Everybody’s talking about … Leverage

30 May 2014 by in Business and finance

For many defenders of the English language this poor, unsuspecting word is the grandfather of nouns converted into verbs for the convenience of business. But should we allow it to continue to be pimped out to the dim and lazy or at least try to rehabilitate it as a noun?

Where did it come from?
It was Archimedes who said, ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.’ Archimedes was an ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer and inventor credited with the explanation of the lever and the invention of a screw pump still used today – the Archimedes screw.

Clearly, he was a smart guy and he’d probably be spinning in his grave like a ceiling fan if he knew his wise observation had been corrupted by mediocre business executives intent on looking more competent than they really are.

When it made its way into business speak is unknown, and who we should blame for it is equally obscure.

But what does it mean?
Leverage is used to imply an assisted or additional advantage. In the same way that Archimedes could move something immovable with the help of a strategically positioned lever, business believes it can move profit upward by a strategically positioned ‘leveraged’ advantage. Or at least the executives in question believe a rousing speech on leveraging assets might help.

get some leverageIn many ways it’s a tautology like ‘added bonus’ or ‘free gift’. A bonus is by definition added or extra so the addition of added is meaningless. A gift is by definition free so the addition of free is unnecessary. Using leverage to explain the exploitation of a strategic or tactical advantage in business is also meaningless and unnecessary because by definition that’s what business is supposed to be doing in the first place. If a business has a nifty IT system, a patented design or particularly smart engineers surely it would be plain stupid not to take advantage of those things.

That said, leverage is also used as a specific finance term for any technique to multiply gains. Also known as gearing, it usually involves borrowing money to buy additional assets in the hope those assets will yield more profit than the cost of borrowing the money. Obviously this doesn’t always pan out so the losses rather than gains are often multiplied.

This dichotomy of meaning leads to the utterly ridiculous possibility of leveraging the leverage!

Where will I find leverage used?
This particular gem of business jargon is extremely versatile and can be found in meetings, reports and presentations across business, from finance (where it may actually be a meaningful term) to marketing, strategy and even shareholder meetings. It needs to be stamped out.

For example, when a CEO addresses a shareholder meeting and expresses his intention to, ‘leverage our significant investment in IT infrastructure across all the business units to drive profits and increase market share’, rather than nodding enthusiastically at this gibberish the shareholders should throw a few eggs and respond, ‘well I should hope so, otherwise why make the significant investment in the first place!’

How can I leverage my advantage?
The ‘beauty’ of the word leverage and the reason it is so popular in business is that it sounds good but means very little. It can be used to replace just about any activity verb.  And, like so much of the worst business jargon it’s passive. It’s therefore easy to see why it’s wheeled out so often.

So if you have a report to write but you’ve not really done what you were supposed to do by the time you were supposed to have done it then ‘leverage’ is a fantastic little word that can get you off the hook. If you are ‘leveraging a project’, the reader has no way of knowing whether you’ve barely started it, almost finished it or palmed it off to someone else who is ignoring it! It’s particularly useful for speculative documents such as business plans and project proposals because it’s so vague. Plus it’s almost always accompanied by the unspecified ‘we’ not the specified ‘I’, thus enabling its user to abdicate all responsibility or accountability for the actual leveraging.

As a result of these special obfuscatory qualities the word leverage is incredibly useful for corporate minions eager to look good but do as little as humanly possible. It allows for non specific, passive inference of action occurring without saying what that action is, who is taking that action or when said action will be completed, and therefore implied value realised. In practical terms it allows subordinates to report on progress while still allowing the realities of a project to actually run the project. So much so that if you see a report, update or article that contains the word leverage you can pretty much guarantee that nothing is happening or that whatever is happening is happening a great deal slower than anyone could have thought possible.

Unless you are specifically talking about financial leverage or borrowing money to capitalise on an opportunity that could increase value then avoid the term. At the very least ‘leverage’ should remain a noun (as in ‘to apply leverage’) and not be pimped out as a passive pseudo-verb (as in ‘we are leveraging our infrastructure’). And whatever you do don’t do what one company did in 2001 when it made people redundant and told them the business was ‘leveraging their synergies’.

