Monday, December 30, 2013

The Limits of Virtual

By Steven Worth, President, Plexus Consulting LLC

In the early years (1990-93) when we were laying the framework for the global firm that Deloitte, Touche, Tohmatsu would later become I recall seeing the eye-popping travel expenses we were incurring as well as the reaction of senior management. Were these costs really necessary? Couldn't we invest a fraction of these expenses into audio-visual technology that would enable us to meet with our colleagues around the world real-time without ever leaving our offices?

Apart from the expense of travel, those who spend a good deal of time on the road know there is also considerable hassle and inconvenience associated with building your frequent flyer miles—so why not rely on video teleconferencing instead and leave the jet lag and travel delays to others? The idea found traction and Deloitte did invest considerable sums of money in teleconferencing technology and we did get great use out of it—but we also discovered its limitations.

Management groups that relied primarily on video teleconferencing to coordinate their activities found that over time certain hard-to-define frustrations often built up and that they needed periodic face-to-face meetings to clear things up. Within minutes of meeting face-to-face, misunderstandings and tensions disappeared like a morning fog with the sun. We came to conclude that as the social animals that human beings are, communication is not limited to the written or spoken word. We need face time as well.

We came to appreciate the difference between “high context” and “low context” cultures. The US, Canada and North-Western Europe are mostly low context cultures—that is, we don’t need to know people very well to feel comfortable doing business with them. We can and do sign contracts with people we have literally just met. But most of the rest of the world doesn't work this way. They are high context cultures who would never undertake any serious engagement with anyone without first developing a solid understanding of the person. They rely less on lawyers and contracts and more on personal trust based on family ties and friendships—which in turn are based on frequent, face-to-face contact. So we came to understand that if we wanted to work effectively in these cultures, we needed purposefully to get out of our offices and meet our clients and business associates face-to-face on their home turf.

Technology is critical, but it does have its limitations—as every family who has had a teenager texting at the dinner table knows…..

Monday, December 16, 2013

Lobbyist Registration Requirements—A Brief Overview

By Steven Worth

Regulating private sector influence over the democratic policymaking process is a constantly shifting landscape in the US as policymakers and public interest advocates seek to maintain the integrity of the process and limit the influence of money while not infringing on the Constitutional rights of citizens to make their views known to policymakers.  Rules are constantly being made and revised as gaps or unintended consequences become exposed (usually by the news media)—so even veteran lobbyists need to periodically re-read these regulations in order to be in compliance.  Penalties can be severe with financial fines and even prison time as punishment for those who make mistakes or who purposely ignore the law.

Most organizations and their employees that depend directly or indirectly on the government are not allowed to lobby or make political contributions at all.  Employers have strict restrictions on soliciting their employees to make political contributions.  And until a controversial Supreme Court ruling last year, there were absolute limits to the amount of financial contributions wealthy individuals and businesses could give political candidates.   

Mark Twain once noted that “mankind is the only one of the animal kingdom that blushes—or needs to.”  To that point, the best constraint on undue political influence on the democratic process is simple transparency—a requirement for lobbyists to list themselves publically according to whom they represent, what their purpose is, and how much they are getting paid to do that work.  This is how the European Union got started in regulating their lobbyists and is how the United Kingdom regulates itself.  In fact with this level of transparency in the UK, they even allow Members of Parliament to be paid lobbyists as long as their payments are publically disclosed.

Here are the links below to the four entities in the US Government that share responsibility for monitoring and regulating lobbying in this country.  FARA is run by the Department of Justice to monitor foreign money being spent in the US to influence public policy.  This was a program started just before the Second World War and is still in force today.
These are not perfect regulations but they have made the policymaking process in the US more transparent and somewhat more honest than it used to be.  I recall hearing stories of dinner parties hosted by lobbyists a generation ago where Members of Congress could expect to find hundred dollar bills under their dinner plates.  That sort of activity does not happen anymore.  While money still plays a huge role in politics, at least the common citizen is more aware now of who is being paid what, by whom, and for what purpose—and that does make a difference in determining how people vote and perhaps why.

