Technology and taboos redefined

Recently I met with some friends after a considerable hiatus. Meanwhile they had had a baby. I have kept up with the news and have watched the baby grow up through the pictures and updates the friends share on Facebook. Several times in the conversation, we all made casual references to what we know about one another’s lives through Facebook updates. Indeed they showed me some pictures of some big moments in the baby’s life that I had missed. It made me wonder about the role of pervasive technology in challenging behaviours deemed taboo before. In the pre-all-pervasive-tech world, we gossiped, got news through common friends, or phoned or wrote one another. Even so the signal called “life” was sampled quite infrequently and the transmission of the information could suffer fidelity issues.

But now that people themselves put out information about themselves, it has likely greater currency and respectability than gossip, which may have travelled through others. Indeed it is no longer taboo to know ambient information about the life of a friend or indeed, anyone who chooses to use the “global” setting on Facebook or indeed update on Twitter.

Has technology made other taboos acceptable too?

Like many others, I now know a fairly large number of people through my blogging and my use of social platforms such as Twitter or Quora. Often the opportunity arises to meet some of them too. It seems to me that checking someone’s background – using Google or LinkedIn – before meeting them for the first time is now deemed normal. I hasten to add though that my experience suggests it can still freak out the “non-intertubes” people, who are less frequent or less prolific users of the web. This needs to be used abundantly but talked about with caution. I sheepishly admit to not being able to maintain this caution myself. A friend recently invited me to dinner with a friend of his called R. Waiting for our table, R and my friend kept talking about cooking and eating fabulous meals. Then R turned to me and asked if I could guess what he did. Having checked out his profile on LinkedIn in advance, of course I knew he specialised in sanitation. When I said so, both R’s and my friend’s faces fell. I had committed a massive social boo-boo and I have never recovered from it. R never accepted my Facebook friend request, and the less said about the earache my friend has given me since then, the better.

Then there is the idea of flexibility. While in some cultures, it is still not uncommon to plan to meet friends way in advance, making last minute arrangements as well as last minute changes to a rendezvous seem to be common and acceptable now. This has been made possible by mobile phones, of course. And location based services such as FourSquare, where you may be able to locate friends in the vicinity.

This next point may resonate with those who live many time zones away from their parents or siblings. Rationing communication between time zones is a thing of the past. Earlier, when phone calls were expensive, we scheduled calls once a week or fortnight. Now with iMessage and Whatsapp on the one hand, and GTalk, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype etc. on the other, continual and richer communication is possible at almost zero cost. It helps people keep in close contact, regardless of how far apart they may physically be.

As I write this I am aware that the most important social taboo that has been removed or modified beyond recognition is our expectation of privacy. Mainly because we ourselves now put out a lot of information about our lives out there for consumption by friends, families or strangers (the last one is that global setting on Facebook status messages).

The second social taboo that seems to have been removed is exhibitionism. There is now a blurred line between sheer exhibitionism, and self-promotion and advertising of one’s skills for professional gain. Accordingly, persons such as Katie Price in the UK and the Kardashians in the USA have “careers” deemed mainstream and bona fide, although they still successfully shock some in my parents’ generation (and mine).

Of course, individuals themselves are curating and broadcasting this information, portraying themselves not just in favourable light but also sometimes engaging in outright fabrication of a life that looks glamorous and glittering when the reality may be vastly different. Seeing all this, some have argued we are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic. In evidence are vanity and attention-seeking. How else do we comprehend the need for daily changing digital avatars? And their handmaiden, a feeling of entitlement. “You didn’t like my holiday photos on Facebook”. Then there is blame-storming and rages that follow.

We have probably only just seen the tip of the iceberg called technological intersubjectivity. Hopefully it will not sink the Titanic advances that can also be made with technology.

Craftsmanship in luxury

Craftsmanship is the cornerstone of the luxury goods industry. The obsessive focus on the art, the cultural roots, the societal context and the history not only preserves and enhances the heritage, but also helps tell a unique story and find markets for luxury goods, increasingly in countries far from home.

However as emerging markets not only demand goods as consumers but also slowly develop their own brands in luxury, how does the slow and steady pace of craftsmanship reconcile with the speed of globalisation?

The answer is deceptively simple: the historically well-established brands become evangelists for craftsmanship.

The craftsmanship and long heritage distinguish some of the most coveted luxury marques from the luxury upstarts. Such evangelism manifests variously: from Tod’s commitment to La Scala for the special project titled The Italian Dream, to Bottega Veneta’s opening of Scuola della Pelletteria to train the future generation of master leather craftsmen.

Is this bad news for emerging markets and emerging market brands?

Well, not really.

It does, of course, benefit immensely and strengthen the European luxury brands with a long heritage to showcase. But it also potentially levels the field, somewhat, for emerging markets — notably those with a rich history and creative treasures that are underexplored as sources of inspiration.

