Sunday, April 14, 2013

SMR: A Miss Is As Good As Half A Mile

I am used to my favorite business magazine, Sloan Management Review, being light-years ahead in usefulness compared to many others, especially as regards the computing industry.  However, in reading several articles in a row in the Winter 2013 edition, I was struck by a strange discomfort.  After careful thought, I think I have identified the reason: it was the fact that the writers were identifying important things to consider, and completely ignoring other crucial things, without which the analysis was far less accurate and useful. They weren’t miles from reality – what they described really was there – but they seemed at least half a mile away.
So let me go through them, one by one.  I hope that at least my critique will help to close that half a mile in my mind or someone else’s.

Apple Did Not Introduce the Desktop Metaphor

The first article (“How to Use Analogies to Introduce New Ideas”) argues that using analogies effectively can be key to introducing new technologies to the market successfully, and that analogies that stress the familiar and analogies that stress “the novel” should be used appropriately, depending on the technology.
In making this argument, the authors use as their first example Apple’s use of the desktop metaphor for its Mac user interface.  While the article doesn’t explicitly say so, the implication is that its customers were unfamiliar with the desktop metaphor (with its files and folders) before the Mac.  That just ain’t so.  I was there.
I was a programmer in the late ‘70s when word processors first introduced the desktop metaphor.  And, in fact, it took a lot of hard arguing before the people trying to sell the metaphor realized that it was a bad idea to have file cabinets and files, instead of files nested within folders nested within folders.  But by the end of the ‘70s, the idea had taken, and was adopted by PC operating systems well before the Mac arrived in the late ‘80s. 
So why does this matter to the authors’ argument?  The point is that the reason the Mac succeeded was not because it used a familiar analogy to introduce a novel idea – it didn’t.  The novelty in the Mac operating system (although we should really include the Lisa in this account) was the use of object-oriented programming to rapidly produce an icon-based visual interface in which one operated by point and click, drag and drop.  Yes, analogies matter – the experience of the word processor folks shows that.  But, by the same evidence, the usefulness of the new technologies matters equally, whether an analogy is used to grease the skids or not. 
I worry that people will read this article and say, oh, all I need to do in introducing a new technology is make people comfortable with it, or attracted to it, by adding the right analogy.  On the contrary:  I would argue that whenever you do that, you should also work hard at ensuring that the technology is easy to use and useful.  Think about the introduction of the iPhone – little in the way of analogy, loads in the way of demonstration.  That was a novel technology to many – but once seen, very intuitive.  No analogy needed; but the hard work of making it usable – which, imho, was why Jobs succeeded where previous iterations of very similar technology failed – was critical to market success.

What the Future May Bring Is Not Just About Limits to Growth

The next article describes a new book making gloomy forecasts about the next 40 years based on system dynamics (I had a blog on this vs. agility a while back).  He argues that the future is primarily determined by the fact that we are overstretching our resources, and that therefore we will progressively be trying to grow more and more with less and less to grow with and thus with greater and greater starvation, pollution deaths, and other semi-inevitable results.
The problem with this analysis is that he seems to completely fail to understand the science and trends of climate change.  Climate change is not a matter of overstretched resources; it is a matter of a carbon-spewing system running on its own momentum and with much of the disasters ahead already baked in, unaffected by some systems-dynamics shrinkage of population and reduction of resource usage to sustainable levels.  To put it bluntly:  You could shrink the population to one billion right now and reduce some resource usage accordingly, but if you don’t over the next 17 years shrink use of oil, coal, and natural gas by 80-90% from today’s levels and keep it there for at least 200 years, you in all likelihood will still get huge losses of natural resources like farmland from sea-level rise and drought, and billions of deaths from starvation, not to mention the possibility of poisoned air related to ocean acidification.
Frankly, I find this omission distressing, because the book’s author (Randers) is apparently an expert on business and sustainable development, not to mention a professor of “climate strategy.”  If this is what the sustainability movement is typically aiming for, then it is in serious trouble – their goal is not even “sustainable”, since use of resources adequate for the capacity of the earth will not at all matter to businesses in the face of resources such as food shrinking well below the capacity of Earth in these halcyon days.  To put it another way:  first get carbon under control, then talk to me of overstretch.  Zero carbon emissions will at the very least reduce drastically our consumption not only of oil and coal but also related resources; reduction of population and/or generic resource use from 5 billion people equivalents to 1 billion will likely have relatively little effect on oil and coal usage – because that’s not the mole you’re trying to whack.
Randers’ approach, in my strongly held view, would take the sustainability movement down a side track at the moment we can least afford to lose focus.  Please, folks, think about this hard.

Sometimes, Multiple Sizes Do Not Fit All

The next article, “When One Size Does Not Fit All”, argues that companies much choose carefully in supply chain management between focusing on operational efficiency and operational responsiveness (to customers). Unfortunately, the example they use is Dell within the last five years, as it switches from its tried-and-true non-retail consumer-customer rapid-delivery PC model to servicing several types of customer (e.g., businesses) with several types of outlet (e.g., retail) and several types of product (e.g., servers).  The authors argue that the changeover has been a success, once Dell got its act together in developing different focus for different customers and embedding it in the supply chain.
Unfortunately for their story, I had an actual experience with Dell at about the time of the changeover, about three years ago, and my experience makes me question whether Dell really is an example of a success.  Specifically, I ordered a laptop in late November, assuming that (as Dell had always consistently done in the past), I would get it well before Christmas.  On the contrary:  I believe that I got it in early January.  I was in shock.  And yet, the authors’ account seems to imply that there was nothing wrong with Dell’s traditional model at the time of the changeover.
Another example is Dell’s approach to printers. The authors do not even mention printers as a factor in the consumer business, retail or otherwise.  And yet, for a long time, the Dell approach to printers has been an irritant to me.  As I remember, at least for part of the time, Dell only offered Dell inkjets with its Dell PCs and laptops.  That’s all very well, but inkjets need replacement cartridges frequently, and Dell would have you ordering its cartridges online, instead of letting you get them at all sorts of retail stores, like HP.  And when the delivery times start going south …
The point, to me, is that doing each supply chain right as it evolves is just as important as applying the right supply chain to the right customer.  And, I believe, PC World surveys of customer satisfaction bear me out: Dell’s satisfaction ratings in the consumer market, retail or online, have gone downhill and stayed there.  So the prime finding of the article, fit the right “size” of supply chain to the customer, appears to really miss the mark.  What the Dell example tells me is that you had better evolve each supply chain appropriately and keep it working well as the products offered proliferate, or it won’t matter how well your supply chains fit the customer.

Final Thoughts

I could pick nits on the next two articles (I really don’t think focusing on “likes” in Facebook is the most productive way to do brand management, and I seem to gather the idea of “cloud” outsourcing leaves out minor [sarcasm] factors like knowledge of the market among those tapped for these projects), but they seem much less like a frustrating experience in which the authors seem headed in the right direction, only to result in a big miss.  They seem to be off by a few feet, not half a mile.
So I guess my final thought is this.  Especially if you’re focusing on past history, it’s very important to get an inclusive global picture, and make sure your real-world examples don’t tell you anything different once you look at them closely.  There’s a lot of good work in the articles I cited, and yet I’m not convinced their overall impact, if taken seriously, will be positive at all.  Folks, let’s all up our games.  And caveat lector.


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