~Business News&Trends.


A Hidden Gold Mine in Every Business

In many companies, most of the company seems to operate by a completely different set of rules and communicate in a different language than those the IT or computer services sector of the business.  This division is somewhat artificial and partially maintained by the IT people themselves because of a certain culture technical people have about their specialized knowledge and application areas.  But at heart, those strange people down in IT have the same goals as every other business person which is to succeed both personally and corporately in shared projects.

But those of us on the business side of the corporate landscape depend on the computer folks to let us know how things are going with that highly valuable asset that we have in our IT systems, hardware and software.  Most medium to large businesses run very high capacity computers or multitudes of computers connected through a network and those systems must perform at top capacity each day to accomplish the goals of the business.

The upgrade and maintenance budgets for the computers that run your business no doubt represents a fairly sizable percentage of the corporate budget each year.  But because those systems are what make you competitive in the marketplace, that investment is worth the money to assure that the mission critical jobs those powerful systems do get done on time each week and month.

When a computer begins to show signs of straining under the load of work, we are giving it, that can be a cause of significant concern for a business.  If your business paradigm dictates that the load of traffic or system resources could be pushed to beyond what the computers can do with their existing computing power, that weakness in the IT infrastructure represents a significant risk to the company should the system become overloaded when there is a large body of work to be done by these machines.

What not every business person knows is that there may be a hidden goldmine of computing capacity already resident in your IT resources that simply is not being tapped to its fullest.  You know that it isn’t uncommon for your IT professionals to report that your systems are at 80-90% capacity and must be upgraded to handle the next big increase in business.

That hidden goldmine is a discipline that has actually been around for quite sometime but is infrequently tapped in the modern business world.  That discipline is called “capacity planning”.  By implementing a capacity planning office and monitoring function, you can put the tools and the talent in place to precisely measure scientifically if your computer systems are at capacity of if there is just a need for system tuning or realignment of computing schedules to get more out of the systems you already own.

Recently a large oil company in the Midwest noted that many of its mission critical functions were being delayed in processing, seemingly because the computer systems were overloaded and in dire need of an expensive and time consuming upgrade.  Capacity planning measurements were taken and the system was diagnosed to determine what the real problem was and it was found that job priorities of new functions were not tuned to the load of the system at critical time frames.  The adjustments were made by talented systems administrators and the IT infrastructure continued to perform at top-notch capacity and the delays were eliminated with no additional hardware or upgrades needed.

By utilizing capacity planning software tools and enabling your IT team to take advantage of this highly scientific computer measurement and prediction method, the business can get the most out of its computer resources and use its corporate resources to further the business objectives of the company.  And that benefits everyone.

Business goes to Cyberspace

It is a well known axiom of doing business in any industry that those who do not stay in step with the times will be those companies that eventually die out.  There is no place where that truism is more evident than in the way that companies in virtually every business sector are finding to integrate an internet marketing strategy with their traditional communications and to provide the public with an internet “presence” to supplement their public profiles in other venues.

Of course, the value of the internet for sales and promotions has been well known in the industries that service the youth markets and for the companies dealing with entertainment and the arts.  Because the internet is in virtually every home and even now on hand held devices of every description, the access it gives to reach a target market are phenomenal.

This explosion of an entirely new marketing model has introduced the world of business to entirely new paradigms of marketing and new ways to achieve greater market penetration and sales.  And so any business who has had to get out on cyberspace to keep up with the competition has already had to learn a whole new vocabulary that has grown up around the internet marketing phenomenon.  Now terms like “Search Engine Optimization”, “Auto responders” and “Viral Marketing” become important and powerful tools to any business that wants to tap the power of the internet to increase sales.

The second wave of businesses that, perhaps reluctantly, ventured out into cyberspace were traditional retail business that you would not associate with cyberspace at all.  This includes sport teams, restaurants and even retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Border’s Book Stores.  In fact, the wave of change in how products and services are sold has been so rapid that entire market niches have been virtually revolutionalized by internet sales techniques.  Book and music outlets have been virtually hard hit as a large percentage of their customers have abandoned the “brick and mortar” sales outlets entirely to use the more convenient tools of internet shopping.  

This has made it tough on some retailers to keep up.  For the “mom and pop” business, the change has been particularly devastating.  Already small, home grown businesses were struggling to compete with the giant mega-stores like Wal-Mart to keep their loyal clientele coming back.  Add to that the migration of customers to the internet and the need for change just to stay in business became even more urgent.

But even businesses who do not depend on marketing at all have seen the need to build and maintain a well functioning business web site so they will have a “face” in cyberspace.  In the modern marketplace, the consumer will go to the internet first to find out about a company and it’s goods and services.  This has turned traditional ways of connecting with existing and new customers upside down entirely.  

The good news is that these rapid changes in how modern markets work have made the business world more diverse, more able to adjust to changing business dynamics and more open to the creative and innovative minds that have always been the real life blood of the business world.  And, ironically, it is often the small business that is most capable of making rapid changes to its online presence and ways to doing things.  

