Where Do The Big Profits Come From In Your Business?


Thursday, 7.55pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else. – Sam Walton

It’s hard to appreciate customers.

If you’re like most people, there’s something you’re good at doing – good enough so you’re better than others – and good enough to do it as your job.

It could be anything really.

Glenn Adamson, in his book Fewer Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom Of Objects, talks about how his grandfather designed jet engines and later took up woodworking – and put both skills down proudly on a single business card.

The thing is that we can all get so heads-down in whatever we do that it’s hard to make the time to look around.

And it’s even harder when your environment is designed so you never see a customer.

Increasingly we work in fields where we are separated from customers by technology and distance.

If you’re a programmer, for instance, you’re unlikely to meet a real user of the things you make, unless they happen to be your friends.

In other professions, however, that’s not the case – usually because what you offer is a service and that involves dealing with a customer.

In some situations people are clearly taught that they need to act in a certain way.

There’s a supermarket where some staff members have an angry resting face – where they look unhappy or cross even though they probably aren’t.

Now, if you’re at a checkout, and someone switches off their resting face and replaces it with a forced grin while saying scripted words of goodbye, that’s more creepy than friendly.

Personally, I’d rather they stayed with the normal version of them.

Now all of this is a roundabout way of saying customers matter.

Which you knew, of course. That’s why you’re always trying to get more of them.

Except, those aren’t the ones you should focus on.

The customers that you should be obsessed with are the ones that have already bought from you.

If you haven’t come across The Open Library before it’s an amazing place where you can borrow books for free to read online – and that means finding some books that you just wouldn’t stumble across in print.

So, wandering about, I came across The Upstart guide to owning and managing a mail order business which had the following line.

“The big profits in mail order comes from building up a satisfied customer base that continues to purchase from you year after year. The first time a person buys from you they are only trying you out. The second time they buy is the most important.”

This is the same thing Jay Abraham talks about all the time – You may lose money or only break even on the first sale, but it’s what happens after that that matters – it’s the other sales that are going to make you successful.

Now many people completely miss the implications of that insight – including me.

What it means is that you’ve got to make it easy for someone to make that first purchase.

You can’t talk about how good you are and what you do and why you should be trusted and expect a customer to just believe you.

You’ve got to earn that trust by first doing something small well.

Something that means they can try you out and see what happens without losing lots of money if you fail to deliver.

That first thing is all about getting the customer to place the next order – and that means making sure your marketing is aimed at existing customers as much as it is at new ones.

You need to ask yourself how easy and risk free it is to do the first piece of business with you, whether it’s getting something for free or paying a ridiculously low price for a large bundle of benefits.

And if you do that, do you have a pipeline of products or services that you can then offer once you’ve shown you do a good job and can be trusted?

Because the thing to remember is the value of a customer is not what you make on the first sale but what you make over the lifetime of their relationship with you.

That’s where big profits come from.


Karthik Suresh

Why Having To Pay Your Debts Is A Bad Thing


Tuesday, 9.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery. – Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

What story comes to mind when you’re asked how money was invented?

Do you think of smiling traders in a market trying to exchange a goat for a bag of cotton?

Can you imagine the discussions, the debate over how many bags of cotton were equivalent to one goat?

And how someone then came up with the idea of money so that you could figure out the value of goats and the value of bags of cotton using money and exchange coins for whichever one you wanted more.

But is that really how it all happened?

For an alternative view you might want to look at David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years.

Graeber argues that we might have the order in which things emerged all wrong.

Bartering and the use of money, the kinds of things we think of as the earliest types of exchange, are perhaps later inventions.

What came first was debt.

I suppose this makes sense if you imagine that you’re living a few thousand years ago, before the invention of money.

If you wanted some milk and your neighbour had a cow, you might borrow some.

If your neighbour liked you, they might give you some, and at some later date you’d reciprocate, perhaps by giving them some eggs.

