Saturday, 16 July 2011

F-Commerce - Facebook Shopping

FreshNetworks have an interesting Infographic on the rise of Facebook commerce. Unsurprisingly, people are finding that personal recommendations lead to higher purchase rates and that the numbers for purchases made via Facebook are on an upwards trend.

A few years ago I had an idea about how to take advantage of these behaviours, which I still haven't seen anyone attempt in quite the same way - rewarding recommendations, but doing so in a way that encourages targeted recommendations...

At the moment, through things like affiliated links, etc. I can post links to Amazon and other sites on my blog and as such I am "recommending" products. On other sites, such as TripAdvisor, I can leave general recommendations for places and products I've been to and used. People who trust me can use these links and if they do, I earn money (this has never actually happened to me btw - I'm talking theory here!).

There are other services out there that encourage the sharing of links to products and work like a kind of pyramid scheme. The more people you share with, the more likelihood you have of someone buying and you get a cut of that from the vendor. The problem is that this encourages spammy behaviour, which decreases the value of these recommendations and makes it more likely that people will click-thru, destroying the usefulness of the system.

In my mind, the reward to the user making the recommendation needs to be tied to the percentage of people who buy, not the number. So if you send a link to the new Matt Nathanson album to 10 people and one person buys, you get significantly less reward than if you only send to one person and they buy. It forces the recommender to really consider who will actually like/want a product. This makes the recommendations far more valuable to the vendor as well as the person receiving the recommendation. Everyone wins!

Until someone cracks this recommendation problem, we're probably not going to see the full value of social networks in e-commerce. Which is why I like the way Google is moving with Circles. They are trying to encourage more sharing, while also making it more relevant to the people receiving the links. If that really takes off (and I personally think it will) then it will naturally expand into e-commerce.

So that's going to be G-Commerce then....? ;-)

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Will opening in the US help Spotify become Prime Time?

So, after what feels like years of arguing, fighting and "almost" launches, it looks like Spotify is finally about to launch in the US. So will this be the moment when Spotify crashes into the public consciousness, or will it, after so much hype, die a sad and slow death?

First off, I love Spotify. I think it's an absolutely amazing service. Yes, there are frustrations over some music not being available (Arcade Fire!), but in general, if you want it, it's on there. It's stunningly quick. The offline functionality makes it perfect for me out here in India - I can swap my music around as and when I have Internet connectivity. It's legal. And the mobile app (when I'm back in the UK) means that I can't see me replacing my Creative Zen (which has sadly kicked the bucket).

So I'm a fanboy. There are, of course, some things it could improve on. The social aspect still needs work. The obvious one here is a tie-in with Facebook. That's what I'm hoping for. I think that is what will push the service into the mainstream proper.

Obviously the US market is important, but I don't imagine that the US launch is going to be a launch-pad for further success in Europe. I have friends in the US, but just because they use a service doesn't mean I use it. For most people in the UK and Europe, the US launch isn't going to change anything. One or two more friends will start using the system. So far, so meh....

Which means that the service as it is at the moment isn't enough for some people. They need that additional incentive to use it. It needs to be tied to Facebook.

Let me clarify on this. The last thing I want is the integration the way it is at the moment. I don't want my Facebook stream bombarded with single tracks shared from Spotify. That would be noise for noise's sake. What I want is to have a "music" section of Facebook, which people can link their Spotify account to. I want to be able to see what people are listening to right now. What's popular amongst my friends. Who is recommending what. Group playlists. All in one place.

So, yes, it's great news for Spotify that they're finally launching in the US. For one thing, it gives them the ability to finally focus on something else and everyone can stop wondering when this will finally happen! I'm just hoping that the next "something else" they focus on is integrating with Facebook....

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Google+ isn't going to kill Facebook

Yep, I'm calling it. Google+ is not a Facebook killer. You can all stop your arguments and forget about reading any other posts on it. The thing is - I don't think that's what Google is aiming for here. Twitter on the other hand, could definitely be in trouble. Let me explain....

I've only had access to G+ for a couple of days, but from what I've seen of how others are using it (and my initial instincts), the way it's being used is far more akin to Twitter than Facebook.

