which is where I first heard about it. But even though it’s yesterday’s news, it certainly fits with a topic dear to my heart….)
Now, I’m still not all that certain that I want to get sucked into blogging, but here goes.
I originally set up this blog to complement a Pink Slip, a book that I’m writing. Pink Slip (now in its final edit, let’s-find-an-agent stage) is a Jack-Welch-in-reverse business book/memoir that details my 25 years in high tech product marketing, largely spent in companies that are no longer around. Naturally, much of Pink Slip is about the business mistakes and out-and-out idiocy that I observed (and occasionally participated in) during my career. Some of it's about the business lessons I learned. (Since none of the options ever amounted to anything, good thing I got something out of all those jobs.)
We’ll see where things go - I could just as easily slack right back into my blog-slackin’ ways - but for now I plan on using this forum to share my observations on the business world, filtered through my own often woeful but sometimes exhilarating experiences. And I invite blog-viewers to hop in and add their own viewpoints and stories.
Let’s have some fun here.