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X-mas Advertising: John Lewis, M&S and Debenhams Christmas Ad Campaigns Compared

November 6, 2014 1 comment

Good advertising should make you feel good inside so that it creates desire for the product or brand. Especially at this time of year, stores try to capture minds so people can buy their gifts at the advertiser’s shop. It’s all about AIDA – building an Awareness of the brand; then stimulating an Interest in it; followed by creating a Desire to Act and make a purchase.

The Daily Mash is a satirical UK news website which publishes spoof articles. It’s a UK equivalent to The Onion website in the US that has carried some world-class spoofs, believed and republished by the regimes in Iran and China with a spoof about Kim Jong Un of North Korea.

A few days ago I read an article in the Daily Mash about the Debenhams Department Store‘s new Christmas Ad campaign, describing the campaign as demonic (Satan Quits over Debenhams Christmas Advert).

Image from Debenham’s Xmas Ad, as shown in Daily Mash article

The accompanying image of a child in a red hood reminded me of Red Riding Hood. I was curious – and so watched the ad.

The ad features a group of children let loose in Debenhams after closing time – there’s the odd cleaner still around. The children seem to have full rein to go wherever they want, try on whatever they want (whether it fits or not), snatching, taking, and making a mess. I found it totally materialistic and symptomatic of a “me, me, me” attitude.

I saw the kids in the ad as spoiled brats. The only redeeming feature is that it did show the quality and range of goods available (although mostly for adults rather than children’s toys).


John Lewis – another UK Department Store has a reputation for producing really thoughtful and moving ads at Christmas. I wondered what they had produced for 2014. This was the opposite to the Debenhams ad. It showed a child, in love with a pet penguin – and how the two played together and had fun together. Except the penguin was lonely, despite his friendship with the boy. This ad captures the seasonal mood – as it’s all about sharing, friendship, love and giving – and like the 2013 ad, brings a tear to the eye.

(John Lewis’s page launching the ad also has extras to download on the theme of #MontyThePenguin. There is also a Daily Mash spoof on this – which I’m not linking too as I found it in poor taste, mentioning avian rights and trafficking!)

I’m curious to know which brings in the shoppers. My bets are on John Lewis.

(Last year’s John Lewis X-mas ad was a classic – and much praised. It is worth watching, just for how it manages to create a real appreciation of the brand. I suspect this year’s – although not as emotive – may prove to be better for sales figures as I think it finishes with a stronger call for action i.e. purchase).

I also looked at the M&S Christmas ad #FollowTheFairies. It doesn’t have quite the same magic and sparkle of either the Debenhams ad or the John Lewis one despite its theme – two fairies, delivering magic & sparkle (i.e. M&S) across town (in scenes reminiscent of Peter Pan). There was no sense of wonder – which both the Debenhams and John Lewis adverts managed to invoke. Nevertheless, I much prefer it to the Debenhams ad for the same reason that I like the John Lewis one: the emphasis is on giving and creating happiness. Isn’t that what the spirit of Christmas is supposed to be all about?

Competition or Co-operation? Collaborate & Co-operate to build and not to destroy.

February 19, 2014 1 comment

Competition – or Cooperation? When companies merge, or when one company acquires another, the aim is to integrate the two into one unified entity as quickly as possible.

The problem is that often, this doesn’t happen. There is competition, resentment and rivalry and the two fail to unite. The problem is how to prevent this so that there is a successful integration of the employees of the two companies so that they take pride in the new merged company.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Bible gives a way forward when he discusses what happened after the Israelites built the Golden Calf in the Sinai desert. They were given a task – to build a tabernacle to pray to God. Moses asks the Israelites to make voluntary contributions to the construction of the Tabernacle – the Sanctuary. They do so with such generosity that Moses has to order them to stop.

If you want to bond human beings so that they act for the common good, get them to build something together. Get them to undertake a task that they can only achieve together, that none can do alone.