For me, Facebook is where I find follow the actual lives of people I know. Very few people share links on Facebook among my friends (granted, that's a sample of ~200 people, but still), most of the stuff is along the lines of "here's a loads of pics of my holiday", "I'm hungover", etc. Twitter on the other hand, is where I go to see what other people are reading and sharing. The number of personal comments is far lower.

G+ seems to fit much closer to this link sharing idea. What's more, the ability to focus who you are sharing with means that in theory the items appearing in my stream should be much more applicable to me. Just as an example using the sort of stories I share:
1. Tech news
2. Sport
3. Social Enterprise / Volunteering / Charity Sector

Those are three very, very different areas. At the moment, if you follow me on Twitter, you get everything. If you're only interested in one of those areas, you might get fed up with having to sort through the noise and find the applicable tweets. You unfollow me. With G+ that doesn't happen. I know who is interested in football, who is interested in tech, etc. So they go in those circles and voila! Now I can share more stories, because I don't think I'll annoy people who aren't interested in those things, plus the click-through rate should be higher for each link shared as it is more targeted. As Google tracks who is clicking on what, they build a social graph that is surely more valuable than knowing that X likes to look at Y's photos!

I think Google is happy for Facebook to become the social network for drunk party photos and inane updates about what people's rabbits did just now. They want to control the network for sharing stories and links....and that's why I don't think G+ will kill Facebook, however much people want to put the two in a head-to-head.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Why Richard Hillgrove is an idiot

Richard Hillgrove may have the most idiotic opinion on the Twitter and Ryan Giggs story I've read yet. It is one of the worst thought-out and moronic articles I've read in a long time.

First, let me be clear about a number of things:
  1. I'm a Man Utd fan, so bashing Ryan Giggs is not something I'm going to get excited about
  2. I like the Guardian, in general, I think they've been one of the best adopters of Social Media in the newspaper sector
  3. I have absolutely no interest in celebrity gossip, who shags who etc.
Ok, so what's my issue with Hillgrove's article? Well he obviously has no idea about Twitter or the law. Apart from that he's on perfectly solid ground!

He argues that Twitter is operating outside of the law by allowing users to talk about issues that newspapers are not. Pardon my French, but this is bull crap. It is complete loose-stool-water. Arse-gravy of the very worst kind. (Hat-tip to Stephen Fry)

Let us take the issue of whether Twitter is even subject to UK laws. It is based in America. Yes it has just (and I do mean, just, as in the last day or so) hired a UK member of staff, but the company operates out of the US.The US is a country that takes freedom of speech seriously. They even have a law that protects their companies, specifically websites, from being subject to laws in other countries that suppress freedom of speech.

And for those of you unaware, that's what a super-injunction is. A suppression of freedom of speech. Yes it “only” applies to the mainstream media, but why that's deemed to be ok, I'm really not sure.

Ok, so jurisdiction is one issue. The second is that Twitter is not responsible for what people communicate on it. Saying that they are is like saying that mobile phone networks are responsible for what people say in their phone calls. It is nonsense.

Next Hillgrove tries to offset the idea of Freedom of Speech with Privacy. I'm sorry, but the two are not polar opposites and trying to claim that they are is simple scaremongering. This is not an invasion of Ryan Giggs privacy. He is trying to suppress people's voices because he doesn't like what they are saying. Twitter (and whoever first published his name) have not invaded his privacy. His “privacy” was broken by Imogen Thomas, not Twitter. Twitter was just the mechanism for broadcasting this information.

I actually laughed out loud at Hillgrove's next statement - “unless we want an anarchistic society, Facebook and Twitter must be reeled in”. Is he serious? I'm beginning to wonder if this is a comedy piece. Or maybe just trolling for angry comments. Yes, unless we suspend Free Speech, we'll descend into anarchy. It's obvious. Ahem.

Then he wants all comments on Twitter to be time-delayed to allow for “checking”? By whom? Honestly? Maybe we should all employ censors to walk around with us and “check” what we intend to say before we say it? And who gets to decide what can and can't be broadcast? Honestly, this article just gets more and more farcical by the minute.

