Sunday, May 24, 2009

A greasy pole of a weekend

Saturday I was hungover. Sunday I ran 32K. Guess which day I preferred.

Ok, rhetorical question (you could tell that by the full-stop). If you know me, you'll know what I love doing. And while I may have the odd lapse into personal stuff in this blog - it aint my primary aim in this blog to wax lyrical about what I do outside work (cue collective reader relief).

I actually make this point to illustrate a issue relevant to work.

And that is this: workers in the western world spends much of our time interacting with our colleagues. This can be done inside and outside the 9-5 of working hours, but we generally need to do this (to greater or lesser degrees) to do successfully do our jobs. A research scientist has to ask someone to pass the test tube, but someone in PR really needs to socialise, interact and influence.

Anyway, I have the opinion (shared by many of my peers) that the one sole factor that differentiates a truly successful employee from a moderately successful one is the ability to do this 'interaction' stuff well. After all, technical skills mean you're the best at the job, but who's going to be selected for the management position - the person who's best technically, or the person who's relates well to people to get things done? Of course, there is such a thing as 'leading by example' but the structure of organisations is such that the further up you move, the less you need your technical skills and the more you need other, less tangible (though more valuable) abilities.

Invariably, it's this 'hidden' skill set that sees people go the furthest in their career.

And, with the hindsight that comes from looking at an empty blog screen and working out what to write, I realised that it's these skills I was using at the weekend. Because, on Friday I was drinking with work colleagues. And on Sunday, I was running with work colleagues. Interacting. Socialising. Climbing. The. Greasy. Pole.

When you write a blog, sometimes you start writing and you're not entirely sure what you're point was. Now it's starting to look like my point in all this is that I'm the Slick Rick the slimy charmer. But I guess the point is that I am genuniely pleased to hang around with colleagues both inside and outside work because they are in various ways interesting, entertaining, friendly and generous people.

So maybe I was using these skills: but I didn't mean it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Google - HR prediction algorithm

After losing some top execs to competitors like Twitter and Facebook, Google has reportedly developed an algorithm that helps them predicts which employees are likely to leave, and when.

In times of economic turmoil, everyone thinks business goals are all about 'trimming the fat' and cutting costs. And that's partly true - as a first step, any business worth their salt needs to be remain profitable and able to compete. Clearly, that means getting rid of any factor that is costing more than it reaps. So tough decisions get made, these impact on individuals, and can - in turn - affect morale and productivity.

After a frenetic period where we've seen many previously untouchable organisations go bust and others bailed-out, there's a more proactive approach emerging - and this is taking the form of workforce planning.

If you're unfamiliar with this term, workforce planning in its simplest form is a matter of anticipating the how many people and what skills are needed in what areas of an organisation - and setting out a plan to meet needs. It's the opposite of the reactive HR approach that puts an ad in the paper when an employee leaves.

So right now, many businesses are not recruiting. So why is workforce planning relevant?

The answer is that workforce planning also happens within an organisation. Employers look at where they need people, and where they don't need people. They look at what skills they have, and what skills they need. They look at unprofitable areas of the business, and work out strategies to minimise pain for affected employees.

And this explains part of Google's move. Google will not want to lose key talent. High performers are an intangible business benefit that will be lost from them, with their competitors only standing to gain. So it makes sense to work out who at Google might leave, and when. But how do you work out strategies to keep them?

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that businesses that manage, engage and inspire their top talent, are much more likely to engage them in tough times, retain them once the upturn comes. There's a huge competitive advantage to be claimed via this method, but this algorithm is a bit like knowing your mum's birthday date, but not neglecting to ask what she'd like as a gift.

If I was looking at this sort of problem for Google, I would ensure extensive qualitative research (workshops, interviews, and the like) was conducted. That way, you can get beneath the skin of a problem and assess they 'why' as well as the 'who' and 'when'.

Statistics and data will only ever give you a wide but shallow pool of information. It's only through using a talented interviewer who can cut through the surface to uncover unconscious beliefs, drivers and ideas of individual employees that you can formulate strategies to affect real engagement. An algorithm, no matter how advanced, could never do this.

As a sidenote, this Google announcement reminds me a little of a PR exercise perfected by Ryanair (low cost airline). They released a story in February this year announcing considerations of a one pound charge for customers to use the toilet.

