Weeknote 16: Anonymous? (Week 17, 2018)

This week has been another one split between two end-user computing projects – one at the strategy/business case stage and another that’s slowly rolling out and proving that the main constraint on any project is the business’s ability to cope with the change.

I can’t say it’s all enjoyable at the moment – indeed I had to apply a great deal of restraint not to respond to lengthy email threads that asked “why aren’t we doing it this way”… but the inefficiencies of email are another subject, for another day.

So, instead of a recap of the week’s activities, I’ll focus on some experiences I’ve had recently with “anonymous” surveys. I’m generally quite cynical of these because if I have to log on to the platform to provide a response then it’s not truly anonymous – a point I highlighted to my colleagues in HR who ask a weekly “pulse” question. “It’s not on your record”, I was told – yet progress is logged against me (tasks due, tasks completed, etc.) and only accessible when I’m logged in to the HR system. It’s the same for SharePoint surveys – if I need to use my Active Directory credentials, then it’s not anonymous.

I’m approaching my third anniversary at risual and I picked up an idea for soliciting feedback (for my annual review) from colleagues, partners and customers from my colleague James Connolly, who has been using a survey tool for a couple of years now. Rather than use one of the tools on the wider Internet, like Survey Monkey or TypePad, I decided to try Microsoft Forms – which is a newish Office 365 capability. It was really simple to create a form (and to make it anonymous, once I worked out how) but what I’ve been most impressed with is the reporting, with the ability to export all responses to Excel for analysis, or to view either an aggregated view of responses or the detail on each individual response within Microsoft Forms.

I went to pains to make sure that the form is truly anonymous – not requiring logon, though I did invite people to leave their name if they were happy for me to contact them about the responses. Even so, with a sample size of around 50 people invited to complete the form and a 50% response rate, I can take a guess at who some of the responses are from. By the same token, there are others where I wish I knew who wrote the feedback so I could ask them to elaborate some more!

I won’t be doing anything with the results, except saying “this is what my colleagues and customers think of me and this is where I need to improve”, but it does re-enforce my thinking that very little in life is truly anonymous.

Next week includes a speaking gig at a Microsoft Modern Workplace popup event (though I’m not entirely comfortable with the demonstrations), more Windows 10 device rollouts and maybe, just maybe, some time to write some blog posts that aren’t just about my week…

Some observations on modern recruiting practices

The weekend before I start a new job seems like an ideal time to comment on my experience of searching for the right role over the last several months.  It’s been a long time since I had to seriously look for work – all of my interviews since late-2003 have been internal, or with organisations where I already had a working relationship – and boy has the world changed!

In many cases, writing a covering letter and attaching your CV seems to have gone out in favour of automated recruitment systems. Recruitment consultants can help get you in the door (the good ones can, anyway) but many organisations only work with certain agencies – so you need to build the right contacts. And LinkedIn is all over the place…

But it’s not all bad – the interview experience should be two way – for the candidate to gauge the potential employer as well as the other way around. That’s why I’m going to write here about two roles I applied for. In both cases I was unsuccessful – for different reasons – and both left me with negative feelings (about the organisation, or about the process). Written at another time it might have sounded like sour grapes; today I hope it won’t!

Organisation A

A friend who works for a large financial services company commented that he’d seen some Solution Architect roles advertised on their job site. Sure enough, there was one which looked a good fit on paper – and it sounded extremely interesting. He referred me internally and I navigated the company’s Oracle Taleo-based job site to apply for the post.

A few weeks later, I was invited to a telephone interview to “describe the role in some more detail and get a better understanding of my experience”. With just a 30 minute telephone interview (and having done my homework on the company’s interview process), I was expecting a fairly high-level discussion with subsequent interviews going into more detail.

What I got was a technical grilling, without any context about what the role entailed, and when I tried to ask questions at the end of the interview (to understand more about the role), it was clear that the interviewer was out of time and overdue for their next appointment.

It was probably the worst interview of my career – I hadn’t performed well, partly because the questioning was not what I expected in a first-stage telephone interview; but also bad because the interviewer was pretty poor at managing the time, representing the company in a good light and allowing the candidate to discover more about the role.