At this point I'd given up. When I re-read the piece this morning I saw the final paragraph. “We have to get some sort of international arbitration set-up”. Yep, Richard Hillgrove can chair it. Colonel Gaddafi and Kim Jong-Il can be the other members of the first council as they are pioneers in this kind of suppression. We can definitely make use of their expertise (although whether they have a view on Ryan Giggs' extra-marital activities remains to be seen).

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Assessing personal qualities in reviews - a good thing?

In my former life I worked for IBM (I'm supposed to go back eventually, so I probably shouldn't use the past tense here....). We have the sort of labour-intensive, rigorous review system beloved by giant corporations. I thought I had seen everything I was ever likely to see in terms of review criteria.

Then I got to India. My organisation is a small NGO. They showed me their previous attempt at a performance evaluation system. I checked my diary, when was April 1st again? Some of the categories I didn't even really understand, let alone comprehend how a score of 1-10 could be applied to them ("transparency" anyone? How about "money mis-management"? - You only steal from the cookie jar - 3; you're using company funds to drain your moat - 10). Others were down-right bizarre - "Reads newspapers"!!!

Even better, there were none that actually applied to someone having done a good job. They were all personal qualities. Timeliness, good manners, respectfulness. Turn up to work, be a good person, don't offend anyone, get a good review!

Cynicism aside, I was intrigued. I spoke to my organisation's founders. They expressed the view that their employees were not "professionals" and so they felt it was unfair to assess them against those kind of attributes. They felt the attributes they used instead were ones where people could succeed and that this was more important.

It's an interesting idea - fit the evaluation to the skills of your employees. Of course, it completely misses the point of performance evaluation - to help the employee to develop. That has to be the number one priority. To help identify the things they are doing well and build on those, whilst identifying areas for improvements and discussing strategies for progressing them.

We've ended up compromising on the final evaluation. There is a lot more focus on development needs and actually assessing performance (I don't subscribe to the idea that NGOs can't be performance-focussed), while we have retained some of the personal attribute assessments. I personally hope to show them that these items should simply become part of a person's overall review, not specifically detailed as areas for assessment, but we'll see how it goes.

I think it's an interesting idea though - how much should personal qualities be included in reviews. Can you possibly leave them out? Is this just an attempt to quantify what those personal qualities are? Interested to know peoples thoughts - get involved....

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Forget templates and schedules - understanding is the key

I'm out here in India with a very small charity. The founders have a bit of background in large corporates (or large charity organisations, which can basically be seen to operate in a similar way) but the majority of the rest of their staff have no such background. They all have training in social development, but that's it. The problem is that they're being asked to be project managers.

Project Management is a skill. It's not something that comes naturally to everyone (some would probably say anyone!). You need training and experience. I'm not claiming to be the perfect project manager by the way, far from it, but I've learnt a lot from some very good people over the years.

So where do you start when you are literally beginning from scratch. These people are already running projects, they are (nominally) planning, creating status reports and budgets - but it's all so ad-hoc and disorganised that most of it appears fairly worthless. It's a house of cards, all four corners are shaking and you've got to pick one to strengthen first!

The approach I'm taking is to not ask them to change anything. Yet. I want to get them starting to think like project managers a bit more. We're starting regular review meetings with each Project Co-ordinator to discuss the state of the project. These meetings will be asking them the sort of questions I would expect to see answered by default in status reports, project plans etc. "Are you on track to finish in time?", "What issues are you facing at the moment?", "What is your plan for next month?", "What is the reason for this difference in the budget?". The problem is that at the moment they don't see the benefit in answering those questions, so there is no thought given to them at all. These artefacts are produced because they have to, not because they are seen as useful.

You need to understand why you're performing a task before you can commit to it. Asking someone to produce a report in another template, or update their budget more regularly doesn't achieve anything if they don't know why they're being asked to do it.So that's what we're focussing on first - understanding the why. We'll get to the how and the what later.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Doing the right thing vs. doing what's required

I'm stuck in a bit of a strange position at the moment. My organisation are required to submit regular reports to funding organisations - and I don't think they're even close to up to scratch! If a junior PM submitted one of them to me for a programme I was running, I'd read the riot act!