The power of this principle was demonstrated in a famous social-scientific research exercise carried out in 1954 by Muzafer Sherif and others from the University of Oklahoma, known as the Robbers’ Cave experiment. Sherif wanted to understand the dynamics of group conflict and prejudice. To do so, he and his fellow researchers selected a group of 22 white, eleven-year-old boys, none of whom had met one another before. They were taken to a remote summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. They were randomly allocated into two groups.

Initially neither group knew of the existence of the other. They were staying in cabins far apart. The first week was dedicated to team-building. The boys hiked and swam together. Each group chose a name for itself – they became The Eagles and the Rattlers. They stencilled the names on their shirts and flags.

Then, for four days they were introduced to one another through a series of competitions. There were trophies, medals and prizes for the winners, and nothing for the losers. Almost immediately there was tension between them: name-calling, teasing, and derogatory songs. It got worse. Each burned the other’s flag and raided their cabins. They objected to eating together with the others in the same dining hall.

Stage 3 was called the ‘integration phase’. Meetings were arranged. The two groups watched films together. They lit Fourth-of-July firecrackers together. The hope was that these face-to-face encounters would lessen tensions and lead to reconciliation. They didn’t. Several broke up with the children throwing food at one another.

In stage 4, the researchers arranged situations in which a problem arose that threatened both groups simultaneously. The first was a blockage in the supply of drinking water to the camp. The two groups identified the problem separately and gathered at the point where the blockage had occurred. They worked together to remove it, and celebrated together when they succeeded.

The lessons for companies trying to work together should be obvious – integration isn’t through words but actions, collaboration and co-operation. It’s NOT through conflict or continuing the “us” and “them” approaches often seen.

In another, both groups voted to watch some films. The researchers explained that the films would cost money to hire, and there was not enough in camp funds to do so. Both groups agreed to contribute an equal share to the cost. In a third, the coach on which they were travelling stalled, and the boys had to work together to push it. By the time the trials were over, the boys had stopped having negative images of the other side. On the final bus ride home, the members of one team used their prize money to buy drinks for everyone.

Similar outcomes have emerged from other studies. The conclusion is revolutionary. You can turn even hostile factions into a single cohesive group so long as they are faced with a shared challenge that all can achieve together but none can do alone.

The point is obvious. In order to integrate two groups together – whether they are companies, teams, departments or any other collection of people – you need to encourage not just co-operation with motivational words, but also set in place collaboration that involves both groups sharing and building together.

When mergers & acquisitions fail it is often because the two parts don’t behave as one. The Robber’s Cave experiment gives an explanation on why this is – and more importantly, how to correct it.

The iWatch – is this the next disruptive innovation from Apple?

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Apple has developed a reputation for creating new markets that didn’t exist previously. The iPod was not the first mp3 player but it created a mass market. The iPhone launched the SmartPhone era – showing BlackBerry the potential of an Internet enabled phone, in a way that has almost killed BlackBerry’s manufacturer, RIM. The iPad was the next innovation – but since then nothing at all except rumours. The rumours include an Apple TV that would shake up the television industry, and an Apple watch – the iWatch. The AppleTV was said to be the next big innovation – and was briefly mentioned in Steve Job’s biography, where apparently Apple had something that would really shake up the TV industry. Nevertheless, the rumours relating to this have died down – and the iWatch is the latest rumour target.

One idea on the iWatch

My first thoughts on seeing images of the rumoured iWatch were why?

Why would anybody want something like this on their wrist when there were so many beautiful products from Citizen, Seiko, and higher-upmarket, Rolex & Patek Phillipe, among many others. It didn’t even have the look of the Swatch watch.

I also couldn’t see it as a replacement for a SmartPhone – as it’s too small to do all the current functions expected of phones that seem to be getting bigger, not smaller. So I personally dismissed the iWatch as just rumour, or a sign that Apple had lost its mojo, if it turned out to be true.

Nevertheless, the rumours have become pervasive – and so I’m sure that they are either a smokescreen or reflect something real.