My last contact with the resourcing team was over seven months ago, when they promised that they “would let me know as soon as they have feedback”. That feedback has never come, despite internal chasing and we’re now way past the time when it would have any value (the interviewer won’t remember anything useful at this late stage).  What it has done though is set me a poor impression of this particular financial services company – and that impression is one I’m likely to share with others in my professional network. No-one wins in this scenario.

I’ve logged in to the recruitment website this evening and my application is still there… showing as “Submission Status: Interview Process” with the last update dated the day before my interview. Meanwhile the position remains open for applications.

Organisation B

The second job application was with a major national infrastructure organisation. I do admit I allowed myself to get very excited (and then very disappointed) about this one but imagine my joy when I found out that the only person I know in that particular company worked in the department that was hiring. We met up and they told me more about the role, I made sure that my application was the strongest it could be – and then it failed at the first stage.

Even though I’d made sure that the team recruiting for the role knew my application was on its way, analysis of the communication I received from the HR department leads me to believe it failed a keyword search from the automated screening systems. That might sound like a candidate who thinks they are perfect and I’ve seen enough CVs pass over my desk to know that first-round screening can be hit and miss; however, using your network to make sure that the application is expected ought to help a little. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be the case for me. I’ve since learned that one commonly-used trick is to paste the entire job spec into the end of your application, in white text, and a tiny font.

A piece of LinkedIn advice

One piece of advice I received from a recruiter, which seems to have been very worthwhile, is to turn on InMail in LinkedIn (it’s under Privacy and Settings, Manage, Communications, Member Communications, Select the types of messages you’re willing to receive.

Since I enabled InMail, the volume of contact I’ve received has hugely increased. There’s a lot of noise but some of it is worthwhile (especially now recruiters are having to target more carefully) and it may just bring you a contact that leads to a great new opportunity.

And finally

The good news for me is that I have a new role – one I’m really looking forward to starting on Monday. I applied directly via the company website and the interview process has been enjoyable, just as when I was growing my team at Fujitsu and I recruited people who I genuinely enjoyed meeting and talking with about how they would fit in and what we could do to help them achieve their goals.

Now I have a six-month probationary period to navigate but logic tells me all should be well.  The difference with the company I’m joining on Monday is that they were as keen to make sure they would fit me as that I would them. Good recruitment works for all parties – it’s the human part of “human resources” that needs the emphasis!

What do Aston Martin, design, learning styles and digital storytelling have in common? (#MSRN)

Every now and again, I get invited to a fantastic event and, earlier this week, I found myself at a former school (now a “creativity and innovation space”), on one of Britain’s first council estates, in Shoreditch, East London, home of our very own “silicon roundabout”, to discuss research, disruption, invention and innovation.

If time permitted, I could write a dozen blog posts based on the discussions at Microsoft’s Research Now event. Unfortunately, the highlights are all I can deliver right now, but there were many of them…

The art of design

Aston Martin Parking OnlyFirst up, Head of Design at Aston Martin, Marek Reichman (@Design_Dr) gave a fantastic presentation on the iconic brand’s approach to design. Living, as I do, just a few miles from Aston Martin’s spiritual home in Newport Pagnell, I may be a little biased but there are few brands that stir the imagination as much as seven-times bankrupted Aston Martin – which is partly why they have been the coolest brand in the UK for five out of six years (the anomoly being the year that Apple temporarily took the top spot, since reclaimed for 2012/13 with YouTube in second place and Aston Martin in third).

The company’s new headquarters is a modern version of a castle in the middle of England, built from local stone, in a circular shape, with a moat, a drawbridge and narrow windows and signifies how design is integral to the culture of Aston Martin. Even so, Aston’s design studio (the company’s first in house studio, created in 2007) is a separate building with 6m tall windows, joined to the main complex with a glass corridor – an ivory tower in which to design, with transparency so others can see in.

I won’t continue to reproduce Marek’s presentation – I just can’t do it justice – so here are just a few choice words: power; beauty; soul; cool; exclusivity; luxury; creativity; and craftsmanship.

