Thursday, 12 April 2007

The Digital Generation and SA Business

Generation Y, Generation neXt, Gen Y2K, Generation E, Newmils, Echoes - those born between 1981 and 2001 have many labels. Whatever you call them, those coming into the world since the launch of the Apple III personal computer are more different from their previous generation than any group of people in history. As these people enter the workforce and the customer base, they present a significant challenge to managers and marketers. Or perhaps we present a challenge to them.

The term “Tech Generation” is being used more and more frequently in business to describe those late Gen X’s and early Gen Y’s now in their early to mid 20’s who have recently entered the workforce and who have been immersed in digital technology their entire lives. Computers and networks are not daunting or new to them – they had a PC at home the day they opened their eyes. They are as comfortable with the shifting ambiguities of relational data, organic networks, and distributed applications as their predecessors were with hierarchical structures, delegated administrative work, and central control. They can type a SMS message with their thumbs on a phone keypad as fast as could a 1980’s touch-typist on an IBM Selectric. They don’t use the same vocabulary, of course, and they leave out a lot of vowels and pay no attention to grammar, but they communicate very fast, very often, and very effectively. To those not attuned to the nuances of Tech Gen digital shorthand, it is as baffling as birdsong.

An article by global strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton made the case that these born-digital “digital natives” are often at odds with the way things are done in conventional business, and that strategic management may have much to learn from them about thriving in a market soon to be dominated by digital-native consumers. They conclude that, “After years of debating the limitations of hierarchically run organisations and the merits of democratisation, the end of command-and-control management may finally be here.”

That’s a point I have been annoying people with for years: if knowledge flows and the processes that leverage them are evolving in real-time despite best efforts to corral them; and if departmental silos and companies themselves have become porous; and if peer-to-peer communication and distributed expertise are the de-facto norm; what purpose is served by old-school hierarchical structures? All they do is get in the way of progress, preserve dysfunctional power structures, and prevent businesses from successfully pulling off their own disruptive changes.

In several instances (such as Microsoft and the US military), digital natives have put sufficient pressure on senior management to stimulate significant shifts in strategy. This happens not by using the conventional channels, but by ignoring them completely and behaving in a way that is perfectly natural to a digital native. Disruptive technologies have bred a disruptive generation. It happens in every company – a programmer has a coding problem her cube-neighbour can’t help with, so she goes out to the discussion forums on the web and has a solution in minutes. Not the procedure outlined in the corporate problem-solving manual, but faster and more effective.

Consumers, too, have gone disruptive. No longer content to accept the half-truths and carefully crafted double-speak of ad agency copy writers or glib salespeople, digital consumers are better informed than any previous generation. They are suspicious of company representations, have faith in the opinions of fellow consumers, and network their knowledge and experience in a way that cuts through any facades put in place by marketers. Genuine brands with solid integrity win out. The rest struggle to survive.

Digital natives make fast decisions, sort through complex information, juggle knowledge resources, and, Nike-like, just do it. To an older generation, they are chaotic and have the attention span of a gnat; to the Tech Generation, they are merely parallel processing. Their lifetime of digital experiences dictates their approach to work, to learning, and to decision-making. According to the Booz Allen study, by the time they enter the workforce, the average digital native has spent 10,000 hours playing video games; sent and received 200,000 e-mails and instant messages; and spent 10,000 hours talking, playing games, and using data on mobile phones. Reading books? Only 5,000 hours at most.

These are not the same kind of people we were hiring or selling to ten years ago. Do we continue to treat them the same, subject them to the same processes, force them into the same structures and behaviour norms? Do we suppress and channel their inherent vitality and flexibility, or do we exploit and encourage it for the good of our organisation? To do so we probably have to slaughter many of the sacred cows of our professions and seek out new models for management and marketing.

