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The luxury sector is negotiating the tight rope between its traditional exclusivity and the open-all-hours, democratising nature of the web. It is a fascinating space to watch as new ways of enticing and engaging with the customer emerge.

This long Luxury Society piece explores the emerging influencers and how brands are finding their feet in this new dance. The most telling line in the piece:

“The internet is a chance for luxury, because in order to maintain the dream value of the brand, you have to permanently refuel that dream…”

Refuelling dreams repeatedly is easier when the shop front is really open-all-hours as the web makes possible.

Relevance. As thing go digital at a rapid pace, relevance is the holy grail for luxury brands too, as Rebecca Robins writes.

An even more fascinating movement among the legacy brands is the movement across brands – the “brand tangos” that boost their reputation through collaboration. Think the Apple Watch Hermès cross-over. Legacy brands are tapping into tech brands to increase awareness and connect with consumers. Tech brands are tapping into legacy brands for their heritage and exclusivity.

The resulting blurring of boundaries increasingly calls into question whether we will even be defining brands by sector in years to come.

Talent is central to this ongoing quest for relevance. Lately luxury brands have been poaching talent from among mass market brand leaders. The skills at a premium? Time to market and omni-channel reach.

“Traditionally reliant on in-store experiences, the luxury end of the market is slowly realising that online retail is a crucial factor in future growth. .. Luxury brands are looking for broader retail skills to match today’s omnichannel retail world, Twyford said.”

“Twyford explained that luxury brands pale in comparison to the likes of Uniqlo, H&M and Zara when it comes to their speed to market. As mass-market brands soar in their ability to maintain low-costs while still appealing to millennials, logo-reliant brands like Ralph Lauren feel static,..”

And finally, a luxury good we all desire more of — silence. The essay discusses advances in airlines and automotives, to create silence which may be physically nauseating — our vestibular system draws upon noise to give us a sense of balance and spatial orientation —  and ends on a note which summarises why silence is truly a luxury good.

The hushed halls of affluence buffer the rich from the hubbub of poverty, but for the poor, the clatter of modern life—like other forms of pollution—is inescapable. And as noise continues its inexorable advance into the quietest eddies of wilderness, even the rich may find a silent retreat impossible to locate.

Bonus link: An impossible to locate silent retreat is what Rachel Nuwer found when she set out to locate the last place on earth without human noise. Two fascinating nuggets stand out:

Hempton and Krause hope that nations will adopt a quiet area program akin to dark sky programs. They are pushing for the US National Park Service to adopt such regulations in 2016, in time for the agency’s centennial. “I absolutely believe we will have our quiet places,” Hempton says. “Just like we went through with water quality, things have to get really bad before we recognise them as a basic value and clean them up.”

Where others tend to become uncomfortable in the disconcerting silence, Foy relished the chance to be completely cut off. But minutes into his stay in the chamber, he noticed that the silence was in fact broken. His own body, it turned out – his breathing, his heartbeat, even the scratchy sound his scalp made rubbing against his skull when he frowned – was betraying his quest for auditory nothingness. “The only time you’ll hear absolute silence is when you’re in no position to hear it, because you’re dead,” he realized.

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This was a week of critical reading of articles discussing the nature of work, the workplace and the worker. The customer should be the centre piece in any discussions about the workplace. That does not seem to be the case.

We must redefine employment and work, argues Andrei Hagiu in this op-ed. His piece frames ‘work’ and the nature of employer-employee/ contractor relationship as something legalistic. This is a limited point of view. We work and live in an ecosystem. With players such as insurance providers, mortgage lenders, landlords, phone companies, and credit scoring agencies. Unless the metrics of creditworthiness and other ways we engage with the ecosystem shift wholesale — that is, not just between employer and employee/ contractor but also how businesses see customers — this proposal is at best incomplete.

Work 3.0 must retain the principles underlying the employee/contractor dichotomy, guaranteeing employer flexibility and worker protections while permitting a spectrum of options: “employee” at one end, “independent contractor” at the other, and lots of novel ideas in the middle.

Holacracy is Zappos’s much watched experiment in a flat workplace with self-managed teams. Here Chuck Blakeman talks about self-managed teams, using a football metaphor. The metaphor while fascinating is limited. In a football match, both teams have loyal fans, whose ordered “product” — an enjoyable match, preferably a win — is delivered instantly. No returns are expected even if there are quibbles later in the newspapers and on social media. I could go on but I leave the rest as an exercise for the reader’s imagination.

When building self-managed teams in the emerging work world, there is no place for big egos. Leaders who want to make others successful and then get out of the way are building remarkable companies everywhere. Those who want to use people to make themselves look better will be left behind. Zappos will know they have arrived when people at Zappos see themselves in the pictures above, and there are no managers in sight.