This idea of giving people something and getting something in return later seems more natural than the idea that there is an exchange taking place in real time.

After all, people rarely wander about carrying eggs, hoping to exchange them for milk.

So, everything probably started by small transactions based on debt between people who knew each other.

Bartering must have been created later to solve the problem of trading with people you didn’t know, where you exchanged things of equivalent value.

And later, when money came along, you could buy anything for sale as long as you had enough money.

Graeber’s point about debt is that it’s something that’s created between people who trust each other – where there is a relationship and so an expectation that the debt will be repaid.

The obligation is on the lender to ensure that the borrower is capable of repayment, and one way to do that is to lend money to people you know.

The problem starts when you want to lend money to people you don’t know.

At that point, you want to make sure that you can force people to pay you back.

Which leads inevitably to the use of violence – and the kinds of institutions and practices that have been seen over the years in country after country – debtors prisons, and slavery in various forms.

Now you say, surely there should be a moral obligation to repay your debts.

Yes, perhaps, if you are able to.

But if you can’t – then whose fault is it?

Is it your fault if you borrowed money to plant crops on your smallholding and then a bad winter destroyed everything you had?

Or is it your fault if you live in a country where a dictator borrowed money from various countries and then was deposed – do you as a citizen still need to pay back that debt?

The international community thinks so. It must otherwise it has a problem.

For example, Haiti – the world’s first independent Black republic – was forced to pay the equivalent of $21 billion from when it gained independence in 1804 from France all the way to 1947, effectively at gunpoint as an independence debt.

Debt then, when used well, is founded on relationships – on a promise to one another.

When used badly it is founded on violence.

Graeber argues that the way in which governments have dealt with this is to remove the more abusive aspects of debt based violence while keeping the obligations to repay in place.

A more human approach, he suggests, is to remove the obligation to pay debts.

And instead ask lenders to make better choices about who they lend to and why.

And for those too poor to do anything other than borrow – they need help from society, not a lifetime of debt.

The ideas in this book are not familiar – not intuitive – about things that are fundamental to our lives.

It’s a point of view still worth thinking about.


Karthik Suresh

What Have Computers Ever Done For You?


Monday, 9.01pm

Sheffield, U.K.

…if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in – Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

If you had to give a talk about how computers have changed your life, what would you say?

First of all, have they changed it much at all?

For example, what difference is there between writing in copperplate in an exercise book and typing out words on a keyboard?

Socrates didn’t like the idea of writing at all – he worried that once words were written down they kept telling you the same things forever.

The thing is that as people we don’t take the same meaning from the same words – we construct meaning around what we read.

Now, since I’m not sure what the answer to my question happens to be it makes sense to start with a diagram.

If you haven’t come across the idea of thinking maps – they are a set of graphical organisers used in school to help students explore ideas and concepts.

One of them happens to be a circle map – something used in a manner akin to brainstorming and shown in the picture above.

When I think of computers I remember the ways in which I use them.

The easiest memory is using them for computing – doing sums with large numbers, calculating stuff and creating programs to repeat or control things.

I suppose that would fall under the general heading of automation.

The other memory that comes to almost everyone is using them, or watching someone use them, for gaming.

For amusement and these years to share material and entertain others. For a social purpose.

Then there are tools that help us visualise and draw and simulate things – from magazine design to 3-D models used by architects.

All that is creative work.

And then, going round the circle, there is the way in which computers help us store much more data, link between them and expand what we can look at beyond the confines of a single page or book.

It liberates us from systems like index cards and sets of encyclopedias.

Then again, do we find that we are actually automating more things, getting better at socialising, being more creative and find ourselves liberated from the drudgery of day to day work.

Or has society evolved, turning us from hunters to farmers and now to the pinnacle of existence – as clerks.

As someone said – whose quote I cannot find.

Ironic, given the links and search engines we have today.

The point about change, I suppose, is this.

Are you doing the same thing differently?

Or are you doing things you couldn’t do before.

