Service, motivation and collaboration

The other day my wife was out shopping with our three year-old daughter and popped into our local high street  branch of a large national grocer retailer.

When she came to pay, she noticed that alongside the usual array of sweets and chocolate bars by the checkouts, was quite an extensive range of painkillers and other medicines.

All over-the-counter products, but all on display at the perfect height for a three year-old to mess with.

Now, anyone who’s been shopping with a young child knows what it’s like: the moment you take your eyes off them they’ve either disappeared off down the aisles or they’ve levered open a jar of something-or-other for quick snack.

And when the time comes to pay and you’re distracted trying to find your loyalty card, dig out the right cash, or key in your pin number, that’s the perfect time for them to get up to mischief.

All this considered my wife thought stocking medicines so low down in a part of the story where young children could get their hands on them was a dubious idea.

So she decided to raise it with one of the store staff.

The response she got was a blank face, a shrug and “it comes down from Head Office.”

She mentioned it to a couple of her friends with children the same age and they’d noticed the same thing.

So when she next visited the store she asked to speak to the manager.

The response she got this time was pretty much the same as before: a shrug and “well, yeah, it comes down from Head Office, so that’s where we have to display them.”

I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

To be clear, my wife wasn’t expecting the store to remove the products from sale or change its stock lay out there and then.

All she wanted was to know that her comment was being taken seriously and would be followed-up with some kind of response.

I’ve not named the shop in this case because I think it would be unfair to and, call me cynical, but I suspect that you could walk into one of a number of large store chains and have a similar experience.

Some of the most successful and truly innovative grocery retailers in the world are borne out of the UK, leading the way in everything from supply and logistics to customer insight and intelligence.

But as they’ve grown – as with any business – the lines of communication within the organisation have been stretched and the ability of the people at the front line of customer service to deliver on the promise of the brand, weakened.

They feel distant from the heart of the organisation and somewhat disconnected from the brand.

I suspect some of this was at play in my wife’s experience.

I could say that the answer is technology, and to some extent it is – collaboration platforms can allow workers to connect with the wider business, be recognised and rewarded, and appreciate that their actions and contributions make a difference.

But arguably more important is the cultural and structural change that encourage workers to adopt new behaviours and recognise the possibilities in doing so.

In their management classic, “In Search of Excellence”, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman note that change happens when “one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality”.

The reciprocal benefits of collaboration. People at all levels brought closer together and distances reduced.

The retail environment is increasingly competitive and customer service is a key differentiator for brands wanting to build competitive advantage.

From internal collaboration to external customer engagement – and systems that bridge the two – there’s some truly exciting work taking place across all kinds of businesses.

I look forward to seeing more of it coming to fruition in store – for my benefit and for the guys on the shop floor.

Art and media innovation

Water lillies by Claude Monet. National Gallery, London

Water lillies by Claude Monet. National Gallery, London


When I started at Edelman, I was lucky enough to be based just around the corner from the National Gallery in London.

Sometimes, when I needed to clear my head, I’d take a wander down there to find some inspiration.

I never had the luxury of enough time to roam the halls for too long, so I’d usually pick a picture, sit down and focus on it for a while.

I suppose it was a kind of ‘creative meditation’.

But it worked, and more often than not I’d go back to the office feeling fresher and reinvigorated.

The ‘restorative power of art’ in action.

Only a few weeks ago the National Gallery changed its policy on photography.

Now visitors are free to snap any work anywhere in the Gallery, as long as they don’t use flash; it tends to bug other visitors.

The Gallery team talked about their experiences so far at a Social Media Week event they hosted a couple of weeks ago.

So far the new policy has proved to be a success, both in helping people get more out of their Gallery visits and raising the profile of the artworks through online sharing.

After the Social Media Week presentation I took a proper tour round and saw lots of people on cameras, phones and tablets snapping away.

They were all still taking time to appreciate the paintings and the new policy didn’t seem to be disturbing the flow of people through the halls.

The art is strong enough to speak for itself and command direct attention.

But walking round the Gallery made me realise the tremendous amount of media innovation on display and the power of visual storytelling.

Particularly the earlier works on display – painted at a time when literacy levels in Europe were low and access to media rare for those outside the elite classes – really show how choosing a simple subject, captured with plenty of nuance, can captivate an audience.

