Episode One Hundred and Twenty Nine: It Was Never Technology; Names Matter

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I was asked what a Station Ident was, or where I get my section headers from. I take that to mean where do I get this particular header from, and it’s an idiosyncracy that I copied from idols Matt Jones and Warren Ellis, a sort of identifier of the kind you got when TV stations would go off-air and display a test pattern or some other part of branding. Of course, it wasn’t “branding” back then. It was just their identity. This is me, coming back on air, transitioning from station identity, to full-on personality.

It’s Friday, and my second full day of looking after C whilst his mum’s at school. I love spending this time with him – he’s turned into such a little boy. A cheeky one, at that.

I am still having difficulty finding rhythm. I expect it will come, in a staccato, haphazard kind of way. But whatever this is right now, being able to spend time with my son and still having time to write, easing back into work after having travelled and done my conference, it doesn’t feel so bad. Maybe this will all work out in the end anyway.

1.0 It Was Never Technology

It was never a technology problem. I’m thinking more about the stupid term “smart cities” and about what it means to be a smart city. I got a nice long note from a good friend, Matt Locke, that kind of drove home the point that it’s never really about the technology, and more about the people. That, of course, was always the case.

In other words: in the same way that it’s hard to get, say, an advertising agency to change into something that’s not advertising, or at the very least “advertising and” something, it’s hard in the same way to get a city (or anything else – like, say, the British Broadcasting Corporation) into something that uses technology as a means to an end, opportunistically, transparently and intelligently.

It almost feels somewhat holographic – a never-ending fractal problem that, wherever you look, you find examples of. Is it just something as simple as people not liking change? Or that change is too difficult? Or that inertia is a horribly powerful thing, perhaps one of the most powerful organisational forces? Or maybe it’s just that organisations forget their purpose – mission statements be damned – and that instead they get too preoccupied with the method which with they’re carrying out their purpose, rather than whether the purpose is carried out in the first place.

I suppose it’s because it’s uncomfortable. As an irritating precocious teenager, I’d  been confused when the secondary school that I went to attained Technology College status in the mid 90s. What this meant was that the school acquired, in short order, a brand new building full of a bunch of pretty high-spec PCs. In other words: a bunch of hardware, some software and, from the outside, hardly any teacher training for the people who were supposed to be using it to teach us. Forgive me if I don’t instantaneously believe that the situation is much better these days (our neighbour in Portland is a primary school teacher, and she talks about getting handed an iPad one day with practically no training, being told to figure it out on her own time).

So anyway. It was never about the technology. I don’t know quite what it is, other than technology not being treated as a cost centre, and instead being treated as something like an enabler. It’s easy to tell a story of technology being something that has to be suffered, that’s a consequence of the modern world. I have sympathy for people who feel this way. Technology has promised a lot, and failed to deliver a lot of the time, too. For every gain, it’s taken away in pernicious ways, sometimes explicitly, and other times implicitly. But, if I’m to say that *this time, it’s different* it would be that networked technology is different from islands of technology. It would be that communications technology is different from having a bunch of non-networked PCs with laser printers and Microsoft Word that enable you to more efficiently print out and distribute memos to All Staff.

I’ll give you an example. I’ve never had to use Lotus Notes in anger, but from what I can make out, people who have to deal with it never really like it that much. As much of that is because it’s an old technology, one that I believe might still even be single-threaded: which means that when the client application is doing something, you can’t do anything else. So whether that’s loading a mailbox or searching, it frequently just *feels* like it’s hanging. But one of the powerful things about Lotus Notes was its groupware – the fact that it was easy to build forms and, in a small way, make lots of back-office administrative jobs easier. Perhaps that’s why it’s become so embedded in organisations – because of the inertia of the bureaucracy that took advantage of it.

But anyway, I was talking about technology. The thing about the Ubers and the Airbnbs and so on, ignoring the rhetoric about the sharing economy, is that they were started by people who saw how technology could improve the user experience. They’re service businesses that could differentiate on *better service*, and technology was the key to providing that. If you didn’t know – or didn’t care – about what technology was capable of doing, or, even *didn’t care about user experience* then you wouldn’t have the same mindset as those entrepreneurs.

So when GDS says “the strategy is delivery”[1], this is, I think, what they mean. That a Government, for example, can’t rely on “brand” to differentiate itself, because you can hardly choose another government (we’ll leave that as a point for further discussion, I suppose), but the point of the civil service – well, *a* point – is to deliver services. Zappos is an easy example to reach for, but the differentiation is in the customer experience. And for whatever reason, it’s hard to get an organisation to care about the quality of service that it provides.