“Coolness” is something that one cannot claim – it has to be bestowed – but Marek Reichman describes it as stylish, innovative, original, authentic, desirable, unique. That’s a great set of adjectives that, for me, perfectly describe Aston Martin.

Design from the boardroom to the shop floor

With the unenviable job of following Marek Reichman’s keynote, Chief Design Officer at the Design Council, Mat Hunter (@mat_hunter) started out by commenting on the relationship between job titles and confidence, mocking has own grand title in comparison to Marek’s understated “Head of Design”. Mat’s presentation was no less engaging as he took us on a journey with:

  • A logistics company that’s seen improved revenues since they started to better communicate what they do through branding and graphic communications.
  • A discussion of form and function with the kettle evolving from a stove-top model to an electric kettle, one with an automatic off switch, to a cordless model, to a stylish model.
  • Disruption through changing meanings – why do we need a kettle? Why not simply have a tap that dispenses hot water for a cup of tea? Or how about the wrist watch, with Swiss craftsmanship commoditised by cheap Japanese digital timepieces, only to be usurped once more by Swatch, who took analogue technology and made it a fashion item? In another example, Streetcar (which became Zipcar and is now owned by Avis) proved that, in some markets, people want access to a car, not necessarily to own one. Then there are concepts like The Amazings – for people to try something old and learn something new.
  • Looking at innovation, Mat described the “double diamond” design process where we use the left side to redefine the brief before finding new solutions to a problem. Examples include: the Mailbox app which is aiming for a a clean mailbox and using a queuing system to manage demand [only time will tell how successful that is – I’ve lost interest already]; Casserole Club which uses the social web to connect people and provide peer to peer “meals on wheels”; The Matter which gives young people work experience and drives a better quality of output by involving them in local planning and decision-making; and even the Government Digital Service, aiming to transform the way in which the UK government provides online services with a set of human-centred design principles, integration, board-level leadership (and recruiting the best people).

Design-led transformation and innovation

In the next slot, Microsoft Consultants Fred Warren and Phillip Joe spoke about why and how to innovate using design. I really need to take another look at the slide deck to properly understand what was presented as we jumped from anecdotes such as Virgin Atlantic’s redefinition of transatlantic flight by “reframing the experience” in Upper Class, getting travellers from A to B (not Heathrow to JFK) and removing friction points to Pine and Gilmore’s Experience Economy and on to customer experience evolution but I got the impression Fred’s part of the presentation (the “why?”) could be summed up as “step back and look at the problem from a different angle” – and “don’t die hesitating”.

Phillip spoke about the “how?” with four themes of orchestration (guide the vision), envisioning (explore scenarios and define visual and textual narratives), empathy (understand what users want), and execution (take the vision and make it real – which parts of the narrative will be built out).

To be perfectly honest, this was the session that I didn’t really get. Maybe I was tired. Or maybe the previous presenters had given me so much food for thought my brain needed time to adjust… but the basic premise is sound: finding out what the problems are, rather than offering solutions right away (although isn’t that just what consultants do?).

Organisational DNA

This slot was the surprise for me. A real gem. Strategic People and Organisation Development Consultant, Elizabeth Greetham gave a talk on getting an organisation culture aligned for innovation. The concepts that Elizabeth visited are not new, but it’s good to re-visit them.

Honey and Mumford’s learning styles are a cycle of learning by doing (activists, jumping in at the deep end), reflecting (think and observe), theorising (through models) and trying out (pragmatists, starting in a safe environment). Often we skip the reflection, eradicating the time to think creatively, which in turn stifles innovation.  Meanwhile activist-pragmatists skip the theory, which can be valuable to re-engage with from time to time.

Moving on to perception and memory processing, Elizabeth spoke of four learning strategies:

  • Visual (pictures, written word).
  • Auditory (spoken word).
  • Kinaesthetic (actions and movement).
  • Tactile (touch).