For example, writing hasn’t changed. Nor has reading. Neither has communication, it’s perhaps become faster but although we talk more, maybe we say less.

But there are things that truly expand our capabilities.

In each of the four areas that have emerged from the circle map you’ll find examples where you are doing things you couldn’t do without computers.

Maybe that’s why there is a belated realisation that digital literacy matters.

You can do the same things faster and become obsolete or do new things and stay relevant.

The next evolutionary step, in that case, is to move from being a clerk to being a programmer.

Hunter, farmer, clerk, programmer.


Karthik Suresh

How To Work Towards A Better Understanding Of Wisdom


Thursday, 8.51pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom. – Isaac Asimov

The management thinker Russell Ackoff wrote and spoke about the lack of discrimination in the education process between things like data, information, knowledge and wisdom.

He argued that there was a hierarchy of importance in a sense: an ounce of information is worth a pound of data and an ounce of knowledge is worth a pound of information and so on.

In this view we are surrounded by data, or at least things that can represented using symbols that we then call data.

The way in which we look at data and ask the who, what, where, when type of questions and the kind of statistical analyses we do with that data when we ask “how many” creates information.

Information describes data.

When you know and can tell someone else how to do something you start to create knowledge.

Knowledge has to do with ways of doing – instructions for action.

And then there is why you do something – the explanation behind the activity and that is the foundation for understanding.

Ackoff says that the point about information, knowledge and understanding is that they help you do things more efficiently – get things done better.

He goes on to argue that wisdom is about effectiveness, it is “evaluated efficiency”, “efficiency multiplied by value”.

That sounds wrong to me.

Sounds wrong in the sense that the evaluated efficiency is a little bit like a derivative of something else – it has the ring of calculus to it. The multiplication is clearly a mathematical approach that has overtones of functions.

You could write this as an equation –

wisdom = f(information, knowledge, understanding) x value

I wonder if instead wisdom is something that emerges in our minds as a consequence of engaging in the activities of gathering information, creating knowledge and sharing understanding.

In this sense, wisdom is not a function but an emergent property.

The difference is that if you had one unit of information, knowledge and understanding you could, by adding value (whatever that is) create wisdom.

But that doesn’t happen.

We know in daily life that it’s the repeated work we do which eventually lets us spot patterns in what is going on that leads to us being able to make decisions that others might consider wise.

Maybe this is being pedantic.

Or maybe not – maybe searching after wisdom is a fools errand.

We aren’t going to find it – but it will emerge if we work on the activity that makes up our day-to-day life.

With this approach, wisdom is found not somewhere out there but where you are right now, waiting to emerge from what you do next.

Right now.


Karthik Suresh

Who Do You Need To Become To Solve Wicked Problems?


Wednesday, 8.41pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them – Albert Einstein

It’s obvious that we change as we grow – but by how much?

Is it a little, or a lot?

And when does it happen?

These are the kinds of questions Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist has explored and it makes for interesting thinking.

One of his contributions is the idea of orders of consciousness as we grow older.

The first couple of stages, 0 and 1, are when we’re babies and toddlers and can be passed over – because babies are cute but not really contributing a great deal yet.

Stage 2 is when you’re a child, more aware of what you want – like ice-cream right now – but you’re also forced to live within rules and structures imposed by others.

Stage 3 is when those rules seem less like tyrannical impositions and more a normal way of living in society.

You’re socialised – you learn that there are ways to live and co-exist with others and you need to get your work done and listen to teachers and managers.

At some point you start to move to Stage 4, where you rather than having what you do scripted by others you start to make up your own mind.

You come up with your own ideas of what is good and bad, make choices about the kind of work you want and start to script your own life – literally self-authoring it.

All this takes time, and most people reach what Kegan calls mid-life before they get to Stage 4 – and many don’t.

What’s also interesting is that mid-life is changing.

Once upon a time that might have been 25 while now it’s closer to 50.

