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Now this book is quite amazing. I had heard about it some weeks ago, so I made a special point of attempting to find it when I went shopping in the US.

The Long Tail - Why the future of business is selling less of moreAnderson’s central thesis is this: with the introduction of the internet and new ways of working we now live in a time of abundance and practically infinite choice. And as a result, the rules completely change. No longer are we constrained to think in terms of “hits” or “blockbusters” or “top selling brands”. We can now buy anything we like, and it’s available for us to do so in just a few seconds of clicking or calling someone. And, what’s more, it’s happening all around us today.

What fascinates me most is how it seems to overturn one of the most powerful “laws” of doing business. A long-standing rule of business is the Pareto Principle, commonly known as the 80:20 Rule. Put simply, it means that, to make money, companies should only concentrate on their highest selling products or services. The slow movers and niche items are too expensive to store, and so they should be ruthlessly excised. The result, if you haven’t already seen it around you, is uniformity, blandness, lowest-common denominators and a staggering lack of choice.

These days are coming to an end.

The Long Tail hypothesis says that the action in the future will be in the lower selling categories. People are increasingly seeking out those things that they want to buy – the niche music tracks or clothes, the arty Spanish films, the British comics from the 1980’s. Whatever you are in to, you can find it quickly and buy it for a cheap price, thanks to Ebay, Google, Amazon and a host of smaller sites and blogs. The Long Tail idea says that hits will decline in importance as interest in niches grows and grows and grows.

So much choice…This is nothing short of a crisis for traditional big media organisations, whose job it has been for a century to sell a consistent message to as many people as possible. Now, with the explosion of new channels of communication, people are turning off their radios and TV sets, reading blogs instead of newspapers, downloading indie music instead of going to the record store, ordering customised T-shirts, footwear and jewelery over the web instead of accepting the limited offerings in the local shop. The message, loud and clear, is “Blandness and Hobson’s choices? No thanks”.

Mega celebrities, big-name TV shows, best-selling newspapers, hit pop bands, blockbuster movies: all are beginning to show significant drops in their market-worth and the trend is getting more pronounced with each year. The world of mass communications is splintering into a million pieces, and no-body seems to be able to put this Humpty Dumpty together again.

Does this mean that the age of the hit is well and truly over? Of course not. Just look at the recent global racism furore on Celebrity Big Brother for instance. However hits will possibly be more random in the future – arising from anywhere, and disappearing back into obscurity once their time in the spotlight has passed. It’s likely that hits will be much harder to achieve, and more limited in their impact. Marketing’s problem will be in getting their message out to a truly fractionalised audience, with no-one consumer quite using the same channels of communication.

Over the past week I was away in Chicago. I had a fairly quiet time there, so during that period I was able to catch up on some reading.

The Tipping PointFirst of all, I finished reading “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. This is a great read – very interesting stuff. His central thesis is that social changes (business trends, fads, crime rates and other memes) tend to behave in a manner somewhat similar to epidemics – often there is little progress followed by a sudden exponential jump – the idea catches fire, as it were.

According to Gladwell, three factors are needed – the right people, the right messages and the right environment. What makes the book exceptionally interesting are the case studies used: everything from crimes on the New York subway to Sesame Street to the sales of footwear. It’s packed full of interesting tales: the bit on the 150 rule was fascinating. Essentially the idea behind this is that no social or business unit should be bigger than 150 people. Go beyond this number and you lose control. The manufacturers of GoreTex are cited as a good example of this. They build a new factory and restructure once the population of any of their units goes beyond the 150 mark. Radical stuff indeed.

If I had any reservations it is with the first area – finding those elusive “right people” who will seed the epidemic, as it were. These right people, known as Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople, are required to guarantee success. While I accept that there are people around with such exceptional skills, I wonder how common they are in practice. There is something super-human about it which doesn’t quite ring true. It all seems a little too simple – too packaged. A well working team would seem to me to work just as well, if not better.

The book Freakonomics challenges his assertion that small changes, on the margin, resulted in a sudden drop in the New York crime rate. It’s a debate that will go on for a while, I imagine.

So, I now know a bit more about “stickiness”,the dynamics of cigarette smoking, Paul Revere’s ride and the influence of peers. It’s an enjoyable read and highly “sticky” in itself, but nevertheless I have a few misgivings.

My next review is coming up soon.