I started to think about it.  The watch market can be divided up into a number of sectors. One sector views watches as a form of jewellery – and this is the market Rolex, Patek Phillipe follow. To an extent it is also the market that Citizen and Seiko chase too – although their watches also emphasise functionality, with the Seiko Solar and the Citizen Ecodrive watches that don’t need batteries or winding. Further downmarket, Swatch tries to be a fashion item. However all have a basic raison d’être – to tell the time. I couldn’t see an Apple watch easily replacing the jewellery element (or at least not initially). I doubt it will be a solar product – and so (again initially) it won’t replace Seiko or Citizen. It could compete with Swatch, but from previous Apple history would be much more expensive and so bring little to the pie.

The next question is who wears watches today – and that gave the clue to why I think the iWatch is real. Most watch-wearers are Generation X or older.  Millennials / Digital Natives don’t wear watches. They use their SmartPhones to tell the time. That’s the clue – and the target. A SmartWatch – especially if it could interact with existing devices – makes a lot of sense, as it could provide a more compact device to supplement their iPhone, iPod and iPad or even replace them for around the house, workplace or college dorm. I think that contrarians that say such a device won’t work are falling for the mistake I think I made, by not thinking about how people tell the time today. The potential problems revolve around the other expected features. Will it also be a phone? A music player? A portable sat-nav device? How would these work ergonomically?

Assuming that the iWatch is real and not a smokescreen for something else, the argument that it won’t be attractive fails when you see some of the suggested design concepts. Some are very attractive and wearable as both a fashion item and even as jewellery. The potential objections to functionality are also less if the iWatch were to interact with other devices.  The problem here is that there may be an expectation that the interaction is with another Apple device – which would mean that the iWatch would not be a stand-alone product. This limits its potential considerably. What about linking to Android phones – that have overtaken the iPhone in overall market share – or a Windows computer? If this were to be allowed then I think the iWatch would be another Apple success story.

If this is the case, then it does something else. The onset of quartz watches in the 1980s was highly disruptive to the Swiss watch industry. Initially the Swiss industry dismissed such timepieces as cheap and nasty, but in classical disruptive innovation style, they soon overtook mechanical watches to become the dominant format. The rise of quartz watches caused serious damage to Switzerland’s watch industry – until it recognised the threat, and created products such as the Swatch. An Apple iWatch that succeeds promises to be equally disruptive – and overtime, most of us may end up wearing such products.

If you will it, it is no dream…

February 4, 2013 1 comment

This is the first blog post I’ve written on the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I’m writing it in response to a number of twitter conversations I’ve had over the last week with Palestinian supporters. This has relevance to business research as it shows how people who are obviously intelligent and reasoning can be so influenced by prejudice and false assumptions that they fail to see this as a blind spot. They are blind to what is mostly false propaganda and so continue to believe lies. The Israel-Palestine conflict is highly emotive but can serve as an example and metaphor for any area where people have firmly entrenched opinions. Such dogmatism leads to bad decisions that are based on fallacies – irrespective of whether it relates to the Middle-East or business.

Those who know me know that, although I support Israel, I also believe in the rights of the Palestinian people to fulfil their dreams and have their own Nation State. However this should not be at the expense of the Jewish people’s dream. The land now governed by the State of Israel was originally designated for two peoples, and the Palestinians have rights to govern themselves as much as Israelis have.

What has disturbed me has been the unquestioning faith of the anti-Israel proponents to their cause and the lies they use to justify this faith. Worse, they believe that these lies are totally true.

I stand by everything I wrote. I am not a liar and everything I said is verifiable.

was one comment. Yet this same person said that anti-Semitism also relates to Arabs, ignoring the proper definition of the word. He suggested that I check the “Miriam Webster” (sic) dictionary. Well here’s the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:

Hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.

No mention of Arabs here. The concise encyclopaedia entry after the dictionary definition does continue:

Hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious group or “race.” Although the term anti-Semitism has wide currency, it is regarded by some as a misnomer, implying discrimination against all Semites, including Arabs and other peoples who are not the targets of anti-Semitism as it is usually understood….