Some people, Kegan observed, very few before midlife, get to another stage – a self-transforming stage called Stage 5.

The difference is that in Stage 4 you make up your own mind about the right way to do things.

In Stage 5, you look at yourself and question your own approach and start to keep more than one way of doing things in your mind.

If you think about the stages, 2 has to do with rules, 3 has to do with the way things are, 4 has to do with your way and 5 has to do with the good way.

Good here not in the sense of best or only but the way that is good for right now right here to make things better.

In this video Kegan puts forward some interesting ideas.

He says that we are the first species where people live as long as they do – long past any useful biological function such as reproduction, for example.

He also says Stage 5, the stage when we start to question our own thinking and try to take a wider view, only starts later in life – which means that it’s only recently that people have lived for long enough to reach that kind of thinking.

And maybe, the reason we’re living longer is so that we can get to the point where we become the kind of people that can do something about the problems that result from thinking that we know what to do – the kind of thinking that happens in Stage 4.

In other words, in Stage 4 we think we know what to do and end up destroying the planet and ourselves in the process – not because we’re bad but because we think we’re right.

By living longer maybe we’ll instead do what is right – what is good for everyone and not just for us.

It’s just a theory though…

But, if you’re old enough to know what to do maybe you’re old enough to know what you should do.

And that’s the kind of person we need to address the big problems of today.


Karthik Suresh

Why You Should Do Things The Way You Want To Do Them


Sunday, 8.31pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill. – Buddha

Sooner or later, if you spend any time in the world, someone will say we need a system for that.

By that what they mean is a centralised system, one that everyone can work on, share information and resources and use to meet common goals and objectives.

That seems to make sense, but it almost never really works that way.

Take for example, a company – any company.

If you’re employed at a company you’ll be given a computer and software. You can do much of your work with those tools.

In the beginning, you and the computer you use could be looked at as a system.

Now, what happens if you’re given a computer twice as powerful, or ten times as powerful as the one you have now.

Will you become twice or ten times as productive?

The answer is no, because the productivity of the system cannot be increased just by optimising one part of it.

That is the fundamental principle we must understand when we try and look at things in terms of systems.

The performance of a system results from the interaction between its parts.

If you drove a car into a warehouse and carefully took all its parts apart would you still have a car?

Or would you have a collection of parts with the potential to become a car.

Or, if you took the very best bits from all the cars in the world and put them together, would you get the very best car?

Or one that probably wouldn’t start at all?

Concepts like these have been talked about for years by notable management thinkers like Russell Ackoff but are still hardly understood by much of the modern business world.

Or, for that matter, society at large.

At the same time these ideas simply describe what is happening anyway in the world around us.

If you want something to work in a business environment you might want to think in terms of parts and interactions.

A part is a thing – a system, the people, maybe specialist software.

If we focus on the people, the activity that is most important to how they work together is communication.

In any organisation these days email is probably the thing holding everything together.

The messages flying around between people communicate thoughts, set agendas and negotiate agreements that result in the organisation doing “stuff”.

The stuff emerges from the parts of the organisation communicating together.

In post-modern organisations, ones that effectively have a network of peers who choose to work together what matters is not how they work but how they communicate.

This is why simple things like having standards for web pages or a PDF format that everyone can use are so important.

For example, Richard Stallman, the person behind the free software movement, is a big believer in sending information in a non-secret format.

Many companies will recoil at the idea of doing this, not because it’s a bad idea but because they will worry about the loss of control that’s involved.

But if you’re starting a new business or looking to work with others a simple way to get going is to share information and not worry about the hassles of centralising and controlling how people do work.

Let people figure out how to do their work.

If they need help, then help.

But above all, communicate.

Because if you want anything to happen, you need to work not on what you are doing but in how you are talking to the others you’re working with.

In fact, it probably makes sense to insist that you’re free to do things the way you want to do them.

As long as you use a common language when sharing the results of your work.

A free one.

Because freedom matters.