The media is reporting that a woman has been discovered in Cambodia who has lived in the wild since the age of eight. She is unable to speak any language and has had no normal human contact for 19 years.

I find the subject of feral children both fascinating and discomfiting. Feral children (children that have been brought up in the wild) have been documented for many centuries and have inspired many of the great works of children’s literature, from the Jungle Book to Tarzan.

These children have been the subject of much scientific research since the eighteenth century because these cases seemed to posess a key insight to deep questions about humanity. What are humans like when civilisation and socialisation are removed? What is our natural state? Are we influenced by nature or by nurture? What aspects of us are innate and what are acquired traits? Are we naturally good, or naturally bad? Can we change who we are? Is religion instinctive? How close are we really to our animal neighbours? In what specific ways are we different?

In the case of feral children, many of these questions remain unanswered. The feral state, for a human child, is an unnatural one. Many of the children were damaged by their experience and needed significant care for the rest of their lives. In fact, cases of modern day child-neglect (such as the Genie case) are not dissimilar. The cases seem to emphasise strongly that we humans need others and probably have always done so. Studying a lone child in the woods eating roots and berries tells us very little, apart perhaps how great our ability to survive is and what effect isolation can have on the development of a young mind.

A few years ago, I wrote up some of the more celebrated stories here, and a very compresensive account of all the stories can be seen at this site.

Update 2006/01/24 : Reportedly, the girl has tried to speak, but the words are not intelligible.

Our Toastmasters club ran a poetry and prose evening tonight and for the first time ever, I recited some of my poems in public. I got a particularly good reception to my poem He lies there still. We had about 12 contributors tonight. A few guests spoke, including two visitors who have never been to a Toastmasters meeting before. One guest even told us that she wanted to join the club through the medium of poetry!

For me, the comment of the night was “I couldn’t write poetry. Poetry is far too profound. Nobody should ever underestimate the depths of my shallowness”.

The club has been thriving this year. We have signed up our 7th new member (more than the previous 3 years combined) and all our meetings have been varied and interesting. We made a key decision last year to move to a new venue. We moved from the formal surroundings of the local hotel to the more intimate setting of a pub and this has played a part in making the club more accessible to ordinary people.

I’m really enjoying it this year. Compared to this time last year, it’s like a different world.

This is a wonderful read. It’s got everything – friendship, betrayal, shame, honour, bravery, hatred, grief and redemption – the whole gamut of human experience.

The Kite RunnerThe story revolves around the central character’s two most important relationships – his father and his best friend, set against the backdrop of the troubles in Afghanistan. Saying any more about the plot might lessen your enjoyment of the book, so I will refrain from doing so!

Parts of the book are painful to read. It’s not a story for those who want an easy time from their novels. The author does not spare his readers from the more disturbing aspects of human life particularly in the context of war and unheaval – the casual cruelty, the killing of innocence, the sickness of fanaticism.

However, for readers looking for depth and complexity in their characters, you cannot easily find a better example. Although a grotesque villain is brought to life in the novel in the guise of Assef, betrayal and cowardice are present in the book’s central figures. In fact, it’s this betrayal and cowardice that forms a central theme in the book, making it such a fascinating read.

A strong emotional bond with Afghanistan is painted in the book. Afghan people are portrayed as proud, generous, talkative but sometimes hypocritical and stubborn. I noted strong parallels with the Irish way of life, or at least a way of life that used to exist in Ireland, but now, perhaps, is in rapid decline.

When all is said, there is a gripping story to tell here. The denouements in the text are wonderful – I frequently found myself gasping as the plot twisted, sometimes in the most surprising of ways.

I absolutely loved the book and would gladly recommend others to read it.

I hate writing letters. I hate the effort involved in buying stamps and envelopes (they are never around when I need them), finding out peoples addresses, folding, licking, affixing, finding a suitable post box and dropping off the letter. When I discovered email many years ago, my heart momentarily lept with joy that all this might become a thing of the past, only to gradually realise that letters have not yet gone the way of the camera film or the black and white telly. The lead-up to Christmas does my head in for that reason alone! (Bah, humbug).