The biggest conflict of interest remaining for Congress that has not been addressed to-date is their ability to buy stock in companies that are affected by their legislation.  In the private sector this would be considered “insider trading” and is illegal, but not so for the US Congress.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Keys to Effective Communication

By Steven Worth, President, Plexus Consulting LLC

More often than not, membership organizations find their stakeholder communications to be a source of frustration for all concerned. Stakeholders complain they are not “getting the messages” sent to them even while those poor souls responsible for communications can document that they are sending out clear messages at machine gun frequency. So what is going on?

It is an old lesson—saying something is not the same as being heard. Communications occurs best when there is an innate understanding between the sender and the receiver. Among other things, the sender knows whom the message is intended to reach, why it should be of interest to them, as well as how and when best to reach them. And therein lies the catch—just because you feel the urge to say something, doesn't mean the person or people you want to speak to is going to hear you—or if they do, that your message will have the desired effect.

Carpenters have a saying that communicators would do well to heed: measure twice, cut once. Too often communicators feel that frequency and volume can compensate for ill- conceived messages that do not seem to be having their intended impact.

Content of course is important. Are those you are trying to communicate with interested in the subject matter? Ever notice how in a noisy room of people you suddenly notice when someone has mentioned your name on the other side of the room?—or that in a noisy theater someone suddenly gasping the word “Fire!” is heard by all? Personal interest tends to filter out the noise and to focus sharply on matters related to self-survival or simple vanity.

But the means and timing of communicating are also important. Using the telephone works, but not at dinner time or at 1:00 am if you ever want that person to take your call again! The print media—newspapers and magazines—used to be a good general way to reach large numbers of people, but people under the age of 30 tend not to rely on the print media for their information as much as previous generations. If you want to reach members of that generation the social media might be the better approach to take.

So yes, you probably can prove your audience has received the newsletters or emails you are sending them, but you may be deceiving yourself if you think they are getting your message. Spending the time and resources first to understand what your audiences want as well as when and how they want to hear from you will save you in time, effort, expense and frustration later!

Monday, December 2, 2013

What to do About Silos?

By Virgil Carter

You know silos. According to Wikipedia:  “A silo is a structure for storing bulk materials. Silos are used in agriculture to store grain (see grain elevators) or fermented feed known as silage. Silos are more commonly used for bulk storage of grain, coal, cement, carbon black, woodchips, food products and sawdust.”
In non-profit organizations silos tend to result from “vertically” structured business functions where each major business function—membership, education, publications, meetings, etc.—is a separate, stand-alone, fully self-contained business operation.  Silos are often the way small and start-up organizations organize early in their organizational life—by individual function.  Silos can be an efficient way for the conduct of limited, similar business operations. 

As organizations grow, however, silos may grow to reflect an inward focus by an organization--to prioritize and do the things that those in the silo “like to do”.  The longer an organization functions with silos, the greater the importance of the individual silo becomes to those working within it.  Soon, the importance of the silo may outweigh the importance of the overall organization, at least to those dwelling in the silo.
When this perception of the importance of an individual silo takes hold, it frequently doesn’t matter (to those in the silo) if there is a market for their products, or if operations are profitable.  Further, it’s not uncommon for there to be strong competition among silos for organizational resources—financial and human.  The result?  The more silos that an organization has, the more that internal competition may inhibit organizational responsiveness, performance and viability.  Am I right on this?

Is there an alternative for improved organizational performance?  Here it is folks:  market focus!  That’s it:  market focus.

Market focus means identifying the markets critical to organizational success as the basis for the development and sales of all of an organization’s goods and services.  This involves “the voice of the customer”:  learning and understanding the customer’s expectations and requirements, delighting customers and building loyalty.  This is a far cry from “producing what we like to produce” and trying to get someone to buy it.

This perspective of market focus can be a cultural and functional shift for non-profits where volunteers and staff in silos “do what they like to do”.  Market focus is an “external view”, as opposed to silo’s “internal view”.  Implementing market focus, using the voice of the customer, involves an annual process to assess and guide an organization’s portfolio of goods and services.  This means encouraging and supporting innovation for new programs; it means sunsetting some existing programs, in a planned, orderly basis.

Market focus means new opportunities.  New opportunities mean new revenues and resources, which will benefit all organizational members and customers.  Want to trade your silos for new opportunities?  Become market focused!