The only Jobsworth worth listening to

Thursday the 5th of May saw a few folks from the organisation I work for head off to the Institure of Directors Hub near Liverpool Street to hear a Jobsworth speak at the Financial Services Club. Not just any old Jobsworth though, and not really a Jobsworth at all. The Jobsworth in question was actually JP Rangaswami, Chief Scientist at Salesforce and the man behind the Twitter account @Jobsworth. I had been looking forward to this event for a long time, in fact a very long time as it had been cancelled 3 times due to JP’s hectic travel schedule and this event was almost cancelled as well. Thankfully JP agreed to speak even though he was suffering from jet lag having just returned that day from San Francisco.

The evenings host, Chris Skinner, gave JP a warm introduction and provided an overview of his background (Used to be CIO at Dresdner bank, ex Chief Scientist at BT and now of Salesforce) and why he was here this evening (because he has been providing fantastic insight and thinking around innovation, collaboration and communication for the past 20-30 or so years and he has a few things to share…he has a lot to share actually and is a big advocate of sharing as much as possible).

He began with a rather stark statement ‘People have the lowest expectation of valuable output in innovation terms from the banking industry’. JP was very sympathetic to the bankers plight around innovation saying that the ‘conditions inside the financial industry are very adverse’. I found myself nodding along wistfully…

The cheery tone continued as he discussed Clay Shirky’s thinking around the collapse of civilised societies and the causes.

1. Act of God
2. Overfarm the envionment – Strip it of all the natural resources
3. Ecological balance – The failed introduction of a new species making another extinct.
4. Collapse due to the society becoming so complex it would no longer function. The one most likely to happen to banks? Surely not…they are such simple and straight forward organisations? 😉

A great quote from Clay’s piece rings a few alarm bells

‘Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.’

With the scene set somewhere between depressing and suicidal, if you work in a bank, it was on with the show. JP had three themes weaved into his talk that I think were roughly broken down as disruption, communication evolution and designing for the loss of control.

Incumbents vs Disruptors. We started with communications disruptions. When ISPs began causing AT&T a major problem in the United States was when they started charging $20 a month for access to the Internet. AT&T the dominant market player, the one with unrivalled scale, owner of the majority of the actual network infrastructure found their actual cost to provide internet access was $28 dollars and that was without any profit for them.

Clayton Christensen’s work on incumbents was mentioned, specifically his study on the the fixed disk drive market. A classic case of a technology that the incumbents wanted to make cheaper, better, faster. A technology the disruptors wanted to in some ways destroy.

Incumbents are at a disadvantage in as many ways as they are at an advantage. With AT&T is was the layers and layers of business process, infrastructure that had built up over time and meant they had no way of reducing the margins. With the disk industry it was clinging onto a dying technology or sacred tenet. Disruptors may have high innovation levels with low performance/takeup/scale. This must still be seen as a danger. Hanging on to dying business models is just dumb but how many organisations are smart enough to see they are dying let alone that they should not be so sacred and are willing to kill them off? To truly innovate you have to challenge those sacred things. In big organisations this is near to impossible (especially in banks) ‘You can innovate over there in that area we don’t care about’ was direction that JP had been given in the past.

The word Bankrupt literally means a failure of trust, at what point does the lack of progress or innovation start to effect how much customers trust you? He finished with some scant crumbs of comfort ‘I have a great deal of sympathy for the people in this room’.

Communication Evolution.
JP began by rolling out the fact that social media messaging volumes overtook email in September 09 (not sure of the source? Or what denotes social media messaging but the point still works). His youngest child has owned a Blackberry for 2 years. She does not subscribe to any email provider on the device. The Blackberry that most bankers carry almost singularly for the purpose of corporate email is being used by different groups in a completely different way. For his daughter it was all about group broadcast and presence provided by the Blackberry Messenger Service.

Half way through next year sales of smartphones & tablets will outsell both desktop and laptop PCs combined. Facebook continues to grow at a never before seen rate and only a fool would think it will not overtake the population of China (1.3 Billion) by 2020. How long have smart phones been on sale vs PCs? These forms of communication are growing at a rapid rate they are changing how we communicate and the language we use. How long did it take to stop using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and revert to ‘you’? How long to switch from you to ‘U’?

The iPad is only 13 months old, iPhone 4 years (and I think the Nintendo DS should be included in this) and a ‘2-3 year old child now touches a TV screen, not to put their sticky paw prints on it but becuase they expect some feedback/interaction.’ The physical household is no longer 4 or 5 people gathered around a TV. It is more like 6-8 communities. The average household has 6 Tvs, 3 PCs and 4 smartphones…

As technology becomes more advanced and available to ever greater numbers of people it becomes a means of speeding up evolution. With the continued compression of analog tools into smaller digital form factors such as the iPhone with its ever growing Swiss army knife of sensors such as the compass and gyroscope. The fact these devices are getting ever cheaper helps to accelerate the growth of innovation due to the nature of a reduced cost of entry.

‘Technology allows you to have claws or armour before you have evolved to have them yourself.’

Designing for the loss of control. This was the topic I was most looking forward to. It ties in to a lot of things that I believe and as such I was keen to hear JP talk after reading many of his posts on the subject. Designing for the loss of control for many still working in an environment that is locked down to the nth degree via things like the corporate desktop which JP likened to being the equivalent of being stuck with a bakelite rotary dial phone. He continued ‘God help you if you have to deliver to/from a locked desktop’ at this point I think quite a few people in the room were fighting back tears and reaching for the sleeping pills.

JP had recently visited Salesforce new acquisition, Heroku. The office environment was not your traditional one. ‘There were no desks, how do you design for a workplace with no desks? or no fixed wires?’ Do these locked down restrictive environments of banks lead to locked down and restrictive solutions being developed inside them? ‘If you design things that work only in a narrow alleyway then customers won’t go there’ or they will hate you if you make them go there.

Inside the banking world there are so many conversations around innovation. Meeting after meeting on innovation. Outside the traditional banking world innovation is just happening as people are just building, building, building. They don’t have the layers of process and bureaucracy. They also don’t have the other intrusions that bankers face…

‘Have you thought of the compliance implications?’ ‘No I have not thought about them at all…what do you take me for?’ A familiar sounding story from JP’s time at Dresdner.

To truly innovate you need to challenge these rules, barriers and constraints because innovation happens outside them. You will fail but you need to store those failures and use again in the future.

‘That’s not the way it works at our bank’ ‘Well good luck to you and see you in 10 years when your bank fails.’

And that is my recollection (limited by my note taking) of the event but there was so much more (Google prediction API used to see which employees work best next to each other and the work of George Gilder to name a couple). If you get the chance to see JP speak then take it. That being said for all the wit and wisdom of JP the best quote of the night actually came from my colleague Darren after the event ‘One of the best talks I have ever heard and also one of the most depressing’ said because he agreed with pretty much everything JP said and he knew we were pretty much powerless to do very much about the things that needed to change. Mr Rangaswami was right to have sympathy for us.

Thanks very much to Chris Skinner and all at the Financial Services Club for putting on the event (if you are interested in banking events like this you should probably join the FS Club). You should of course subscribe to the feed from JP’s blog and read it as often as possible as it just might stop you being such a jobsworth.

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