Chris Yeh argues for a more radical approach to workplace relationships — and a company’s relationship with its alumni — something he calls “advanced common sense”. Of this week’s readings this was the cleanest argument, and the one that promised no magical thinking. In my reading, Chris is arguing for humanity and trust rather than rigid processes and structures. What huge changes will every employee have to make in his or her psychology, risk taking abilities, ongoing learning and ambitions to make this work?

Bringing this all together, Yeh refers to his approach to employee engagement as “advanced common sense”. Instead of promoting employees to management without any instruction, companies need to provide them with the tools and support to have open and honest conversations with their employees and to treat talent with the respect they would want themselves.

I share this reading mainly because it seems to use the words “manager” and “leader” interchangeably, and is first in a series from the Drucker Forum. The Forum is named after the late intellectual Peter Drucker, who famously said: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Do tell me if you think my objection is over-reaching in its criticism. The piece titled “How Managers Can See The Future More Clearly” ends with a screed for leaders.

Every leader must cultivate these four skills in his or her own way. When leaders are not sure about the future, the entire organisation suffers. Turbulence becomes the norm. Confusion reigns. What lies ahead is painfully unclear; and, for humans working inside the firm, there can be little joy. These four skills will equip your leadership circle to clarify what’s next for your organization, and focus your management lens on the future.

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For me, this was a week full of books, reading about books, and headlines about publishing. A new publishing house, called Juggernaut Books, was launched in India with unusual fanfare. There is much promise, albeit not much detail made public yet, of revolutionising publishing using the magic of tech. The business is of interest to me as someone who reads, “techs”, is interested in business model innovation and financing of new business models, and watches women in leadership roles in creating such innovation.

Over here in London, the first volume of Niall Fergusson’s two-part book about Kissinger was finally delivered. In hardback. I am sure I will only ever read it at home because it is so heavy.

Kissinger by FergussonA personal pattern however is becoming evident. My recent purchases have all been paper. I have company. Digital books have stopped evolving, but why? The rational argument about closed ecosystems resonates with many of us, perhaps, but most of us are committed (read: locked-in) to one or the other closed ecosystems.

In other words, digital books and the ecosystem in which they live are software, and software feels most alive and trustworthy when it is actively evolving with the best interests of users in mind. An open stack is not strictly necessary for this, but it certainly helps.

But the main, and I think the real, reason for some of us falling back into the arms of physical books is emotive.

The object – a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth – requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.

This was the week that celebrated Urvashi Butalia, founder and publisher of Zubaan Books, for her path-breaking contributions to publishing women’s and other marginalised voices.

Concerns over the growing acceptability of violence against women – in their homes, in workplaces and public spaces, in conflict zones, by fundamentalist and communal forces – fed directly into today’s ongoing debates on women’s freedoms and the attempts to truncate those freedoms in the name of safety.

Through these tumultuous times, Zubaan and Kali for Women functioned also as archivists and as participants in the organically evolving network of disparate groups that formed the Indian women’s movement.

“We’re putting together an archive of the interviews we’ve recorded with authors, organisers, women on the front lines,” Urvashi says.

Recorded over the decades, these will be an invaluable oral history of Indian women, many of them far more focused on getting the job done in any given moment than on chronicling their thoughts.

A recurrent theme in conversations with my erudite women friends is about frivolity. Or at least perceived frivolity. Can feminists be interested in fashion and style and clothes and jewellery? “Yes, they can and they should,” is my answer. If for not much else, then to redress this.

But can feminists enjoy romance novels? Sure, they can, argues this piece.

‘I am of the opinion that a genre that is written by women, for women, about women, about the female experience, even if that experience is codified and structured within patriarchal, established boundaries, is inherently feminist,’  says Sarah Wendell, co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a US-based website devoted to reviewing romance novels through a critical lens.

Wendell grants readers of all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds permission to enjoy their fantasies – be they feminist, sadomasochistic, paranormal, or male-on-male. For Wendell, this permission is the genre’s beating heart. ‘With romance, you are placing a centrepiece, a focus, on women’s sexuality as a healthy and important thing,’ she said. ‘Her orgasm is important! And so is her security, and so is her ability to access birth control.’

The eagle-eyed amongst you have noticed there are only 3 links here. There is a fourth link embedded in the text which is my sneaky way of making it good on the promise of the post.

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This week, it is all about technology and culture. Culture, to me, is a catch-all term for how we think, feel, live, behave, interact and grow (or indeed retrograde). Technology is but science in action, and co-evolves with culture.