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Everybody’s talking about … User Experience (UX)

23 May 2014 by in Business and finance

There are some business phrases that seem to burst on the scene from nowhere and get used by everyone. It’s still unclear whether UX will find a permanent place in business vernacular or sink without a trace.

Where did it come from?
Donald Norman, an academic in the field of cognitive science, design and usability is thought to have coined the term in the mid 1990s, although his definition of the user experience was not the same as the definition commonly used today. These days it’s bandied about in just about every industry although its origins were firmly planted in technology and manufacturing.

But what does it mean?
So what is it? Basically it’s how someone feels about using a product or service. In days gone by our appreciation of a product or service was largely limited to the functionality of the product. Did it work? Did it break down a lot? When things went wrong was a company representative available to help put things right? Did it look good?

Today the user experience still incorporates issues of functionality and performance but includes a holistic (oops, sorry – there’s another word that’s been hijacked by the business world) perspective on how a person feels about using the product or service. The focus has therefore moved past whether or not the thing is fit for purpose and is increasingly focused on pleasure, enjoyment and value as well as performance.

Where will I find UX used?
User experience can be found in every nook and cranny of business – from the service sector to manufacturing. On one hand it’s really another example of business trying to look über-smart by stating the obvious. Most people want to like the products they buy, they want to enjoy using them and they want them to add genuine value to their lives, and common sense alone confirms that this interpretation is not just down to functionality. On the other hand it is quite useful – especially around product design.

Think for a moment about Heinz tomato ketchup. Whether you agree with the sentiment that there really is only one tomato sauce or not it’s a useful analogy for making the distinction between designing the product and designing the experience. The product designer created the old fashioned glass bottles that required a lot of ‘bottom slapping’ or a fair amount of wiggling about with a knife to get any sauce out the bottle – especially as it began to run low. The user experience designer on the other hand was the person who designed the flip top, anti-drip squeeze bottle that sits on its lid and provides a continuous, mess-free supply of sauce for your burgers.

It’s a focus on user experience that creates smart, useful innovations that make you think, ‘Wow why did it take so long for anything to think of that!’

user experienceWhat’s the UX for my company?
Any business that is committed to keeping its customers happy and loyal needs to consider the user experience and its ability to deliver value and a user experience that is appreciated by those customers.

In relation to your products or services do you even know what your customers value the most? There are five main aspects of usability that affect whether or not your user has an enjoyable, ‘relationship enhancing’ experience with your product or whether they want to smash it to smithereens with a hammer!

When considering your product or service ask yourself:

  1. How easy is it to learn and use? Generally speaking the quicker the user can learn how to use the product the better the user experience.
  2. How efficient is it? Does the product or service deliver what it was designed to deliver with minimal effort on the part of the user?
  3. How memorable is it? If the user doesn’t use your product or service for a while, how easy is it to remember how?
  4. How effective is it? Is the product or service error free? Or if an error occurs are they quickly rectifiable?
  5. How satisfied are users with your product or service? Do they like using it or is it a chore? Design faults that may seem minimal can quickly become a source of frustration and irritation that can decimate user experience.

Don’t underestimate the impact and importance of user experience and make sure you monitor social media and online chat about your product experience so that you can use that feedback to improve UX, performance and customer satisfaction.  Remember happy users tell their friends and family about your product and services and unhappy users tell anyone who will listen!

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Mosquitoes: banish the bloodsuckers with helpful herbal remedies

21 May 2014 by in Lifestyle

Finally the weather seems to be warming up, but just as the rest of us are merrily digging out or shorts and flip-flops the newspapers decide they need to put a stop to our fun. Apparently mosquitoes are becoming increasingly prevalent in urban areas (it’s our water-conserving water butts that are to blame it would seem). So how can you avoid getting bitten and what can you do about it if you’re unfortunate enough to be feasted upon by one of these pesky biters?

Herbal expert Barbara Griggs notes that if your bedroom isn’t mosquito-proofed (e.g. with a screen or a mosquito net), you’ll need to wear an effective repellent. Many people dislike deet-based ones because of the smell or the harsh chemicals. You can buy a natural, delicious-smelling herbal moisturiser called Alfresco, which contains a range of essential oils formulated by a clever lady who once worked at London’s Chelsea Physic Garden and passed rigorous testing at the London School of Tropical Medicine. Numbers of film stars working in bug-ridden locations have sworn by it – including Mel Gibson when filming Braveheart in the midge-ridden moors of Scotland.