One thing is certain: every year will bring more and more digitally blasé recruits into our companies and our stores. Like the nomads who gradually infiltrated and overwhelmed the culture of the citizens in Kafka’s story An Old Manuscript, they will appear among us and start to dominate our culture and change our norms. Will we be left marginalised in our own companies, unable to speak the new language or to influence our direction, or will we seize the opportunity to find and nurture new ways, better ways, to learn, to communicate, and to grow?

(based on an article by Godfrey Parkin originally published in December 2004)

South African Business Culture and The New Consumer

As a growing awareness spreads through the boardrooms of South African companies that the internet is not only coming, it's already been here a while and it's changed fundamentally the way customers (and employees) think and behave, a ripple of alarm goes out: are we able to survive, even thrive? Or are we corporate Titanics, hurtling full-speed into the pack-ice while the officers waltz blissfully in the ballroom?

And when the realisation finally sinks in that not only their structures and processes but also their corporate cultures are handicapping attempts to adapt to the new digital age, there's inevitably a demand for more and more training.

I have done a lot of what passes for culture change work in my life, and it still irks me when someone asks me to help them develop a training programme that will change the organisational culture of one group or another. It's not that senior managers don't understand that there is much more to engendering such a change than simply training people, it's that they don't want to be bothered with anything more complicated. And they certainly don't want to be in the awkward position of having to acknowledge that they themselves may be a large part of whatever problem it is they have defined.

You can’t change an organisational culture simply by “training” one person at a time (unless of course you start at the shareholders and the CEO and work downwards, but that’s another story). Bottom-up culture-shifts cannot be induced by senior management -- they usually only happen as uncontrolled revolutions initiated by employees themselves. That happens more often these days of course, with the disruptive hierarchy-oblivious culture of digital natives bubbling up into the lower levels of organisations and challenging legacy processes that were installed way before the web-born collaborative age. But the culture of openness and sharing which the web has fostered is, unfortunately, rarely the kind of culture-shift that upper management would like to induce.

Training is not futile -- far from it -- but in order to get the intended culture-shift momentum going training has to be concentrated in time and enterprise-wide in scope. And it needs to have a shifting-culture context already in place if the training is going to take root and grow. Anyone in the corporate learning field knows that training is typically only one component of any performance improvement initiative, just as culture change is but one component.

Organisations waste vast amounts of time and money looking to one-dimensional strategies to solve multi-dimensional problems. There are natural reasons for this: the silo mentality makes it hard for any one decision-maker to influence more than one area; we habitualy measure and reward low-level tactical activities rather than high-level strategic impacts.

The e-business culture shift problem has more dimensions to it than most senior managers are comfortable getting their heads around. Up-skilling is but one of those dimensions: you have to get all of your employees, from top to bottom, to understand the essential technology and process issues, as well as what it means to be an e-business.

But there are so many other dimensions, macro and micro: customers are more discerning, better informed, less tolerant, and a lot less loyal; the media for communicating marketing and PR messages are mutating; competitors are now global, often appearing overnight so you never see them coming; the pace of transaction processes has to accelerate up to real-time, having knock-on effects on systems and the employees and suppliers who use them; corporate strategy-setting processes may be inadequate to deal with the flexibility the rapid disruptive market changes demand; and the impact of all of this is felt through production, logistics, legal, HR, and finance departments.

The primary reason why businesses fail to become e-businesses is management resistance to change; which is also the primary reason why businesses fail, period. So getting a change of culture in place, fostering a culture that embraces change, is vital. But it is typically upper management where that culture change is most needed.

Despite the quaint notion of dynamic leaders at the helm boldly charting new courses, in my experience senior managers don't change unless they become aware of a compelling need to do so. Perhaps this is the point at which a little training might go a long way. When senior people come face to face with just how far adrift of current realities their own norms have become, it's interesting to see who bolts for the lifeboats, who goes back to the ballroom, and who heads for the bridge.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

What’s the problem with traditional ad agencies?