Think about what a Chinese brand could do drawing upon the history of the Tang dynasty to create beautiful products!

As some of you know, I am also a co-founder of the British jewellery brand, Livyora.  At Livyora, we created our Overture Collection by drawing upon Mughal Art and Architecture, that can be seen in India’s capital city and surrounding regions. We abstracted a visually stunning artifact of Indian heritage, to create stunning, handcrafted pieces in gold and precious stones. A wonderful story could once again be retold.

Craftsmanship still rules. All that is required is a new lens to look beyond the luxury marques of yore.

Are you in business with your friends?

One of the most misleading lines, often cited from The Godfather is: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

An entrepreneur will smile wryly whenever this line is thrown about. Business for entrepreneurs is rarely “strictly business”. It is very, very personal. Which brings us to the title of this post.

The short answer to that question for me is “yes”. I have client relationships with several friends, who are professionals in their chosen areas. My ventures too have always involved friends as co-conspirators and service providers. The tougher questions arise thence. How and when to switch on/ off your friend persona versus your client persona? Is there a priority order of personas, which one can invoke in a situation of conflict? Do all roles/ personas co-exist and you dance seamlessly from one to the other?

Here’s what I have learnt about working well with friends (and not falling out with any of them. Yet.)

Understand each other’s work styles. One of my friends mixes work and non-work so much that he fears no work gets done between gossip, coffee and often a meal. I prefer to work to agendas in work meetings. We now have a happy mix of the two work styles and it works for us. We both work on the agenda, taking segues and tangents, that often enrich our conversation. I am the one in charge of bringing back the tangent to the agenda. He is the one in charge of ensuring we stick to it. In the end we are both in charge of ensuring the other person didn’t feel hemmed in, screamed at or generally disrespected.

Trust each other’s professionalism as much as you trust each other. And be professional yourself. This absolutely cannot be overstated. Professionalism is symmetric — if you are a professional service provider, and I am a client who doesn’t know her brief, pushes you around and is unreliable with her side of the bargain, I shouldn’t expect to be seen as a “professional” client. It either works from both sides or doesn’t work at all. Your choice.

Know when and how much to push back. This is the tricky bit. I have been in a situation, where I have had to defend a professional service provider we engaged, with my collaborators. My friendship was an asset in this conflict but equally possible was that my collaborators thought of me as favouring said friend, because, well, she was my friend! And it did happen. The first couple of times, I tried to explain gently that it was not the case. But at the third instance, I made it amply clear that I did not appreciate the insinuation of impropriety and lack of integrity. I also made it clear that I was working hard to make things work, because others were not fulfilling their job of building an independent relationship with the professional, taking the easy route of “Oh, she is Shefaly’s friend!”. The push back seems to be working. I have taken a back seat in managing that particular relationship, and one of my collaborators is working to build his own equation with the service provider.

Professionalism #fail does not mean friendship #fail but lessons are learnt. In one of my ventures, we hired a professional to render essential services. He is a competent professional in his field but turned out to be most unreliable in many ways. Despite several reminders from me, an engagement letter was nowhere to be seen for months. Absolutely no advice was forthcoming on broader matters. Finally we disengaged. We are still friends but having seen his competence being compromised by his loose professional standards, I do not recommend him as effusively as I used to.

Communicate. Emails. Phone calls. Twitter direct messages. LinkedIn messages. Whatsapp. Google Hangouts. Whatever works for you. But, communicate. It prevents confusion that silence may create. Communicating about what pre-occupations may be keeping you from responding quickly on a mutual matter can foster trust and can enable the other person to extend help as a friend rather than just be the professional you engaged to do some work.

Know your bottom line. What will you walk away from? Every human interaction is but a negotiation. And while there are best outcomes we would like, we also need a back up. So it is best to think ahead: if you had to choose between the friendship and the professional engagement, what would you walk away from? It is a harder call than it looks. Something to think about. In advance.

Coming back to The Godfather, in my view, the trilogy is an object lesson in vision, strategic thinking, organisation building, leadership styles, ethics, “work life balance”, the political economy of business, individual freedom, and heteronormative patriarchy and its discontents. And the futility of it all.

Which brings me to the line that I find most affecting in the film.

“Your father did business with Hyman Roth; Your father respected Hyman Roth; But your father never trusted Hyman Roth.”

This line sums up why being in business with friends can and often does work.

Vito Corleone and Hyman Roth were never “friends” but they did business together. Between friends, however, there is pre-existing trust. Also, hopefully, shared values, a consideration for one another’s well-being and mutual respect. The business comes at the end of all this and benefits from all this.

If, however, in the end, business triumphs at the cost of friendship, it is worth remembering that above all, The Godfather is a story of distrust and mistrust. And this is how it ended.

Four For Friday (21)

Before long, the title of this sometime-series of readings will be just an alliterative poetic licence. The week serves up worthy readings far more numerous than four, way before Friday. If I take into account the entire gamut of my interests — that all feed off and feed one another — then the task of curation becomes trickier still. The liberty of sharing more than four however shall be taken. Liberally.

