The future is accelerating

10 March 2008

More evidence, this time spotted by Charlie Stross in the Economist, of the future arriving every more quickly.  Charlie writes science fiction, so needs a good store of plausible futures which haven’t quite arrived yet:

Say you want to set a story 30 years out, and as part of your world-building exercise you want to work out what technologies will be in widespread use by the time of the story. Back in 1900 to 1950 you could do so with a fair degree of accuracy; pick a couple of embryonic technologies and assume they’ll be widespread (automobiles, aircraft, television): maybe throw in a couple of wildcards for good measure (wrist-watch telephones), and you’re there. But today, that 30-year window is inaccessible. Even a 15-year horizon is pushing it. Something new could come along tomorrow and overrun the entire developed world before 2023.

The evidence from the Economist prompting this thought is in the chart.  It’s not quite as immediately to Charlie’s point as it first appears, since it is measuring the spread of technologies across countries, rather than populations. You could argue that it is because each earlier line has happened that each later line can happen more quickly – but the causation isn’t really the point here.  More pertinently, as one of the commenters on Charlie’s post observes, it illustrates William Gibson’s famous line, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

It hadn’t previously occurred to me that science fiction writers and governments face so much of a shared challenge.  Much of what governments do tacitly assumes that the world isn’t changing very quickly and that, in consequence, what they do doesn’t have to change very quickly either.  Cycle times in what, in other contexts, would be called new product development or responding to changing market conditions can appear to stretch out interminably.

That may not particularly matter in a world where stability is the norm, but that’s not the world we live in.  It probably never was, but it was possible to think it so without the state of cognitive dissonance becoming unmanageable.  Now it is much harder to sustain that illusion (which doesn’t stop many from trying). 

But if you can’t assume that the future will stay the same, you can’t assume that it will be different either – at least in ways which are wholly predictable.  Paleo-Future is a wonderful guide to the futures of the past – “a look into the future that never was” – and show pretty conclusively just how wrong people can be about what they expect to happen in the relatively near future.

All is not lost though.  As Jerry Fishenden has recently reminded us, the technology for the next decade has already been invented.  The bit we don’t know is how it will be used and who will use it – the social consequences (not just use) of technology are much harder to predict.  Harder is not impossible, though.  We need to go out and look, and having looked be ready to see.

Gestures and symbols

7 March 2008

Change has to start somewhere.  Sometimes that starting point can be – or has to be – big and dramatic, but probably more often it’s small and tentative.  We may know where we want to get to, we may know the direction in which to start off, but there cannot be a second step until after there has been a first.
water jug and glass
When it works, the first small steps can be a powerful symbol of the intended greater change.  But when the necessary change is large and the initial  steps are small – particularly in relation to the capacity of those making the steps – the effect can be more gesture than symbol.  As in so much else, it is the perception of the observer, not the intention of the actor, which determines which is which.

And so we learn that civil servants will no longer be drinking bottled water at meetings.

Whether that should count as gesture or symbol is not a question which has a right answer.   But anybody who wants to manage change should pause to reflect on which it is – and why.

Wrong number

5 March 2008

Somebody left a new telephone directory on my doorstep today.
early phone directory cover
I can’t begin to imagine why, or what I might do with it.  If I want to ring a friend, the number is in my phone – and the number which actually gets to them isn’t in the directory in the first place.  If I want to find an organisation, I go to its web site – and if I really just want to find its phone number, I google it.  And if I am desperate to look a phone number in the old fashioned way, BT has a simple and efficient online search tool.

Whoever produces these things somehow knows that.  The glory days of A-D, E-K, L-R and S-Z are long gone.  This is an emaciated volume, a fraction of the thickness of just one of the old quartet.  But it still keeps coming, as unstoppable as it is redundant.

Of course there are some people who must still find it useful.  Not everybody has the internet at their fingertips.    But this new book can be of no earthly use to them either.  The geographic area it covers is so truncated in so wilfully eccentric a way that disappointment must be the norm.

So we have two things going on.  A channel which has become redundant for a large and growing proportion of the population, but which staggers on, refusing to die.  But perhaps because of that reduction in its value, it is a channel which has been pared back too far to be of very much use to those who might still need it, so encouraging the vicious circle to ratchet round.