Just Do It! Nike just did, ditching its running shoe advertising agency of twenty five years not because it was unhappy with creative or because of costs, but because Wieden & Kennedy just didn't have the digital media passion or expertise needed to adequately engage the new consumer.

While Nike moving its running shoe business after so long and successful a partnership is news in itself, what is really making waves in the agency world is the reason for the move. Agencies worldwide are generally still doing a half-hearted job of leveraging the internet and related technologies for brand building, and most of them know it. When a manufacturer as intimately in touch with its consumer as Nike is sees the need to do more and do it better, and is willing to just do it, the agency world looks over its shoulder to see who is next to go.

Wieden & Kennedy are not a minor agency – they have long been a creative powerhouse doing work for companies like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola. They must have seen this coming, and probably had plenty of warning from Nike, but were simply unable to change fast enough to keep the account.

In February, Mark Parker, Nike's CEO, told investors

The Nike brand will always be our strongest asset, but consumers are looking for new relevance and connections. We're fundamentally changing the way we're organized as a company. It's really all about going deeper to get deeper connections and deeper insights, to get more innovation and more relevance, and to make us ultimately more competitive in each of the discrete pieces of our business. This allows us to be more informed and more surgical in creating products and optimizing our go-to-market strategies within each category.

Nike gets it. The consumer – particularly in Nike’s demographic – is now calling the shots, and companies who insist on pursuing a 1980’s-style mass-market broadcast approach to communicating risk being marginalized or, worse, becoming irrelevant.

As the New York Times put it,
The message is clear: No matter how talented an agency's creative team or how well the client's management likes the firm's executives, the agency is of limited value unless it embraces digital media.

That means, just as the web has permeated the lives of consumers, agencies must permeate digital culture throughout their organisations, instead of regarding “internet stuff” as an afterthought, add-on, or external business. For many markets, digital thinking needs to be a foundation of advertising strategy. And while it makes sense to start digital operations as a separate entity (thus bypassing all of the legacy resistance), there has to be a plan to reintegrate online operations as soon as the “interactive agency” is up and running.

But advertising agencies the world over are still dragging their heels. Given that the internet attracts more advertising money than radio worldwide, and was second only to TV in the UK last year, it's hard to keep on regarding online as something that is still not important.

Last week at the Online Media Marketing & Advertising (OMMA) conference in Hollywood, a panel of industry insiders agreed that most ad agencies are simply not ready for the digital era. Tim Hanlon, from Publicis, was adamant that the traditional structure of ad agencies is an obstacle, and that de-siloing brand advertising and response advertising is essential to create the flexibility and spontaneity necessary to get to the online consumer.

Bant Breen of Interpublic was of the opinion that acquiring so-called interactive agencies is easy, but integrating them into existing agencies is not, and that’s the thing which is necessary for a more powerful approach to advertising which can do things like build customer relationships and enable transactions.

What’s the problem with traditional ad agencies?

Firstly, the whole structure within agencies (and the communication structures between agencies and clients) makes change a painfully slow process. Not good when rapid and disruptive change is a key characteristic of online consumer environments. How long does it take to brief, pitch, create and roll out a campaign? Given the aversion to risk within agencies and clients, it can take months. Online, you need to be able to do this stuff in days if not hours. The risk of not operating quickly vastly outweighs the risk of moving so slowly you are effectively doing nothing. Agencies need to be given more latitude to act almost spontaneously, but it is unlikely clients would allow that, and even less likely that agencies would want it.

Secondly, agencies and their clients are way too precious about protecting brand identity. Remember when the primary role of a brand manager was to police the “brand bible” and ensure the eternal purity of the proposition? In a web 2.0 world, consumers want to talk about products. And, in the words of the Cluetrain Manifesto, whether the news is good or bad, they tell everybody.

Trying to protect a brand from consumer comment, being afraid that customer opinion may pollute or hijack your carefully crafted identity, is no longer a valid marketing activity. But encouraging discussion and being ready to respond to it, and making sure you are structurally able to maximize net advocacy, are alien concepts to many marketers and their ad agencies.