Good story-telling makes for good products. While the article focus on technology product design, it is also an idea core to design at Livyora (declaration of interest: founding COO!).

On Twitter and in the workplace, it is power to the connectors, says Rosabeth Moss Kanter.

Older minds make better decisions. Because they selectively retain information. This link came via @chrisyeh who is a brilliant person to follow on Twitter. (Bonus reading: this review of a well-written, accessible book on the matter of the grown-up brain.)

Chief Marketing Officers must embrace technology. Or fail. This link came via @syamant, one of the most thoughtful strategists and doers I know. Related to this theme I spent a brilliant day at Chinwag’s Psych event about neuroscience and marketing.

If, like me, you have a penchant for spending guilt-free days at the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert’s jewellery section, you probably have an altruistic streak. Say scientists.

Our mothers, ourselves and risk literacy

The web is on fire with Ms Angelina Jolie’s honest and unsentimental account of her elective, prophylactic double mastectomy, appearing in the New York Times. She writes about her mother, who died at 56, having suffered cancer for a decade. She also writes about how she is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene. Her risk profile, she writes, was estimated at “87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer”. This risk would manifest itself before menopause is reached.

Not for me to comment on how our mothers – living or not – continue to shape our lives. I lost mine when I was 4. As far as I am concerned, I will never find out what she may or may not have suffered from, had she lived to age 46 (which was the age at which Ms Jolie’s mother’s cancer was diagnosed, according to publicly available information). Or longer. Every day I live defies all risks I may or may not know of.

But in this age of “austerity”, and living in a country with a publicly funded healthcare system being ravaged by budget cuts and the looming threat of privatisation, I worry. Alas the NHS’s postcode lottery is all too well-known for us to hide from it.

When TV celebrity Jade Goody died of preventable cervical cancer at the age of 25, it increased the uptake of pap smears in the NHS. When Kylie Minogue made the news of her breast cancer public, there was a 20-fold increase in the uptake of mammograms and early screening. There may now well be a worldwide surge in the uptake for genetic testing for BRCA mutations, which may be attributable to Ms Jolie sharing her experience.

Which is not all bad news. An estimated 20000 breast cancer related deaths could be prevented every year in the UK, not all attributable to advance knowledge of genetic markers.

I am sure you all know everything I have written so far. So I come to my main point. It is both a policy concern and a societal concern.

Risk literacy in the general public is rarely if ever discussed, even as risk communication remains ever-present, slightly sensationalised, yet incomplete or poor. For instance, BRCA mutations are almost exclusively discussed as a risk factor for breast cancer, following which ovarian cancer. Why not discuss that BRCA mutations may almost double the risk of cancer of the fallopian tubes? Which can be detected early and treated.

We still haven’t fully explained, in plain English, what it means to have a risk of X% versus Y% of getting A or B type of cancer. Risk really is a two-part concept: an undesirable outcome and the probability that it will come to pass. The probability may be expressed in numerical terms — making it sound, to most people, very accurate and reliable, which may not be the case — or in generalised terms such as “negligible”, “considerable”, “very likely”. Thereon it is a case of how one’s own risk propensity matches up to the description of a risk. That is what decisions are often guided by.

Here’s a story. A friend of mine, who had her first child at age 34, was told she had 1 in 1200 chance of having a baby with Down’s Syndrome. She said she took the chance. She is a highly educated, mathematically literate, senior pharma industry executive and struggled to explain to me what it really meant. To take that chance. She finally said: “Whatever I get I shall deal with.”

So that is what it comes to. Dealing with it.

Ms Jolie dealt with her risk in a certain way and shared her decision in unsentimental language with the broader public. It will increase awareness about BRCA for sure, but will it lead to better-informed decisions? Hard to say. Not everyone who gets tested — with the myriad (if you will ignore the pun**!) of genetic testing firms mushrooming in the market — will have access to the sort of counselling Ms Jolie might have had access to. Increasingly the choice to get screened or not is being left to the patient, even as this review took place because too often women are informed of the benefits of screening but not the harms. Back to risk literacy then.

Ms Jolie’s candid sharing of her experience needs to ignite a debate on risk literacy — not just BRCA mutations, breast cancer, or preventative mastectomies.

I have a final point. Men get breast cancer too. Because the absolute risk is low, the increase in the chances of a BRCA mutation carrying man getting breast cancer by age 70 or beyond is dramatic. This is also the age, when a lot of medical and health insurance policies start to enforce exclusions on the insured. With institutionalised differences between how men and women are treated by the healthcare system, surely risk communication about BRCA should include the risks to men, shouldn’t it?

Of course, I care about the issue as it affects men — I have only one parent left and it is my father.

(** If you missed the pun please read this. As well as the history of the company. Thanks.)