Holiday IT to-do lists | Patch Monday via @stilgherrian

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The fast-approaching holiday season is a great time to update your IT systems while everything’s quiet.

I got to have a chat with Stilgherrian in this week’s Patch Monday.

This podcast has some nifty suggestions from Harold Melnick, who’s Microsoft’s senior product marketing manager for Unified communications; Del from open source consultancy Babel Com Australia; and me.

Stilgherrian also summarises the week’s IT news — everything you would have read yourself if you weren’t so busy.

Listen now:

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Trust, customer service and customers you do not want any more

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I’ve been thinking about my recent American Express experience – outlined in AMEX discovers new depths to customer service.

It is clear to me that companies have the right to choose which customers they deal with. But it seems that how they remove those customers from the books is the critical thing for brand and customer experience.

I’m not sure if American Express were really trying to get rid of me as a customer. But if that was the case, it is entirely within their rights.

However, it is not so much the “what” they did that rankles; instead it is “how” they did it.

In this case Amex abandoned a customer in a foreign town with none of the promised financial resources for which they had contracted. American Express provided little advance notice in case their customer was not at home. Thus, in this case, American Express left a woman who was traveling alone unable to rely on the card that exhorted us to “don’t leave home without it“.

So people like me – who believed in things like the claims made in all those American Express advertisements; the many years of services provided and payments made; who trusted in the credit limits offered – were left abandoned without notice in a foreign place without help or support from a brand that had made promises to us.

What does this experience of American Express customer service say to me? It says that I can’t trust any companies anymore. No matter how good their advertisements sound it does not matter. If a brand that I once respected, like American Express, can abandon me like that then I can’t trust any brands.

Any brand that does not want me as a customer has an absolute right to let me know that – I don’t want to be where I’m not wanted.

But I do expect that companies will treat me in a civil manner. That they will give appropriate notice of their intentions. And that they will enable me to make an orderly exit from their embrace.

I am angry and saddened that my trust has been damaged so badly by the way that American Express treated me. It is not what they did to me (in terms of change the terms of our agreement, e.g. reducing credit limits) that is the problem. But I do have significant concerns about how they went about it (e.g. giving me no advance notice of the changes & leaving me in a foreign city unable to rely upon their promises).

What is most disturbing is the way that my trust has been destroyed, not only in the institution of American Express, but in all other similar institutions.

#amex

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American Express discovers new depths to customer service

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I’ve been an American Express customer for a long time.  But recently they made it apparent that they do not want my custom so I’m in the process of closing my accounts. Unless their customer service tactics are treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen something very strange is happening at that company IMHO.

It went thus …

I’ve had and used both a gold charge card and a gold credit card for many years – which I got especially because Amex is supposed to be a good card to have while traveling. Both cards are paid up and in good order, with automatic payments set up so I don’t forget to pay on time.

Last week while traveling interstate I went to pay for a taxi using the gold credit card and it was declined. I did not think much of it and just used my ANZ Visa card to pay instead. Then later I tried to use the Amex card and it declined again. Mildly cross I put the card away. It seemed weird because based on my credit limit with Amex I had over $10,000 left of my credit limit available at that point in time.

However, unbeknown to me Amex had decided reduce my credit limit by over 50% and I now had no credit limit left on that card. IT IS A VERY GOOD THING THAT I WAS NOT TRAPPED, A WOMAN ALONE IN A STRANGE CITY, WITH ONLY THAT PARTICULAR AMERICAN EXPRESS CARD ISN’T IT?

Thank heavens for my ANZ Visa card – again an account in good standing – and one that was not ripped from under me in a very hostile way.

I arrived home several days later to find a letter from Amex advising me of the change in the credit limit. Sadly that letter at my home which reduced the credit limit without notice served no good purpose for someone who was 2,000 kilometres away at the time.

The letter also advised that my card could no longer withdraw cash from ATMs; further it stated:

As your current balance is close to the revised limit stated above, please ensure you make a payment prior to using your card next….

Yours faithfully,
Adrian Janssen
Head of Credit Services
American Express Credit Card

Oh thanks Mr Adrian Janssen (who signed the letter) that really helped when your letter arrived while I was traveling. Perhaps a short notice period might have been a bit of good customer service to cover such a case?

Of course, upon arrival at home late Friday I tried to phone Amex to discuss this matter. To no avail as the credit department do not work outside of ‘business’ hours.

Up until now my relationship with Amex was settled. Even though their cards are not widely accepted in many places that I shop and merchants often add an extra several percent onto transactions to cover the higher Amex merchant acceptance fees, I still kept their cards. But no longer.

The matter is easily resolved. I simply took out my cheque book, wrote a cheque and walked to the post box and dropped my payment in the post.

