Work, business & professional services

Gaming for social change

Gaming in all its forms has a market capitalisation of $US100 billion worldwide. In that sense, gaming has changed the world already. If gaming could be harnessed for social change, it would be very powerful indeed. That is the premise of Jane McGonigal, in Reality is Broken, who argues that games encourage collaboration and problem solving; and their interfaces provide platforms to help us do it.

It is true that gaming, for example, Cafe World, FarmVille and Nintendo Wii, offers many people social benefits they might not receive in their own lives. These include gift giving, reciprocity and the need for rituals. Developers of games understand how deeply these social needs go. It certainly sounds reasonable to expect they could tap into these deep social needs to create practical change for the better. One example is the video game, World Without Oil.

The difficulty with this perspective is that life does not have strict rules, rewards and goals, like a game. In the real world, there are vastly conflicting desires and priorities (grain to eat versus ethanol for the car) and life is more like a system of complex, interlinked games than one game. Games can function very well as proxies for real life and it is shown, for example, that surgeons can benefit from playing games. But games cannot be a substitute for actually getting up and doing something.

Ref: Harvard Business Review (US), June 2011, How games could save the world' by T.  Sullivan.
Search words: gaming, Nintendo, FarmVille, Cafe World, gift giving, bonds, rituals, Foursquare, Reality is broken by Jane McGonigal, collaboration, problem solving, World Without Oil, rules, goals, Poverty Action Lab.
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Social curation for sanity 

Are you one of the sleepless third of people who check their email in the middle of the night? Or one of nearly half who are continually connected to the internet from morning to night? Or are you one of the half who are anxious you might miss something if you’re offline? According to the Digital Lifestyle Information Survey 2011, nearly three quarters of us describe our data stream as “a roaring river” or a “massive tidal wave”.

To get a sense of how the volume of information is increasing, Eric Schmidt says we created 5 exabytes of data from the beginning of time until 2003. We now create that every 2 days! This explains why nearly two thirds of us are desperate for a way to stem the tide. One answer is “social curation”, which is managing and sharing content according to your digital identity in a way that suits you. For example, being able to filter out anything that doesn’t really serve you. This already happened long ago with, say, iTunes or podcasts or customised news.

Many respondents to the survey said “I consider the content I share part of who I am”. It will become increasingly true that the content they reject will be content that doesn’t reflect who they are. This ability to filter out will become crucial to our future sanity online. Nobody benefits from data overload. The question is whether continuing focus on yourself, your needs, and your community will lead to technologically-induced narcissism.

Ref: Fast Company (US), 1 May 2011, 'Sleep, friends, work – all victims of data overload', by S. Rosenbaum.
Search words: emails, Facebook, Twitter, workplace, data, social curation, digital identity.
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Four ways to become more creative

You may think some people are just more creative than others. But anyone can be creative if they are asked the right questions or put in a more fertile environment to encourage it. This is because creativity is a matter of perception. You can only see things differently if you set out to bombard your brain with different things to what it is used to.

According to McKinsey Quarterly, four ways to become more creative are: immersing in new environments, challenging orthodoxy, using analogies, and creating constraints. For example, most people stay within their workplace and rarely venture out to see how other people do things. Without personal experience, they are unlikely to be able to see beyond their own industry. A retailer of shoes may benefit from visiting other stores, say, a chocolate shop or a jeans shop, to prompt new ways of looking at retail. Or its executives could benefit by becoming consumers and going through the process of buying shoes.

Challenging orthodoxy is literally questioning your own beliefs or shared conventional wisdom. Executives might ask: what business are we really in, what would customers never pay for, what customer service do they actually expect? Another way is to use analogies, which forces the mind to associate two unrelated companies. One sporting goods retailer was asked to consider how Apple might design its stores and a credit card retailer was challenged to compare itself to Starwood Hotels.

The last technique is perhaps the most interesting: create artificial constraints. (After all, doesn’t business have sufficient constraints already?) Executives might ask what would happen if they could only contact their customers online, or if the price of their product was halved, or if its largest channel disappeared overnight. These may seem unlikely. But most of what happens in life tends to be unpredictable, doesn’t it? True creativity is the ability to come up with the unpredictable – then dare to do it.