Thirdly, the traditional approach to broadcasting generic messages to largely mass markets is inappropriate for digital media, which is all about sharply focused messages for niche audiences who are discerning, informed and impatient. When your medium is newspapers or television, you have to communicate across the broad mix of audiences that they reach, and being too focused in your message risks completely missing important components of those audiences. True, satellite TV and niche publications do allow for a more narrowcast approach, but it is nothing compared with the laser-focused nanocasting and individual consumer conversations that the web allows – and requires. But the broadcast mentality of traditional agencies results in nothing more imaginative online than generic corporate banners on mass traffic sites like directories and online newspapers.

Fourthly, the online business model does not work well for agencies. If a major part of your income originates in placement commissions paid by traditional media, it is very hard to look at online opportunities as anything but financially retrograde. So the only real financial incentives to pursue digital strategies are macro incentives: you’ll pull in big accounts if you are seen to be on top of this web thing, or you’ll lose big accounts if you are not. Ad agencies need to reinvent their business models for the 21st century, because their old models are a significant handicap to progress.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Constructive Disruption in a Wired World

The other day I was running a workshop to define competitive strategies at a client company. Five minutes after the scheduled start time the first few participants wandered in. Twenty minutes later everyone was there. Were these lapses in discipline clues to their competitive problems, or simply the way it is in business today?

The fact that everyone was eventually there physically, did not mean they were mentally present. Mobile phones vibrated constantly. Blackberries were consulted obsessively. People left the room to take calls. Thumbs compulsively punched out SMS messages. Much of the communication was task-related, with people seeking input from clients and colleagues or remotely accessing data on their desktops; much of it had nothing to do with the task at hand. Yet the work got done, everyone contributed effectively, and the result was better than any had hoped for.

This apparent lack of focus is not a unique phenomenon, nor is it a recent development. But it has become more and more pervasive over the past few years. There was a time when I would ban mobile phones from meetings. Then I simply banned their ringing out loud. I realize that we are living in a radically different communication paradigm to that of a few years ago. We are now able to multitask in a way that was simply not done in the 1980s. Back then, most people did not have the skills or the tools to “parallel process” productively, and if they did, it was something done in the privacy of their own office. Politeness was our way of denying that we were unable to do many things at once without chaos, or apparent rudeness, ensuing. It’s interesting how digital deftness has corroded punctuality and redefined attentiveness, by changing our sense of time, place, and focus.

Our perceptions of what is "normal" behavior are determined by the habits of our most familiar peer groups. Over the years I have done a lot of work in various Latin American and Asian countries, South Africa, and most of Europe. In a business meeting context, the sensitivity to punctuality and attentiveness is always less cultural than contextual, and within that context you cannot make sweeping statements about national cultural attitudes or behaviors because corporate culture plays a major role in guiding those attitudes.

There are a couple of companies that I have worked with in Mexico and Brazil where -- counter to the false national stereotype of unreliability and lack of urgency -- I am always the last to arrive at my meetings, the other participants eagerly glancing at their watches as start time approaches. Conversely, there are companies in the US and UK where -- counter to the false national stereotype of task-focused discipline -- I have given up expecting more than half of the participants to be punctual, and where participants come and go at will (physically or mentally) throughout the meeting. Our concept of appropriate ground rules for interacting in a formal business meeting, no matter what its purpose, is being changed, not by e-learning, but by a growing culture of constructive disruption.

Some of us, fortunate enough to have graduated in the age of Aquarius, are most comfortable with the lava-lamp mindset, where we can endlessly watch things unfolding slowly and elegantly. We were succeeded by the MTV generation, a society of sound/video-bite junkies, who couldn't focus for more than 15 seconds on anything unless it moved dramatically, constantly. Then the post-MTV perpetually-looping CNN mode of communication produced people who assume that there is no beginning or end, believing that they can always catch up no matter where they start or how often they get distracted.

