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This week’s featured posts.

Culture – Ambiguity and Anxiety

Dessert! Why wait?

Dessert! Why wait?

The future is uncertain. Eat dessert first.

If you act on this sage advice, you may well come from a culture that’s high on the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI). As Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede have pointed out, the desire to avoid uncertainty varies dramatically from culture to culture and fundamentally affects how people think and behave.

The Hofstedes (father and son) study the influence of national cultures on organizational behavior. They write that there are five basic dimensions of culture: 1) power distance; 2) individualist/ collectivist; 3) masculine/feminine; 4) Uncertainty avoidance; 5) short-term/long-term orientation. I’ve written about the first three previously (herehere, and here). Today, let’s talk about uncertainty avoidance.

The Uncertainty Avoidance Index measures the degree to which a culture believes that what’s different is dangerous. Countries with high UAIs tend to be anxious about ambiguity and the future in general. They often establish laws, behavioral codes, religions, and technologies that reduce ambiguity. Countries with high UAIs include Greece (UAI = 114), Poland (93), Japan (92), France (86), South Korea (85), Israel (81), and Italy (75).

Countries with low UAIs tend to believe that what’s difference is curious. They are generally less rules-oriented and less anxious about the future. They tend to see the world as a relatively benevolent place and to give the benefit of the doubt to new ideas, situations, and people. Countries with low UAIs include the United States (46), India (40), Great Britain (35), Ireland (35), Sweden (29), and Denmark (23).

Uncertainty avoidance expresses itself in many different ways. Very generally speaking, families in affluent countries with high UAIs have fewer children than those in affluent countries with low UA indexes. People in high UAI cultures tend to be more stressed and rules for children are quite firm. People in low UAI culture tend to be more agreeable and more blasé about children’s play habits. They worry less about health and money.

Let’s say you want to market a product internationally, including both low and high UAI countries. Your message will need to be very different. In high UAI countries, consumers will want to know about the purity and cleanliness of the product. They also value expert opinion in their advertising. In low UAI countries, consumers tend to seek convenience rather than purity and prefer humorous ads.

Similarly, consumers in low UAI countries find used cars acceptable and are more likely to be do-it-yourself enthusiasts. They also tend to be early adopters of new technologies. Consumers in high UAI countries tend to prefer new cars and hire experts to do their home repairs. They’re also slower to adopt new technologies.

In the workplace, differences are equally pronounced. High UAI cultures emphasize the importance of rules – even those that are not obeyed.  They also prefer more structure, precision, and formality. Managers should be technical experts and tend to focus on daily operations.

Low UAI cultures have fewer rules in the workplace and value managers who are known more for common sense than technical expertise. Managers focus more on strategy than daily operations. Low UAI workplaces tend to be better at inventing new processes but high UAI workplaces are better at implementing them.

It’s a very interesting mix, especially when you combine uncertainty with masculinity, individualism, and power distance. To learn more, get the Hofstede’s book.

Failed Business Fads: Top 10

lucy kellawayLucy Kellaway has an excellent column in the Financial Times in which she identifies the top 10 failed management fads. (Click here). Somehow the article reminded me of fashion fads, like Nehru jackets and leisure suits, that have come and gone. I sometimes cringe when I see old pictures of myself.

I had to smirk at several of the management fads. I tried not to be my snarky, know-it-all self when the fads were in fashion but somehow I knew that they would never work. Now I have the warm satisfaction of knowing I was right all along.

There were, however, several fads that I actually believed in. In fact, I still do. So I’m distressed that Kellaway has declared them failures and asked us to bid them adieu.

I’m not tipping my hand because I’m interested in your opinions. Which of the fads have you experienced personally? Did any of them do any good at all? Is Kellaway right — are they all dead or do some of them still have legs?

Just leave your thoughts in the comments box below. In the meantime, I’ll be managing my employees by walking around them (or should I be walking them around?)

Should We Work?

What? I still have to work?

What? I still have to work?

Which of these two government policies is most appropriate for the next 50 years?

  1. Strive to reduce unemployment; aim for 4% unemployment.
  2. Eliminate the need to work; aim for 100% unemployment.

It’s a question we’ll need to wrestle with soon. It appears that we’re at the beginning of another great wave of job destruction. The last wave, starting roughly in 1980, eliminated or outsourced blue collar and clerical jobs. We used to have secretaries; now we have word processing software. We used to have factory workers; now we have robots.

The next wave will eliminate white collar jobs. This will happen in two ways:

Type 1 – through advanced communications and software support, a small number of “augmented knowledge workers” can do the work of thousands of traditional knowledge workers.

Type 2 – machines and systems will become smart enough to replace many knowledge workers.

I’ll illustrate with two examples from my life.

Type 1: The MOOCs. Massive Online Open Courses find very talented professors and augment them. With video, web, and online testing support, these professors can literally reach thousands of students. They give great lectures. (You should watch them). Why do we need other professors to cover the same material? A few professors can replace thousands. By the way, this will also accelerate the dominance of English.

Type 2: Automated Essay Grading. I’m rather proud of my ability to read essays and make useful comments that help students think more clearly and communicate more effectively. So what? Within the next few years, we’ll see software systems that can do almost as good a job as I can. OK … maybe they could do it even better since they never get tired. I’ve always thought that this would be a difficult task to automate because it’s “fuzzy”. But computers are mastering fuzzy logic even as we speak.

Much of what we call “knowledge work” is actually easier to automate than essay grading. Any process based on rules is fairly easy to computerize. Deciding which stocks to buy or sell is a good example. It’s just a set of rules. So today, “quants” and high-speed computers dominate much of our stock trading.