This is quite clear – some people think that the term could apply to Arabs too, as Semitic peoples, and so the term is a misnomer (i.e. a wrong name or designation) and that Arabs are not the target of anti-Semitism.

This simple example demonstrates that even checking a dictionary entry can lead to a misinterpretation by somebody who has a prejudice.

Bible Stories & Ancient Languages

The other twitter conversation started innocently enough:

Abraham was from #Iraq ,Moses from #Egypt , Jesus from #Palestine, Golda Meier from #Russia and Herzl from #Hungry ,so who was “#Israeli”?

I responded, slightly flippantly:

#Palestine was the Roman name. Abe became #Israeli. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon… Jesus: All #Israeli

to which came back:

Abe was a guest in the land of the Canaanite, Salomon has had a Phoenician mother and Jesus did not even speak Hebrew.

I pointed out that Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba,  was not Phenician but was from King David’s own tribe i.e. was an Israelite, and that Aramaic was a Jewish language.

Although we do not know whether or not Jesus spoke Hebrew he would have spoken Aramaic – the language spoken in Israel/Palestine at the time. His last words, as recorded in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, are Aramaic. The language is used for a number of Jewish prayers (including the Kaddish prayer said by mourners) and the majority of the Talmud.  It is feasible that Jesus also knew Hebrew based on some of the New Testament stories such as Luke 2:46-47 which relates that Jesus was in the Temple listening to the Rabbis’ teachings. This was the time when the Mishnah was being written – and the Mishnah is in Hebrew, implying that Jesus understood these teachings.

Despite the above, prejudices and inaccuracies started to come out – for example:

Aramaic is the old-Arabic-language. While today´s Israelis have re-invented the Hebrew-language in 1920

This is false on two counts. First, Aramaic is in a different branch of the Semitic language group to Arabic (the South Semitic group) – but in the same group as Hebrew (North West Semitic). Second, Hebrew was never re-invented – and certainly not in 1920. Eliezer Ben Yehuda who revived the Hebrew Language revived the language as a spoken, everyday language, in the 1880s – 1890s. Cecil Roth summed up Ben-Yehuda’s contribution to the Hebrew language: “Before Ben‑Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”

Even when I pointed this out, I got back the response:

Nevertheless Ben Yehuda invented it……

This suggests that Hebrew is a language like Esperanto  –  showing a prejudice that refuses to accept what should be common knowledge i.e. that Hebrew is the language of the Bible and most Jewish prayer and Rabbinic writings through the ages. It gives a flavour of the problems – and the ignorance.

The Ottoman Empire’s dissolution

Here are more tweets from the conversation:

In 1948 the UK left PALESTINE after being there 25 years as a mandate power….there was no “Israel” !!

To which I responded:

Independence Years: #Iraq 1932 #Lebanon 1943 #Jordan & #Syria 1946; #Israel 1948 #Palestine ?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_national_independence_days …

and

Prior to 1917 no Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, either. All part of Ottoman empire. No real difference but years!

My point here is that although Israel was founded in 1948, the other nations were also new, formed out of the carved up Ottoman Empire, with Britain and France granted mandates by the League of Nations following the First World War. Each of the nations gained independence from the colonial powers in the years stated. None had existed as sovereign nations before – except, like Israel, in pre-History. All were thus the result of a European mind-set, that took maps and drew borders. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was granted to an ally of Britain – Abdullah – as was the kingdom of Iraq, initially ruled by Abdullah’s brother, King Faisal. Iraq was drawn up by Winston Churchill in 1921 by using a ruler and a pencil and does not reflect the ethnicities or geographies of the area. Syria and Lebanon were ruled as French Mandates and were handled in a similar way to the British mandated territories.

The only difference between Israel and these other countries, is the majority peoples in the other countries were Arab. Not Iraqi, Palestinian or Syrian – but Arab. The majority religion was Islam. In contrast, Israel was Jewish.