That fractured attention span seems to be getting even more fragmented with the advent of SMS and other remote communication technologies. The latest generation of company recruits thinks and behaves in genuine non-linear random-access modes. This internet generation, the “digital natives” born into a world where personal computers were already pervasive, is a society of text-bite junkies who can't think unless they are thinking about many things at once. To support this, text is making a comeback, fleshed out by a resurgence in cryptic iconography. Instant messaging, SMS, chat-room style communication, ticker-style news highlights on TV. All of it is text, but not as Shakespeare knew it. Text has a new Morse code that evolves and mutates daily. If u hve smthg 2 say, it takes 2 long to cre8 a pic. Or it did before camera phones came along. :-) LOL.

A picture is not worth a thousand words to communicators who can instantly infer complex meanings from cryptic alphanumeric string-sets. A picture is too limiting, too defined, too unambiguous, too unchallenging -- and way too unspontaneous.

Is internet culture overwhelming organisational culture? The digital divide (if we think of it in terms of those who have embraced connectedness versus those who just get by) is just getting wider. True, "smart mobs" can coalesce and disperse with split second precision. But these are funky folks on the fringe, not mainstream people in the workplace. What may become more pervasive, particularly as mobile phones become smarter and Wi-Fi becomes ubiquitous, is a blurring of the line that separates "presence" from "absence". Perhaps technology will be used to inflict punctuality and attentiveness. Or, more likely, technology and parallel-processing mental modes will make these concepts unnecessary, outmoded, and counter-productive.

Corporate Spin and the Mythology of Management

What on earth are we teaching people in “management training” courses? The more senior managers I encounter, the less impressed I am with either our training practices or our promotion processes, or both. In organizational management, there seems to be a growing sense of self-righteous despotism, cosmetically made over as leadership, in an ecology characterized by denial.

There has always been a lot of lip-service paid to “employee nurturing” in organizations. Our Vision, Mission, and (especially) Values statements bask in a PR-conscious preciousness that rarely reflects the reality on the ground. Upholding human dignity, respect for the individual, fairness, equal opportunity, striving for excellence, all drip from the earnest clichéd prose used by corporations to describe their management regimes. But, in most companies, at the one-on-one, manager-to-employee level, it’s a sham.

There’s a disconnect between the myth and the reality of corporate life. Proving the effectiveness of marketing, many employees actually believe their employers’ propaganda, even though the contradictions whack them upside the head every day. Managers spout the company line back at the rare employee who plucks up the nerve to question whether in fact the emperor is naked, and with luck the confused employee starts to believe again, if only for a while. If your lifestyle (and your mortgage) has you strapped to your company, and you spend 8 to 16 hours a day immersed in the business, you have to believe simply to suppress your inner despair. The alternative is existentialism, the “it’s only a job” mentality that those too jaded to care often opt for. Beyond that, go postal, or get out. There is material here for a PhD dissertation on corporate spin and employee perceptions of reality. But you’d never find a sponsor.

Over the decades I have worked with corporations large and small around the world, and my universal impression has been that most people manage by fear and manipulation, and they get ahead by polished bureaucracy, skilful (or instinctive) use of politics, networking above themselves, avoiding risk, and exploiting their peers. The warm, fuzzy, touchy-feely stuff so beloved of HR policy wonks and management training gurus is a whitewash that obscures the reality: at the individual level, people-management in corporations is all about taking credit and passing blame.

If this is a result of incompetence or indifference, then perhaps training is at fault. But often it is a result of calculated competitiveness in those with ambition for “bigger things,” or desperate attempts at maintaining control in those already out of their depth. As consultants, we prefer to ignore these realities, because formally acknowledging them is career suicide in companies that are in denial.

In upper-middle management you have a cadre of political officers who discourage any challenge from below to the illusion of impeccable decency and high standards in management practices. If an employee speaks out, they have an “attitude problem” and if they can’t be rehabilitated, they are often disciplined, exiled, or terminated.

