Technology Truth #5: The Pile of Snow

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It’s an icy day with snow piling up outside. Someone presents you with two choices of task.

You could

(A) Stay inside and sort out the mess in your jewelry box, or

(B) Go outside an shovel the walk.

A right? Who wouldn’t choose A?

Then, five hours later, you’re still sitting cross-legged on the floor, a straight pin in each hand trying to pick apart a Gordian knot containing a broach, three necklaces, and four dangle earrings. The shoveler finished hours ago and is sipping hot chocolate while watching football.

Software Development Rule: The pile of snow is always simpler.

Developers by their very nature avoid tasks that seem boring and laborious. You write programs to do the heavy lifting! So rather than spend an hour doing data entry, a developer will opt to write a program that does it for him. He’ll argue, “The program can be re-used.” But what if it isn’t? I’m amazed by the number of times “re-use” never happens. Furthermore, what if the simple just-write-a-script tasks ends up in a five-hour jewelry box disentanglement? Leadership needs to be on the lookout for when tech folks simply need to shovel that pile of snow.

Management themselves are often attracted to whiz-bang. Who wants to hear about a boring, low-tech approach that saves $3,000? Is that why I have all those cool, tattooed tech guys in the basement talking about things that I don’t understand (but pretend to)? No, I want to year about a $50,000 tech investment that will increase sales 400%! That’s the pitch I listen to! But six months into a tech project now vastly over budget I may look longingly at the shovel.

So, beware. And ask yourself, what unglamorous “pile of snow” tasks and initiatives you and your tech folks avoiding?

Grumpy About the Cost of Digital?

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Lessons Learned from the International Women’s Writing Guild

Right now, my own digital marketing person is trying to get me to focus on a website refresh and to send a monthly email. The whole thing makes me grumpy. Keeping one’s digital marketing house in order takes so much money. And don’t even get me started on how much time composing, proofing, testing and sending one company email takes!

It is enough to get you to ask, “Is it all worth it? What would really happen if I didn’t put in the effort?”

This mini case study provides the unequivocal answer.

We rarely have the opportunity these days to look at virgin soil—the control group of control groups. An entity that has done virtually no digital marketing. But last year, tmg-e*media got the chance. I was introduced to the International Women’s Writing Guild, an organization founded on the principle of empowering women by helping them find their writing voices. Its 84-year-old founder, a true visionary in writerly things, had never ventured far out of the analog world. We redid their website and collaborated on an aggressive email campaign targeted to the IWWG conferences. And along the way, we discovered some key lessons:


1. People are paying attention

When you’re in a small organization with a lightly trafficked site, it’s easy to question how much your site matters. Is anyone paying attention? It turns out they are. Upon the launch of the new IWWG site, word spread among members who had not been actively engaged in the organization for ages. I got emails from women I didn’t even know who said, “Hey! Great site!” It allowed the IWWG to reconnect with its member base.




2. A website is key to setting expectations

Whether it’s access to your bio picture so someone can spot you at a networking event, or getting the word out about how you interact with customers, a site gives you the chance to set key expectations.

For the IWWG, expectations of the IWWG Summer Conference event had become a real pain point. A shift in venue in 2010 produced near pandemonium. After being in one location for over 30 years, members had to re-adjust to a new campus. Where was the dining hall? Why was it such a long walk to the sessions? Where were the classrooms anyway? Member dissatisfaction soared and the new venue was rejected as a site for 2011. Which meant yet another change.

Yale won the IWWG business, but the organization ran the risk of having the same, even worse, problem. The website was used in a common-sense way, but one we often forget. We simply put up campus maps, room descriptions, directions to and from housing to the dining hall. We did this thoroughly. And lo-and-behold, attendees had fewer complaints.


3. Websites are validation.

The previous IWWG website did not speak to the values and prestige of the organization. Therefore, it did not help convert conference-considerers to convert to conference attendees. When people hear about you or your event, the first thing they do is go to the website and check it out. We heard from attendee after attendee that they went to the site and got a good feel for the conference. And then, the conference itself had the same feel. This consistency produces a sense of stability, trust and reliability.