The conversation continued:

So was also half of Europe being part of the Hapsburg empire and yet we have Romania,Poland Italy Hungry etc,,,,,,

This is, of course, correct – but doesn’t refute my statement. I agreed:

Agree. Geopolitics from 1850-1950 resulted in lots of national self-determination movements including Israel!

Jewish beliefs & Zionism

There then came nonsense trying to define what Jews are and falsifying Jewish history. (Non-Jews telling Jews who they are, and what they should believe is a classic anti-Semitic trope).

No sir !! there was never a “Jewish-nation” since the year 0070 !! it was invented by Zionists in Basel.

Zionism is simply a colonial-adventure with a Jewish artificial-flavour !!!

This, of course, completely ignores traditional Jewish belief and prayer. It ignores the fact that after every meal, religious Jews ask for Jerusalem to be rebuilt, and in each daily prayer they ask for a return to Zion (i.e. Israel) and an ingathering of the Jewish people there. This is not just in the prayers of Jews from Europe, but all Jews – irrespective of where they lived following the exile in the year 70. This exile is remembered in the Jewish calendar – with fast days, and even on joyous occasions such as weddings, where the breaking of a glass as the final act is to symbolise that we still remember the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and our subsequent loss of sovereignty and exile in the Holy Land. (It’s not – as the joke says – the last time that the man will be allowed to put his foot down!)

Population Exchanges & the Refugee Problem

I tried to move from history to a contemporary solution – without assigning blame for the Palestine-Israel problem:

Peace also means recognition of ALL Middle East refugees resulting from ’48 & ’67 wars. Jewish & Palestinian.

Majority of Israelis are now descendants of refugees from Arab countries forced out from their homes.

Back came more ignorance and prejudice:

There are no “Jewish-refugees”, there are rather Jewish-colonialists who came in carrying guns…….

I tried to correct this:

False. Jews forced out of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon… Pre-1948 Baghdad was 1/3 Jewish. Now no Jews in Iraq

But got back the statement:

Arab-Jews were NEVER forced out , but rather tricked-out by Zionist-bombings of their own synagogues .

to which I responded:

False. The Farhud in Iraq http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farhud  Pogroms in Yemen http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1947_Aden_pogrom … 1840 Blood libel in Syria…

The fact that these were all before Israel’s establishment was ignored – perhaps the truth was too inconvenient, as the response was:

If there were no State of Israel those Jews would have remained in their own Arab-country !!

I pointed out that this was because the Jews from the Arab countries had no choice – as without Israel there was nowhere else for them to go easily. (Many did try to escape to France, the USA, Australia – but in the main there were quotas and restrictions, unlike for Israel).

Life for Jews in Arab lands was not as rosy as anti-Israel supporters would like us to believe. Non-Muslims (Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians)  were tolerated but viewed as Dhimmis (i.e. second-class citizens). Although sometimes there was peaceful coexistence, generally this was because non-Muslims accepted that they had minimal rights. Post-1948 the situation Arab Jews found themselves in became intolerable with regular pogroms and attacks in almost all Arab nations – resulting in over a million refugees i.e. at least the same number as Palestinian refugees fleeing their homes in the aftermath of the 1948 and 1967 wars. (More recently, the position of the Christian minorities in many Arab countries has deteriorated – with murderous attacks in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere). Israel gave  Jews a chance to escape.

I didn’t mention in either conversation that the definition of a Palestinian refugee is unique. Usually refugees are long-standing residents of a country.  The Arab Jewish refugees had lived in their countries for generations – many pre-dating Islam. In contrast, Palestinian refugees only had to have been living in the area since 1946.  (UNRWA – the UN agency set up to help Palestinian refugees define Palestinian refugees as “people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.“).