Whilst visual and auditory learning are well understood (e.g. leading to success of PowerPoint) kinaesthetic learning is about doing, reaching, feeling. Restricting people to one screen limits this – the movement is important (mind maps can help). So does hot-desking – some people need their own space. The implications of touch are still being explored and, whilst it’s discouraged in the workplace there are some benefits that have been discovered through work with autistic children.

On cognitive styles, Elizabeth described two types:

  • Verbal-imagery: words vs. pictures (not everyone’s brain creates images – sometimes they need to be provided)
  • Wholist-analytic: global vs. components (some people need the big picture and to know what comes before and after their part vs. individual widgets in detail); another way to look at this is breadth first vs. depth first.

The psychological contract is about the perceptions between an employer and an employee about their obligations to one another – more than just a written contract of employment. Promises are often made or implied, e.g. during recruitment, in appraisals, at a social event, when travelling together – and we shouldn’t make promises that are not in our gift to deliver.

Elizabeth then spoke of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, before highlighting that intimacy is key to success – for every person in an organisation, someone else needs to know what makes them tick. Organisations need a structure that supports this; small working groups enable people to get to know one another much better.

In summary, “well it’s how we do things around here” is made up of people, how they learn, the psychological contract status, and personality factors. And that, is the organisational DNA.

Design in the digital physical world

In his presentation, Principal Interaction Designer at Microsoft Research, Richard Banks (@rbanks) explained some of the ideas he’s been working on for digital storytelling. His team’s ethnographic work is a combination of social science, computer science and interaction design; they look at people, see how they work, spot anecdotes about life – and spark ideas for things that can be designed. Specifically, Richard talked about the theme of the future of looking back: creating new value from reflecting on the past.

For example, on inheriting his late grandfather’s box of photos, Richard discovered they had been recorded with “metadata” (names written on the back). But with most of  us creating thousands of digital images each year, that’s a lot to pass on when our time comes.

Technology has moved past the point where it’s a play thing, it’s now an integral part of our lives and we need to deal with death on social media too. We all have boxes of sentimental objects that we don’t keep on display. The question is whether digital artefacts be sentimental too? To take another example, old diaries provide an insight into others’ lives – even if the points recorded seem mundane at the time. May be our tweets will be the same some day?

Richard showed pictures of physical items created to store digital artifacts, such as:

  • A box to backup your tweets.
  • A digital slide viewer which backs up Flickr images into a box that looks like an old Boots slide viewer.
  • A digital photo display focused on one individual containing events throughout their life structured on a timeline [à la Facebook] providing the context for where things fit.

Another interesting angle is the motivation behind digital storytelling, perhaps just creating a record for a sense of permanence – not necessarily interesting now but it may be later. And then there are the new possibilities afforded by digital media – such as putting two people into a picture that could have been together, but were not (e.g. a grandfather and grandson when one had passed away before the other was born). I’m currently taking something in the region of 10-12,000 pictures a year and I have hundreds of slides in the loft inherited from my late Father. It’s high time I took a good look at my own digital curation and storytelling…

Envisioning the future

Microsoft Chief Envisioning Officer, Dave Coplin (@dcoplin) gave the final talk before the inevitable panel session to wrap-up the day. I’ve blogged about Dave’s talks before – fast paced and highly entertaining. The twist this time around was to ask the question “What can you change in your business that you do because you’ve always done it?”. See the big picture. Avoid the arrogance of the present. Look for outcomes, not process. Set your people and your data free. Fundamentally, think human, be human. And empower others.

Conclusion

It’s been a while since I attended a Microsoft event that was as thought-provoking as this one. Most of the company’s output is pure marketing but this was a refreshing change; enabling others to lead the conversation, facilitating discussion, and leading thoughts without the distraction of a product pitch.  For this reason alone, congratulations are due to the Microsoft UK Enterprise Insights team (@MicrosoftEntUK), who hosted the day. Add in the first-class speaker line-up and it was well worth it.

As for takeaways, well, I’ve written many of them in this post but, whilst design is not at the core of my work, it can help me to think about things differently and the organisational DNA talk has given me plenty to consider as I plan for building my own team inside the organisation where I work.