Basically, it's simply a rehash of the project schedule (I said I'd do this, I did this)....and nothing else. No analysis of results, no qualitative review of the situation - pure stats. And the wrong stats at that. I remember reviewing one of these "reports" back in December and thinking - really? I'm sure this is going to get sent back with a load of questions. Apparently not....

And this brings us to my problem. I know it's wrong. We need to be able to do proper reporting, by which I mean we need to be able to measure our impact through the projects. At the moment, we can't do that - not even close. But (and it's a big but.....) the funding organisations don't seem to care. We say we're going to hold "12 sensitisation meetings" this month, we hold 12 meetings and they say "OK! Good! Well done! Carry on....."

I think I can change the behaviour here - it's a big challenge, but I'm up for it. At the same time, there are plenty of other challenges to be faced. I'm only one person and I've only got 9 months to make the maximum impact I can.

What's a volunteer to do? Answers on a postcard to the usual address.....

P.s. please don't send answers on postcards - none of the 3 letters I've been sent so far have actually turned up, so you'd waste the cost of a stamp. And a postcard.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Intellectual Capital – Use it or lose it

What makes an organisation valuable? In the world of consultancy it's the people it employs. Very little distinguishes one organisation from another. They all have access to the same systems, processes and resources. What enables one organisation to outbid the other is the people behind a bid. What makes one project succeed where another fails is the people.

Ok, that's pretty obvious. But what makes the big companies so powerful is the way they harness that. At IBM I have access to a huge back-catalogue of experience on Complex Systems Integration projects. That gives me a massive starting advantage when I come to work on a project.

Younger and smaller companies aren't always so good at this. The charity I'm working with at the moment has absolutely no processes to harness this at all. They have more pressing issues to resolve first, but further down the line it's something they can look to address.

What surprises me more is the lack of some system for storing the knowledge of all the volunteers in the country. There are hundreds of thousands of man-hours that is going missing here.

Let me put this into context. I'm here as an IT consultant. That's my primary role, but I'm already getting into general project management consultancy, that's fine as my role in IBM had progressed down that route. I'm pretty comfortable with the work I'm being asked to do there.

But I'm also being asked to think about putting a HR manual together. And help with writing funding requests. Now I'm out of my comfort zone. I have zero experience here. Now, I'm not completely incompetent, so I reckon I could come up with something that's not completely terrible here. It might even be better than something Srijan would have come up with on their own, but there's no guarantee.

However, I know for a fact that at the moment in India there are people with a huge range of experience in these matters. HR Consultants, people with a background in NGOs and raising funding. BUT I CAN'T FIND THEM. There is no official system for me to make contact with my fellow volunteers and get their advice. There's nowhere for me to upload my new IT strategy document, get people's thoughts on it, or download a sample HR document myself.

Every single volunteer out here is re-inventing the wheel on every single project. And that's a sad state of affairs. Luckily, the volunteers recognise this themselves. There was a Google Group set-up, which unfortunately Google is now phasing out, so I've created a Google Sites repository. It will have a document store, discussion board, contact list and useful links list. The sad thing is that this isn't provided for us. It's also country specific – I have no idea if the volunteers in the other countries have something they can use.

What does your company do about storing and, more importantly, making accessible it's intellectual capital? Can you easily get to the thoughts and deliverables of your companies top people? If not, you're probably letting a huge asset slip through your fingers and you aren't even aware of it....


I've just had probably the most depressing experience of my time in India. It's really upset me and I just need to get my thoughts out there. I'm cross-posting this as it applies to both my VSO work and my professional life.

The social development sector is growing. There is a definite move to a “more professional” way of working, with knowledge and skills from the private sector coming over the fence all the time. I'm a pretty obvious example of that. I'm trying to instil better project management and MIS processes into a tiny Indian NGO!

I think most of the time this can be seen as a good thing. Better rigour and transparency in these organisations should lead to benefits further down the line. Unfortunately not everything from the corporate sector is necessarily worth bringing across, and sometimes it is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

I met a man today, he works for another NGO. They appear to be very professional and passionate about the work they do (I won't be naming them, obviously). He wanted to talk to me about my background, then suddenly he asks me about Intellectual Capital. Now, first of all, my views on this are not mainstream. I recognise this. But one of the things he said I just flat out had to disagree with....he said “we have to protect our IC (intellectual capital).”