I’ll be calling at a more convenient time for Amex – during the ‘business’ hours they work – to close both my accounts. My life is busy enough without rubbish like this. Voting with my feet will make me feel a whole lot better.

Here is a sample of the Twitter conversations regarding this matter.

Source:the nice folks over at Sency

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Managers are important too

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After recent thoughts about leadership – just when I thought it was all sorted out in my mind – a buddy, @KerriAnne, made the point that some great leaders are truly dreadful managers. And she’s right, very rarely do we see the combination of a great leader and a great manager in the one person.  Often it is a leader and second in command who work together to provide both.

So the next question for me to consider is:

What does a manager do?

There’s lots of theory around management – going all the way back to the days of Machiavelli, Adam Smith, Frank Winslow Taylor, the Gilbreths (of Cheaper by the Dozen fame) or Max Weber and beyond.

But the most important thing about management is that it directs the actions of groups towards common goals. All great armies in the world have had good management.

That is because good management is about the creation of a cohesive group that enables individuals to put aside differing ideas, agendas and motivations to work together towards achieving group goals. Further, quite often, the group will not have had input into defining the goals that they have been asked to achieve.

Management is not about the moment of inspiration so much as the daily slog of getting things done.  It can often be about seemingly boring stuff, like ensuring that all necessary resources are in place when needed.  Management is about keeping the team focused and capable to achieve the mission over the entire duration no matter what. Management is about knowing the skills and potential of team members, even when they might not know it themselves.  It is about drawing out better performances from people than they ever suspected they could deliver. It’s also about helping people to build mastery of tasks and then moving on to new tasks so that they continually develop and grow professionally.

Thus putting aside all the theory, management is about people & getting them to do things they might not want to do. Sometimes a leader can achieve this. But usually when things fall apart it is not a problem with leadership, rather it is often a problem of logistics. Thus ensuring that people have the right resources to achieve the mission is a key role for the manager.

But in the past the need to coordinate activities across distant operations and with poor communications technologies meant that command and control techniques were essential tools. The military are probably the best exponents of this method of management.

The key to successful command and control management is communication (there’s a nice short discussion here) – which relies upon decent computing resources and reasonable access to intelligence. And that is why the military tend to refer to C4I these days – or Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and (military) Intelligence.

However, the communications technologies that we now have available to us in everyday life & in business mean that management techniques need to evolve to encompass them. Perhaps the ways of managing that made sense in the days of telegraph and radio no longer make sense in the days of social networking, converged mobile devices and the internet?

For me the great challenge of contemporary management is filtering out the noise so that relevant messages can get through and people can collaborate effectively to deliver results.

Communications without intelligence is noise; intelligence without communications is irrelevant.
Gen. Alfred. M. Gray, USMC

Over the years many of us have suffered, working under managers who are bullies. It’s time we stopped accepting the bullies way of doing things – there is some great stuff on this over at Bob Sutton’s blog on this topic.

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Is leadership only about leaders?

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Had an interesting conversation with my friend @MaverickWoman about leadership over the weekend. Conversations with @MaverickWoman are always thought-starters and this was no different to usual – she got me thinking.

The big question I started thinking about was:

Is leadership only about leaders?

At business school there was so much focus on the leader. There was: servant leadership; charismatic leadership; transactional leadership; transformational leadership; blah blah blah …

We whiled away many hours with huge debates about the difference between management and leadership.

For me the difference came down to the fact that, while I wanted to follow a leader, I often had no choice in following a manager. Usually I was forced to follow a particular manager by the hierarchical nature of the organisation and my own desire to follow was irrelevant.

But much of what we studied did not really look at the followers. This seems to be a very important part of leadership. There are lots of people under medical treatment who think they are a leader (for example those poor souls who think they’re Napoleon or some other famous leader) but few of us would follow them. What makes them different from well known leaders like Napoleon and others?

I know we can look to more formalised theories about this like situational leadership or Leader-Member Exchange Theory, but I want to look at something simpler than that.

During our chat on the weekend I realised that unless you have a voluntary following, you are not a leader, but a manager.

Take the examples of Jesus & Gandhi – they were leaders because people chose to follow them, not because they set out to be leaders. And, most importantly, people chose to follow them because of what they said and did and were.

So my theory is that for leadership content counts. The content of your words and actions are what makes people want to follow you.  The content is what creates the desire to follow in your followers. And without them you’re not really leading anyone.

What’s interesting about this view of leadership is that anyone can be a leader.  It’s not just some special person who went to the right schools.  It’s someone who says and does things that make other people voluntarily choose to follow them.

But what about dictators and other people who rule by might or fear? Well from my perspective they’re just a bunch of managers.

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Telstra IT transformation woes

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I was about to write some more about the networked society but this article by Michael Sainsbury caught my eye: Telstra trauma as tranformation costs mount.