Karthik Suresh

p.s. I’ve put out another paper today on my articles page called A Question Of Focus: Less But Better, which is a conceptual model of a sales process.

If you read it and find it useful please let me know through likes, comments or shares.


How Can Acting Like An Actor Help You In Business?


Saturday, 8.16pm

Sheffield, U.K.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. – William Shakespeare

Are you in the sort of role where you have to give presentations fairly often?

Perhaps you do sales presentations, seminars or small group talks.

I haven’t had to do these for a while but have recently had more on the go.

Which, of course, meant I had to put off preparing for as long as possible.

I excuse this by retelling the story of the woodcutter who had to chop down a tree in an hour and so spent the first three-quarters of the hour sharpening the axe.

It’s more interesting finding a way to hack something than to do it in the first place.

And my approach was to think about how to plan these presentations using scripts – which of course meant learning how to make scripts like the ones used in films.

If you remember, they look typewritten with dialogue centered and other stuff everywhere.

Anyway, I also decided that I would do this using Groff, learning how to create some simple macros along the way.

Now, for the one person, maybe not even that, who is interested in this, here is some code.

\# Define macro for screenplay format
.de DG
.ps 12
.ll 5.3i
.in 1.9i
.ad l

.de NM
.ps 12

If you save this in a file called screen.mac and call that in a Groff file formatted using ms macros – as shown in the snippet below

.so screen.mac


And my approach
was to think about
how to plan these presentations
using scripts -
which of course meant
learning how to make scripts
like the ones used in films.

You get something that looks like this:


Okay – back to the main theme of this post.

Once you’ve got your screenplay what do you do with it?

The point, I think, is to get better at telling people what you do in your business.

Now, what actors do is learn their lines so they can convince us they are someone else and draw us into the story.

How do they do that?

A paper by Nina Bandelj titled How Method Actors Create Character Roles tells us that Method-acting is a technique based on the work of Konstantin Stanislavsky, a Russian theatre director and practitioner.

He laid down conventions, a few of which are important for us to understand if we want to apply them to our work.

Few of us like to sell, but we also like to think we do good work.

So, we need to be clear on the underlying motivation for why we do what we do.

If we’re not con artists and do a decent job then at the heart of why we do the work we do must lie a conviction that it is good work to do.

Without that underlying motivation any performance will either fall flat or come across as fake.

Which brings us to being authentic. The best actors bring their own personality to a part. They augment it rather than taking away from it.

In your business you play many parts and one of the most important is as a salesperson – which is why the best salespeople are the ones that own the business. They identify completely with their business and so come across as authentic.

Crucial to a role, however, is understanding its context and environment. Method actors do deep research, relying on acute observation to understand the part they are playing.

If you’re selling to someone that process is one of deep research. The more you understand what your client needs the better your pitch can be.

In fact, these days, you’re probably better off not bidding for any work unless the client agrees to spend at least an hour going through the situation and answering any questions you have about what they might need.

When you’re pitching, however, you’re not going to read from your script.

That’s there to learn and improve and fiddle with – but you’ll also need to be prepared to deliver without holding onto it and improvise along the way.

The improvisation is what’s going to make your delivery natural – even if it’s scripted word for word.

And then there is the look and feel – the dress and props you use to show who you are – whether that’s a business person in a suit or a cool designer in a turtleneck.

There’s a school of thought that suggests you can act yourself into feeling a certain way.

If you want to feel like you’re a confident, accomplished presenter then you could do worse than acting like an actor.

The tools and methods they use to prepare for roles are ones that you can use to prepare for the day-to-day situations you face in business.

You just need to act like you know what you’re doing.


Karthik Suresh

When Do You Know Everything You Need To Know?


Friday, 9.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. – Socrates

There is a series on Amazon Prime called Librarians – where a group of misfits rush around averting magical disasters.

Every once in a while one of the characters drops a line that has echoes of a paper somewhere.


