22 May 2009

Social Media: overhyped fad or essential tool?

Attended an MBA Association event last night:
Social networking for business – overhyped fad or essential tool? Speakers: Mireia Fontbernat, Paul O’Nolan & Paul TannerLocation: Strand Palace Hotel

In a few words, the speakers confirmed what I already knew or suspected: No one has a clue where online social media is really taking us (and these 3 speakers were no exception). It is not about having a crystal ball but about having a clear understanding of the effects that these social tools have on our societies, and what their generic objectives are.

When the telephone was starting to spread around the world many years ago, one could understand the effect on the society (connect everyone synchronously and speed-up information flows between individuals) and foresee an end-game (everyone being able to call directly anyone else from anywhere). You can't do that for social media today.Maybe it's because it is too soon after the first of these tools were created. But that is my point actually, we need more time to make real sense of it all. In the meantime, if it is important to embrace this online social world, it is no less important to be wary of potential pitfalls. For instance, the more you interact with this world, the more it knows about you. So, for a start, what you need to really keep private, don't put it online (but these pitfalls were not really addressed at the event yesterday either, it was more about what you can effectively do today for your business or for yourself).

I think that what can be said today of the effect (benefit!) of social media is that it transfers power of influence to the individuals, and by extension to communities of individuals.Each of us has potentially the power to influence comparable to politicians or journalists. Recently, Ashton Kutcher (Demi Moore's husband) managed to reach 1 million twitter followers before the News network CNN. I am certainly influencing many more people with this blog than through my physical networking.

What does this mean to businesses? Well, it can be summarized like this: Your company can choose not to know about its customers through social media, but your customers will certainly learn a lot about you online and it won't always be nice stuff! And that, they did illustrate it well at the event last night.

So embrace online social media yes, but not in haste and choose the right tools for the intended audience and purpose.

08 May 2009

The Cultural challenge (for outsourcing companies)

After their successes with outsourcing services, Indian IT Services firms are growing their consulting business. In Europe, and in particular mainland western countries like Germany and France, one of their key challenges is to convince European executives that they have acquired internally enough “local” culture to provide adapted services. This is only a matter of time and the first Indian firms to achieve this will build a strong competitive advantage.

Andreas Floth from PA Consulting Group, the international management, systems and technology consultancy, said back in 2004: “The growth of ‘nearshoring’ in Central and Eastern Europe offers exciting opportunities in Western Europe for provision of IT development and business process outsourcing. Their standard of IT literacy and expertise is very high, and both supply and demand of IT knowledge in the acceding countries will increase steadily. ‘Near-shore’ outsourcing also appeals to cautious CIOs who want to maintain control over IT assets.
However, service providers must improve significantly to meet expectations.” Three years later, we can say that the Indian consulting firms have taken on board this competition threat. In fact, some of them have started recruiting and opening up support and technical sites in Eastern Europe, bringing with them their technical skills and experience. However, success is not just about technologies and how to implement them. It is also about a deep understanding of the customers and their business, social and political environment.

According to Gartner Indian offshore service providers face three big challenges if they hope to be seen as equals with traditional European providers (all consulting firms with a long history in Europe):

1. “European Providers Enjoy Entrenched Mind Share
Traditional European local or multinational providers enjoy greater mind share among European buyers. Their long-term presence and investments have demonstrated a commitment to each of the European countries and have underlined a European strategy. Until recently, with the exception of the U.K., many European companies believed the Indian providers had an opportunistic approach to Europe. By increasing local hires, the Indian companies will take the first step on a long, slow path toward gaining European buyers' trust and confidence. A growing number of providers are starting to demonstrate capabilities that will help organizations look beyond cost savings to achieve other benefits, including access to scarce skills, resource agility, productivity gains, process improvements or innovation.

2. European Companies Are Reluctant to Publicly Acknowledge Offshoring
Continental European buyers' reluctance to acknowledge their use of offshore services does not help providers that want to leverage their success to win more deals, particularly when they are trying to gain traction in certain industries or countries. This silence about the use of offshore services also disguises the extent to which companies use offshore resources. Some continental European companies have signed deals with traditional service providers for offshore services, so that it is not obvious to the market that they are moving work overseas. Many traditional service providers have decreased their European operations in favor of increased offshore delivery capability. Some offshore providers, therefore, are justified in claiming that they are the local employers of the future as they scale up their local network of skills.

3. A Large Labor Pool Can Become Unwieldy
Indian and traditional providers are building scale offshore, in India and elsewhere. For the Indian providers to continue their strong growth, they must move away from labor-intensive methods of responding to strong demand. Effective operations in the future must also be able to offer process automation, including repeatable solutions and utility delivery models, or these providers risk building up an unsustainable and unwieldy resource pool.”