So how do we clear away the detritus of the old way for those for whom it is redundant?  How, conversely, do we preserve not just the appearance but the utility of the old way for those who still depend upon it?

This is not just a problem about phone books.

Customers, citizens and claimants

22 February 2008

There used to be benefit claimants.  There used to be passengers.  There used to be taxpayers.  Now there are customers (and patients, who seem, so far, to have survived the cull).

From time to time, the argument about whether users of public services are “really” customers flares up again.  I have got caught up in it three times recently – twice in this week alone.  The word ‘customer’ came into central government getting on for twenty years ago.  My first recollection of hearing a passionate argument (!) on the subject is almost ten years ago.  It would be nice just to move on.  There isn’t really anything new to say, but we still need to keep on saying it.

Why might we use the word customer?  There are several possible reasons:

  1. because that’s what we are
  2. because that’s more what we are than any other word we have got
  3. because that’s what we are sometimes, and we want it to be more times
  4. because using the word improves the chances that we get treated well.

Reason 1. is where people tend to trip up.  No we are not really customers.  Real customers buy things and that’s not, on the whole, what consumers of public services are doing (unless, of course, they are going swimming in the local leisure centre, but let’s not worry about that here).  So, it is argued, we should use the word ‘citizens’ or ‘service users’ instead.  But leaving aside the fact that not everybody is a citizen (and that, for example, visa applicants are by definition not citizens) and the fact that no normal person ever uses the phrase ‘service user’ in casual conversation, getting hung up on reason 1, stops us thinking about the other reasons.

Even beyond the special world of public services, I don’t think that it is the act of purchasing which is the interesting or defining thing about being a customer.  I think it is much more to do with having a choice.  It is the ability to take custom elsewhere which creates power, and it is the absence of that ability in many public services (and other services too) which allows the quality of service to slide downwards.

The other three reasons are much more interesting.  Let’s think about them in reverse.

Because using the word improves the chances that we get treated well

What you call somebody affects how you treat them.  The old word in welfare benefits was ‘claimant’ (well, there were other old words too, mostly still more negative, but let’s keep it simple).  Claimants are asking for something.  They can be denied.  They can be ignored.  They can be made to wait for the convenience of the giver of alms.  Changing the word can change attitudes.  And changing attitudes certainly changes behaviour.  That alone makes changing the word worthwhile – though it doesn’t automatically make ‘customer’ the right word.

Because that’s what we are sometimes, and we want it to be more times

In many ways, the most interesting thing about services going online is that they create choice, often for the first time.  Not, of course, choice about everything and not necessarily about the whole experience, but choice where there has not been choice before.  If there is choice, we can exercise that choice, embracing or spurning the channels being offered to us.  Since there are strong reasons for wanting people to exercise their choice in a particular direction, there is a necessity to make that alternative attractive and to market it effectively.  The terms of trade are dramatically changed – and at that moment, we are customers in a strong sense of the word.

Because that’s more what we are than any other word we have got

In filling in my tax return, I am not a customer of HMRC in the same way that buying a book makes me a customer of Amazon.  But whatever my relationship, it is not so different that there is self-evidently a better word than customer.  It isn’t ‘citizen’:  being a citizen is important, but it isn’t this.  And in all the years I have been hearing this argument, I don’t think I have heard a serious alternative candidate, let alone a self-evidently better one.

people frieze

Creative Commons License

So where does all that get us?  Well, probably nowhere very much – which is precisely the point.  Using ‘customer’ isn’t the perfect solution, but its use has had powerful and largely positive consequences for public services and their users.  It isn’t the perfect solution because there isn’t one to be found, and the more time and energy spent looking for this unicorn, the less time and energy there will be for the basic job of making things work better.

I have no wish to impose this usage on anyone.  But I don’t particularly want to spend time debating it either.  Let’s move on.

Update 1: I came across a nice example of ‘customers’ being used in this context much earlier than I would have guessed – in a book published in 1951.

