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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure to visit one branch of my extended family and BMW Welt (BMW World), the “multi-functional customer experience and exhibition facility of the BMW AG, located in Munich, Germany.” Supposedly, BMW Welt is the second most popular tourist destination around Munich, after Neuschwanstein Castle which inspired Disneylands’ Sleeping Beauty Castle. If you like architecture or cars, you should visit BMW Welt.

OK, but this is the Operations Room, so what else is worth knowing? It turns out that this month, BMW starts selling in Germany its long-awaited i3 (the USA will have to wait until 2014) and here’s some personal pictures to highlight three aspects:

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We have already written in the past about the use of data analytics to best route customers to agents based on demographics and other characteristics.  The NY Times has an interesting article on the use of data analytics to improve retention and employee-employer relationships (“Big Data, Trying to Build Better Workers“)

The article discusses the broader appeal of these ideas, but focuses on applications to call centers. Why call centers? In contact centers, customer service agents, that are hourly workers handle a steady stream of calls under challenging conditions, yet their communication skills and learning capabilities play a crucial role in determining both the employee’s tenure and performance. The article discusses a new startup, Evolv, which helps firms find better-matched employees by using predictive analytics.

Transcom, a global operator of customer-service call centers, conducted a pilot project in the second half of 2012, using Evolv’s data analysis technology. To look for a trait like honesty, candidates might be asked how comfortable they are working on a personal computer and whether they know simple keyboard shortcuts for a cut-and-paste task. If they answer yes, the applicants will later be asked to perform that task.

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Apple, the world’s highest valued company, and its relationship, both competitive and cooperative, with Samsung provide a wonderful setting to discuss some fundamental questions that relate to strategy and operations:

FIRST: Which one is the more sustainable provider of Apple’s competitive advantage: design or the business model?

  • Daring Fireball’s John Gruber wrote three beautiful paragraphs to argue his view on what he termed “The New Apple Advantage“:

So let’s be lazy for a second here, and attribute all of Apple’s success over the past 15 years to two men: Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. We’ll give Jobs the credit for the adjectives beautiful, elegant, innovative, and fun. We’ll give Cook the credit for the adjectives affordable, reliable, available, and profitable. Jobs designs them, Cook makes them and sells them.

It’s the Jobs side of the equation that Apple’s rivals — phone, tablet, laptop, whatever — are able to copy. Thus the patents and the lawsuits. Design is copyable. But the Cook side of things — Apple’s economy of scale advantage — cannot be copied by any company with a complex product lineup. How could Dell, for example, possibly copy Apple’s operations when they currently classify “Design & Performance” and “Thin & Powerful” as separate laptop categories?

This realization sort of snuck up on me. I’ve always been interested in Apple’s products because of their superior design; the business side of the company was never of as much interest. But at this point, it seems clear to me that however superior Apple’s design is, it’s their business and operations strength — the Cook side of the equation — that is furthest ahead of their competition, and the more sustainable advantage. It cannot be copied without going through the same sort of decade-long process that Apple went through.

  • James Allworth, co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life?, adds an important dynamic component to the argument by applying Clay Christensen’s theory to this question:

The design part of Apple’s equation is to their ability to redefine new industries as they did with the iPhone. Whether they go after the TV market next, or something else, it’s this integrated design component that will be crucial to their initial success. But compared to the business side of Apple, design actually generates much less sustained strategic advantage in any one product category, once performance in that category becomes “good enough”. The tech industry has always revolved around copying. Once folks work out how it’s done, everyone piles on. And at that point, it becomes much less about design than it does about how you operate your business.

  • In summary: the answer to whether design or the operating model is the more sustainable competitive advantage is the typical MBA response to a tough question: “it depends.”  The rather sophisticated reasoning involves the fact that products and services over time improve and then become “good enough” and the dimension of competition shifts. Notice that I did not say that design is a commodity and fully copyable (my personal favorite question: why can’t Lexus designs have the timeless sophistication and elegance as Mercedes?); rather, another dimension overtakes it in importance.

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Just how productive can tweeting be? As the Wall Street Journal tells it, Twitter has become an effective platform for customer service at Citibank (Citi Won’t Sleep on Customer Tweets, Oct 4).

Frustrated by the 40 minutes she spent on hold with Citibank customer service, Stacy Small tweeted her displeasure. To her surprise, a Citibank agent tweeted right back. “Send us your phone number and we’ll call you right now,” read the message.