As technique developed in perspective, light, colour, texture and so on, you also see how painters adapted to heighten the impact of their work.

This week, North Korea has been in the news a great deal due to the conspicuous absence of Kim Jong-un from public life.

A bit of an odd link back to my tour of the National Gallery, but it reminded me that this is one of my favourite ever infographics:

Korea at night. From

Korea at night. From

It’s a photograph of the Korean peninsula taken at night from space.

Like the paintings in the National Gallery, it’s a simple, powerful subject that tells a million stories about the states of North and South Korea in a single image.

While I was in the Gallery I tried to get a snap of someone photographing a picture; it was tricky to do and I probably looked a bit like a stalker attempting it, so I gave up.

So instead, you’ve got some Water lillies.

MBA lessons #1

Back in January I promised to publish some regular posts about progress on my MBA in the hope that they would be useful for other potential students.

It’s now September and so far I haven’t published a thing, but I make no apologies.

The course is demanding and to do well and get the most value from the learning experience takes a significant time commitment.

So in the competition between study, work and family time this post has sadly been the loser until now, but hopefully I can make amends with some reflections on the first nine months.

So far I’ve completed modules on accounting, economics, organisational behaviour, and I’m now studying operations management, marketing and statistical modelling and analysis.

The curriculum is broad, but it also goes into quite some depth on each topic, so the learning experience is comprehensive. As you would expect in a business qualification though, there is an emphasis on developing the ability to apply the knowledge gained in a professional context, with plenty of academic rigour thrown in which you can read about below.

The experience has ranged from frustrating, difficult and stressful, to thought-provoking, stimulating and plain good fun. Overall however it’s been a hugely rewarding experience so far, and long may that continue.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

1. Plan your time: Whether you’re studying full-time or part-time, the work schedule can be extremely demanding. Especially, for part-time students like me who are trying to balance study with a full-time job, falling behind is easy to do and when that happens it can be difficult to catch-up. The way to avoid this happening is to begin the course with a really clear time planner that enables you to plan your study schedule for the semester ahead. I’ve seen these break the workload down week-by-week and even day-by-day, depending on the student’s situation and working style. It can also be worthwhile to specify when you will make time for lesson reading and note-taking, and when you’ll attempt tasks and exercises as it’s when you actually apply the material that the learning really sinks in.

2. Keep practicing: Whether you’re being assessed by exam or coursework, completing practice exercises as you work through the course makes a big difference to the quality of your learning. The benefits in an exam situation are pretty obvious: you’ll be able to recall information, apply concepts and construct a comprehensive, logical answer much more quickly if you’ve had plenty of practice. When it comes to writing coursework, if you’ve already had experience applying the concepts you’re being asked to demonstrate in a lesson exercise, you’ll find applying them in the final assignment comes much more naturally. Crucially, you’ll also be more adept and linking different topics together, giving you a much more sophisticated grasp of the topic as a result.

3. Develop your style: The MBA course aims to give skills and knowledge you can apply in a professional context. Nevertheless, it’s an academic qualification and so the assignments you produce need to demonstrate the appropriate level of academic rigour to succeed. This means not only sharpening your skills of analysis and interpretation to determine the best business recommendation to make on a problem you’ve been set, but also justifying your recommendations with solid academic research, theory and evidence, and thinking broadly and reflectively about the problems posed to you so you can arrive at a truly nuanced answer. If you’re studying a topic in which you have some direct professional experience, it’s easy to forget the second part of this. Years of experience in a particular field mean that often we instinctively ‘know’ the right answer, but we forget how to set out our justification. It’s this skill an academic course forces you to reawaken.

4. Don’t get spooked: Particularly on part-time programmes with an emphasis on self-study, it’s easy to get spooked by the progress of others in your cohort. While you might be feeling satisfied one minute that you’ve completed Lesson 4 of Accounting, the next you’re in a state of dismay when you discover a fellow student is up to Lesson 8! As I quickly discovered, everyone has their own individual style of learning and works at a different pace. Some people like to study several topics simultaneously, others prefer to take a more sequential approach. Some prefer to complete the reading for an entire topic before attempting practice questions, while others like to blend the two. It’s your course and you need to work at a pace and in a style that’s right for you. Time planning, once again, is important here, but so too is reflecting on how you learn and focussing on the techniques that will get you the skills and knowledge you’re looking to gain.