Update 2: And now ‘patients’ is being challenged too. Perhaps we are all just people, though that’s so universal as to be meaningless in this context.

Untying the knot

21 February 2008

Over a month ago, Kable published a cryptic piece on how disadvantaged people use public services.  But there was no trace of the research on which it was apparently based.  Now it has finally appeared on the National Consumer Council website.

It was worth waiting for.  It turns out to be a project called consumer futures, addressing some big difficult questions:

What does it mean to be a consumer in the 21st century? What is the nature and extent of consumer disadvantage? How can consumers’ needs best be addressed by decision-makers in government and business?

There are four documents – three punchy leaflets, and a slightly more detailed research paper which covers much the same content.  They are all worth reading.

People made six simple requests:

Listen to us.

“…something more like you’re doing here [deliberative forum], and people
actually listened and did something, things would be better.”

Talk to us face-to-face.

“…because if it’s not face-to-face people won’t believe they’ll do anything.”

Come and see how we live.

“…they should send people to live in the community to find out for themselves – it’s ok listening to us, someone needs to be there to see what it’s really like.”

Help us make our voices heard.

“It’s difficult for us to get anywhere, to say what we want.”

Give us feedback – no more ‘fake listening’.

“They make a big deal about collaborating and listening to everyone, which they do  but in the final [council] decision the weighting given to local people is 20%.We’re the ones who have to put up with it, why isn’t it 80% for us and 20% for them? It’s an indication of the fundamental problem. They’re communicating with us in the sense  that they’re getting our views, but they’re not listening and responding appropriately.”

Be honest with us.

“…if you can’t do anything for people, tell them you can’t.”

Different service providers will wince at different parts of the material – though none of it makes comfortable reading .  For many, the most telling part describes the profound difficulties of telephone-based contact:

Call centres have become one of the biggest consumer bugbears of our time. Complaints relating to poor customer service were widespread among forum participants.The rapid growth of call centres in public services, as well as in the private sector, means that consumers have little choice but to deal with them.

Call centres are unpopular with most consumers, and there is evidence that the reliance on them is even more detrimental to disadvantaged consumers, for a number of reasons.

The forum discussions confirmed previous research indicating that disadvantaged consumers prefer face-to-face interaction, particularly where there is a problem. They are less confident about telephone transactions and find it harder and more time consuming to get problems resolved this way. Issues that could have been easily addressed by popping into a local shop or office can escalate when they have to be addressed via a call centre.  Experiences of having to make multiple calls, being unable to speak to someone with the authority to deal with their problem, repeating the same information to several different people each time they called, being left on hold for long periods, and finding that promised actions were not followed up, were all common complaints. There was widespread agreement within the forums that call centres make it far harder to resolve problems.

In addition, having to telephone meant that people incurred extra costs, which can be disproportionately high for disadvantaged consumers. It was not unusual for forum participants to have limited access to landline telephones either because they did not have one at home or, more commonly, because they couldn’t use a landline phone during office hours. Often the only way they could contact a call centre was using a mobile, where ‘freephone’ numbers may not apply – and often on a pay-as-you-go basis, which is generally more expensive. While some companies’ call centres will call people back on landline numbers, many, especially in public services, will not return calls to mobiles.

For pay-as-you-go mobile phone users, time spent talking, or on hold, to a call centre left them without phone credit for their normal everyday usage.

A minority of people did not have access to either a landline or a mobile phone, so contacting a call centre meant a trip to a public phone box, where being unable to talk to the right person, being put on hold for long periods or being asked to call back is particularly problematic.

This is such powerful stuff that if feels churlish to cavil.  But it seems a very strange set of priorities for the NCC to be highlighting and drawing media attention to their worthy but rather less earth shattering work on software licences while all of this doesn’t even seem to rate a press release.

The slow inexorability of the future

18 February 2008

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Towards the end of 1999, my boss was going to have breakfast with Bill Gates – no doubt alongside a few dozen others.  My contribution to this momentous event was to read Business @ The Speed of Thought:  Succeeding in the digital economy, which had been published under his name not long beforehand, and to provide a short summary.

One of the lines which stuck in my head was this:

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.

