Category Archives: Business as unusual

Elon, I want my data!

Last week I got a parking ticket. I stopped outside BI Norwegian Business School where I work, to run in and deliver some papers and pick up some computer equipment. There is a spot outside the school where you can stop for 10 minutes for deliveries. When I came out, I had a ticket, the attendant was nowhere in sight – and I am pretty sure I had not been there for 10 minutes. But how to prove that?

Then it dawned on me – I have a Tesla Model S, a very innovative car – not just because it is electric, but because it is constantly connected to the Internet and sold more as a service than a product (actually, sold as a very tight, proprietary-architecture product, much like whatever Apple is selling). Given that there is a great app where I can see the where the car is and how fast it is going, I should be able to get the log from Tesla and prove that I parked the car outside BI less than 10 minutes before the ticket was issued…

Well, not so fast. I called Tesla Norway and asked to see the log, and was politely turned down – they cannot give me the data (actually, they will not hand it over unless there is a court order, according to company policy.) A few emails back and forth have revealed that the location and speed data seen by the app is not kept by the internal system. But you can still find out what kind of driving has been done – as Elon Musk himself did when refuting a New York Times journalist’s bad review by showing that the journalist had driven the car harder and in different places than claimed. I could, for instance, use the data to find out precisely when I parked the car, even though I can’t show the location.

And this is where it gets interesting (and where I stop caring about the parking ticket and start caring about principles): Norway has a Personal Data Protection Act, which dictates that if a company is saving data about you, they not only have to tell you what they save, but you also have a “right of inspection” (something I confirmed with a quick call to the Norwegian Data Protection Authority). Furthermore, I am vice chairman of Digitalt Personvern,  an association working to repeal the EU data retention directive and know some of the best data privacy lawyers in Norway.

So I can probably set in motion a campaign to force Tesla Norway to give me access to my data, based on Norwegian law. Tesla’s policies may be American, but their Norwegian subsidiary has to obey Norwegian laws.

But I think I have a better idea: Why not, simply, ask Tesla to give me the data – not because I have a right to data generated by myself according to Norwegian law, but because it is a good business idea and also the Right Thing to do?

So, Elon Musk: Why not give us Tesla-owners direct access to our logs through the web site? We already have password-protected accounts there, storing documents and service information. I am sure some enterprising developer (come to think of it, I know a few myself, some with Teslas) will come up with some really cool and useful stuff to make use of the information, either as independent apps or via some sort of social media data pooling arrangement. While you are at it, how about an API?

Tesla has already shown that they understand business models and network externalities by doing such smart things as opening up their patent portfolio. The company is demonstrably nerdy – the stereo volume literally goes to 11. Now it is time to open up the data side – to make the car even more useful and personable.

PS: While I have your attention, could you please link the GPS to the pneumatic suspension, so I can set the car to automatically increase road clearance when I exit the highway onto the speed-bumpy road to my house? Being able to take snapshots with the reverse camera would be a nice hack as well, come to think of it. Thanks in advance! (And thanks for the Rdio, incidentally!)

Update a few hours later: Now on Boingboing!

Update Sept. 2: The parking company (Europark) dropped the ticket – didn’t give a reason, but probably not because I was parked too long but because I was making a delivery and could park there.

Write, that I may find thee

A Google Dance – when Google changes its rankings of web sites – used to be something that happened infrequently enough that each “dance” had a name – Boston, Fritz and Brandy, for instance – but are now happening more than 500 times per year, with names like Panda #25 and Penguin 2.0, to name a few relatively recent ones. (There is even a Google algorithm change “weather report”, as many of the updates now are unnamed and very frequent.) As a consequence, search engine optimization seems to me to be changing – and funny enough, is less and less about optimization and more and more about origination and creation.

It turns out that Google is now more and more about original content – that means, for instance, that you can no longer boost your web site simply by using Google Translate to create a French or Korean version of your content. Nor can you create lots of stuff that nobody reads – and by nobody, I mean not just that nobody reads your article, but that the incoming links are from, well, nobodies. According to my sources, Google’s algorithms have now evolved to the point where there are just two main mechanisms for generating the good Google juice (and they are related):

  1. Write something original and good, not seen anywhere else on the web.
  2. Get some incoming links from web sites with good Google-juice, such as the New York Times, Boing Boing, a well-known university or, well, any of the “Big 10” domains (Wikipedia, Amazon, Youtube, Facebook, eBay (2 versions), Yelp, WebMD, Walmart, and Target.)