In that the internet is a phenomenally dynamic place, new ways of reaching our customers change almost annually.  Where one year a simple web page may have been sufficient, soon we had to have chat rooms, MySpace pages and YouTube compatibility.  Any business that sees these changes as chances to do something new and exciting with their business will be the companies that thrive in this modern world.  And, as always, those who do not thrive with change will be destined to be made obsolete by it. 

Businesses Learn to Make SEO Work for Them

One of the most important talents any management team of a business can have is to be able to detect changes in the marketplace and adjust how the business operates to function in that new market.  Some call it “thinking outside the box” and others refer to this talent as “working with a new paradigm”.  Whatever the term of the day is, without the flexibility to change as the market changes, a business is destined to fade away.

Of the many business and market trends that have changed the paradigm by which business is done in the new century, internet marketing ranks near the top of the most drastic and sweeping change that virtually every business has had to adapt to in order to survive and thrive in the new business world.

At first, most in the business world considered the internet to be a toy and perhaps a good communication tool.  But in the last decade, the power of internet marketing and the need to compete in that marketplace has never been more evident.  And just as business learns new marketing and communication methods when they enter a new market such as learning to do business overseas, the internet has brought with it entirely new tools and weapons that the modern business must learn to use skillfully to succeed in a cyberspace business environment.

Of the many new acronyms that have been added to the business vocabulary, “SEO” is one that is central to success in the internet marketing world.  SEO stands for “Search Engine Optimization” and it is an entire discipline unto itself.  By learning to utilize well developed SEO methods, a business can learn to dominate their particular market niche even in a cyberspace business world.

Just as in the conventional business world, to be successful with a particular market, you have to go where they are and learn to get noticed and get your message to the consumer even as your competition is doing the same thing.  In the world outside of cyberspace that may mean various methods of advertising, promotional campaigns, good customer service and a long term promotional strategy that will grow the businesses market presence over time.

All of these business objectives remain the same in the world of internet marketing, but the “places” customers can be found are profoundly different.  As such, it becomes critical that a business builds a modern and up to date web site that appeals to the customers perceptions of what they will expect when they come to shop with you and that stays up to date continuously s the internet continues to change and evolve.  

But it isn’t enough to just have a state of the art business web site up for modern internet business web site to succeed.  Just as to be successful in the physical world, customers must come to you or you must go to them.  And the primary method of letting customers know who you are and drawing them to your well designed web site is to connect to them through a search engine such as Yahoo, Google or MSN.  

Search Engine Optimization methods are powerful techniques that can be used to assure that when your customer looks for a business such as yours, they will notice you first and your competition second, or not at all.  That means when the customer “searches” for your product or service on Google or another search engine, your business comes up on the first page of selections that the search engine finds.  

SEO takes time, investment of funds and talent and skill to work with the search engines so your business gets that kind of attention.  But it is worth the investment because the outcome can be an internet business presence that bring the kind of success every business wants.

Courting Public Favor

At first glance, it is a bit surprising when you see how much some powerful and prominent businesses in every community bend every effort to court public favor.  Almost any community of significant size in the country has a business section in the paper.  And subscribers to the local news see their ability to stay in touch with what the strongest and up and coming businesses in town are doing as an important part of their business awareness.

Sometimes it’s good to read the business news in your local paper both for information and with an eye on the question – “Did the business being discussed work to get this article printed about them in the paper?”  In some cases, it is blatantly clear that the business went to great lengths to get noticed.  Many businesses actually employ public relations and advertising professionals to tailor how they will be viewed in the press and to court public favor by romancing the right kind of press coverage for the business.

There are some solid business reasons behind such aggressive work being done by the business community to have good press coverage.  On the surface, it might seem like the intent of managing public approval for a business is just a desire to be a good citizen and so that public opinion is favorable and everybody thinks of that business as a bunch of “good guys”.  But the motivations for courting public favor for a business are far more complex and entrepreneurial than that.  

* A good reputation means better sales.  Public opinion is a funny thing.  If a retail company gets a bad reputation in a community, it will have a tremendous impact on their bottom line.  But the business that is well regarded at the neighborhood level will be one that sees strong customer loyalty.

* A strong reputation makes for better business dealings.  Running a business means entering into dozens of business relationships, making deals and drafting contracts with other businesses in town.  If your business is well regarded in the public eye, that will reflect favorably when you need a deal to fall your way at the negotiating table.

* Investors like to see a good public image in a business.  Investors like to know that the business they are interested in partnering with will be able to complete its business goals and endure year in and year out.  Part of that stability means that the business can live up to its mission statement and its statement of values.  When the business the investor is interested in has a strong public image, that reflects that this is a business that conducts itself with integrity, is interested in the public good as well as private profit and is looking for the long-term gain as well as the short-term profitability.  These values translate directly into dollars in an investor situation.