As far as I recall, the thought wasn’t attributed to anybody else, but it also didn’t feel entirely original.  It was only last month that I came accross the version at the top of this post, much cited as a result of the death of Roy Amara, long-time leading light of the Institute for the Future.  I can’t immediately find a source which gives a date for Amara’s line – but even if he didn’t say it first, he said it in the context of a rigorous approach to conceiving the future which has been hugely influential, and probably deserves to be more influential still.

Update:  Since writing this I have come across Rex Hammock’s account of the history of this idea, in which he quotes Paul Saffo saying,

The idea that we overestimate short-term effects and under-estimate long-term implications of emergent technological change comes from an observation of the last 100-odd years of technology diffusion. As best as I know, Roy Amara, IFTF’s first president, was the first person to explicitly note this phenomenon, and thus at IFTF, we often refer to it as Amara’s law. I started talking about it publically in 1985, and Roy had been talking about it for at least 10 years before that.

Adoption curves

12 February 2008

Consumption spreads faster today

A fascinating chart from the New York Times, supporting an article which includes this:

The conveniences we take for granted today usually began as niche products only a few wealthy families could afford. In time, ownership spread through the levels of income distribution as rising wages and falling prices made them affordable in the currency that matters most — the amount of time one had to put in at work to gain the necessary purchasing power. At the average wage, a VCR fell from 365 hours in 1972 to a mere two hours today. A cellphone dropped from 456 hours in 1984 to four hours. A personal computer, jazzed up with thousands of times the computing power of the 1984 I.B.M., declined from 435 hours to 25 hours.

It’s pretty obvious just looking at the chart that more recent adoption curves slope more steeply than those from longer ago.  In other words, new new things are getting adopted much more quickly than older new things.  It’s less obvious just from looking whether the increasing speed of adoption is itself increasing, though that may be true too.

It is also fascinating to see just how strange the unadoption of technology is.  Telephones, cars, and even electricity slipped back during the US great depression – but not radios, which just kept on growing.  Since World War II, growth has been all but inexorable – though a telling sign that VCR and (presumably fixed line) telephone ownership are beginning to turn down – which are the only two of the technologies which have become obsolete.

Long term planning based on assumptions about the non-diffusion of technology (not a good idea at the best of times) suddenly look even shakier.

via Kottke

Government 1½, maybe

4 February 2008

The Oxford Internet Institute organised an intriguing sounding seminar under the title of  Gov 2.0, or Truly Transformative Government.  The implied raspberry in the subtitle was itself a promise of some entertainment while the main title implied radical realignment of boring government with the hyper trendy of Web 2.0.  The combination made it unmissable.

broken egg
I spent the first part of the event thinking I had been sold a pup.  Three speakers rehearsed the merits of something which sounded, at best, like Government 0.5.  Their essential refrain was that government was much worse than it needed to be or should be at delivering IT and that the application of engineering principles should make it possible to avoid failure.  Some of their risk indicators struck uncomfortably close to home – “setting timescales and budgets before finalising the project scope and the critical requirements” made me wince slightly.  As both the speakers and the audience recognised, though, there is very little that is new in this – in terms of symptoms, diagnosis or prophylactics.  With the partial exception of Ross Anderson, they then failed to draw a fairly obvious conclusion:  if we know the solutions and are consistently not applying them, that points very strongly to this being a sociological problem rather than an engineering problem.  Anderson had certainly spotted the problem, but his implied solution felt pretty much unattainable.

The second half was very different.  Not only did all the speakers look a few decades younger, they seemed to be much more focused on transformative government.  The contrast was not lost on those present:  Tom Steinberg started his presentation by observing that he fundamentally disagreed with almost everything that had been said in the first half – the solution to the problem of big blundering IT projects was to have small fleet of foot projects, not to find a cure for blundering.  In different ways, all three speakers emphasised the need to start with service users, to understand their needs and then to design systems to address those needs using techniques which built in speed and responsiveness.  Tom Steinberg was lyrical about his ability to develop a useful service with national coverage out of a grant of £10,000 – and still have £3,500 change for the next project.