This means expanding the definition of “user experience” outside of something that’s just wireframes, but that cuts to the core of the scope of a business. It’s interesting to me to hear so many different examples across different organisations about things that individuals identify that go counter to what the *point* of a business is from a user or customer’s point of view. Service – and delivery of service – *is* the differentiator. Because when it comes down to it, the absolute atomised level, the planck length beyond which you can’t go any further, if I’m paying for a service, whether it’s in money or attention, I need that service to be accomplished. Sometimes that service is obvious, and sometimes I might care more about cheaper service than good service (which is why people can simultaneously fly business class one week and then economy airline the next week), and contexts change and peoples’ expectations change in those contexts.

And yet.

Technology – “digital” – is supposed to make these things better. It’s supposed to allow a *better* connection. Not just a more efficient one, but the whole idea behind “(digital) services so good that people prefer to use them” is in my mind a trojan horse. All services should be so good that people prefer to use them. At the same time, it’s fine to have priorities and to say that you’ll get around to it, but part of what I’m starting to feel is that there’s a tremendous gap (here we go again) in terms of a lot of service based businesses.

Whose responsibility is it, for example, to proactively look at analytics and search queries to find out what problem people visiting your website need to solve? And how easy is it to act upon that information? And, before we even had analytics, was it someone’s job or responsibility to uncover that information from front-line staff? Is it someone’s job at a bank to ask tellers what customers come in and need help with? Other than the dreaded Customer Service Survey that more frequently than not provides inadequate and inactionable data?

It can’t be everyone’s responsibility. It’s clear that when it’s *everyone’s* responsibility, in the absence of a clear mandate from leadership, no-one’s going to get around to doing it. Which is why I’m interested in things like a Chief Patient Officer role at hospitals, or Chief Customer Officer role at banks and so on, the equivalent of a reader’s editor or an ombudsman, whose job it is to see things from the customer’s point of view and whose remit crosses *every* silo, because their remit starts at the interface of delivery and works backward.

And yet, it’s not worth having a role like that unless leadership understands both the vast scope (because it *is* vast – once you start picking at it, you’ve essentially committed to organisational change unless you’re one of the rare organisations that has its shit together) and the positive role that technology has to play.

But then it wasn’t aboult technology, was it. It was about what your business or organisation was supposed to do. And the best way to do it. And whether or not you give a damn.

[1] On Strategy: The strategy is delivery. Again.

2.0 Names Matter

I’ve come full circle on this one. Names matter and labels matter. Variously, I’ve hard my former employer, Wieden+Kennedy Portland, described as an advertising agency, a creative agency and a communications agency. Sure, those labels might change based on client. But names matter.

Advertising agencies make advertising, creative agencies make, um, “creative”, and communications agencies communicate.

Digital agencies, though. Digital agencies *in theory* make “digital” whatever that is, but at least it’s a broad umbrella that can encompass a whole bunch of other, subsidiary issues. Of course, then you get bucketed into only things that are “digital”, which is presumably less of a problem these days because in practice so many things are digital in one way or another. Unless you have a client who has a parochial view of what “digital” means in the first place (ie, most of them, unfortunately).

So these labels matter because they impute identity, and identity matters because if you’re an advertising agency and you’re trying to sell a solution to a business problem for which the answer isn’t “advertising” then suddenly your client has to explain to everyone else in their organisation why the advertising agency hasn’t produced a piece of work that looks like advertising. It’s a difficult, up-hill battle that’s not unwinnable, but certainly more like punching yourself in the face than helping yourself, if that’s the kind of work you’re telling yourself you’re doing, or want to do.

Sure, you can engage in a debate about what “advertising” is. And that’s a whole separate issue. But we can be pretty sure that something like a Fuelband, although it may *do* the job that advertising is sometimes required to do, is not advertising. It is a product. Or it is a service. It is not an advertisement.

So again, I think there’s a hole. Management consultancies like McKinsey can certainly tell you what you should be doing, or whether you should be doing it, or how many people you should lay off (and then lay them off for you). Digital agencies will certainly build things for you if you want them to. Creative agencies will come up with creative solutions to problems. But in terms of business process change in a creative way – in terms of taking a look at what an organisation’s problem is *and* acting upon delivery, are there any good outside agencies or organisations that do this? Would you trust Accenture to come in and be asked by a music label what they should do about this whole digital music business and build something like iTunes, or at least as good, at the right time? (Leaving aside, of course, the counter-example of iTunes being a terrible piece of software that is pretty much minimum-viable-store-and-media-player).

Not really. They don’t exist, and they don’t really exist at scale. Probably because clients don’t think they need them.

Have a great weekend. Send me notes and let me know what you thought about today’s episode.