“Reality is just a shared narrative we agree to believe”


“Architecture is just art we live in”

Anyway, in one of these episodes they’re rushing around and stop to discuss trees.

We’ll get to that in a second, but if you’re actually watching the series – SPOILER alert…

Someone once said to me that there will come a time when you’re working for someone younger than yourself.

That’s a bit of a transition point – a point when all of a sudden someone younger knows more than you or is given more responsibility.

I had a chat the other day with a developer – around the same age as me, perhaps younger and I asked what sort of environment he worked in.

I got an answer filled with words I had seen but didn’t really recognise.

I’m sure Kubernetes was in there, and some new programming languages – maybe there was a whisper that sounded like Java.

And there are others, hot shot whizz kids, doing magic with database queries and programming that I didn’t know you could do.

Not yet anyway – I like to think that if I spent the time I could figure it out.

At the same time, there are new and different things to figure out.

Like people and groups and organisations.

The thing is that knowledge of one type will only take you so far.

Take textbooks, for example.

Some writers are brilliant at using simple words to explain complex concepts.

Sometimes you need complex words to explain complex concepts.

But how often do you need complex words to explain something simple?

Often, however, the purpose of writing seems to be to obscure rather than explain – to demonstrate how clever the author is rather than help the reader understand something new.

Which is why, after a while, when you’re finding the path you’re on a little too much the same the thing to do is find a different path, one less travelled.

And find it before the motorway being built alongside your own path ends in yours being reclaimed by weeds.

Doing that has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude.

In the episode I refer to above, the baddie wants a branch from the tree of knowledge.

A huge, sprawling tree stands there, and the baddie breaks off a branch.

The hero destroys the tree and the branch rather than let it fall into the wrong hands and the baddie, thwarted, rails and departs.

The hero’s partner asks why he destroyed the tree of knowledge.

And the twist is that the huge tree wasn’t the tree of knowledge.

Knowledge is young, always growing.

It’s the small tree that is going to grow.

The young have an advantage – they are ready to learn because they don’t know stuff yet.

For those of us who are a little older, we may need to forget that we know so we can be ready to learn once again.


Karthik Suresh

Are You Burning Out Trying To Be Someone You’re Not?


Thursday, 9.15pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Your best strategy is to manage your creativity, not your time. People who manage their creativity get happy and rich. People who manage their time get tired. – Scott Adams

Are you one of those people that needs a break after being around other people for too long?

I am.

It’s a trait, I understand, of introverts – something that Susan Cain has popularised in her book Quiet.

Many people find themselves in situations that don’t seem designed for them – instead they’re expected to plug into whatever is there and perform at peak capacity.

But, like the increasingly dismal performance I get from batteries that I try and use in my cameras, things go wrong.

So, if you were a battery, how should you use yourself?

The first thing to understand is how you charge your battery.

Some people need quiet time to rest and regroup.

Others need to be around people, amidst the buzz and vibe to be energised and ready.

If you’re one kind of person too much of the other kind of stimulation, or lack of stimulation, is going to mean you’re just not available to do anything.

Then there’s what you use your battery to do.

Maybe you’re an AA battery and can plug into most devices – but an AA battery designed for a remote control is not going to power a professional camera for more than a few minutes.

Or are you a specialist cell, designed for specific or demanding work?

It’s also important to know what kind of work drains you quickly – what’s the power draw?

I like the Alphasmart Neo, for example. It’s a portable electronic typewriter than you can write on for a year without depleting the three AA batteries that power it.

If you built a raspberry pi based unit to do the same thing you’d get about half an hour.

I bought two NEOs instead – they’ve stopped making them so I’m stocking up for the next 40 years of writing.

Which takes us to the topic of burnout.

The reason I was musing about this topic is that working with others depletes my energy – I need some quiet time to recharge after a burst of activity.

Some people say that burnout happens because you don’t get enough rest – which makes sense in that context.

The other way of looking at burnout is that it’s about doing too much work – about pushing yourself for to long.