And then the penny dropped.  The apparent gulf between the two parts of the seminar is itself the challenge.

We need to apply two different sets of disciplines (in both senses), in two separate domains:

  • An approach to the customer experience – both offline and online elements – which is flexible and responsive and which maximises its exposure to customer intelligence in order to do that
  • An approach to the supporting processes which is robust, consistent and correctly applies the full set of rules

The collective culture and skills of government are much more geared to the second than the first – and the risk is not just that we don’t do the first as well, but also that we can all too easily fail to spot the need to do it all.  The first is where there is the greatest need for change, flexibility and responsiveness – and where tools and approaches are available to deliver that responsiveness.  The second requires the hard grind of implementing big robust systems which do the transactional heavy lifting as invisibly as possible.

Of course the distinction isn’t an absolute one, and of course each domain needs to incorporate the key strengths of the other.  But if we confuse them, we are at risk of getting the worst of both worlds.  The reason why the speakers in the two parts of the seminar talked past each other is because they were each focusing primarily on one of the two domains.
eggAt least, I think they are two domains.  I am absolutely sure that the heavy engineering approach cannot deliver agile customer focus.  I strongly doubt that the pure version of customer driven permanent betas will deliver the back end resilience which remains a real requirement – though Dominic Campbell has a neat encapsulation of the alternative, Steinbergian, view.  Tom makes a virtue of not caring how local authorities pick up and deal with the information which FixMyStreet passes to them.  But the real value to the citizen is not the reporting but the resolution – so local authorities have no choice but to care how they efficiently translate reports of problems into activity planning and into the activity itself.  And I doubt that anybody is going to claim to have built one of those with change from ten grand.

Despite that, I am in no doubt that the balance needs to shift from a back endian to a front endian view.   But it is equally true that the assertion that either end should exclude the other is about as helpful as the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu.

Videos of the presentations are available here.  Well worth a look – for the semiotics as well as the substance.  Jerry Fishenden has provided his own take on the event, and there is an interesting exchange in the comments to William Heath’s note.

The mystery of empathy

4 February 2008

Mystery shopping is not a new idea and it has some obvious attractions in at least attempting a customer-based evaluation of service quality.  Its big weakness is that people pretending to be customers aren’t actually customers and so can’t be expected to react as if they were.  That suggests that mystery shoppers might be able to give a useful account of some aspects of the experience, but that we need to remember that there is a critical dimension missing.

The missing bit has a lot to do with what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the experience.  There is a huge difference between trying to get something done because you need it done and trying to get something done because that’s what today’s checklist tells you to do.

Enter the empathy audit – a term I had never come across until an interesting conversation last week.  It sounds like an excellent idea:  attempt to understand systematically what it feels like to be a customer, not just whether a checklist has been complied with.    The leading practitioners of this art are an outfit called Harding and Yorke – indeed, they are possibly the only practitioners:  the term is sufficiently arcane to have only 30 hits on google, one of which is this article from the Observer a few years ago.

For people with sufficient hubris to describe themselves as "The Home of Customer Empathy", the H&Y website does little for me as a potential customer.  Rather cloyingly, in addition to the conventional ‘about us’ section of the site, they have an ‘about you’ section, the existence of which they feel the need to explain:

The reason why we have opened our website with an ‘About You’ tab is
because all too often consultancies forget that everything we do is
about helping you and your people to benefit both personally and
financially from our expertise and content.

We are proud to work
in partnership with our clients and our products and services are
designed and led by your needs – and not ours.

Well.  Yes.  But, astonishingly, once you have waded through the syrup and navigated through a staggeringly badly designed website, it proves extraordinarily difficult to discover what an empathy audit actually is, or why you would want one.  What seems to be the main page on the subject dives immediately and breathlessly into process.

At this point it’s tempting to give up and wait for the next snake oil salesman to come along.  But the person I heard describing this concept had been a customer of this service, and had clearly found it extremely valuable – and their client list is pretty respectable.  So perhaps I should take a deep breath and give them a call…

Or there again, perhaps it would be better talking to more customers.

Are we unbalanced?

29 January 2008

asks Jessica Hagy:

Are we unbalanced?