Sit back and think about this for a moment. This is a organisation who's vision statement (according to his business card) stands for “hope, tolerance and social justice” and over-coming poverty. He's talking about using intellectual property to prevent other organisations from using his ideas. Other organisations, i.e. competitors = other Not-For-Profit organisations. Other aid agencies. Other NGOs.

Now maybe I'm being a bit idealistic here, but I want my NGO to work with others. If they have a good idea, I want them to share it with as many people as possible. Not to do an Apple or a Sony and try to build a closed eco-system where no-one else has access to the market. First of all, I hate the idea of using IC to protect a business model in the first place. MySpace vs. Facebook shows you all you need to know about idea vs. implementation. But surely that principle goes completely out of the window in the development sector?

If I (as an NGO) come up with a great way of improving people's lives in India, surely I want as many organisations to know and to copy it all over India as possible? I don't want to patent the idea and force everyone to pay me for the idea or not use it at all! Surely that defeats the entire point of a development agency – we're working for the people we're trying to save, not the profits of shareholders!

I'm going to have to go to lunch with this man in 10 minutes. I just hope that I can get through the meal without offending him – he's from the funding agency of one of our projects! Hopefully he doesn't say anything ridiculous again – otherwise I'm in trouble!

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Importance of Strategy

Why do we do anything? Generally we've got an end result in mind. It's pretty unusual to do something just for the sake of it, right? Well, that's what I thought before I got here!

The organisation I work for have some really talented individuals. They're passionate about their raison d'etre and they know what they're doing once they get out there into the field. So why am I here? Well, let's just say that planning isn't exactly their speciality!

I was quite shocked at first, but after thinking about it, I can understand how they've gotten to this situation. The organisation is young – 10 years old. They've built themselves up fairly quickly to be running a number of projects at the same time, spread across the state of Jharkhand. As with most organisations, in their early days they will not have been picky about projects – in fact it has probably been a bit of “take whatever you can get”.

Now, some people are probably questioning that approach already. Well, in the UK I'd agree, it can be a dangerous tactic and lead to your organisation taking a direction you don't want. However, in India I can completely understand it. These people left relatively high-paid jobs to start an NGO, they had families and the organisation was created by a group of friends – none of them could afford it to fail. If funding was available, that equated to dinner on the table – not something to be turned down.

Today, it's a different story. The organisation is generally well-funded, certainly compared to its peers. Which leads me (in a rambling way) to my point. Strategy. They don't have one. They're still grabbing at any potential funding they hear about, with little regard to whether it really fits with what they want.

Case in point. An industrial company is running a project locally. They want to do their CSR bit and put out an EOI for bids on a project to promote literacy in the area. Now they want to cut the budget by 80% and the aim is now to enable people to sign their name, not be able to read/write. My opinion – this is a worthless exercise, it's a waste of our time and won't achieve anything sustainable or useful. It's now a small amount of funding and doesn't fit into any sort of long-term strategy for Srijan. In fact, it would probably harm our “brand” to be associated with this project. I'm recommending against the project.

This thought never occurred to them. They were looking at how they could cut costs to meet the new budget. 100% coverage was dropping to 40%. The “educators” were being replaced with cheaper alternatives. Teaching people how to read was being replaced with giving them cards with their name on to learn to copy. My organisation were compromising their principles simply to get some funding that they probably didn't even need.

This is the danger of not having a strategy. You lose track of what you're aiming to do. When you're putting together a proposal you need to ask yourself “does this fit to my strategy?” - if the answer isn't a resounding “Yes!” then this project probably isn't the right thing for your organisation.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Twitter and Trotsky (or why Stalin would have hated the Internet....)

I'm reading a book at the moment that I've been planning to read for a long time – The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I don't think I even realised what it was about, but it's just one that I've seen in the shops again and again and thought that I'd enjoy. So when I got some Amazon vouchers for the Kindle, it seemed like an obvious choice!

Anyway, it's a good book so far (get it from Amazon here if you're interested!), documenting the journals of a young boy growing up in Mexico who, through a series of events, ends up working for the group of people who shelter Trotsky in the late 1930's after he is expelled from the Soviet Union.