Far too often, dominance rules over competence. That appears to be the natural order of things anyway, so maybe it is the best way to run a business. It’s how the military has been run for centuries, and 20th Century business organization was derived from military organization, with command-and-control hierarchies the central pillar of most corporate designs. Sadly, the military has always done a much better job of managing talent.

The dog-eat-dog environments in which most employees operate tend to allow those with bigger teeth and less restraint to advance ahead of those who may be better qualified but less ferocious, or less sly. Nothing is more guaranteed to have you occupying the same desk for decades than doing a good job and passively waiting to be recognized. The result is a top-tier of management whose unifying characteristics are ambition, ruthlessness, and a sense of infallibility, and whose integrity, decency, and fitness for task may be questionable.

It is that mix of characteristics which gets companies into trouble. It is how mega-corporations lose billions in only a few months. It’s what leads to the commonplace firings of thousands of workers, a gesture that says “I have absolutely no constructive ideas how to manage my business out of the hole that I put it in, so I’ll just dump overhead.” Bizarrely, such acts of desperation are routinely applauded by analysts as indicators of strong management.

That self-serving indifference to employees also leads to another commonplace management practice – instead of simply re-organizing a department, everyone in it is instructed to re-apply for their own job. “You have been working for me for years, but I don’t really know who you are or what you do, so sell yourself to me.” In the contorted world of management-speak, this grotesque process is seen to be clever, yet it is really another admission of management failure.

Individual employees are routinely ignored, stifled, oppressed, mentally abused, and in other ways subjected to enormous stress that has nothing to do with their roles or tasks. Good people are played off against each other. Managers nurture those least likely to threaten their jobs or their egos, and sideline those whose competence makes them uncomfortable. Getting ahead these days typically requires a good performer to change companies. None of this is good for the health of an organization.

There’s something wrong with this picture, but what, if anything, is to be done?

Should we heroically be trying to train managers to act in the best interests of the company, even when it is not in the best interest of their own careers? Should we be training managers to recognize and respond appropriately to self-serving practices in those reporting to them? Should we be training employees how to get ahead, giving those who are by nature less assertive the skills and insights to compete? Or is this all futile – should we simply stick to regurgitating Argyris, Ansoff and Maslow, and hope that nobody ever notices that we are not in touch with day-to-day realities?

Brief Guide to Questionnaire Design

Recently so many people have been asking me to review their questionnaires and surveys that I thought I’d update a document I first created several years ago which sets out some essential best practices for creating good questionnaires.

1. Ask: “Why are we doing this?”

  • What do we need to know?
  • Why do we need to know it?
  • What do we hope to do when we find out?
  • What are the objectives of the survey?

2. Ask: “What are we measuring?”
In training evaluation, what you measure can be influenced by the learning objectives of the course or curriculum you are measuring:

  • Knowledge
  • Skills
  • Attitudes
  • Intentions
  • Behaviours
  • Performance
  • Perceptions of any of the above

Your questions, and possibly your survey methods, will differ accordingly.

3. Be aware of respondent limitations.

  • Where possible, pilot your questionnaire with a sub-group of your target audience.
  • The complexity of your questionnaire and its language should take into account the age, education, competence, culture, and language abilities of respondents.

4. Guarantee anonymity or confidentiality.

  • Confidentiality lets you follow up with non-responders, and match pre- and post studies.
  • Confidentiality must be guaranteed within a stated policy.
  • Anonymity prevents you from doing follow-ups or pre-post studies.

5. Select a data collection method that is appropriate.
Consider the speed and timing of your study, the complexity and nature of what you are measuring, and the willingness of respondents to make time for you. Options:

  • E-mail – fast, inexpensive, not anonymous, requires all respondents have e-mail.
  • Telephone – time consuming, not anonymous, may require skill, has to be short.
  • Face-to-face interview – slow, expensive, requires skill, best for small samples, qualitative studies.
  • Web-based – fast, inexpensive (if you use services like Zoomerang), can be anonymous, best for large surveys.