The facts are that as Jews returned to what was then Palestine, they drained swamps (e.g. in the Hula Valley) and started farming the land in a way that had not been done for centuries. This increased the affluence of the area, and Arabs started moving in to take advantage of new work opportunities. Prior to the 1880s, the area was desolate – with subsistence farmers being the majority population, except for in a few towns. Jerusalem had a majority Jewish population, for example – ignored by anti-Israel advocates who even claim it is an Arab city. So, in reality, there was a population exchange – with Jews being forced from their ancestral homelands in Arab countries, and Arabs – many of whom (like Yasser Arafat) had not been born in Palestine – forced out of, or leaving, their homes too. Further, the Arab Jewish refugees and their descendants are now the majority of Israel’s population – and not the descendants of European Jews, as anti-Israel apologists try to claim.

The need for separation – Two States for Two Nations

Eventually of course, we got onto that canard of Israeli Apartheid. Whenever you point out that there is no Apartheid – and mention that there are Arab members of the Knesset, Arab judges, Arab military officers – in fact, Arabs in all aspects of Israeli public life the point is ignored.  Instead, the fact that the West Bank Palestinians are not Israeli citizens and don’t wish to be makes Israel an Apartheid State, according to this view.

The true situation is that prior to the second Intifada, West Bank Palestinians had freedom of movement and work within Israel – although as non-citizens they did not have a vote. The only reason they are separated today is because they chose to attack and kill Israelis. The separation is for security reasons – and if there was a genuine peace there would be no need for such separation. Contrast this with Jordan and Saudi Arabia which have a policy to ban Jews living there or pre-Civil War Syria, where Assad’s Alawites held all the power. These more match the actual definition of apartheid – where ethnic and racial groups are kept separate.

I tried to end the conversation peacefully by pointing out:

There SHOULD be both Palestine & Israel. Needs to be 2 States. Both sides need to talk peace.

The following response shows the mind-set of the anti-Israel apologist – refusing to accept a fair, just and logical solution to the problem:

“2 states” means half of Palestine stolen forever !! One State would be secular-inclusive-Palestine

I pointed out that there is no truly bi-national State anywhere in the world that is stable. My correspondent tried to refute this by pointing out that Switzerland has a number of different groups living there – French, German, Italian and Romanche. However Switzerland is built on a canton system where each is essentially self-governing. Further, the Swiss nation hasn’t experienced decades of hatred. Another example – Belgium – is actually poor as the French and Flemish groups dislike each other would split if they could. Yet there is more in common culturally between these two groups than between Palestinians and Israelis.

I believe that if Israel and Palestine became separate States then one day the two could feasibly federate on a Swiss model if both peoples wanted it. However today, because of the enshrined hatred between the two peoples, there would be war which would lead to massacres – potentially by both sides.

I try to look at both sides and take into account both national narratives. Unless the Palestinian and anti-Israel side does the same then there will not be a peaceful and fair resolution of the problem. Instead there will be a continuation of the status quo which is good for neither side – or something far worse.

Whenever there is a conflict – or disagreement – it is important to understand both sides of the argument, and avoid bias. It is essential to check facts – and also the source of any information, in case there is bias there. Unless this is done, poor decisions and continuing problems are inevitable. This is as true in business as it is in Middle-East politics.

The impact of disruptive innovation – on PCs and on Retail

January 17, 2013 11 comments

Two recent items highlight the impact of disruptive innovations on industries. The first is a presentation from the Business Insider called the The Death of PC. The second is an article looking at Amazon and mentioning its March 2012 purchase of Kiva Systems.

Since 2009, the PC market has hardly grown. In the same period, Smartphone & Tablet sales boomed. Many tasks that used to be done on PCs are now done on these newer devices: email, web-searching, social media, and more. This has had a massive impact on the traditional PC market and its suppliers such as Intel and Microsoft. Whereas Apple’s and Samsung’s share prices have grown substantially, Dell & HP have been static or fallen. The introduction of both Smartphones and Tablets illustrate how disruptive these technologies are to the traditional PC industry – although as the The Death of PC presentation shows, things are actually more complicated. This is typical for a disruptive innovation – especially in the earlier stages.