See Before and After above.


4. Digital media works hand in hand with other media.

To promote this year’s summer conference, we had emails, radio ads, the site, meetups and word of mouth. Conference attendees reported it took two or more contacts for them to make a decision to attend. For example, one woman said she received an email and filed it. Then a radio ad prompted her to look it up again. Alas, it was lost and she did not remember the web address. She Googled madly for women’s writing conferences and that’s when our SEO-conscious site redo paid off.


5. Use the web to provide choice

Air conditioning or no air conditioning?–That was the summer question. Only some of the Yale housing provided air conditioning. There was concern about a general uproar. No air conditioning? At a summer conference? So we used the web to set pricing and give attendees choice: The non air conditioned rooms were available, or a person could have air conditioning for a higher price.

Contrary to some extreme initial fears, we got no complaints regarding AC.


So when you get grumpy about the time it takes to do digital marketing, consider the lessons above. You don’t have to accomplish the most bleeding-edge strategy. But covering the bases in a common-sense and consistent way has a big payoff, even for a lightly trafficked site for a small organization.


Technology Truth #4: It’s Not a Technology Problem

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When my phone rings, and a client says, “We have a technology problem,” immediately, I know one thing for sure: They don’t have a technology problem.

A few years ago, I got the “technology problem” call from a client. A private equity group had invested in a new publishing venture in a then-hot sector. The venture was subscription-based and also had potential data revenues in addition to ad dollars. This sounded good. So much better, I thought, than the majority of media companies who spend all their energies trying to convince themselves (and everyone else) that the ad-supported model works.

However, the technology wasn’t working according to plan. Features hadn’t been delivered. Integrations were failing. There was cut-and-paste where there should have been free flowing data. Sounded like a technology problem.

Digging a little deeper, I discovered $7MM had been invested in a proprietary content management system and backend database. To boot, the passwords for the entire system were in the hands of a disgruntled employee threatening to sue. In a scene out of a bad B-movie, I agreed to meet this person in a train station, handed over a check and collected the passwords. All this drama and intrigue for a website that had a total subscriber base of 450 registrants.

That situation was a lot of things. But the one thing it was not was a technology problem.

Though perhaps my most dramatic example of a non-technology-problem problem, I have encountered dozens of similar situations throughout my career, enough to conclude that when I get called in to solve a “technology problem,” my best bet is to look anywhere but the computer room.

It’s odd, perhaps, to hear a technology consultant like me saying she doesn’t solve technology problems. So what is it, then, that I do?

In truth “technology consulting” is business consulting in a modern guise, because so many of our business issues and technology issues intertwine.  And “technology problem” is really a 21st-Century verbal fig leaf disguising all kinds of profound management problems.

It’s safer, however, to blame the machines.

A word of advice, then, to business leaders: When you hear the tell-tale We have technology problem in your company, ask yourself what real business wolf is masquerading in this sheep’s clothing.

Five Technology Truths: #3 Technology Debates Are Religious Wars

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Rails vs. Java. Drupal vs. Alfresco. Microsoft vs. Opensource Anything.

The worst situation is when the CEO has just spent a transatlantic flight sitting next to the CMO of Microsoft. For the next two months you’ll hear nothing but Sharepoint.

 With client after client we participate in the evaluation of dozens of technologies. And though every client’s situation is different, one thing remains the same: Technology discussions are religious debates. Sometimes religious wars. Belief always enters the picture when facts fail.

 So why do the facts fail?

 1. Too much complexity

 Most technology evaluations are far too technically detailed for the average person to understand. Evaluating a CMS can produce decks and decks of comparison grids, this feature versus that, this performance stat versus the other. The key decision makers who normally have a 15-second attention span cannot possibly weigh and digest it all. So people fall back on opinion or a pet “expert.”