It gets worse. In the town in Ireland where I live, the local post-office opens late, closes for an hour-and-a-half at lunchtime and closes early too. Long queues are de-rigeur, with the officials hiding behind a thick barrier of bullet-proof glass. You can’t buy stamps over the counter at any shop in the town, and there is no letter box on the outside of the post-office. If you want to deliver a letter you have to find a public letter box. If it’s a parcel you have to get it weighed in a post-office first unless you have the luxury of a franking machine on your premises. It’s a crap service and we put up with it because they have a monopoly in this country. Nothing much has changed in thirty years. It’s a third-world service in a first-world country.

Why oh why do we still need to affix stamps to our letters in this day and age? Why can’t the postmen and postwomen collect letters from our houses instead of us having to traipse all the way to the bloody post-office to send them?

Here’s what I would love to see from a modern postal service. You write a letter, pop it into an envelope, write on the address or just give a name and post-code. (For familiar addressees, maybe all you need to do is to write their name). You then put this into a mailbox outside your door – the same one as where the letters are delivered – and the postal service does the rest. They stamp each envelope with an electronic barcode and then debit an account that you have set up with the post-office previously. You have many different ways of paying, from a pay-as-you-go option to a flat fee, all paid via direct debit or online or even a good old fashioned cheque, a bit like how mobile phone accounts work. The letters and parcels are delivered efficiently and quickly, and you can do all this without the need for stamps or even opening your front door. Maybe for a small extra fee, they would drop some replacement envelopes into your mailbox every so often so you don’t even have to buy these either?

Is this rocket-science? I don’t think so. Could it be done without too much effort? I think it could. Do I think An Post will do anything like this in my lifetime? Ha! Don’t make me laugh.

Apparently one of the brightest comets in 30 years is in the sky at the moment! You can see it just after sunset, so if the evening sky is clear, make your excuses and see if you can find it. It’s close to the sun, so look to the west. No binoculars or telescopes needed.

It’s beginning to cloud over here in preparation for yet another Atlantic storm, so I’m not sure if I’ll catch it myself. If you see it, let me know.

Here’s how to find it.

Images of Organisation (Morgan 1995)

Back in 2005, I read Gareth Morgan’s “Images of Organization”. I’ve thought about it many times since and it came up in a recent conversation so I thought I’d write about it here.

Essentially it comes down to the fact that you can view organisations from many different perspectives, gaining insights each time you switch your views, as it were. These views can be broadly categorised in three ways: Unitary, Pluralist and Radical.

Unitary views

This metaphor looks at the organisation as a machine or a living organism. Everybody plays their part. People inside the system are like cogs or cells: resources to be deployed to the greater cause. Dissent is a bad word. Opposition is even worse. The guy (or gal) at the top makes all the decisions, everyone else implements. Value is correllated in the long term to perceived contribution and merit. Strong weight is put on subjects such as “mission statements”, “goals”, “objectives” and “achievement” as instruments to succeed. It’s a simple, clear, classical view of organisations that emphasises loyalty, and as such it has a lot to recommend it. George Bush or the late Pope John Paul II, to me, would exemplify unitary leaders. Other names readily come to mind.

Pluralist views

The pluralist view puts more emphasis on the fact that an organisation is a collection of individuals and that common purpose is achieved through debate, negotiation and conflict. It’s much more tolerant of difference and believes that good ideas are forged from the furnace of active and intense discussion and argument. Pluralist views leave the door open for more socially or politically minded views of organisations: why individuals subsume themselves into a greater entity – what the costs are and what the benefits are. Democratic institutions such as parliaments are obvious examples of pluralist forums, but when you look at it, pluralism exists in most organisations: for instance, how agreement is achieved is a messy thing, often involving power-bases, politics and some behind the scenes in-fighting. Results can often be unpredictable. Pluralist leaders show more willingness to listen to others and have more tolerance for debate and alternative. As a result they can be seem somewhat weak, but great change has sometimes been achieved through the actions of pluralists.

Radical views

Radical views take an extreme approach to organisations. All the niceties are left behind, and the rancid whiff of death and disorder pushes growth and harmony out of the picture. The “instruments of domination” case is pure Marxism – it states that the bosses are out to get maximum output from resources for minimum input and that issues such as safety and employee welfare are just sideshows deflecting from the goal of profits through exploitation. Suspicion and conspiracy is everywhere. Every idea from management has a hidden agenda, involving the deprivation of the worker’s rights. “Common purpose” is replaced by “exploitation”.

