Yahoo’s Report to the Office!

Yahoo's Report ti the Office!

Yahoo's Report to the Office!There was a lot of buzz a couple of weeks ago when Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo had her head of HR send a memo rescinding the Yahoo work at home policy. From all the media coverage at the time you’d have thought this missive would threaten the very fabric of American work life!

The more I read around the issue, though, the less important I think it is. The full text of the HR letter can be seen in this post at AllthingsD.

Besides the enlightening fact that Yahoo has only recently introduced ‘Goals’ – no wonder they’ve been adrift for years – I don’t find the memo to be particularly revolutionary.

Over my career I’ve worked from numerous strange locations, leading co-located teams and globally dispersed teams and about pretty much every variation in between. Some have been more effective than others but I’ve found the glue that holds a team together is a shared goal that everyone is on-board with and in the achievement of which, everyone knows their role. Team building activities remain central to effective performance of the team and that can be difficult with dispersed teams, especially those spanning multiple time zones.

The Yahoo CEO wants to improve collaboration, speed and quality through co-locating her teams in company facilities. If I take an example of something several of my teams are working towards today, we’ve improved efficiency and effectiveness by co-locating teams within a conference room because we found even being spread across adjacent cubes was inefficient for our current phase of work.

Trying to string a process together, an actor would perform his role and e-mail or IM the next actor for the next step. Often that actor was engaged in a different activity and the work just got stuck for 15 minutes or so. Processes that should have been executed in minutes were taking most of the day to complete and troubleshooting often descended into finger pointing.

Bringing the team together into the one conference room still enabled the actors to multi-task on other activities but they were present when needed and the friction of the dispersed team was overcome. Troubleshooting morphed into problem solving and everyone involved got a much better sense of the end-to-end process they were tasked to facilitate rather than their isolated piece of that process.

The key benefit of proximity is access to all the non-verbal communication. Depending on which study you read, 70% or more of communication is non-verbal. Even with high resolution video cameras and screens, the video conference still fails to convey much of that non-verbal communication. Since communication is key to trust, building trust between team members is difficult in dispersed teams and often has to be assumed. It is much simpler to develop that trust through personal, face-to-face, communication.

That said, not all team tasks or activities have to be performed in a war room setting and often, to do their best work, people may need peace and quiet so they can concentrate and focus. But not everyone has ideal conditions at home for their best work. Just as the water cooler at work can provide a distraction, so can kids or spouses in the home, or noises on the street outside. Indeed, as I write this my daughter is watching a cartoon on the TV with the sound unreasonably (to me) high.

I’ve often found solutions to problems in hallway conversations or even elevator conversations. My own experience tells me that the new Yahoo policy has a chance of providing what Marissa Mayer is looking for – improved collaboration and speed. But there remain plenty of work activities that can be performed effectively while away from the office and and plenty or research that shows for some employees their productivity is greater when working from home.

Yahoo will undoubtedly lose those employees that find dragging themselves through the morning and evening commute is not what they want to do day-in and day-out but I doubt Yahoo will end up losing out from rescinding this policy and I doubt Marissa Mayer has lost any sleep over it.

Because the Answers Have Changed

Becuase the answers have changed - Albert Einstein

This quote comes from a delightful story about Albert Einstein. The story is that one year when he was teaching at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, it was time to set examinations. When Einstein handed over the exam papers to his teaching assistant, the assistant noted that it was the same paper that Einstein had set for that class the year before. The assistant queried the master, “Isn’t this the same exam you gave this class last year?”. “Yes, yes it is.” replied Einstein. Emboldened, the assistant asked, “But how can you give the same exam to this class two years in a row?” “Becuase,” Einstein replied, “the answers have changed”.

Last Wednesday I was invited to sit on a panel at the HMG Strategy 2013 Houston CIO Executive leadership Summit. The theme of this summit was, ‘The Epic Revolution: Leading, innovating and Transforming in a Connected World’ and my panel was discussing ‘The New Enterprise Architecture’. This theme parallels what Gartner terms ‘The Nexus of Forces’ – the social commons, mobile communications, cloud computing and information – that is increasingly challenging existing business models and processes and introducing new competitors.

At one point during the Q&A with the audience, a question came from the floor concerning why we all seem to be reinventing the wheel all the time. That was when Einstein’s line, ‘Because the Answers Have Changed.” flashed into my mind.

When we look at the Nexus of Forces, they are at one level simply new answers to age old questions. How can we collaborate across distances? How can we engage others in our conversation? How can we seek out new customers and retain existing customers? How can we reduce the fixed cost of IT?

Social, cloud, mobile, information (big data) are just the new answers to these old questions. But what is interesting is that these new answers are coming from new entrants to the business. The established names of IT are playing catchup here, not leading the way. Their inertia and high fixed costs of doing business leave them at a great disadvantage to new entrants, cloud based with low fixed costs and highly flexible and scalable business models. For the established enterprise, the element of risk rushes to the forefront as they ponder the question, “What have we go to lose?”, while the new entrant ponders the opposite question, “What do we have to gain?”.

The phrasing of these two questions puts the established business into a defensive position while the new entrant is in an offensive position. This informs both their strategies but as with the French and the construction of the Maginot Line between World War I and World War II, when an established business informs its defensive strategy with the old answers, new entrants are able to Blitzkrieg around those defenses using the new answers.

So the net time you’re asked, “Why do we have to do social within the enterprise? Why do we have to go to the cloud? Why do we need to adopt mobile? What’s all this big data about?” now you know.

It’s because The Answers Have Changed!

What was your first job?

My brother and I sort plants in the snow, early 1970.

My brother and I sort plants in the snow, early 1970.

I’ve been slowly working my way through scanning my Mother’s slide collection from the 60’s and 70’s and I came across this photo of myself and my brother. My brother is on the left, facing the camera; I’m on the right, with my back to the camera. The photo was developed in August 1970 so would most likely have been taken in February or possibly March of that year. I would have been six years old.

Back in the day, my father grew and sold flowers. In earlier years I recall potatoes and lettuce but flowers delivered a higher margin and in the late 60’s – early 70’s in England the ‘Supermarket’ was starting to make inroads into produce / fruit-and-veg sales in England and the small, independent ‘Green Grocer’ was finding his margins being squeezed by the purchasing power of the supermarket chains.

Doubtless my father could tell me what we’re doing here but I can’t say I can. It look as though we’re taking a thick layer of protective straw off the young plants so they can be moved on to the next phase of their growing cycle.

To the best of my memory, this was how I spent most of my non-school time, helping out around the market garden, even in the snow in bare hands just like the Monty Python sketch. While my friends got ‘pocket money’ my sister, brother and I got ‘wages’. We learned the value of money and hard work from an early age.

I’ve brought these values with me through my career. After graduating Exeter University, my first position was as a Seismologist in the Libyan Desert. I then spent the next 14 years advancing my career in the field in various countries around the world. These experiences allow me to bring a level of pragmatism to my IT Leadership role with a focus on ensuring the applications I work on support the users in the field and help them in performing their work. If the application is too cumbersome for the end user, either the data quality falls off or the user rejects the application outright and the IT investment ends up being wasted. It’s not always about high tech but it is always about right tech.