6. Write a compelling cover note.
Where appropriate introduce your questionnaire with a brief but compelling cover note that clarifies:

  • The purpose of study and why it is worth giving time to.
  • The sponsor or authority behind it.
  • Why you value the respondent’s input.
  • The confidentiality or anonymity of the study.
  • The deadline for completion.
  • How to get clarification if necessary.
  • A personal “thank you” for participating.
  • The signature or e-mail signature of the survey manager (or, ideally, of the sponsor).
  • If sending an e-mail, have it come from someone in authority who will be recognised, use a strong subject line that cannot easily be ignored, and time it to arrive early in the week.

7. Explain how to return responses.
If not obvious, make it clear how and by when responses must be returned.

8. Put a heading on the questionnaire.
State simply what the purpose is, what the study is about, and who is running it.

9. Keep it short.

  • State how long completion should take and make sure that it does.
  • Make questionnaires as brief as possible within the time and attention constraints of your respondents (personal interviews can go longer than self-completion studies).
  • Avoid asking questions that deviate from your survey purpose.
  • Avoid nice-to-know questions that will not lead to actionable data.

10. Use logical structure.

  • Group questions by topic.
  • Grouping questions by type can get boring and cause respondents to skim through.
  • Number every question.
  • Where possible, in web-based surveys put all questions on one screen, or allow respondents to skip ahead and back track.

11. Start with engaging questions.
Many questionnaires are abandoned after the respondent answers the first few questions.

  • Try to make the first questions non-intimidating, easy, and engaging, to pull the respondent into the body of the piece.
  • Try to start with an open question that calls for a very short answer, and ties in to the purpose of the questionnaire.

12. Explain what to do.
Provide simple instructions, if not obvious, on how to complete a section or how to answer questions (circle the number, put a check mark in the box, click the button etc.)

13. Use simple language.

  • Avoid buzz words and acronyms.
  • Use simple sentences to avoid ambiguity or confusion.
  • If necessary, provide definitions and context for a question.

14. Place important questions at the beginning.

  • If a question requires thought or should not be hurried, put it at the beginning. Respondents often rush through later questions.
  • Leave non-critical or off-topic questions, such as demographics, to the end.

15. Select scales for responses.

  • Keep response options simple.
  • Use scales that provide useable granularity.
  • Make response options meaningful to respondents.
  • Make it obvious if open-ended responses should be brief or substantial by using an appropriate answer-box size.

16. Fine-tune questions and answer options.

  • Keep response options consistent where possible - don’t use a 5-point scale in one question and a 7-point in the next unless absolutely necessary; don’t put negative options on the left in one question and on the right in another.
  • Be precise and specific – avoid words that have fuzzy meanings (“rarely” or “often” or “recently”).
  • Do not overlap response options (use 11-20 and 21-30, not 10-20 and 20-30).
  • If you use a continuum scale with numbers for answer options, use a clear concept at the top and bottom of the scale (instead of “on a scale of 1 to 5, how good is it? : 1-2-3-4-5, use 1=very bad -2-3-4-5=very good).
  • Use scales that are centred– don’t have one “bad” answer option and four shades of “good”.
  • Don’t force respondents into either/or answers if a neutral position is possible
  • Allow for “not applicable” or “don’t know” responses.
  • Edit and proofread to make sure that answer choices flow naturally from the question.

17. Avoid leading or ambiguous questions.

  • Don’t sequence your questions to lead respondents to answer in a certain way.
  • Avoid questions that contain too much detail or may force respondents to answer “yes” to one part while wanting to answer “no” to another (e.g. “How confident do you feel singing and dancing?”).
  • Minimise bias by piloting your questionnaire before it goes live.