There are plenty more lessons I’ve learned from the past nine months and no doubt many more to come.

As I begin to focus my mind on the end-of-semester exams happening in December, I’ll share some further thoughts  on my experiences so far.

If you’re thinking of embarking on an MBA and you have any questions, then please do let me know and I’ll think about how to cover them in my next post.

Cut outs #8

Lots of data and research today.

According to eMarketer it’s the simple things that matter for Smartphone buyers in the UK.

Meanwhile, in the US mobile video continues to rise, particularly amongst younger audiences.

Looking beyond mobile, a study by Leader Networks suggests there is confusion between social media marketing and social business. I don’t know the basis of the study, but I can believe this is the case.

And finally, I always find a great way to develop an idea or to encourage myself to think more creatively about a problem I’m trying to solve is to visualise it.

Grant Snider at Incidental Comics has written a comic about where ideas come from.

I think it has a simple, inventive, visual style that gives it great impact.

And most of all, makes it memorable.

Cut outs #7

Today I’m on a training and skills theme.

First off we have Apple University which apparently uses Picasso to study product design.

I like Picasso’s approach to creativity.

He said “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Preserving and nurturing that fresh appreciation and wonder at the world we have as children is essential to being creative.

To switch focus from art to literature, the Wuthering Bytes tech festival is happening later this week up in the Pennines.

The line-up looks great and it’s always good to see technology events taking place across the country.

And finally, if Social Business is your thing, the IBM Social Business User Group has made all the sessions from its recent Social Connections IV conference available to download, so feast your ears!


Struggling with ‘Social Media’

I’ve got a confession; I don’t like the phrase ‘Social Media.’
That might sound odd coming from someone who works in digital communications and marketing, but I find it too reductive.
The trouble is, it implies some media are ‘social’ while others aren’t.
And I don’t think it’s that simple.
Since the creation of the Internet we’ve seen so many technologies emerge and at such a rapid rate that sometimes it feels like a bewildering blur.
But there’s one thing that’s stayed the same, one theme that’s been consistent throughout.
At each and every step of the way the Internet has become more conversational.

So what does that mean?

Back in 1999 a Turkish guy called Mahir became famous for launching his own website.
The rough English (not that my Turkish is up to much) and exuberant greeting (“I kiss you!!!!!”) certainly helped, but part of his sudden popularity was down to the sheer novelty of someone taking the time to build a website to meet new people.
And he wasn’t just famous in Turkey or Europe, but all over the world.
He even got parodied on David Letterman and was allegedly the inspiration for Sacha Baron Cohen’s character, Borat.
Not bad going for a bit of HTML.

Just imagine that happening today though.

Sure, new Internet ‘memes’ pop up all the time, but whether it’s on a social network or a blogging platform we can create a pretty sophisticated web presence for ourselves and start connecting with people in seconds.
And if you believe the stats about online participation, most of us do.
The technology might have changed, but the motivation has stayed the same: make connections and form relationships.

So how does this apply to business?

Relationships are the basis of business.
The relationship you build with a potential client enables you to seal the deal.
The relationship you build with your marketplace builds your brand and attracts customers.
And the relationship you maintain with your customers encourages them to come back to you and keep buying.
They might even help you out by telling you how to make the business even better.
If you’re ready and willing to listen.
But a relationship isn’t a one-off transaction.
It takes time to nurture, cultivate and sustain.
And that’s the opportunity online.
You can have more relationships and keep track of the value they are delivering to you and providing to other people.

And that’s why ‘social’ is important.
Not because it’s a new shiny gadget, but because it’s part of the fabric of society and the fabric of the Web.

Cut outs #6

This one’s about doin’ it for the kids.

See, I even dropped my “g” to sound authentic.


First off we have possibly the best car rental scheme ever from Europcar and Mattel (PSFK). Personally, I’d hire a Hot Wheels over a Ford Focus any day, although I’d probably struggle for luggage space.

I’d like to give the new Lego Ideas platform a try too. Maybe there’s a Hot Wheels – Lego mash-up idea taking shape out there…

A little more seriously, kids are disappearing from social media (Cliff Watson, Medium). Or they’re not. They’re just finding their own spaces to play.

And when we grow up? It doesn’t get any less bewildering or scary. We can only open ourselves up to experience (David Weinberger, Medium).