Within minutes Ms. Small, who owns a luxury-travel company in Los Angeles, was on the phone with an agent, one of about 30 customer-service personnel based in Jacksonville, Fla., and San Antonio who have received special training in social media. The agent took such good care of her that, now, whenever Ms. Small has a problem she bypasses the call center and instead tweets her concerns to the Twitter address @askCiti. …

Ms. Small was the beneficiary of a two-year effort by the Citigroup Inc. unit to overhaul the way it interacts with customers using social-networking sites run by Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc. and others.

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The Wall Street journal had an interesting article several weeks ago on the idea of “Stand-Up Meetings.”

Stand-up meetings are part of tech culture in which sitting has become synonymous with waste. The main idea behind these meeting (as also pointed out in this MarketPlace episode) is to eliminate long meeting where participants pontificate, check emails, and play Angry Birds:

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A few days ago, Henry Blodget wrote :

We love our iPhones and iPads.

We love the prices of our iPhones and iPads.

We love the super-high profit margins of Apple, Inc., the maker of our iPhones and iPads.

And that’s why it’s disconcerting to remember that the low prices of our iPhones and iPads–and the super-high profit margins of Apple–are only possible because our iPhones and iPads are made with labor practices that would be illegal in the United States.

The article summarizes a recent episode of NPR’s This American Life which did a special on Apple’s manufacturing.  Foxconn, one of the companies that builds iPhones and iPads (and products for many other electronics companies), has a factory in Shenzhen that employs 430,000 people. Apparently, an estimated 5% of them are kids (12 to 14 years) old; the standard shift is 12 hours and can extend to 14 – 16 hours; while the reporter is in Shenzhen, a Foxcon worker dies after working a 34-hour shift; the hands of workers who are using the neuro-toxin Hexane (which evaporates faster than other cleaners) to clean iPhone screens are shaking uncontrollably; etc.  All this for a wage of less than $1 an hour.

Henry concludes:

The bottom line is that iPhones and iPads cost what they do because they are built using labor practices that would be illegal in this country–because people in this country consider those practices grossly unfair.

That’s not a value judgment. It’s a fact.

So, next time you pick up your iPhone or iPad, ask yourself how you feel about that.

A good question indeed and you should ask how you feel. (Interestingly, respondents to this story span the entire spectrum.)  But let me ask whether Apple should care about this?  The answer is an emphatic “but off course.” Anyone familiar with “non-market strategies” knows that even a small fraction of the population can provide sufficient activism to bring a company to its senses.  (If you are not familiar, read “Reputation Rules” by my colleauge Daniel Diermeier.)  The momentum is already building: this weekend Forbes asked whether this is Apple’s Nike moment? Of course we hold big, successful companies to a higher standard; tall trees catch much wind.

So what will Apple do?  Well, it seems it already mounted campaigns–recently it disclosed for the first time its list of suppliers (without any addresses we should add–they still don’t want to make it easy, but it’s a first step). More interestingly, however, is the question how they will deal with the Foxcon issue: even Apple may not (nor want to) be in a position to control a company that runs a factory with 430,000 people.  Indeed, in a follow-up blog my colleague Marty will write about another key reason (besides cost) that Foxcon is so attractive: fast response at massive scale.

But this is not the first time Foxcon suicides are in the news (see May 2010 article) and Foxcon isn’t know for respect of its employees (recently the CEO called its employees “animals“). So Apple likely has been working on addressing this for a while.  Could the amazing $8 billion in announced capital investment at suppliers (see this earlier blog entry) include automation to reduce the human stress and risk factor? It surely would be in line with Apple’s strategic quest for high quality (i.e., consistency, low tolerances, etc.) while retaining high scale.  However, it would imply a faster-than-expected transition in China from low-level assembly by hand to higher job requirement for much fewer people.  Starts sounding like our job quandary?

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How much does it cost to change a light bulb? More than you may have guessed if you think of retailers with large parking lots or hotels with high lobby ceilings. In fact, for these firms the cost of changing light bulbs can be so high that it actually changes the calculation on whether it is worth adopting new types of technologies. As the Wall Street Journal reports (The Math Changes on Bulbs, Nov 30), many firms such as Wal-Mart and Caesars Entertainment are switching to LED bulbs not so much because they use less energy but because they last so long.

Here the reporter explains the reasoning:

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