18. Use open-ended questions with care.

  • Open responses are difficult to consolidate, so use them sparingly.
  • They often provide really useful data, so don’t avoid them completely.
  • Doing a pilot or running a focus group before rolling out a survey can provide useful insight for creating more structured closed questions.
  • Provide at least one open question so respondents can express what is important to them.

19. Thank the respondent.

  • Thank the respondent once again. Reiterate why you value the input.
  • If you intend to feed back results, emphasize when and how they can expect to get them.
  • If you have offered an incentive, specify what the respondent has to do to claim or be eligible for it.

Thinking outside the idiot box

The ongoing buzz about IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) makes me realize how rapidly some industries are evolving, and how relatively slowly some businesses and the training profession generally is responding.

In 1998 I engineered an invitation to the Royal Television Society conference, the biennial Cambridge gathering of 200 of UK television’s elite. Much of the conference was spent in presentations, planning, and self-congratulation on the recent coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral. The only two presentations that still stick with me were a history professor’s singularly unpopular assertion that TV was creating news rather than simply reporting it (much hissing from the audience), and a demonstration of WebTV by the now CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer.

At the time a mere VP, Steve Ballmer was actually heckled. From the audience I heard all the superior snickers of disbelief and the whispered dismissals of the very notion that television might become interactive. The leading decision-makers in the industry were so conditioned by their past experiences of television that they could not conceive that any significant change might be possible, let alone desirable.

I had seen WebTV unveiled a couple of years earlier in New York, before Microsoft acquired it, and had been captivated by the notion that you no longer needed a computer to surf the web. In those days I was all about convergence, and would assail anyone who would listen with my predictions that TV, the web, and mobile telephony would collide and facilitate revolutions in entertainment, communication, and education. Of course this was not original thinking – lots of people were working toward achieving that convergence, and it was an uphill battle.

One of the people at the conference who I tried in vain to convert was a producer of Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast, whose resolute position was something like: “The internet is rubbish. I’d rather have my children watching TV than wasting their time online. You can’t get more educational than a television documentary.” The Big Breakfast was at least innocent, entertaining, predictable, and vaguely informative. But, to my mind, it seemed more worthy of the “rubbish” label than much of what was available online.

The singular lack of vision, with an edge of defensiveness, demonstrated among the television cognoscenti at the time was frustrating, but not unexpected. Even highly intelligent and wonderfully creative people have their limiting horizons and their comfort zones.

What is remarkable to me is not so much that attitudes and behaviors have changed, but how rapidly they changed. The technologies have advanced significantly in the past decade, but so too has our willingness to use them. Our notion of what a computer is has dissolved – it is no longer a grey box under a desk connected to the world with cables, but a palm-sized clam-shell on our hip. It has become almost second nature to take and send images and video using a mobile phone. E-commerce is rapidly going mobile – in Japan you can rent a car, or even get a Coke from a vending machine, by pushing a few buttons on your phone. Bloggers proliferate, entertainment and commerce exploit new media, and news coverage and commentary have decentralized and gone real-time. Now, with the imminent arrival of the millions of channels made available by IPTV, convergence is almost total.

But what of corporate training? Where are the revolutions in thinking, the exploitation of new possibilities, the creativity and experimentation? I still work with companies, some with seemingly limitless resources, who are slowly “putting their courses online” and trying to catch up with a paradigm that now belongs in the last century. It baffles me why we in training are so slow to evolve. Our role in training is to prepare people for the future, yet we cling tenaciously to the past.

Is it because trainers define themselves too narrowly, and think of themselves in “course” terms instead of in “performance improvement” terms? Or is it because companies don’t consider the value that training can bring to the organization is sufficient to justify the potential cost of innovation? Or is it, perhaps, that the current generation of management is still conditioned by its own past educational experiences, and is not capable of seeing that learning (or, indeed, business) does not have to be that way?

I know that we have only recently accepted the benefits of online courses and learning management systems, but perhaps we should continue to peer over the horizon instead of settling into a new zone of comfort?