The second and third challenges are more concerning the outsourcing activities (not the topic of this article but nevertheless important). The first challenge about mind share however is also valid for the consulting business, in fact even more so I would say. In the same article, “Gartner advises Indian offshore service providers to establish local (onshore and/or nearshore) delivery capabilities, not just sales offices. This is because buyers will seek consulting and delivery capabilities that understand their local markets and business environments, in addition to being able to address language and cultural issues. Indian offshore service providers must plan early to adapt their delivery model, taking into account nuances like automation of processes, more repeatable services and solutions, utility delivery approaches and true innovation.”

Unless you don’t mind taking 10+ years to get there, this local delivery capability means local recruitment among consultants and professionals with a significant European professional and cultural experience. These “locals” will help for:

Winning contracts. European executives need be comforted by the client-facing sales team that their consulting firm has the competences to deeply understand the given business. Having around the table a team of Indians looking and sounding like they’ve just landed from Mumbai might not do the trick.

Delivering successful projects with greater chances to exceed customer expectations. With top class knowledge of best practices and technical skills, a team of Indian consultants would probably manage to meet most project objectives (and usually with very competitive prices). However, in order to go beyond these objectives, the team would benefit having at least one member with local and specific knowledge of the customer’s business, social and cultural context.

It is important to realize that it is not only about the culture of given countries, it is ideally also about a specific market and/or organizational culture in line with the consulting firm’s strategy. If for example a consulting firm intends to provide services to the large food retailers (like Carrefour, Tesco and Asda) it needs to recruit professionals and consultants with relevant retail experience (i.e. worked for one of these retailers). Managing a chain of supermarkets in Europe carries specific cultural traits that would not be immediately assimilated by an Indian consultant with an Asiatic food retailing experience.

I will illustrate the importance of cultural differences with the reverse example of one of these European retailers (Carrefour) that had to adapt to the Chinese market for a rather odd but nonetheless important cultural habit: the Chinese grocery shopper likes to touch and smell fresh food before buying, and not only fruits and vegetables as in most European countries, but also rice, fish and meat! It is extremely unhygienic but Carrefour had to adapt their shop design and packaging practices or not sell these products. This is of course an extreme and easily identifiable market specificity but more insidious differences could have no less significant impact on a consulting project.

07 May 2009

The knowledge challenge (for outsourcing companies)

[Below is an article I wrote in Nov 07 for a now defunct Indian website. I stand by it even more today].

For Indian outsourcing providers, their business is evolving towards securing partnerships for innovation with their customers. It is therefore no longer only about cost-savings and taking on non-core activities. Now here is a challenge for them: How to go about obtaining enough specific internal knowledge from their customers in order to produce relevant value-adding innovation?

The reason why this is a challenge is that most organizations today still fail - or don’t even attempt - to build a knowledge based culture where knowledge sharing between all their employees is the norm. If a customer’s key representatives only share knowledge and experience with their colleagues when they have to, why would they share more freely with external consultants?

In my experience, consultants usually obtain more information on a specific issue than internal managers, but that is usually due to their – justified or not - “impartial” and “more objective” status. It is also because employees are told to assist the consultant in any way they can because… hem… they are not cheap. But this actually only reinforce my point: For a true value-adding cooperation between an outsourcing firm and a customer organization, you cannot rely on people sharing knowledge only because they are told to do so, you need much more willing and systematic involvements.

To truly understand the issue, one must realise that the type of partnership that we are talking about here is of a new breed. It is not the classic consulting time-bound project with consultants walking in, gathering information, analysing it, developing then submitting a solution, and finally walking out. What is suggested here is a long-term relationship requiring systematic access to relevant information and sharing of knowledge and experience between the customer and the service provider.

Innovation does not happen in a vacuum but is very context-dependant. Furthermore, innovation is nearly always the product of collaboration between individuals/teams/companies.

Ok, so what is my point then? I do not claim to know all the consequences of this problem (I count on you all reading this to help out). I would only suggest this: Outsourcing firms should steam ahead offering new collaborative services to their most “knowledge focused” customers. With them, there should be no problem in co-generating innovation and value.
However, with the other customers still stuck in, pre-Knowledge economy, pre-Web 2.0 era with Industrial Age management methods, my advice is either stay clear of making too many promises, or alternatively first offer to assist them in transforming their organizational culture and foster knowledge-sharing.

To support the second option, I will quote a report on the recent KM India 2007 Summit :
Comparing the current Knowledge Management (KM) movement with the Quality movement of [the] 80s, noted IT entrepreneur and Chairman & Managing Director of Mindtree Consulting Mr Ashok Soota said,
"Knowledge movement is the next important movement. It is like the Quality movement of past. CII and industry will promote this like we did with quality movement." The Summit is being held in New Delhi from Nov 14-16. Highlighting the importance of KM in today's corporate world, quoting management guru Peter Drucker, Mr Soota said, "Today there are no poor countries, only ignorant countries! The same is true of companies."