Disruptive innovations do not always kill the products and industries they replace. What they do is change them radically. Smartphones haven’t killed the camera industry. They have, however transformed it so that DSLR and higher-end / special function cameras are now the main products sold. The cheap mass-market snapshot camera has gone – who needs one, when a Smartphone does everything that they could do, and much more. Disruptive innovations also mean that companies that fail to adapt quickly enough disappear. Kodak’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is an example of this. Kodak and photography were synonymous – but the company failed to anticipate how digital camera usage would change the way people process photographs.

In the case of the PC market, so far it’s only the home PC that’s dying. The PC in the workplace is doing fine – and that’s because the type of task it is used for is different. It’s hard to work on a spreadsheet, or a complex graphic or even a long report using a Tablet and almost impossible on a Smartphone. These aren’t tasks that the home computer was used for. So Tablets haven’t changed the work PC – only the home PC market. However expectations have changed – and this has led to newer devices and cloud computing which promises to be as disruptive for the traditional hard-disk based PC and so the PC as we knew it last century is gone or going. It’s not yet dead – just changed.

Amazon’s purchase of Kiva Systems in another example of a disruptive innovation. Amazon itself has shown how disruptive e-commerce is to traditional retailing. The high-street and even the out-of-town retail outlets struggle to compete with Amazon on price. However they can still compete on service: if you want something on the same day, then such outlets beat Amazon, even if the price is higher. Further, Amazon’s warehouse distribution system could be copied and many of the larger retailers now offer online options. Currently both use human labour to select and package products for delivery – and this represents a significant proportion of retail costs. The Kiva Systems purchase promises to change all this. Kiva Systems manufactures robots and the software used to control them. The robots are designed for use in warehouses for accessing goods. They remove the need for a human being to go to the relevant shelf and remove a product for sending to a customer – instead a machine does this. Eventually such systems are likely to completely automate the distribution process – meaning that Amazon’s labour costs will fall dramatically.

Any retailer that still depends on human labour in their warehouses or retailing is likely to find it even harder competing with Amazon’s prices. Such retailers should start thinking now on how they could compete. Options include looking at ways of improving service or focusing on narrow niches requiring in-person expertise. Waiting and hoping that some shining knight on a white charger will come and rescue them is not an option. There will be no shining knight because, however much retailers may wish it was, true life is not a fairy story.

[After writing this post, Michel Bernaiche, Program Development Director of AurowaWDC and current Chairman of the SCIP board, pointed out this news story to me – highlighting how robots are impacting not just retailing but many other business areas – from hospitals & surgery to legal research. CBS News Video on Impact of Robotics in Industry]

Why six-sigma, just-in-time and lean manufacturing are dangerous!

December 10, 2012 17 comments

Six sigma is a great idea: make sure that your product or service is as close to perfect as possible with almost zero (3.4 in a million) faults. So is just-in-time (JIT) and lean manufacturing. All involve tight control on business processes and require businesses to focus on efficiency. You can’t have a JIT manufacturing process without being highly efficient in controlling all aspects of your supply chain.

The problem is that when circumstances change it can be difficult to adapt the processes quickly enough. When the change is disruptive then it’s likely to lead to business failure. Casey Haksins and Peter Sims describe this in a Harvard Business Review blog post: The Most Efficient Die Early.

The authors correctly point out that business must also expect the unexpected and plan to absorb it and cope with it. The problem is that pursuing greater and greater efficiency goes against this need for flexibility to change. Instead there needs to be a balance. Look for efficiency but not at the cost of losing flexibility. Success requires both.