This is a sad, but all to common, tale of a large organisation that desperately needs to update its core systems, and to integrate the various acquisitions over the years into a single system. And, like most telco disasters, this one is centred around a billing system, which necessarily also includes customer information management systems. It is getting hard to keep count of the billing system disasters that unfold with monotonous regularity.

For Telstra the problem is a myriad of different systems billing and customer management systems that have evolved or been acquired over many years. The goal is to get them all onto a single system to achieve vast savings and make it easier to move staff around without retraining them. Some of my sources have told hilarious stories of the arcane, arbitrary  and mysterious nature of some of the billing systems over the years.

Mr Trujillo appears to have trod the road followed by so many previous leaders of large companies:

  1. announce large and expensive transformative IT program;
  2. bring in a bunch of consultants to run it;
  3. sideline the internal staff who have a clue about some of the actual challenges in implementing such an ambitious program;
  4. completely underestimate the scale and complexity of the task embarked upon;
  5. not chunk up delivery into bite sized pieces so that failures and problems are minimised in their impact;
  6. fail to understand the appropriate level of governance required to ensure effective delivery;
  7. and, resign and leave the country before the program is completed.

According to Sainsbury, the essential next phase of any large enterprise project disaster is already underway – i.e. run for cover and blame people who’ve left for the entire problem:

The Australian understands a number of the candidates are now trying to distance themselves from Mr Trujillo’s management-consultant-led program and have highlighted a range of areas in which the transformation is over budget, over time and not meeting its targets.

This is not a problem to be taken lightly for one of Australia’s most significant corporations. The impact of this program’s failure will translate into pain for shareholders, as Sainsbury notes:

The biggest problem for the company is the IT overhaul, the centrepiece of which is a problematic new billing and customer service platform.

It is now well behind schedule and over budget … and this will delay Mr Trujillo’s promise of improved earnings.

It is very frustrating to see the same drama played out over and over again in different companies. It is especially exasperating when there exists an enormous body of knowledge about how to run successful projects. It’s always worth checking out Michael Krigsman on the topic of IT project failures and how to avoid them.

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Reasonable Hours of Work in the ICT Industry

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A friend who works in IT support (for a very large and well known IT industry multi national doing security patching and stuff) just phoned me because his boss wants him to work overnight to do a release and then to front up to work again early tomorrow morning. This is not the first time his supervisor has asked this, and not the first time that I’ve heard this type of story. It even happened to me when I was younger and working in tech support roles.

These demands to work unreasonable hours make the ICT industry unattractive to work in. What is very sad is that this company has won awards for its diversity policies and its website raves about the programs that support work-life balance. Again, where is the congruence between the values articulated by the organization and the values it demonstrates towards the human beings that provide labour?

Of course, none of the fabulous diversity programs for work-life balance apply if you are contractor or a casual employee. My friend, who is a good tech support geek, is now thinking about retraining and leaving the IT industry for something with a more human friendly approach. While I generally do not support union campaigns this one does seem reasonable (no pun intended):

The Australian Council of Trades Unions is running a campaign for Reasonable Hours:

“The ACTU Reasonable Hours campaign aims to raise awareness about the effects of long working hours. ACTU research into workplace issues has found that long hours and the increasing intensification of work is the overwhelming primary concern of workers. For much of the last century Australia lead the world in fair working time. But in 1980 Australia started to buck the international trend and hours began to grow. Currently, Australia has the second longest working hours in the OECD. On current trends we will soon have the longest. It is a sad irony that Australia now has one of the worst records in the world. It is time to once again civilize working time.”

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Women and getting ahead in business

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Just had an anonymous comment on an old post.

The commenter said:

“Honey, you must be very young. It’s not just about how hard you work. The ole’ boy’s network is alive and well – you just haven’t reached a high enough level in the corporate hierarchy to see it yet. “

The comment is welcome on several levels:

1) I love being told I’m young (more people should tell me that), which probably reveals that I’m older than the commenter thinks.

2) I have worked as a senior executive in large corporations for quite a few years.

3) Many of my female friends are senior executives, ‘C’ level executives or board directors. Many of the women I mentor are aspiring to those roles.

My personal history is instructive because it does not fit the ‘normal’ pattern of how you get ahead in the corporate world. I was born into a poor family and lived in a socio-economically deprived part of the city; I also have attention deficit disorder together with some learning difficulties. When I finally did get to university I dropped out in third year to assist my four younger siblings when my parents died. I had to go out and get a job. Without a completed degree the only option available was an entry level clerical job, and I watched other people with better educations and less personal responsibilities zoom past me. Over the years I worked hard and smart to get promoted and eventually I got to parity with those peers who had zoomed past me. Then I started to go past some of those peers, they had not been working as hard or remaining as focused (i.e. they went home while I stayed at the office). But the important thing is that I found something I had a passion for, and that makes it easy to stay focused. With a thirst for knowledge in my area I became the go-to person in that area. Eventually I went back to university and studied while I held down a C level job in a major corporation, finally obtaining a masters degree in business. Along the way I was also Chairman and President of a number of industry and professional associations.