The importance of the top domains is increasing, as seen by this chart from mozcast.com:

image

In other words, search engines are moving towards the same strategy for determining what is important as the rest of the world has – if it garners the attention of the movers and shakers (and, importantly, is not a copy of something else) it must be important and hence, worthy of your attention.

For the serious companies (and publishers) out there, this is good news: Write well and interesting, and you will be rewarded with more readers and more influence. This also means that companies seeking to boost their web presence may be well advised to hire good writers and create good content, rather than resort to all kinds of shady tricks – duplication of content, acquired traffic (including hiring people to search Google and click on your links and ads), and backlinks from serially created WordPress sites.

For writers, this may be good news – perhaps there is a future for good writing and serious journalism after all. The difference is that now you write to be found original by a search engine – and should a more august publication with a human behind it see what you write and publish it, that will just be a nice bonus.

The political process of getting innovation done

Innovation is often about politics. Together with my excellent colleague Ragnvald Sannes I run a course called Strategic Business Development and Innovation (it is done in Norwegian, but if you are interested, we would be glad to export the concept, in English), where we take groups of students through an innovation process (with their own, very real, projects) over two semesters. The course is done in cooperation with Accenture’s Technology Lab in Sophia Antipolis and is one of the most enjoyable things I do as a teacher.

Anyway. This note is to discuss something which came up in a web conference today – the political side of doing innovation. Many of the students we have come from public organizations, from the health care industry, or from educational or research-based institutions. In all of them (well, actually, in all organizations, but more so in those where profit is not the yardstick that trumps everything) politics are important, to the point where a project’s success depends on it. Since a number of our students also are engineers and/or IT people, with a very straightforward and rationalistic view of how things should be done (if the solution is better than the current one, well, then why don’t we adopt it?), I need to explain the nature of political processes in organizations.

I am not an expert in that particular field, but I have been involved in a few projects where politics have been important – and have found the work of March, Cohen and Olsen very useful – not just as theory, but also as a very practical checklist. These three professors are famous for the Garbage Can Model, explained in the classic article Cohen, M. D., J. G. March and J. P. Olsen (1972). “A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice.” Administrative Science Quarterly 17(1). This article (which can be found here) is cited more than 6000 times and makes a lot of sense to me, but the it is not easy to understand (and that is not just because the specification of the model is in Fortran source code.) It posits that politically oriented organizations (they studied universities in particular, which for most purposes are anarchies) makes decisions by constructing “garbage cans” (one for each decision) and that the garbage can is a meeting point for choices, problems, solutions, and decision makers (participants), heavily dependent on energy. Decisions seek decision makers, solutions seek problems, and vice versa. Getting things done in such an environment means constructing these garbage cans and filling them with the right combination of problems, solutions, choices and participants.

This sounds rather theoretical, and is. Fortunately, March and Olsen wrote an (in my opinion) excellent book (Cohen, M. D. and J. G. March (1986). Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press.) a few years later, with less theory and more application. Based on interviews with a number of university presidents as well as their garbage can model, they discuss the nature of getting things done in a university environment, where there is ambiguity of purpose, power, experience and success. They finish with a list of eight basic tactics for getting things done – probably at the instigation of Harvard Business School Press, which primarily caters to business people and want applicability, not just description.

I have found this list tremendously useful when trying to get decisions made – and have observed others doing this both very well and very badly. Here it is, with their points in boldface and my (probably imperfect, it is a few years since I read this) interpretation appended:

  1. Spend time. Getting things done will take time – you need to talk to people, create language, make people see your point. If you are not willing to spend that time, you might make some decisions, but people will not follow them. Decision making is social, so decision makers in these environments need to be. The winners in political organizations are often those with the most time – which is why many universities are dominated by the administration rather than the faculty, who have other calls for their time and do not come in to the office every day. (See this cartoon for an excellent description).
  2. Persist. One of the most frustrating things (I have seen this when businessmen come in to lead political organizations, several times) in a political setting is the decisions seldom seem to really be taken – there might be a decision, but every time it comes up, it get revisited. In other words, a decision made can always be raised again – so never give up, you can always get the organization to reconsider, either the same decision directly or the same decision dressed up in new language.
  3. Exchange status for substance. As someone said at some point, it is amazing what you can get done if you are prepared to forgo recognition for it. There are many leaders who want to look good and make decisions, but don’t have the knowledge or energy to do so. Make decisions easy for them – you can get a lot done if you make decision-makers look good in the process.
  4. Facilitate opposition participation. Rather than trying to overpower the opposition, find ways for them to participate in the new way of doing things. This is one of the reason why processes and fields frequently get renamed – to allow groups to continue doing what they are doing or want to do, but in new contexts.
  5. Overload the system (to change decision making style). Decision-making time expands to fill the entire time available (alternatively, a normal meeting is over when everything is said, an academic meeting is over when everything has been said by everyone.) By giving the system lots of decisions to make (i.e., many ), this style changes – and you can get your decision through because nobody has enough time or energy to give it the full treatment.
  6. Provide garbage cans. Provide arenas for discussion as distractions, to consume energy from decision-makers.
  7. Manage unobtrusively. You can get things changed by changing small things, and in succession. I have seen examples where you get a strategic goal set up that everyone can agree to but few define (“make us a more knowledge-based organization”), get resources allocated to it, and then propose lots of projects under this heading – which now is about fulfillment of a strategy (albeit redefined) rather than an entirely new strategic direction.
  8. Interpret history. Volunteer to write meeting minutes, and distribute them late enough that most participants have forgotten the details. History, traditionally, is written by the winners (except, perhaps, for the Spanish Civil War,) but you can make it the other way around – that you become the winner by writing history.

(After writing most of this I found this blog post by David Maister which summarizes this much better than me, in the context of professional service firms): Understanding politics is very much about recognizing these tactics and using them. It may seem Machiavellian, but then Machiavelli was one of the first political theorists and knew what he was talking about.

And now I feel a need to see the next episode of House of Cards on Netflix. Garbage cans in action…

A value chain at work

This old footage (via egmCartTech) of the 1936 production process at Chevrolet’s plant in Flint, Michigan, shows a value chain at work – i.e., a process where value is added in small, repeatable, sequential steps. This is how many people still see companies…

It is notable for many things – the relative imprecision of the production (dents in parts being marked for later fixes), the simple design of the cars (two-box design built on a frame, soon to be overtaken by the monocoque design already introduced with Chryslers’ 1934 Airflow), and the notion of the human as the servant of the machine, doing simple things repetitively and to be attempted replaced by robots in the 70s and 80s as production became increasingly componentized. Toyota eventually introduced the Kan-Ban principle, where each worker is responsible for the quality control of previous work and can stop the process. But no wonder GM had quality problem as designs got more complex…

Competing online at Lorange

I have just finished (as a matter of fact, I am writing this from the classroom while the students are taking their exam) teaching a two-day seminar called Competing online at Lorange Institute of Business, located in Horgen, a small town about half an hour south of Zürich in Switzerland. Teaching is normally quite tiring, but this time it was a breeze – firstly because it was only 9 students, secondly because they all had interesting experiences and viewpoints on how to use the Internet and Web 2.0 for business and personal purposes. As a consequence, I could run the class as an informal discussion, with less lecturing and quite a bit of learning for me as well as the students.

The diversity of backgrounds was quite interesting – we had three people that owned their own companies (technical textile manufacturing, logistics, and personal credit), three from pharmaceuticals and health companies, one from sports event marketing, one executive from a hotel company, and, last but not least, Isabella Löwengrip, who with her blog Blondinbella could provide very interesting perspectives on how to establish and promote a business on Web 2.0. She did, of course, blog (here and here and here) and Tweet about the experience, occasionally in real time – and she took the pictures you see here.

Linus Murphy, lively and inspiring CEO of Masterstudies.com, was the main case under discussion after lunch on the first day – and he did a great job talking about the importance of making your company findable on Google. To do this, you have to make sure your content is fresh and not duplicated, that each page is about one thing only (so the search engine is not confused) and design the structure and context of the web site before handing it over to be made pretty by a designer. When most of your traffic is driven by search, you must be both findable and searchable.