Google Carousel – a roundabout of images but not for all searches

September 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Every Wednesday, Daniel Russell, a researcher working with Google, posts a search question on his search & research blog. The search question for 26 September 2012 related to differences between the coastlines on the East and West coasts of the USA. Attempting to answer the question I typed in [Atlantic islands] into Google. Unlike the usual list I’d expected, I got this:

Google Carousel for Atlantic Islands

(Click for full size image)

The images at the top of my search were a surprise. Clicking on the arrows gave me further images – totalling 55 island pictures. I tried a few other searches [Pacific Islands], [Indian Ocean Islands], etc. and found similar results. Yet most searches such as [Scottish Islands] gave me the normal type of listing.

Search for Scottish Islands

(Click for full size image)

Intrigued, I contacted a couple of colleagues – Karen Blakeman of RBA Information Services and Marydee Ojala, Editor of Online magazine (and the Online Insider blog). Both Karen and Marydee are also members of the Association of Independent Information Professionals and like so many AIIP members, are expert searchers. (All three of us are presenting at the forthcoming Internet Librarian Conference  in London and led the London Websearch Academy in 2011).

Marydee admitted to being bemused but guessed it was connected to Google’s Knowledge Graph initiative – the new service that puts details on a search topic to the right of the search results – as with this example search for [Albert Einstein].

Albert Einstein Search

(Click for full size image)

Knowledge Graph was launched by Google in May 2012 and aims to give instant answers to many encyclopedia type search queries. However this didn’t explain what I’d found. Marydee looked a bit further and found that the TechCrunch blog had discovered this earlier in September.

I mentioned that I’d found it because of Dan Russell’s blog and Marydee asked him about the new feature. Dan responded that the “carousel” of images is triggered whenever Google knows about a collection or group of connected items such as “Atlantic Islands”. The group is then summarised and made available at the top of the results list – allowing searchers to quickly recognise the collection and the other group members.

So that’s it then! It’s a new feature giving a “carousel” of images. If you search for [knowledge graph carousel] you get the above Techcrunch link and also Google’s own search blog on the topic . (There’s a lesson here – always check Google’s own blog posts if you spot what looks like odd Google behaviour). A search for [Knowledge graph] gives Google’s own description of the feature, including a YouTube video explaining it.

Dan Russell’s reply however said more:

What it triggers on is a bit more problematic.  Answer:  only collections we know about, which can be a bit odd.  [moons of Saturn] but not [U.S. presidents].  [famous jazz composers] works, but not [cities in UAE]

This seems to explain why not all searches show the carousel. [Atlantic Islands] does. So does [Pacific Islands] but [Islands] doesn’t. [Greek Islands] is mentioned as an example in the YouTube video – but the less touristy [Scottish Islands] fails to show the carousel. It’s not just islands that give oddly inconsistent results. [Famous Jazz composers] results in the carousel appearing but [famous composers] gives a normal display. [20th century composers] works as does [19th century composers]. Bizarrely [18th century composers] doesn’t work and nor does [20th century artists] or [19th century artists]. Yet [impressionist artists] and [surrealist artists] do work. The results definitely seem surreal!

The TechCrunch blog tested the feature looking at rides at the Cedar Point theme park in Northern Ohio. I decided to ride the carousel on Disney parks. Again the results were odd – but a pattern seemed to emerge. [Disneyland rides], [Epcot rides], [Magic Kingdom Rides] all worked but [Disneyworld rides] didn’t. I then tried [Disney Paris Rides]. That works. So does [Disney California Rides]. However [Disney Florida Rides], [Disney Tokyo Rides] and [Disney Hong Kong Rides] all failed to work.

It seems as if there are two factors playing out here. The first is whether Google knows enough about the topic to create a set of common images. My guess is that Disney Hong Kong and Tokyo fail on that count – and possibly this explains why 18th century composers also fails. That can’t however explain the difference between Disney California and Paris, compared to Disney Florida. That brings in the second factor: the number of items in the collection. There are several Disney World theme parks for Disney Florida – Epcot, Magic Kingdom and more. I suspect that there are too many rides to be displayed in a meaningful manner. The aim of the Carousel is to encourage exploration – and a never-ending list tends to do the opposite: like a carousel that goes to fast, there is a risk that people may fall off.

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