Mosquito_BiteThe essential oil of lavender works both as repellent and bite-soother: a few drops on your pillow or in a burner will repel the mozzies, and you can apply it neat to bites and stings. (If you’re off on holiday, by the way, that bottle of lavender oil should be wrapped up tight in cling film before packing unless you want your entire holiday wardrobe to smell of lavender.)

Infinite Ideas’ armoury of natural mosquito-banishing substances also includes products containing citronella. Derived from a type of lemongrass, products made using this repellent include candles, incense sticks and body lotions. Not only does it smell pleasant, it’s efficacy has even been proved in scientific studies. Just remember not to apply the essential oil neat to your skin – put a few drops in a neutral base oil such as almond before massaging it on to exposed areas.
Most important of all though – enjoy the summer!

Helpful Herbs

Everybody’s talking about … core competency

16 May 2014 by in Business and finance

In the second of an ongoing series of explorations of key business ideas we investigate a much-abused and little understood term. Core competency is one of those over-used business phrases that often sneak out in high level meetings or when someone is trying to look a little more interesting than they really are. But is it useful or is it just stating the obvious?

Where did it come from?

The phrase core competency was coined by Coimbatore Krishnarao Prahalad, more commonly known as C. K. Prahalad (for obvious reasons) and Gary Hamel – both US based management ‘gurus’ and business authors. It was first referenced and described in a 1990 article they published in the Harvard Business Review called ‘The Core Competence of the Corporation.’

Both Hamel and Prahaled have been consistently regarded by major business publications such as Business Week, The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine as amongst the most influential business thinkers in the world.

But what does it mean?

According to Prahalad and Hamel core competency is a concept in management theory that relates to the specific attributes or factors that a business considers as central to the way it operates. A core competency is only a core competency when it meets three criteria:

  1. It’s not easily replicated by competitors.
  2. It can be widely used and re-deployed for many products and markets.
  3. It contributes to the customer’s experienced benefits and the value of the product or service.

appleCore competencies are particular strengths relative to the competition which provide added value in the eyes of the customer. They can relate to anything from technical expertise to processes and procedures to strong working relationships to innovation to customer loyalty. For example Apple’s user interface is a core competency. People who use Apple products love that they are intuitive and easy to use. So much so that people who are converted to Apple rarely leave Apple. Even though the products have their faults (such as low battery life) and are significantly more expensive than the competition their customers are passionate and loyal about Apple, something that’s not easy to replicate. Their intuitive operating system and user interface also translates across product categories and markets and definitely contribute to the customer’s experienced benefits and perceived value of the products.

Where will I find ‘core competency’ used?

Those who actually know what it means and understand Prahalad and Hamel’s definition use it to describe the ‘collective learning across the corporation’. This collective learning is only possible with outstanding cross-functional cooperation, and a willingness to coordinate and integrate diverse production skills and multiple technologies. Few companies are likely to create world leadership in more than five or six fundamental core competencies.

Those who don’t know what it means but like to throw the term around to impress people and look more knowledgeable than they are often simply use it to describe something a company is particularly good at. But being good at something does not necessarily mean that it’s a core competency. It’s only a core competency when it manifests into core products that serve as a link between the competency and the end user. For example 3M enjoy a core competency in the manufacture of substrates, coatings and adhesives that manifest as a product range that is being added to and developed all the time.

Basically core competency is just Darwin’s theory of evolution but applied to business. As a business grows and evolves it should get better at certain things that help it survive. Those evolutionary improvements that ensure the survival of the fittest should emerge from the collective efforts of the business not just from the individual strengths of the people in the business. That way, they are ‘baked into’ the business. The reality however is often very different: the core competencies within a business are, frequently, actually the core competencies of certain individuals within the business. When those individuals leave, so does the competency.

What’s my core competency?

Most businesses don’t operate around core competencies – they operate around business silos or a portfolio of independent businesses. As a result there is little incentive to share knowledge, experience and competency between the units. Prahalad and Hamel suggest this is an error and actively stops business from developing a significant competitive advantage.