Diagnosing an illness may be another good example. Today, as many as 15% of diagnoses made by humans are wrong. But diagnosis is just a rules-based process. Surely, a computer can do better.

Within the next three decades, we may well reach a point where nobody needs to work. So what will we do? Good question. Perhaps we should ask a computer.

Self-Aware Marketing Engines

suellen in warbySuellen recently bought a pair of eyeglasses from Warby Parker, the online retailer. To get an idea of how they would look, she uploaded a picture of herself and tried the glasses on virtually. She “tried on” several models, picked the most flattering one, ordered it, and received it within a couple of days.

Suellen’s glasses are stylish but dumb. They don’t know what they are, where they came from, or how they got to Suellen. Within five years, I suspect that products from Warby Parker (and similar purveyors) will not only be stylish but also self-aware. In fact, let’s call them Self-Aware Marketing Engines or SAMEs.

A Self-Aware Marketing Engine knows what it is and how to sell. An embedded chip carries its identity. A SAME knows:

  • What it is – the chip carries information on model number, date of manufacture, serial number, etc.
  • Who owns it – Suellen’s Warby Parkers will know her name and contact details and perhaps other things such as her Facebook address, Klout score, birthday, maybe even her husband’s name and contact details.
  • How to buy – the chip carries information on how to order similar products.
  • How to talk to other devices – probably using Near Field Communications (NFC).

Essentially, SAMEs automate the word-of-mouth process. Let’s say that Suellen’s girlfriend, Laurie, sees the glasses and admires them. Laurie taps her NFC-enabled smart phone on the glasses and learns how she can buy similar glasses and what they cost. She also learns she can upload a photo of herself to see how the glasses look on her.

Laurie uploads a picture to the Warby Parker website and “tries on” various models. The website can tell that Laurie’s visit resulted from Suellen’s influence. It sends Suellen a thank-you note and perhaps a small discount on her next purchase.

Laurie finds three models that she really likes but can’t decide which one to buy. Warby Parker’s website asks how it can help. Laurie explains her dilemma. The website has a solution. With Laurie’s permission, the website loads images of her wearing each of the three different styles to Laurie’s Facebook page. It also sends a “Which style do you like best?” query to all of Laurie’s Facebook friends. It also links to Suellen’s Facebook page so she can follow (and influence) the process.

Laurie waits a day and counts the votes, but then gets distracted by a visit from her friend, Mary Kay. The Warby Parker website notes that nothing has happened for a few days and sends Laurie an e-mail with a small incentive to order soon.

With Mary Kay’s help, Laurie decides to order the Hippie @ Sixty frames (Model 6060/CBGB).  Warby Parker’s factory encodes Laurie’s information in the frames – creating another Self-Aware Marketing Engine – and sends them to her. With Laurie’s permission, it also posts the “winning” selection to Laurie’s Facebook page. It also notes that Suellen has influenced the sale and sends her another thank-you note and a larger discount on her next purchase.

Laurie perceives that she has bought some stylish frames. Warby Parker perceives that they’ve sold a Self-Aware Marketing Engine that will generate more sales in the future. For Laurie, it’s a solution to her eye care needs. For Warby Parker, it’s the gift that goes on giving.

Could it happen? Devices are getting smarter all the time. Many devices today are already aware of their own location and orientation (which way they’re pointed). Why not incorporate additional self-awareness that enables products to sell more products? It will happen soon. The only question is who will get there first.

(By the way, though I took a different angle, much of the inspiration for this post came from an article in the April issue of the McKinsey Quarterly: “The Coming Era of ‘On-Demand’ Marketing“)

What Do The French Know About Advertising?

Why change?

Why change?

We lived in Paris for three years at the turn of the century. Being a marketing guy, I studied the advertising. I rode the Métro to work most days and became very familiar with advertising posters designed to appeal to commuters.

Like most advertising, some of it was great, some of it was obscure, much of it was in between. What struck me most (besides the lingerie ads) was how long an ad might be used. Companies ran their ads for much longer periods of time than I was accustomed to in the United States. Similarly, they would recycle and re-use ads that they had used in previous years.

Take rentrée advertising, for instance. Each year, all of France goes on vacation to the countryside for the entire month of August. Then, in early September, they ”re-enter” (rentrée) the cities and prepare to go back to work and school. It’s a steady rhythm and advertisers are ready for it.

In 1999, during my first September in Paris, I saw hundreds of ads geared to the rentrée. To get an idea of the scope, think of our back-to-school ads and multiply them by two or even three.

I had heard of the rentrée so the scope didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was that, in September 2000, I saw exactly the same ads. I expected a new wave of advertising and a new wave of creativity. Instead, I saw the same ads repeated from the previous year. In September 2001, I saw them again.

I was reminded of this the other day when I picked up a current issue of a French magazine and leafed through it. I saw a full-page image for Galleries Lafayette – a major department store – that I had first seen at least a dozen years ago. (It’s the image shown above). It’s a striking image and very recognizable and I gather that Galleries Lafayette sees no reason to retire it.

This also reminded me of a CEO I once worked for. Every now and then, he would call me in and tell me that, “Our messages are getting stale. Time for some new messages.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t talking about high-level metaphors and ad copy. Rather, he was talking about the fundamental elements of the brand. He thought we were repeating ourselves and we needed to stop it.

So, who’s right? Well, Galleries Lafayette is doing better than my old company. The lesson for me is that the brand itself shouldn’t change (unless there’s a very good reason). For instance, Volvo’s brand is safety. Volvo changes the metaphors and images it uses to deliver the message but the message is always safety.  So if you’re thinking that familiarity breeds contempt, you’ve got another think coming. Familiarity actually breeds trust. And trust breeds sales.

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