Monday, October 29, 2012

Wikipedia – To Tell The Truth

Dick Davies attended The Hamilton Project at Brookings conference about education and the Wikipedia came up as a 'problem'. I have talked with many teachers and they tend to poo-poo Wikipedia as a serious reference source – in fact, they prohibit the students from using it when doing projects.

I recall in school, before the internet, reading a synopsis in the Encyclopedia Britannica and not finding any of the cited references at the local libraries. With no opportunity to review source materials I was left to rely on the viewpoint of the writers.

The Britannica was limited by print space available for it's content – its style was abstracts. The editors' work was reviewed by a panel of editors for accuracy and unbiased writing (for those so inclined, metrics: 100 editors, 4,400 contributors, 65,000+ articles).

Wikipedia has a whole community to write articles, offer additional content, and challenge errors or misstatements, as well as an army of volunteer editors to improve the entries (metrics: 275 editors, 100,000 contributors, 23,000,000+ articles). Since the internet is virtually infinite, Wikipedia has not been hampered by the space limitations of print media – it has plenty of room for more lengthy articles and extensive hyperlink bibliographies to supplement the articles. Live links are available instantly from the computer

Before the internet, a significant research consideration was finding data; now with its vast content available, the consideration now is filtering to get relevant data. The Britannica filters the content as a result of the space considerations, whereas Wikipedia is inclusive and the content is filtered on relevancy by external tools.

The Google Search Box typically returns a Wikipedia cite among the top three or four results – a good first filter and introduction to the topic. The live links following the article cite additional sources of information and easily expand the depth of the research. Teachers instill in students that single-source research is not a reliable path to knowledge and these links make multiple sources easier to find since the material has already been filtered.

Structurally the Britannica approach may offer control and consistency, but is limited by available resources (i.e., staff). Wikipedia is an open-source collaborative venture of contributors creating content and a community devoted to making it better and collectively assuring acceptable results – much like ancient tribes did before cities and laws were established.

The Wikipedia project is a good example of how users can create, populate, and regulate a resource by collaboration and an evolving community of dedicated volunteers.

Are there other situations where a similar collaborative approach could produce results. How about an application in your organization?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Hot Dog Stand – Customer Service?

At the game I went to the concession stand for some snacks and drinks, to be greeted by a long, slow-moving line. While the second quarter evaporated and the line inched forward, I looked at the hot dog stand operations to see why there was such a delay.

Here's some highlights:
  • 8 enthusiastic people - 5 at the counter and 3 doing prep in the back
  • the counter folks reminded me of a demolition derby, bumping each other and constantly crossing paths
  • the preparation folks were paying no attention - standing and talking
  • supplies (napkins, plasticware, cardboard trays) were on the right end of the counter but condiments were on the left end
  • the menu and prices were on a banner on the back wall of the stand
  • finally, the line was amorphous and confused, people lined up on a server but some also thought it was next available server

If a transaction takes an average of 4 minutes from order to payment per customer per server, a back-of-the-envelope calculation of service capacity is about 75 customers per hour. A person joining the end of this line at its peak can expect about an hour before heading back to the seat, partially due to the absence of training and flow.

From this experience, I saw several general guidelines for improving customer service, based on the pinch points and frustrations of the patrons at the hot dog stand. Consider these 5 items (the examples tie back to my quest of food and beverages):
  • inform the customer what you expect from them – in our example, how to navigate the line was unclear and the menu and prices were not visible until at the counter
  • design flow for efficiency – the servers bounced around to fulfill orders and customers had to cross the line and go to two locations for supplies and condiments
  • train staff on role and assignments – servers were swamped while preparers ignored the chaos while chatting – alternative roles for all staff are required for peak demand periods
  • manage customer perceptions – customers get angry while waiting when they see staff standing around - regardless of the reason
  • create as positive an experience as possible while addressing the customers' needssmile, be upbeat when serving the customer and remain focused on addressing the customers' need, NOT on why it can't be done.

It is not unusual to be too close to this issue to see the gaps and over-servicing areas clearly in your customer service operation – and an outside advisor will review and assess how things are actually done, not influenced by how insiders think things are being done.

Customers want to be heard and receive accurate, timely answers to their questions or concerns. Preferences aside, there are several channels to reach the customer – web site information, interactive topic search, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), employee blogging, telephone tree with simple questions answered by automated systems with an opt out for a real person who can do more than simply read the same web site screen to the caller. For the complex problems, one-on-one service by phone, in person, or by video call gets satisfying results.