Plus they argue that unless a business understands its core competency it is in danger of losing it without even realising what it’s lost until it’s too late. For example US manufacturers divested themselves of their TV manufacturing business in the 1970s because they believed the market was mature and low cost imports from Asia would render the sector obsolete. In doing so they lost their core competency in video which later handicapped them when everything went digital. Motorola divested itself of its semiconductor DRAM business at 256kb only later to realise they had divested a core competency in electronic data storage and were unable to get back in to the 1Mb market alone. Had they recognised their core competency and the time it took to develop and build it they would have made better strategic choices.

To identify what your core competencies are or could be you need to answer the following questions:

  1. Is there any part of your manufacture or delivery of your product or service that strongly influences your customer’s willingness to buy? If not it’s probably not a core competency.
  2. Is the value-adding competency difficult to imitate?
  3. Is the competency relevant and useful across different products and markets?

As a strategic exercise it is essential to identify and foster core competencies. Not only will this knowledge help direct resources and assist decision making but it will also help to avoid expensive strategic mistakes such as those experienced by the US manufacturers and Motorola.

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Everybody’s talking about … Big Data

8 May 2014 by in Business and finance

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for a few years you will have heard of Big Data. But is it all hype and hyperbole or will it really change the world?

Where did it come from?

The term Big Data was probably coined by John Mashey, chief scientist at Silicon Graphics. In the 90s if you were a Hollywood producer looking for cutting edge special effects or an intelligence agency looking for state of the art video surveillance you went to Silicon Graphics. The company was dealing with a huge amount of a new type of data and Mashey frequently gave talks on how this data would change the future, including one with the snappy title ‘Big Data and the Next Wave of Infrastress’.

Big Data gathered traction, especially in tech circles (i.e. people who actually knew what ‘infrastress’ meant). For the rest of us – it took a little longer. In 2012 Big Data burst out into the mainstream – it was a featured topic at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The US federal Government announced $200 million in funding for Big Data research programs and even the satirical cartoon Dilbert had something to say about Big Data.

big_dataBut what does it mean?

Basically Big Data is the term used for the collection of very large, often very complex data sets that can now be analysed in non-traditional ways to provide insights that were unheard of a decade ago.

To give you an idea of just how big, Big Data is … if you take all the data that was created in the world from the dawn of civilization until the year 2010, the same amount of data will soon be generated every minute.

This explosion of data has come from advances in technology. The smart phone in your pocket is now more powerful than your desktop computer was just a few years ago and is capturing data all the time, including where you are (via GPS sensors). Whenever you are connected to the internet, via your phone, tablet or computer, data is being gathered about what are you doing – playing an app, listening to music, using the internet or social media. Every time you share a photo, tweet, update your Facebook page, shop online, walk past CCTV, call a recorded customer service line, send an email, use an e-reader, watch Netflix or upload video you’re adding to Big Data. There are 30 billion pieces of content uploaded to Facebook and eight years of video uploaded to YouTube every day! In fact there are now nearly as many bits of information in the digital universe as there are stars in the actual universe.

But it’s not the volume of data that is the potential game changer – it’s our ability to store, combine and analyze it.

Where will I find Big Data being used?

Big Data is everywhere and its impact can be witnessed in everything from sport to health and fitness to medicine to entertainment to crime prevention and business.

There are now smart TVs that remember your viewing preferences and use face recognition to ensure children can’t access age inappropriate material. Book e-readers are gathering data about your reading habits. There are wearable devices that track your activity, calorie intake and heart rate to help keep you healthy. You can get smart carpet which can raise the alarm if your elderly mother doesn’t make her usual morning cuppa. You can even get a smart nappy which will send a tweet when the nappy needs changing! Obviously a swift sniff of the offending backside would do just as well but there are sensors in the nappy which can check the contents for signs of infection. Sensors in a baby’s mattress which measure breathing and heart rate could herald the end of cot death.