I studied history at GCSE and A-Level, but the Russian history that we examined tended to look more at Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev than Trotsky. I think there was a reference to him moving to Mexico for a while, before he's ultimately murdered (with a pick-axe if my memory serves me). Obviously I haven't reached that bit in The Lacuna yet ;-)

But what does this have to do with Twitter, I hear you ask? Well, in the section of the story I've just been reading, Trotsky is put on trial in Mexico. Up until this point, the dictatorship in Moscow has been able to fabricate charges and falsely accuse Trotsky of all kinds of crimes, most of them blatantly false (e.g. de-railing trains when he wasn't even in the country). It made me think – could that happen now?

We've just seen the power of Twitter with the Egyptian protests. Suppression of the press may still be possible, but it's now incredibly hard to a create a total blanket on information getting out of a country. Even turning off the Internet didn't help the Egyptian authorities. I firmly believe that this can only be a positive thing.

Here's a statistic for you - In India, 11% of people do not have an indoor toilet, but over 85% have access to a mobile phone. I imagine that figure is pretty representative of a number of other developing countries too – I remember even 5 years ago in Ghana this was the case. This prevalence of access to communications makes it so much easier to get information out of and around a country. All of which makes the suppression of “the press” so much harder. You can't just pay off a couple of people now – someone, somewhere, will call you out on it.

Zola (not the former Chelsea and Italy footballer...) “said that the mendacity of the press could be divided into two groups: the yellow press lies every day without hesitating. But others speak the truth on all inconsequential occasions, so they can deceive the public with the requisite authority when it becomes necessary.” - The Lacuna

I don't think in today's age of information freedom that this is anywhere near as true. Wikileaks, twitter, information finds a way to get out into the public domain and once it is there, no-one can stop it.

That can only be a good thing. Unless you're someone like Stalin....

Friday, 4 February 2011

Social Reward Scheme for Check-Ins

Ok, first of all, a hat-tip to Elle, who's original blog post on this got me thinking....

So, we have Facebook Places, which is about to get pretty huge I should imagine. In America they also have FourSquare and GoWalla. All of which allow you to check into venues. What's beginning to happen now is that organisations are able to offer deals based on your check-ins. Lovely.

But what if I want to be a good citizen – am I allowed to exchange this? This “gift” for want of a better word? If I go to Starbucks (ok, I'm a Costa boy, but same difference) and I get an offer of a free coffee, I should be able to pass that onto someone else, right? It's just a voucher at the end of the day...

So what I'm imagining is a marketplace of sorts. I go to Starbucks a certain number of times and because I'm a good Social Media pawn, I check-in lots and get an offer of free coffee. But....I'm also a society conscious SM pawn, so I want something good to come of my latte addiction. I add my “free” coffee to the marketplace. Could be an auction, could be set price, doesn't really matter. Someone else buys this voucher and gets their “free” coffee. Obviously the price would be less than the cost of buying the coffee directly.

So far, so blah. But, imagine the coffee is £1. The website takes a processing cut...whatever it needs to operate, etc. The rest goes to a charity – choice of the original SM pawn. Maybe some sort of link in with JustGiving?

I honestly can't see a problem here. The SM pawn gets to feel that they're doing some good, and all they need to do is check-in to a location they're already visiting. The buyer of the voucher gets some cheap coffee/sandwich/fluffy elephant – woohoo! The advertising organisation...well they potentially actually benefit even more. The original customer is a repeat customer and will keep coming back for the vouchers so they can donate more to charity. The new customer? Well they might not have come in before – there's potential there for a brand spanking new customer. They were already giving the voucher away, so that's a sunk cost...

So now you need to give people an incentive to give their vouchers away (and for others to buy them). Well, you could give away badges. Meh. Boring. Done it. But what about a leaderboard, not of everyone in the country. Not of everyone for that store, but your own personal leaderboard. Just you and your friends group? That's something I'd be interested in seeing. I don't give two hoots if Steve from Grimsby has donated £15,000 somehow, but if my mate Carl is doing better than me, I'm suddenly an interested man.