Ref: McKinsey Quarterly (US), April 2011, 'Sparking creativity in teams: An executive’s guide' by M. Capozzi et al.
Search words: perception, creativity, immersion, orthodoxy, analogy, constraint.
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Poverty begins at home

We often hear about global poverty, companies that make micro-loans to third world businesswomen, or the “bottom of the pyramid”. But it may be time to consider the poverty nearer to home. Some 44 million American families live on less than $US22,000 per household and consumer spending across America fell by 2.8% in 2009 (the first fall since 1984). Another group, dubbed “nouveaux pauvres”, are middle class people who are short of cash because they lost their jobs.

What are companies doing to take care of them? McDonald’s has seen sales increase 4% each year since 2006, in spite of the rising price of food. It also hired 50,000 full- and part-time staff in April, to cope with demand. Aldi, the German retailer known for its limited range of products, is also doing well in America and its stores look more inviting than many of the existing discount formats. Target is now offering basic medical care and moving into inner cities.

There are also online companies appealing to the noveaux pauvres or the always poor. Pawngo, for example, is a pawn shop appealing to “college-educated working professionals with temporary cashflow problems”. Some of the prepaid wireless providers, like Leap Wireless and MetroPCS, have 90% of the growth in the mobile telephony and one provider of electricity now offers a prepaid plan. If you need somewhere to stay, you might use CouchSurfing, and sleep on somebody’s couch.

It’s all very well to focus on the rising middle classes in China and India, but the middle classes can fall or rise, depending on the economic climate. People in America, Australia, and Britain are already experiencing loss of incomes and savings. It sounds gloomy, but they need as much help as they can get.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 25 June 2011, 'The bottom of the pyramid' by Schumpeter columnist.
Search words: CK Prahalad, McDonald’s, Walmart, Tata Motors, poverty, consumer spending, Target, Aldi, nouveaux pauvres, Pawngo, ThredUp, The poverty problem by BernsteinResearch, Haier.
Trend tags: Debt
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There’s no failure quite like success

There’s a common view that you learn from mistakes and that is certainly one of the ways children learn. But do business people always learn from their own failures? In a recent book, Adapt: Why success always starts with failure by Tim Harford, conversations with business people who had failed revealed few obvious reasons for their failure and they hadn’t necessarily learned anything useful. In fact, they thought they had learned more from their successes.

The book explores this idea using examples of some high profile failures, such as Lucy Prebble’s musical on Broadway - Enron, Twyla Tharp’s collaboration with Billy Joel – Movin’ out, Gerald Ratner’s jewellery empire, and Ernst Malmsten’s Tharp learned from her experience on Broadway, rewrote her musical, and was successful in the UK. But she was one of the exceptions. It’s not unusual to rewrite a play or musical after running it out of town, but it’s much harder to test a business. In Ratner’s case, he simply made bad jokes about his empire and lost if that way. But making bad jokes doesn’t always kill a business.

One example of a man who refused to fail was Donald Rumsfeld. He continually justified his behaviour in the face of criticism and advice and, in one case, forbid his most senior general from using the word, “insurgent”. This is an extreme example of denial and our ability to continually justify ourselves, even in the light of compelling evidence. Nobody likes to be criticised. The “praise sandwich”, for example, inserts negative feedback between two positive comments to protect the receiver. This is known as “hedonic editing”, where we make a loss easier to bear by mixing it with a gain.

The book also charts how brilliant ideas tend to flounder under bureaucracy while bad ideas can flourish in dysfunctional markets. Harford explains how mechanisms that should promote safety, such as pressure valves and clever financial instruments, actually intensify the risk because they encourage people to be complacent. He also promotes the idea of breaking the links between systems so that one weak link does not bring down the whole system, for example, breaking up banks.

Ten percent of companies disappear in America each year and managing failure is crucial for any entrepreneur. Yet, most case studies of companies in business books and academic journals are examples of the ones who shone through, not the ones who failed. We certainly are sensitive creatures in the way we handle failure. Perhaps the people who say they have not learned from failure are just too sensitive. It’s the tough ones who can admit they could have done it better.

Ref: FT Magazine (UK), 4/5 June 2011, 'Regrets? I’ve had a few', by T. Harford and E. Jacobs., The Observer (UK), 5 June 2011, 'Dispatches from the war on error', by R. Behr.
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Search words: success, failure, The creative habit by Twyla Tharp, mistakes,, Donald Rumsfeld, Milgram, “praise sandwich”, Why things fail by Paul Ormerod, Adapt: Why success always starts with failure by Tim Harford.
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