Not only are we gathering information and data that we simply didn’t have access to before but vastly improved computer processing power and complex analytics is allowing us to combine large, messy and previously unconnected data sets to find out everything from the bizarre to the life saving. For example the US retailer Wal-Mart combined in-house sales data with external weather data and discovered that the sale of Pop-Tarts jumped as soon as there was a hurricane warning! No one knows why but the beauty of Big Data is that you don’t need to know why because the data does the talking. Now Wal-Mart move the Pop-Tart display to the front of the shop when a storm is approaching and Pop-Tart sales skyrocket. The FBI has also combined data from social media, CCTV cameras, phone calls and texts to track down criminals and predict the next terrorist attack. There are apps that alert police to gunfire in real time. It’s also now possible, based on their twitter posts, to predict which mothers will suffer from postnatal depression. Professional sport is using big data analytics to find talent and improve performance and politicians are using it to figure out where they need to campaign to win elections.

Can I use Big Data?

It is easy to be overwhelmed by Big Data especially when you consider that most businesses don’t even use the small data they currently have access to never mind harnessing the potential of Big Data.

There is already a backlash as people increasingly question just how useful it’s really going to be. It’s certainly true that most businesses will never be able to compete with the Big Data giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google. Luckily they don’t need to.

The trick for turning the hype into practical business savvy insights is to be really clear on your strategy, work out what questions you need to answer in order to deliver that strategy and focus on collecting and analysing only that data. Unless you’re an analytic powerhouse, collecting too much data is as useless as collecting too little.

Plus you don’t need to have Big Data to benefit from Big Data. It’s now possible to source external data to cross reference with your own internal data. For example many retailers are combining their own sales or loyalty card information with weather data or GPS data to send out targeted promotions.

Like most innovations Big Data has potential but only if you don’t allow yourself to get bamboozled by the media furore and wacky stories of futuristic ‘smart living’. Find out what you need to know in order to be better and establish what combination of traditional data and Big Data will help you to deliver that outcome.

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Winter Olympics 2014 –
a view from the sofa

27 January 2014 by in Lifestyle

Winter is here (if you’re in any doubt just ask most of the USA) and this year it brings the special excitement of a Winter Olympics. The 22nd Winter Olympic Games take place in the Russian city of Sochi, and from 6th February we can look forward to over two weeks worth of wintry thrills, including twelve new events.

snowboarding

From the start I should probably confess that I have never skied, snowboarded or luged and I doubt I ever will. I did once spend an afternoon on the ice* at my local ice rink, and that was enough to convince me that frozen water + sport + me did not equal anything good. The thought of taking part in any of these sports terrifies me. The way I look at it, if the universe had wanted me to hurl myself round a track on a tea tray or throw myself off a mountain with only two planks and a couple of sticks to aid my descent it wouldn’t have invented Ski Sunday or made my sofa so comfortable. But I love watching those professional sportsmen and women cutting their way through pristine snow or executing a perfect triple Axel on the indoor rink. Add a glass of schnapps and a few toasted crumpets and you can count me a very happy bunny.

I think the first Winter Olympics I really paid any attention to were the ones that took place at Lake Placid, NY, in 1980. In school we each did a project on the games and I remember the cover of mine featured a very large picture of Robin Cousins, Team GB’s gold-medal winning figure skater (hey, I was 7, don’t judge me). Of course all Brits remember the pairs figure skating from the games that followed, as Torvill and Dean romped to victory to the strains of Ravel’s Bolero (a tune we all soon grew heartily sick of). Astonishingly we had to wait eighteen years for another winter gold, which was finally brought to us at Salt Lake City’s games by the women’s curling team (and oh how the Scots enjoyed pointing out to us Sassenachs that the team was made up entirely of women from north of the border). During our long wait we were kept entertained by the likes of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards and his good-natured but hopeless ski-jumping attempts and the most unlikely team in history, the Jamaican bobsleighers.

If you’re still sighing at the prospect of blanket news coverage of ice-hockey, skating and snowboarding remember that the Winter Olympics has also kept us enthralled off the ice, with controversies such as Tonya Harding’s attempt to scupper the figure-skating hopes of Nancy Kerrigan, her Team USA rival, with a plot to break her legs – if you saw it in a movie you’d think it was too far-fetched.

Now, while I warm up my slippers and make sure I’m well stocked with hot chocolate and teacakes, I realise there are some folks out there crazy enough to want to venture out on the mountains and actually DO some of these sports. If that’s you, you could do worse than check out Skiing and snowboarding or Win at winter sports, both of which are available as ebooks so won’t take up too much room in your luggage as you head to the slopes.

However you choose to do it, enjoy the snow!

 

*most of it on my arse