Random thoughts from the Tower

Tower 09 was over a fortnight ago.  My notes are, as always, close to illegible.  The attribution of thoughts to speakers may bear no resemblance to what they think they said.  The failure to attribute thoughts to speakers does not mean either that they didn’t have any or that they weren’t interesting.  I was only there for the morning, so have nothing to offer on the afternoon sessions.  

Steph Gray talked about some recent DIUS research.  His killer factoid was that 55% of young people have friends over when they use the internet – in other words, being online is not a single isolated or isolating experience.  That has some huge implications for understanding and seeking to influence people’s behaviour.

As part of the same sequence, Steph also said that 50% of employers use wikis for business purposes.  I am not immediately sure how plausible that feels:  if it means that the employees of 50% of employers sometimes use wikis (where wiki ≅ wikipedia), quite possibly.  But if it means that 50% of employers are using wikis for some core business purpose, I would be surprised, to put it mildly.  Either way, though, rooting our thinking in how people are actually doing things rather than on some vague hope of what we might want them to do is indisputably the right way forward.

Ed Mayo offered a stark contrast.  What people want is things which are fun, easy and popular (and if I understood him right, as much social as popular in the narrow sense).  What they tend to get from public services is boring difficult and lonely.  He gave a powerful example of an anti-smoking project for pregnant women in Sunderland:  when the campaign was aimed at the women, it wasn’t very effective; when it worked with the women, its effectiveness went up ten-fold.  That resonated particularly strongly, partly because I had been thinking for other reasons about the risk that the experience of a service might directly undermine its effectiveness, and partly because it so strongly reinforced Steph’s point about the internet as social activity.

The surprising star of the show for me, though was Mervyn Davies, the Minister for Trade and Investment.  I will use the fact that he has been a member of the government only since January as my thin excuse for never having heard of him.  The focus of his speech was much on government directly, and rather more on applying his experience of working at Standard Chartered and as a non-exec at Tesco.  What distinguishes Tesco, he said, is fanaticism about customers – the voice of the customer pervades everything:

  • when we track the customer, what is their experience like?  the young people in our organisation will have the best ideas
  • both Tesco and Standard Chartered succeeded by empowerment
  • transformation requires greater experiments; that entails mistakes, which must be accepted without blame
  • but lessons have to be learned – which can only happen if they are talked about openly
  • talking about mistakes shows a commitment to listening and is a requirement for continuous improvement.

There wasn’t a single board meeting, he said, which did not focus on incidents of poor customer experience, which all need to be talked about at the top table in detail.

When Davies did turn to government, he said that one of the contrasts he had noted with his private sector experience was that in government the window of opportunity for decision making is very short, because of the intensity of media interest, with the result that there were strong pressures to short-term protective decision making.  Those in turn are therefore more likely to be tweaks to existing ways of doing things rather than radical change – but the world is changing so fast that business models inevitably are out of date, so we need to be open to radical transformation.

I wonder for how many public sector organisations it is true that the primary focus of board conversations is customers and their experience.

Comments

  1. My inference from the 50% figure for wiki use for business is that employers are thinking about wikis for research (e.g. Wikipedia) as well as corporate intranets with wiki features. The qualitative research which was conducted alongside the quantitative seems to bear this out.
    Re: discussions of customer experience, I struggle to get over the somewhat naive point that Tesco probably wouldn’t be so fanatical about customers if it were the only grocery store its customers could visit. Though I’m a little young to remember, I suspect the now-privatised utilities were rather less customer-focussed thirty years ago. The efforts I’ve seen in government rather tend to pay lip-service to being customer-focussed – but then there’s simply not the same imperative.

  2. Steph – thanks for the clarification about wikis. On customer experience, I don’t think your point is naive at all – it is one of the fundamental differences between markets and the rest of us, and I agree with your implication that assuming we can or should be like Tesco is not the right approach. But a large part of the public sector is largely about delivering services to individuals, so it isn’t unreasonable to think that boards might spend a considerable part of their energy being focused on that. That may well be harder for them to achieve, because they don’t have the power of market pressure faced by Tesco, but interesting things might follow if they did.

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