In which, Sebastian Normandin explores the allure of pseudoscience — man’s search, sometimes desperate, for meaning:

“Science, in short, is sobering and provides no succour. Pseudoscience, in contrast, is comforting in the extreme. It rashly speculates on connections and contexts that are poorly supported and largely impossible to prove but that suggest all sorts of possibilities which, while they may seem appealing, are simply not tenable. In their quest to create an easy or oversimplified meaning, pseudoscientists engage in all sorts of scientifically dubious practices — using vague or untested claims, focusing more on confirmation rather than refutation (in this respect the pseudoscientific forgets philosopher Karl Popper’s central notion of falsifiability — essentially that science advances through negation rather than confirmation), making their beliefs about a particular idea a point of personal pride, and, finally, a general lack of rigour in methods and means of expression (i.e. language).”

There is an important place for Luddism today, a long essay worth reading in full.

“Consequently, the Luddite impulse is to embrace a certain distinction between human and machine. Thomas Pynchon put his finger on it in 1984 when he wrote that the midcentury Luddite impulse, embodied particularly in science fiction, embraced “a definition of ‘human’ as particularly distinguished from ‘machine.’ ” “Humanity” was held up as an incommensurable yardstick: You either had it or you wanted it.”

We live in interesting times, which many of us may know is effectively a Chinese curse. But how much do we know about Chinese Philosophy? Does Chinese Philosophy not belong in the academe for its exploration of ways of thinking other than how dead Greek men did? That needs to change, argues this essay.

“Because the dominant academic culture in the U.S. traces back to Europe, the ancient Chinese philosophers were not taught to, and thus not read by, the succeeding generations. Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy. Because they have little impact on our philosophy, we believe we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.

In our diverse, globally influenced country, such narrow-mindedness shouldn’t fly.”

Many in my generation — and definitely in my father’s generation — never heard the word “startup” till we were in our 20s. But now every little new business is a startup. With dreams of raising VC money, creating vast wealth through exits and then doing it all over again.. or becoming a VC. This week Peter Griffin provided humour, effective because it cuts close to the bone of the “startup culture”, in the form of nursery rhymes reinvented.

Twinkle, twinkle, start-up star,

O M G, you’ve come so far!

You got valuations sky-high,

But boss, where’s the R O I?

The age of un-empathy

“My Spotify drains my phone battery”, she said.

“Do you listen to it on streaming or offline?”, I asked.

“Why, yes I do listen to it on streaming!”

“So you see both the 3G access you are using and the app itself use battery. You can see battery use by app and make choices accordingly especially when you are outside and worried you couldn’t recharge your phone.”

“How do I do that?”, she immediately wanted to know.

Cue, search through settings and battery use data on her 4 year old Samsung Android phone.

“The guys at the Samsung store didn’t help me”, she lamented.

So we opened the settings to check battery use and she was horrified.

“Where did all these apps come from? I am not using them”, she said.

“Not right now, perhaps, but they may be running in the background or operating on a pull mechanism”, I said, weakly. And clearly, unhelpfully.

We then discussed what “pull” means, what other common uses may be battery-draining, how it may be necessary to behave differently to conserve battery, how some apps more than others drain battery, and other things she now needs to know, just so she can use the technology she deems essential to her work and her outside-work life.

There were several such moments, as I helped this 65 year old friend of mine. She needs to get to grips with some essential technology tools and social media as she works on taking her business global.

The detail about her age and her business are material here lest the rest of this reflection should get drowned in the assumptions that just because she is older, she is not “smart enough” or “compos mentis”.

She isn’t the first among my over-55 friends whom I have recently helped with their technology and social media needs. Phones and social networks all play a key role.

It is soon clear that much of the technology design has forgotten technology also serves our ageing population at hand.

IMF depiction of our ageing populations

Mobile phones have several non-obvious hidden access features, sometimes resistive touch screens, complicated pathways to switching off default settings on various apps and in case of Android phones, a fragmented ecosystem that confuses older users who did not cut their teeth on technology.

Social networks have arcane and complex privacy settings, light coloured buttons, light grey ellipses to access extra features, drop-down menus hidden behind little arrows, and of course, their own lingo for features.

It may even seem the ageing user is misbehaving i.e. not behaving in accordance with the designers’ expectations of their ability to make use of features they should be able to see (never mind almost universally weakening eye sight with age) or discover. Because, hey, it is so intuitive, you know!

What is wrong with this picture?

Is technology meant to exist for its own sake? Or is it meant to serve someone?

What are the design assumptions at work here? Do we care whom we are including — and whom we are excluding — by our design choices?

Can the growing numbers of ageing people be this invisible?

Post script

As she started to gather her things and prepare to leave, I said, trying to be helpful, “Of course, you could just buy a portable battery pack so you are never out of battery when you leave home.”

She put her things down and looked at me sternly, “That is now for another day, Shefaly. I cannot cope with this any more.”

Related reading:

Why I think “digital native” and “digital immigrant” typology is short-sighted and unhelpful