RIM’s song has been sung before

As I built a Christmas playlist for a party we’re hosting tomorrow night I scanned the online news and settled on yet another story of the free fall of Research in Motion. It’s been one heck of a year for all kinds of reasons and for all kinds of people but it’s strangely fascinating to observe the arc of RIM’s year. The firm seems to be hurtling uncontrollably into the dark of night.  As a customer told me over lunch on Monday when the three of us were calculating how many Apple devices each of us owned, “It’s just so sad to watch a once great company virtually disappear in one year”. By the way, each of the three of us owns at least six Apple devices while only two RIM devices are in our collective possession.  You can do the math.  It might not be a 9:1 ratio across the globe but it’s probably pretty close.

Of course we know that the sort of business implosions RIM is experiencing do not happen overnight, nor are they due to things entirely beyond their control.  When the Harvard Business Review or University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business get around to doing an autopsy after the firm’s flesh goes cold and the buzzards have picked the choicest pieces, it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn it was likely hubris that did them in. As a student of history I can safely say that throughout time much larger forces and personalities have been done in by the exact same failing.

Digital Lego

We were in Copenhagen a couple of months ago and being in the center of Lego universe reminded me how much I enjoyed playing with that toy. Or is it “those toys”?  Is each of those bricks a toy?  Anyway, long ago hours were spent on the living room floor with my assorted nephews (my nieces never seemed to be drawn to it) assembling structures large and small, great and less than great.  The boys are fully grown and likely have their Lego stored in bins buried in their parents’ basements behind discarded computers, decaying hockey gear, and musty backpacks.

I was reminded of that memory today (the Lego, not the gear and the backpacks) when I read a Harvard Business Review blog post called Creating customer value on the digital frontier.  The authors gave a number of examples of how companies are being very creative in figuring out what digital delivery models bring the most value to their particular customers.  All of this, of course, in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors.  They mention FedEx, Starbucks, Spotify, and a company called Shareables as doing a good job at revolutionizing in different ways, the customer experience.  The Lego example they cite is one that even my nephews are too old to have experienced and that is, being able to go on their website and using a tool called, Digital Designer, create models, brick by virtual brick. Lego then sends them the exact set of bricks it takes to build the physical model on their family room floor.

That would’ve been handy 10 and 15 years ago, if only because I could have used it to build and order the Princess Castle the nieces dreamt of.

Do we need reminders to behave ourselves?

In the September issue of the Harvard Business Review, in one of my favourite sections called Defend Your Research, is an article that concludes this.  Adults behave better when teddy bears are in the room.  What a great headline, don’t you think?  Pretty much sums it up.  I mean, did I really need to read the article after reading that headline?  Actually, the article is a very good interview with the author of the study that drew that conclusion, and yes, it is definitely worth reading.  But, I didn’t really learn anything strikingly new after I read the headline.  Well, I suppose it was a bit of an eye-opener to learn that in their research, they found that if companies have five or more daycares or kindergartens within a 2-mile radius, they contribute significantly more to charity.  Interesting, huh?

I suppose my subconscious already knew that adult behaviour would change when there are reminders to them of their children or their own childhood, or some other signs of purity and innocence.  Think of your own behavior when you’re at a party and your friend’s 3 year-old daughter comes teetering into the room.  It goes without saying that you check your language (if you’re a civilized person), you check your smile (to make sure it’s on and glowing), and you engage the little person with your eyes.  The question now is, why can’t we do this with other adults all the time?

Specialization can be good, or not

In the July-August issue of The Harvard Business Review is an article by Thomas W. Malone, Robert J. Laubacher, and Tammy Johns that describes how modern technology advances are transforming the workplace.  That is no surprise.  We need only look around how our tools and processes bear no resemblance to the ones we used only 10 short years ago to know that something big is going on.  Their point is that Hyperspecialization, which is the division of work into small tasks that are performed by ever more specialized workers, creates more speed, quality, and cost advantages.  Let’s hope they’re on to something that turns out to be better than the bleakness that is painted by that sentence.  It sounds like an assembly line to me, and having once worked on one, I can say that while I clearly understood the cost advantages of having armies of people doing one specific thing in sequence, it’s not something I wanted to do for any longer than that summer between high school and university.  The human spirit is too easily dulled by such repetition.

I encourage you though to read the article.  As befits the HBR, the writers argue intelligently and persuasively.  And it made me think about specialization versus the alternative, people being individually responsible for a far greater amount of the end product.  A comparison might be this.  Houses these days are constructed by many, many individuals, each being responsible for a piece of the product.   There is no question it is the only way to create many houses quickly and more cheaply but does it mean quality also is higher?  Not always.  But more importantly, there is a much higher degree of pride and satisfaction in the work done when a staff member owns responsibility for more of the output.  Again, through personal experience, I can say this is true.  I built my own cabin in the woods of Northern Ontario entirely with my own hands, from foundation to roof, from floor to ceiling, from kitchen cabinets, to the brick of the fireplace wall.  Sure I could have hired scores of people to do all that, but where is the sense of satisfaction and fun?  Why even attempt if you can’t see how what you did made anything of meaning?

Counter-productive messaging

In this month’s issue of the Harvard Business Review, the regular feature called Defend Your Research presents a study by Stefano Puntoni that showed a majority of women reacted negatively (and would contribute less) to campaign ads containing stereotypical female colors, symbols, and voices.  Counter-intuitive, no?  The strong examples cited were the pink-wrapped campaigns against breast and ovarian cancer and the conclusion reached was that women feel threatened by gender-specific messages when it is associated with harm they may eventually suffer. To be clear, they found that pink is fine; it’s just a color. But when that color was associated with a specific message about something perceived as a mortal threat, then the turning away occurred. The researchers know this not just because that finding was repeated over and over but also because the reaction of women to gender-neutral messaging resulted in no defensiveness.  Further research showed that men do not react negatively or defensively to gender-specific campaigns that fight prostate cancer.  The researchers theorize that prostate cancer is seen by men as an older man’s disease (and therefore too distant for worry for younger men) while breast and ovarian cancers are seen by women as killers even of the young.

Apparently marketers are taking notice, and have been for the last 10 years, of this type of deeper research around targeted messaging and the need to understand, what I term, primal drivers.  That is, how things like color, symbols, and sound connect a message to impulses inside us.