Norwegian Data Inspectorate outlaws Google App use

In a letter (reported at digi.no) to the Narvik Municipality (which has started to use Google Mail and other cloud-based applications, effectively putting much of its infrastructure in the Cloud) the Norwegian Data Inspectorate (http://www.datatilsynet.no/English/), a government watchdog for privacy issues, effectively prohibits use of Google Apps, at least for communication of personal information. A key point in this decision seems to be that Google will not tell where in the world the data is stored, and, under the Patriot Act, the US government can access the data without a court order.

Companies and government organizations in Norway are required to follow the Norwegian privacy laws, which, amongst other things, requires that “personal information” (of which much can be communicated between a citizen and municipal tax, health and social service authorities) should be secured, and that personal information collected for one purpose may not be used for other purposes without the owner’s expressed permission.

This has interesting implications for cloud computing – many European countries have similar watchdogs as Norway, and many public and private organizations are interested in using Google’s services for their communication needs. My guess is that Google will need to offer some sort of reassurance that the data is outside of US jurisdiction, or effectively forgo this market to other competitors, such as Microsoft of some of the local consulting companies, which are busy building their own private clouds. Should be an interesting discussion at Google – the Data Inspectorate is a quite popular watchdog, Norway has some of the strongest privacy protection laws in the world (though, for some reason, it publishes people’s income and tax details), and Google’s motto of “Don’t be evil” might be put to the test here – national laws limiting global infrastructures.

Manufacturing is changing, and so is productivity

Two excellent articles on increasing productivity, and why this will not result in many new jobs:

Davison describes the new kind of manufacturing, where everything is done by multi-step, highly complex machines, producing small series, requiring very high-skilled workers with rather sophisticated education. But they also need unskilled workers doing simple things, like moving parts between machines. The problem is, the pay scale for the second type is very low, and the difference in training to get to the skilled level so high, that no company will provide it:

For Maddie to achieve her dreams—to own her own home, to take her family on vacation to the coast, to have enough saved up so her children can go to college—she’d need to become one of the advanced Level 2s. A decade ago, a smart, hard-working Level 1 might have persuaded management to provide on-the-job training in Level-2 skills. But these days, the gap between a Level 1 and a 2 is so wide that it doesn’t make financial sense for Standard to spend years training someone who might not be able to pick up the skills or might take that training to a competing factory.

It feels cruel to point out all the Level-2 concepts Maddie doesn’t know, although Maddie is quite open about these shortcomings. She doesn’t know the computer-programming language that runs the machines she operates; in fact, she was surprised to learn they are run by a specialized computer language. She doesn’t know trigonometry or calculus, and she’s never studied the properties of cutting tools or metals. She doesn’t know how to maintain a tolerance of 0.25 microns, or what tolerance means in this context, or what a micron is.

The reason Maddie – hardworking and dedicated – has a job is simply one of distance: Shipping fragile parts to China for the unskilled operations is too risky and expensive. So Maddie has a job, but not career prospects. And the company’s management is facing very hard competition – their customers see them as a distributor – and is constantly scanning for things that can be outsourced or bought from another vendor.

Mandel describes the differences in productivity increases from improving productivity in domestic production – doing things smarter – and lowering cost by bargaining and optimizing the supply chain before it reaches the domestic organization. Both show up as productivity improvements, but have vastly different effects on domestic jobs:

But here’s the rub: both of these corporate strategies— domestic productivity improvements and global supply chain management—show up as productivity gains in U.S. economic records. When federal statisticians calculate the nation’s economic output, what they are actually measuring is domestic “value added”—the dollar value of all sales minus the dollar value of all imports. “Productivity” is then calculated by dividing the quantity of value added by the number of American workers. American workers, however, often have little to do with the gains in productivity attributed to them. For instance, if Company A saves $250,000 simply by switching from a Japanese sprocket supplier to a much cheaper Chinese sprocket supplier, that change shows up as an increase in American productivity—just as if the company had saved $250,000 by making its warehouse operation in Chicago more efficient.

This is known as import bias, and may be a problem, as it overestimates domestic productivity increases. Mandel goes on to show that this bias affect both left and right, and the difference in views is largely one about how to effectuate a change: Stimulus or tax relief.

Both authors advocate better data and better education as a way out, but quick fixes they aren’t. This is a real puzzler.