But there are other things we do, things that we could do for a long time and emerge at the end of that time feeling more refreshed and energised than we were when we started.

I find that’s the case with activities like writing – at the end of a session I’m not drained – if anything I’m recharged.

But clearly if you work five back to back 12 hour shifts you’re going to be in a very different situation.

All of which suggests that burnout is not about enough rest or too much work but about how you manage how you charge and discharge and what things you plug yourself into.

You’d pick the right battery for your camera – and you should probably pick the right combination of environment and activities that are best for you.

And that might be an office with a door or a loud open plan space. It might be long periods of reflection or prolonged sessions of high intensity debate.

Whatever works.

But as Adams writes in his book, The Joy Of Work, managing your creativity is what matters.

And if you want to manage your creativity what you have to first learn is how to manage your energy.


Karthik Suresh

What’s Really Going On When You Try And Sell A Software Solution


Wednesday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The cause is hidden. The effect is visible to all. – Ovid

If you work for a large organisation do you think that the software you work with makes you more productive?

It’s not a question with an easy and obvious answer – not for the population at large anyway.

If you do a search some of the results you get suggest that productivity has gone up while others suggest it’s gone down.

The one thing that people agree on is that software developers are more productive – they have better tools and better ways to do things.

So that’s good – the programmers are doing well out of the technological revolution.

How about everyone else?

When I looked at this a couple of years ago the data suggested that productivity was flatlining.

And the reasons for that are probably not hard to see – the effects are pretty clear.

For example, how exactly has using something like Microsoft Word made you work better?

The chances are it hasn’t – not compared to how you would have worked a long time ago.

For example, the average time to draft and finalise a document has probably gone up – because instead of writing three drafts and checking each one very carefully we can now fiddle forever and let the spellchecker catch errors – but some still slip though.

Yes, the process of printing and emailing and sharing the document is much much faster – although instead of one package in the mail you probably send several emails.

The point is not that typewriters are better than word processors – although if you’re a techie you will probably accept that plain text is better than everything else – and that’s decades old.

The point is that systems are not designed to meet the needs of the user – they’re designed to conform with what the vendor thinks the user needs.

The picture above is an adaptation of a model shown in Information, Systems and Information Systems, written by Peter Checkland and Sue Holwell.

The model shows that people have different conceptual models in their minds about what is going on.

Think of what happens when you sit down to write a document.

The mechanics of the task is to get the words on the page – but the purpose of the task is bigger than that – it might be to explain an idea to your boss or let someone know you’re going to sue them.

As a buyer you need to do something – and the act of writing a document is a small part of what’s going on in your mind.

A vendor, on the other hand, isn’t that interested in whether you’re writing a letter to a friend or an annual report for a PLC.

They’re aware of it but what they want to show you is the kinds of styles and themes and fonts that you could have.

In an ideal world the model that the vendor has in their mind will be designed to serve the model that the buyer has in their mind.

In other words before you build a system to do something you need to know what that something is being done for – you need to understand what is being served as a result of activity before you build a system to help do that activity better.

That may seem pedantic but think about it.

As a vendor what you’re trying to do often is convince a buyer that your solution will work for them unchanged.

But it never will, for the simple reason that each person you talk to will have a different system that they’re serving.

So, you have to convince them to change what they serve to what you think they should serve instead.

This is unashamedly the view of enterprise resource planning software – if you want to use it what you need to do is change your business to fit in with how the software works rather than the other way around.

Or you could think about how you could adapt your software to serve the user better – or build something from scratch.

What that needs, however, is the skill to get into the buyers mind – to take the time to make what’s in their head visible and construct the model of purposeful activity that they’re using.

Then you can compare their model with your model of activity and see what’s the same (the green) and where there are differences and what you can do about it.

That takes time.

But the chances are that it’s only the vendors who take the time to do that kind of thing that then put in solutions that really help their customers.

The rest just move on.


Karthik Suresh