Over the years in corporate life there are a few things I have learned:

  • There are only a few top jobs in each company, and those that get them are those who have no other life. You need to be dedicated, focused and committed. There are very few people in top jobs who have not put in 12 hour days for many years. Fair or not, work life balance does not get you to the top in business (not yet anyway).
  • Nobody is going to just offer you these top jobs; you have to go for them. You need to put up your hand for tough assignments and get noticed.
  • You need to work out what the networks are in the organization and link into them. In one company the power network was the smokers who used to go downstairs and stand outside for a smoke. I did not smoke so I used to grab a coffee and stand with them while I drank it (ensuring never to stand down wind of them).
  • You need to take risks and show the powers that be that you are the solution to some of their problems. I have always worked on the ‘no surprises’ principle for my boss and other stakeholders, and have always been the provider of solutions rather than just pointing out problems.
  • You will never get ahead if you leave it to chance. It is important to work out what you want to achieve and the steps necessary to achieve it. A plan is a good and useful thing.
  • You will meet people of ill will, it is important to get used to this and to develop your own strategies for dealing with them. Sometimes those people of ill will and your boss will be one and the same. The options are: stay and manage the person and situation, cry and be a victim, or vote with your feet.

On the whole, I am tired of the woman as victim theme. Women have choices, lots more than men in many cases. Many men also do not get ahead in business. The men that I know who got ahead have all worked longer and harder than their peers, have networked more ferociously, and have become well respected in their specialty area. The case is precisely the same for the women who have been successful. One thing I know for sure, none of these successful people sat around whingeing that nobody was giving them a chance. They set the agenda, took the risks and showed why they should be given more opportunities.

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Article: Businesses don't have social responsibilities; people do

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This article has been reproduced in full below, it raises some very important issues about corporate and individual responsibility. Even staff in the Nazi concentration camps were assisted in rationalising terrible acts because they were only following orders. Thus they could abrogate individual responsibility to act in humane ways. We are in danger of pushing the accountability for good behaviour out there into someone else’s domain, not keeping our own accountability to do what is right.

Remember the well known humorous story:

“This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got upset about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.”


Herald.com 07/21/2004: “Businesses don’t have social responsibilities; people do
BY HENRY MILLER www.project-syndicate.cz

Calvin Coolidge once said that the business of America is business. He might have added that the business of business everywhere is to pursue profits. Lately, some corporate leaders seem to have lost sight of that elementary precept.

Daniel Vasella, the chairman and CEO of Switzerland-based Novartis, the world’s fifth-largest pharmaceutical company, recently wrote that multinational companies “have a duty to adhere to fundamental values and to support and promote them.”

If he were referring to corporate values such as honesty, innovation, voluntary exchange and the wisdom of the marketplace, he would be right. But what he meant was “collaborat[ing] constructively with the U.N. and civil society to define the best way to improve human rights.”

The extension of human rights is a worthy goal, to be sure, but Vasella’s saccharine altruism brings to mind economist Milton Friedman’s reproachful observation that ‘businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned `merely’ with profit but also with promoting desirable ‘social’ ends; that business has a ‘social conscience’ and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination . . . and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers.”

Friedman accused such executives of being “unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society.”

The current catchwords are ”human rights” and ”corporate citizenship,” which prompts businesses trying to ”do good” (or perhaps just trying to look good) to deviate from their primary purpose. Take, for example, McDonald’s ending its popular ”supersized” portions in the name of discouraging obesity and businesses adopting less efficient, more ”sustainable” practices.

Businesses do not have social responsibilities; only people do. Inasmuch as corporate leaders work for the owners of the business, their responsibility is to pursue the best interests of their employers — interests that relate primarily to making as much money as possible while conforming to the legal rules and ethical norms of society. By taking actions on behalf of the company that he arbitrarily decides are ”socially responsible,” a corporate executive is, in effect, spending someone else’s money by reducing returns to shareholders.

One of the easiest things to do is to spend other people’s money on causes in which you believe; one of the most difficult, but most meaningful, is to spend your own money. If these executives donated even 5 percent of their salaries to such causes, they would be worthy of admiration, even if the causes were repugnant to some of us.

Diverting resources
Neither free enterprise nor the human condition is likely to benefit if companies decide to follow Vasella’s model. Their actions would, however, raise the cost of doing business, lower corporate productivity and feed the United Nations’ predilections for meddling. By diverting resources away from productive uses, businesses would end up hurting many of the very people they claim to want to help.

Henry Miller is a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 1979 to 1994, he was an official with the Food and Drug Administration.
©2004 Project Syndicate

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