The “psychic prisons” metaphor is even more fascinating. In this view, the organisation is like a Freudian nightmare, where all of the neuroses and flaws of the individuals involved are brought into the organisation, infecting the organisation like a virus. You are asked to seek out comfort blankets, purposeless routines, methods for punishment and ridicule (often unconsciously applied). Alliances and enmities are seen as a mother / father thing. Whether you agree with it or not, this particular viewpoint – the organisation as a deranged basket-case – has to be one of the most eye-opening ways of looking at any organisation. In class, when we started talking about it, some cases came to light in all the organisations that we worked in that were truly stunning: examples of people getting upset over the smallest things, of pettyness, of madness in the true sense of the word.

None of the views are particularly better than another: I’m not trying to say that unitary views are bad – they all have their merits and downsides. What is more important to emphasise is that there are many ways of looking at the same thing and that great insights can be gained from taking the time to look differently at your place of work.

Anyhow, it’s a good book. Unusually for a business book, it is very readible with a lot of humour. Well worth checking out if you have the time to spare.

I originate from this part of the world. On the south side of the river is Waterford, a small Irish city with a very old and venerable history. On the north side, where I come from, is County Kilkenny. As you can see, one side of the city is relatively well developed, the other side not so much. It’s something of an urban planning nightmare – a city caught between two local authorities who, to put it mildly, are not great admirers of each other.

I was was watching a TV documentary last night that focused in on this particular issue. Waterford badly needs to expand its boundaries and as a result it would like to take over a large tract of South Kilkenny, mainly in my home parish of Slieverue.

The proposal has met with huge opposition from the residents and politicians of South Kilkenny. In 2005, about 10,000 people objected to the plans, but the pressure continues. The issue is very much one of what we Irish might call Tír Grá – love of the homeland. Kilkenny people could never see themselves as Waterford people. We support different GAA teams (hurling being something akin to a religion in Kilkenny), we have strong ties to other Kilkenny communities, and we’re even part of a different province to Waterford.

Nevertheless, there is a contradiction of sorts: Most South Kilkenny people work in Waterford, shop in Waterford and socialise in Waterford. (In truth, because the maternity hospitals are in Waterford, most South Kilkenny people were probably born in Waterford too – but let’s not go there). Waterford, in a sense, is the reason why they live in South Kilkenny in the first place. So, despite loving Kilkenny and wanting to remain part of Kilkenny, from an economic perspective Waterford is the centre of the world for most people in South Kilkenny. Kilkenny County Council has done little to develop the area of South Kilkenny, and the Dublin road is one of the worst in the state. You have to drive on it to believe how bad it is. Most South Kilkenny people owe Kilkenny County Council nothing, and despite people wanting to stay part of Kilkenny, they would be happy enough to benefit from Waterford Council services.

An Irish Solution to an Irish Problem

Isn’t the answer here obvious? Why can’t Waterford City Council accept that the ancient counties of Waterford and Kilkenny are what they are and best left alone, but that other solutions to the problem are possible? For instance, why not set up a Waterford Metropolitan Authority or some other quango to administer the entire region? Cork, for instance, has two local authorities: the City Council and the County Council – you don’t see people getting too upset when their boundaries are changed (actually Waterford south of the river has such an arrangement too). Powerful super-authorities are not new either: the National Roads Authority is one such example, and a successful one too, I might add. A super-authority would neatly bypass the issues associated with land attachment, concentrating instead on day-to-day administrative and developmental issues. All that would be required would be a bit of restructuring, a name change here, a rewriting of some documents there and a strong declaration stating that the areas of South Kilkenny under WMA control are still part of the ancient county of Kilkenny. Robert, as they say, would be your uncle. Ok, it’s probably a bit more complex than this, but you get the jist.

The remaining issue is more a legalistic one to be fought out between the two councils, and it concerns just one thing really: Moolah. Councils get revenue in the form of rates from local businesses and currently Kilkenny County Council receives income from the small number of businesses that exist in the South Kilkenny, revenue that presumably would go to Waterford once the super-authority was set up. And how do you solve issues like this? Anyone? Yes. With moolah. Find a price, negotiate, pay them off. Everyone is happy.

Similar inter-county issues exist elsewhere in the country and, I’m sure, throughout the world. Limerick City straddles the county of Clare and Athlone (in County Westmeath) abuts County Roscommon. The City of Derry is bordered on three of its four sides by the County of Donegal, which not only is another county, it’s in another state altogether! Can we not learn a bit more about how best to deal with such problems and move on?

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