Customer outtake: Ryanair are obsessed with keeping costs low.

Customer outtake here: Google is obsessed with the perfect predictive search tool.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cola - busted myths re-busted

You don't have to follow the world of advertising closely to be aware of the recent furore created by a Coca Cola advertising campaign.

The campaign featured a famous Australian character actor, Kerry Armstrong, under a "Motherhood and Myth-busting" headline. In the ad, Coke attempted to bust some of the urban legends about Coca Cola, including the fact that it rots teeth, makes you fat and contains large amounts of caffeine.

No need to go back over the wrongs around this campaign (I mean, when did the Coca Cola brand start being about a soft drink?), but a recent news story on the BBC charted some of the realities associated with excessive consumption of cola.

And it really serves to highlight the problem of the 'myth-busting' ad.

That's because, while drinking Coke in moderation (and in conjunction with a balanced diet and good oral hygiene), is unlikely to lead to major problems, this ad is akin to positioning cars as irrelevant to global warming ("Go ahead. Use your Hummer. It's those big factories that are the main problem.").

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) agreed, with ACCC Chairperson, Graeme Samuel stating:

"Coke's messages were totally unacceptable, creating an impression which is likely to mislead that Coca-Cola cannot contribute to weight gain, obesity and tooth decay."
When you have "tens of millions of people in industrialised countries drink[ing] at least 2-3 l of cola per day" then you've got a problem. Coca Cola want people to consume, but the reality is they need to know that Coke does not provide the nutrition of a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts - and is something to be consumed rarely, not commonly.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The funny side to racism

Let me say categorically: There is no funny side to racism.

However, this video (posted recently by the brilliant mUmBRELLA) is awesome:

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The banned ad on Gruen Transfer

There's not much negative you could really say about The Gruen Transfer.

As a Pom I have a natural affinity with the ABC - the only channel in Australia to have thoughtful, intelligent programmes without shouty commercials every nanosecond (an ad break just before the final credits of The Simpsons - come on!).

Particularly of note is Todd Samson, a man whose points hit the mark so often I've been known to hit the mute button and nod serenely along with the rest of the viewing audience. Oh, what an advertising brain exists therein!

Anyway, every week The Gruen Transfer asks two creative agencies to 'sell the unsellable'. This week's challenge was to end 'shape discrimination' - i.e. to put an end to negative attitudes toward fat people. Todd once again hit the money with his assessment of The Foundry's entry - one that was deemed unsuitable for broadcast by the ABC.

Unless you're the type that would vote for Bush and thinks fossils were put in the ground to test us, I'd advise you have a look and tell me what you think.

Yes, it's a hard-hitting ad. Yes it has a certain impact. Yes, it will cut through the shouty man ads and the singing and dancing sales people on the shop floor. But is it clever, is it insightful - and, most importantly, will it create a shift in attitudes to fat people? The answer is no.

Many agencies take a lighthearted attitude to The Gruen Transfer's pitch challenge - instead of focusing on a solution, they create a funny and creative advertisement that is designed to entertain rather than work. But The Foundry took the challenge seriously and fell short. Their idea was to bring 'fatism' on a level with 'facism' - bringing it up to a level that tried to make it as unpalatable as racisim and homophobia.
The thing is, if you try to do this, when the overwhelming zeitgeist is: "it's ok to laugh at fat people", then all you are doing is raising a debate - not setting new terms for the debate.

Imagine if you did the exact same ad in the 1950s. The same concept - except the end result was to bring about an end to racism. In this scenario, all the ad would do is reinforce the attitudes of the bigots - there's no discernable reason for a bigot to decide that his/her view on racism is categorically wrong. The bigot would look at society, media and 'the things people say' to judge that yes, in the 1950s, racism is socially acceptable.

In 50 years' time, we may look back at our attitudes to shape, and see how horrid and nasty and ignorant we were - but you can't change an attitude just by pointing it out. And this is where the ad fails.
(By the way, if you want to know my favourite 'fat joke', it's this:)
An advertising agency boss (AAB) is in a pub. When a fat woman walks in, the AAB starts to laugh.
"You shouldn't laugh at me," says the fat woman. "You're fatist".
"Oh no," cries AAB. "I think you'll find you're fattest."