 2. No control group

 In a technology rollout, no one can ever run a control. You can’t adopt Oracle eBusiness Suite and in some parallel universe adopt SAP, let it run a few years and see how it all worked out.

 So since you can never have all the facts, here’s what happens next: The company’s decision-making stakeholders break into factions, each with its own passionate belief that their technology preference is the right one. I’ve even seen expert witnesses brought in from each side like an IT evaluation had somehow morphed into an episode of Colombo.

 What can you do?

A. Get perspective

 Or course you have to do due-diligence and compare features and functions of systems. However, the idea that someone has the “right” answer on a complicated technology decision is a fantasy. At some level, you are always going to be making a best guess on the information available. Consultants don’t change that. Two years of research doesn’t change it. In fact, I have seen companies so paralyzed by this reality that they do, in fact, spend two years in analysis only to find that by the time they are finished the technology has changed. Something new has become available. Then they go on to evaluate that.

 B. Make technology passion unacceptable

 I like passion. Particularly in fellow Yankee fans. However, good technology leaders should frown on a team member who is too passionate about a particular technology. Why? It’s the hallmark of an amateur. Most technologists understand that tech is tech. Every system has its pros and cons and there’s no perfect answer. If a person is so out-of-his-senses passionate about a particular technology, he should go work for whoever developed it, and leave the rest of us alone.

 The truth is technologies catch fire, wane, and sometimes catch fire again. Right now Drupal is ablaze and a lot of people are rushing to adopt it. But if history is any guide, within a few years something else will be the hottest thing and Drupal will be viewed as simply a good technology among others.

 C. Let the crowd have what they want

 If there is a lot of passion toward a particular technology, the worst thing you can do is to fight City Hall. Here’s why.

 Say my sister wants a Mac. But I know that given her usage, and the software her son uses, and so on, she would really be better off with a PC. It’ll cost less, run faster, and she’ll have fewer issues.

 So she gets the PC on my advice. And something goes wrong (because this is technology and something always goes wrong.)

 “Stupid PC!” she shouts. “This would never have happened with the Mac!”

 Hit rewind: “Sister, dear, get the Mac. It’ll make you happy.”

 Now, something goes wrong. Now she says, “Poor little Mac. It was trying its best.”

 Companies generally have more tolerance for the foibles of systems they believe in. Sure, it would be better to subtract the passion, add some perspective, and eliminate the religious fervor. But when you can’t, the only choice may be to go with the flow.

 (Excerpted from AdMonster’s Keynote Speech, 3/7/11)

Five Technology Truths: Truth #2 IT Does Matter

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In his disruptive 2004 book, Does IT Matter?, Nicholas Carr argued that innovations are so rapidly replicated that it essentially neutralizes the strategic advantage of technology. He coined the phrase, “vanishing advantage” to apply to technology and called it a “perfect commodity.”

 The book caused a firestorm of reaction, as if Carr was the first one to say these things. I think, in fact, he was just tapping into a business zeitgeist that had already been around for nearly ten years.

 This argument goes that technology is like electricity. You don’t have to understand it. (Who really knows how a transformer works?) You just have to be able to employ it to your advantage. Carr, under the Harvard Business imprint, was endorsing businesses wanted to believe anyway.

 Here’s a secret: Employing the word “commodity” is business code for demeaning something because you’re afraid of it. Calling something a “cost center” is just another flavor of the same ice cream.


Technology is so ingrained in most businesses, especially media and publishing, that calling it a cost center is a ridiculous and outdate idea.

 Here’s another ridiculous idea: “What we’ll do is wait until the dollars are justified by digital revenue, and then we’ll invest.”

 I had a client whose famous internal wait-to-invest phrase was, “We want to be settlers and not pioneers.” The trouble was, by the time they decided the digital media revolution was far enough along to justify investing, they simply couldn’t catch up fast enough. Any large-scale technology roll-out takes two years. But even more difficult to overcome, the cultural and educational issues that exist in an organization that hasn’t been bought into the digital future all along.

(Excerpt from Admonster’s keynote, March 7, 2011)