I don't know if this is something someone is already working on, or maybe there's a good reason it's not possible, but seems like an interesting experiment....

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Consultancy Business Model – Does it need reforming?

Consultancy is big business. I'm not just talking about IT Consulting, the sector I work in, but consultancy in general. Finance, marketing, IT, social media – the consultant is king. Consultancy firms charge huge fees to bring in their expertise, previous experience and support structures to help companies with new projects, restructure their organisation, cut costs or integrate new purchases.

I've only been working with Srijan Foundation for a couple of months, but I'm already wondering whether this business model is scalable. And for once I'm not talking about scaling up. How do you scale consultancy down to the smallest businesses and still make it relevant?

I want to point out straight away that I don't think big consultancy is perfect. Far from it. The charge rates for some people are far too high and there is a lot of wastage, but I think that is true for all large organisations and is unlikely to be a solvable issue. What I think is non-debatable though, is that there is no way a scaled down version of the same model would work at the lower end of the scale.

For one thing, the pricing model is all wrong. Small companies cannot and will not afford the luxury of paying for graduates learning their trade on the job. In large consultancy firms, these graduates are charged at 4x-5x times their cost, to recover the cost of their training. They are the “do-ers” while the higher grades are the decision makers. On smaller projects, the ability to “hide” these graduates becomes much lower.
Large consultancy firms also have large fixed costs to cover. HR, finance, legal, etc. all projects have to contribute to these departments and the associated costs of these rise proportionately.

On large projects there is high consultant turnover and members of the same team have often not worked together before...all introducing additional costs.

Is it surprising then, that most small businesses either forego the luxury of consultants altogether, or simply employ one individual on a short-term basis. While I'm sure these individuals are extremely capable, they cannot possibly have the range of resources and skills that a larger firm could.

So with this in mind, I'm wondering if there is a middle-ground. A small, lean group of consultants (all 5yrs+ into their careers) who work in teams of 3-5 at a time. Projects would be short (3-6 months only) and supremely focussed. The smaller size of the organisation should lower fixed costs allowing the charge rates to be significantly lower than the “Big Consultancy” firms – bringing them more into line with the spending power of smaller organisations. The profit margins on these projects can also be lower than required in the bigger firms.

The central resources, such as finance, etc. will work across all projects, instead of having one per account, allowing costs to be cut there too. The nature of the work reduces the need for large office spaces and the whole venture could realistically be run as a virtual organisation.

There is undoubtedly likely to be an element of “cookie cutter” solutions about these projects. While in larger firms the processes tend to be documented and then ignored, in smaller enterprises these processes are either non-existent or unable to be described.Hence the requirement for short, decisive and focussed projects.
Partnerships with other firms, such as recruitment, market research, etc. would enable cross-selling of services where those are required and outside the domain of the consultants.

I don't know if this is feasible, or even already being done, but I think it's an interesting idea. There must be thousands of small businesses looking for “expert” advice but unable to afford the huge cost of an IBM or a PWC (and let's face it, the profit from these projects wouldn't cover one of their expense bills!). At the same time, the “lone-ranger” consultant model seems to lack a number of the benefits of a consultancy firm.

Something for me to consider when I get back from India ;-) Comments and thoughts, as always, very welcome...

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Social Entrepreneurs – driving the next wave of Not-For-Profits?

I've been working on a number of proposals for new projects recently. The organisation I'm on secondment to are working overtime at the moment on trying to secure funding for a whole range of different schemes and I've been right in the middle of it.

I've been amazed at how unstructured the process is here. I'm not sure whether this is a cultural thing, or whether it is an NGO thing, or if it's completely singular to the organisation I'm working with, but the approach is completely back to front at the moment. The good thing is that they're very open to new ideas and I'm already seeing some good new behaviours from the leadership team in terms of taking on board my ideas.

It's made me think about this whole issue though...does the social development sector as a whole suffer from a lack of skills in this area. It wouldn't surprise me – what makes someone a good fund-raiser and able to develop social strategies does not necessarily make that same person a good project manager.