The best approach to customer service is to put yourself in the customer's shoes and proceed the way YOU would like to be served.

Don't come to the game hungry is NOT a solution to the hot dog stand problem, even though you may see the second quarter.

Your thoughts?

Join us at DevFestDC September 28th, for awesome new and emerging technologies, innovative startups, and resources for building projects and companies!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fantasy And Reality

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truthSherlock Holmes

Holmes never wavered from his rule, no matter how bizarre the outcome appeared. No speculation; no projecting an easier path; no daydreaming or fantasy about what would have or could have been.

I recall as a kid, pounding the pocket into a new ball glove and daydreaming that I would be playing like Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, or Ted Williams. Reality set in with the very first play on the field, new glove on my hand – it would take more practice (much, much more) to get there.

Sometimes a leader, manager, or collaborator fixates on a vision or desired outcome instead of addressing an issue head on.

Do you know of an incidence where a problem was ignored while the trivial and mundane were given priority? Or the 'let's wait and see' procedure was invoked? How did it turn out – did the problem self-correct or fester, getting worse?

Individuals rarely follow the Ostrich Model of head-in-the-sand, knowingly. However, they can be seduced by self-talk. This can be very persuasive, sound logical – even innovative – and offer a more desirable (and less painful) fantasy alternative to what's facing them right now.

Ever dread making a phone call or meeting – finding many ways to put it off? Then, the result of the call or meeting is nowhere near the disaster you had anticipated – in reality positive results happen most of the time.

I have found over and over that nothing is more effective than a direct approach. And yet, we still seek to take an indirect path or delay taking any action.

This is human nature – BUT – it is not a positive leadership trait. As with the boy and a new glove, or an adult facing a complex problem, it's not too difficult to slip into a fantasy to avoid reality.

To return to reality, I find it helpful to say the thoughts and plans out loud – to a trusted advisor. Not only will this help to better focus the ideas, it also churns up new ideas as well from both people's viewpoints. The outcome is more in tune with reality, since it is quite difficult to enroll your external self and your advisor in a fantasy. Perhaps that's why people say a good conversation is 80% listening!

As we wrestle with the gap between fantasy and reality, John Adams' words are a useful guide:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
John Adams,'Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,'

How do you see fantasy and reality?

Join us at DevFestDC September 28th, for awesome new technologies and resources for building projects and companies!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Carriage Return

Why is it that training is the last item considered in planning for change, and the first item to be scrapped when the budget gets tight?

Change drive progress – and when we change, we need to learn how to use the new tool or features to achieve better results, greater speed, or use less resources. However, we often breeze through any training with a 'yeah, yeah, yeah' attitude and get little of use or recall.

As a boy, I was given a hammer and immediately set about making nails in the shape of a number 7. It's a hammer – how much training could you need? A carpenter showed me how to start and finish pounding a nail and I was then building wooden things.

When the personal computer came into the office, and the IBM Selectric was moved behind the desk, secretaries would create documents with hard returns at the end of the line – just like with the Selectric: type, type, type, type, clunk. The training consisted of reading a manual with the first 50 pages devoted to installing the software and the last 50 pages listing commands (it was a DOS program back then). The secretaries would learn how to create documents, letters, and notes – but insisted on using the Selectric for envelopes and labels.

When a new procedure is introduced in a team, typical training consist of documentation of the procedure and a walk-through of a simple example. Rarely are the training materials created by someone familiar with the actual work being done and users find it difficult to visualize how the new procedure fits with the old way of doing things. Therefore the users come up with their own interpretations and work-arounds.

A quick look at the hammer and PC examples illustrate there is a cost to inadequate training – nails and wood are sacrificed to bent nails and hammer-head scars; editing the PC documents requires considerable time and effort: adding or removing a word means changing the entire document because of the carriage returns on each line.

Successful training is best done hands-on by the user with a meaningful project, followed by practice. A useful help resource is an on-line user forum supplemented by a subject matter expert. Continuing use completes the training.

If we do not provide sufficient training the users make up how to operate the software in ways that are limited and inefficient, reducing its effectiveness and expected productivity gains.

Want to rely on the informal 'expert' or invest in a trained and experienced team?