I'm sure that there are people who spend their whole life in NGOs and the Charitable Sector who have never been given training on running a project, creating a budget or writing a proposal. And why should they have? I'm not saying that Big Corporations are the only ones who know how to do that – they're not. Unfortunately though, more often than not, it's someone from a Big Corp. or similar who's holding the purse strings, so being able to put something in front of them that they understand is vital in order to get access to funding – the life blood of any charitable organisation.

Which brings me to a term I heard today for the first time – social entrepreneur. I think it's a fantastic thought. The idea that there are entrepreneurs out there, business people, who understand how to make things happen, working to improve society. Yes, you might not find yourself amassing a personal fortune of $7bn like Mark Zuckerberg, but let's face it, if you're reading this post, chances are that's not your aim anyway!

So, social entrepreneurs – let's have more of them please. Let's take the lessons we've learnt as graduates of Big Corp. Plc. and apply them to the problems facing society today. Let's start our own Not-For-Profits and run them like businesses. Let's make them the best NFPs they can be and in the process maybe, just maybe, we'll make the world a better place at the same time.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

IT Consulting when IT isn't the problem

For those of you who don't know, I'm currently in the Indian state of Jharkhand, in the North of the country, working for a tiny Foundation based here. Ostensibly I'm here as an “MIS Officer”, but I'm basically taking on the role of “Consultant” - unsurprisingly given my background.

What's interesting for me to consider is how much of what we do tends to take an IT flavour, when in reality the underlying problem is not one of technology – that's just the solution we tend to use. If the only thing you have is a hammer, etc.....

Case in point – the charity I'm working with expected me to come in and provide them with an “MIS System”. Ask them to expand on this and they don't really know what they need. It has become pretty apparent that a one-system-to-fix-them-all approach is absolutely not the right answer here. For a start, I'd be significantly concerned about supportability once I've left!

My approach at the moment is to try and bring up their general IT skills. I'm not looking at specific problems yet, I'm not even really doing anything with MIS. What I want is to generate a culture where their employees are really thinking about what they want to do with the data they are collecting and then try to find a way of doing that. This isn't a technology problem – it's a people problem. And that is in no way a slight against the people I'm working with – they're great people who have just never had any exposure to this type of work before.

It's a lesson I hope to be able to take into my work when I return to the UK. Possibly easier said than done – but surely it's worth, every once in a while, taking a step back and asking the question “is this really a tech issue?”

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Knowing what you want

I work in consultancy full-time back in the UK, so I'm fairly used to organisations who aren't entirely sure what they want from me. Normally it's one of two situations:

  • They want a system that will do X, Y and Z, while solving global warming, world peace and finding a cure for AIDS, and they've got a budget less than my local hairdresser spends on styling-mousse. Oh, and if you could finish it a week ago, that would be peachy....
  • You're [insert name of massive, multi-national consultancy firm here] – you tell us what we should be doing. That's what we're paying you for!
Even those two situations are fairly easy for us to deal with. Scenario 1 obviously requires an analysis of what is actually possible, but at least the X, Y and Z represent some sort of end-goal that the organisation is aspiring towards. We may not be able to deliver all of that (obviously budget is another thing entirely) but we can start them on the journey.

Scenario 2 is much more difficult, but the strength of working for a multi-national like I do is the past portfolio of work – the “memory” we have of what has worked before in such-and-such situations. This gives us something to build from. Plus, the client invariably knows what it *doesn't* want - so if you get it wrong, you soon find out!

But what about the situation where the organisation you're working with doesn't know what they want (or thinks they do, but when put on the spot is completely unable to articulate it)? What do you do in that situation?

Well, that's the situation I find myself in here. I'm in a culture I don't know, in an industry I barely have any knowledge of, with an organisation looking for “MIS” - without really knowing what they mean by that....

So I'm starting from scratch. I'm trying to assess exactly what goes on in their daily business and basically doing some “first principles” analysis. There's no other way to do it. Sometimes you don't get it offered to you on a plate – a ready-made set of requirements all nicely laid out and categorised for you.

However, I don't think that this situation should be any different to normal. As consultants we should approach every job like this – reflecting on what it is exactly that the client needs and taking the time at the start to agree on what that is. Ultimately this is the only way that you end up delivering on your requirements – and isn't that what we're all striving for in the end?