* A strong relationship with city and state government is important to long-term business health.  Many businesses seek concessions or to enter into a relationship with local government so they can have a clear path to get building permits or conduct other business that impacts the public good.  A local or state government can be a businesses best friend or stop your projects in their tracks and keep them stopped.  But the thing that pleases the political world is public opinion and the public good.  So if your business has a good public profile, that translates to votes for the politically minded people at city hall.  And that means influence which can help a business go a long way toward completing its long-range plans.

* A good public image impacts recruitment.  When you put an advertisement in the local paper to recruit talent, how you are viewed by those looking for jobs will directly influence if they will respond to your recruitment efforts.  Many a business got a bad reputation locally and saw dismal responses to recruitment efforts which can mean a less talented staff and poor performance of the business in general.

These are solid reasons for a business to put some energy and capital into courting a good reputation in town.  Whether that means a strong representation on United Way weekend or holding blood drives once a month, the business that has a reputation for reaching out to the community will be a business that prospers.

Courting the Millenials

Recruitment of top notch young talent who can enter your work force and provide that kind of long term growth potential and can only come from a smart and productive staff is always a challenge.  One of the big reasons any business works to keep its public image high and to project the concept that they are an employer of choice is to recruit the best and the brightest from the youth ranks.  

Young employees bring a lot to a business that can compliment an older work force and make the business much more vital.  Younger employees are savvy to the wants and needs of their peers.  So instead of trying to guess how to market to the current generation of 18-28 year olds who are the age segment with disposable income, by keeping such employees on staff, you have the inside track to the priorities of the current generation.  Further youthful employees are often optimistic and out to change the world.  Their sense of mission and belief in the system as a means to make the world a better place results not only in a better morale internally but in business philosophy that shares those values.

The tendency to name the upcoming generations can be a bit trite but it helps in knowing who the target group for recruitment are.  And that group of youthful future employees that will be hitting the job market in the next few years has been dubbed “the millennials”.  And despite the traumatizing events of world terrorism, war and the decay of the environment, the millennials come to you with that youthful enthusiasm and desire to make a big difference in the world that sets them apart from previous generations.

To lure the brightest minds coming from the nation’s colleges, some rethinking of what we put in front of these young people is in order.  They are not leaving academia strictly with the objective of making a lot of money.  So to turn the head of youth workers who can make a change for the better in your business…

§ Don’t just make the potential job about money or your recognizable business name.  The reputation of the company can be as much a negative as it can be a positive.  The millennial recruitee will look past the sign on the building at what the company is really all about.

§ The millennial is more internet savvy and wants to use modern technology to accomplish business goals.  It’s in our best interest to facilitate that goal because it will keep us in touch with the marketplace.

§ Corporate culture is an important factor for both recruiting and retaining good employees from this generation.  Millenials are looking for a business climate that is creative, able to change when new things become available, highly accessible upper management and responsive.   

§ Corporate values mean a lot to the millennial crowd.   That means that those high minded values printed on posters and plastered all over the Human Resource department have to actually mean something.  By demonstrating that the business lives up to its ethics and values, that will appeal the idealistic side of youthful workers.

§ The values that the business supports must reflect a modern attitude toward diversity and “going green”.  If you walk a millennial around the office during his or her interview, they will notice the recycling bins scattered about.  They will notice the diversity of culture and race in the employee mix.  

§ Be prepared to recruit from various disciplines.  Even if you are recruiting for a financial services function or some other specialization, keep your mind open to recruiting students with a focus on liberal arts or teaching.  These millennials can be trained to the specific job and they bring a fresh approach to the job description that comes from their college area of focus.

These are things that might take time to change if the corporate culture is behind the times.  But it’s worth the effort to start now to attract the kinds of workers that mean long term growth for the company.  By doing some serious analysis on how up to the date the business is, you can begin to affect change now so by this time next year, you will be in better shape to court the millennials.

Creating Traffic

Perhaps you have followed the trend in business to create an internet web site for your business that can be used to supplement your marketing efforts.  If so, you have joined the momentum to create a corresponding “place” in cyberspace that can be used to reach customers online.  The need for such an internet presence is entirely market driven.  Internet sales have soared, particularly in certain market segments and more and more, the first place people go to in order to learn about your business is the internet.  If they find a well designed web site that is full of features, that works fast and draws them in, that can be a tremendous tool for promoting your business.

When you set up a marketing tool outside of cyberspace, the first concern is how will that new marketing effort get noticed.  So we are drawn to places where there is already an active traffic of people who would qualify as our customers.  That may mean putting up a billboard where it will be seen by people going to work.  That target audience may be the best population to respond to your message.  Or if your business appeals to youth, advertising on MTV or on popular radio stations is a natural place to put your marketing money because the traffic is already there.  

We have to approach the internet differently.   Yes, the traffic is already there but we have to enter the world of cyberspace marketing with a different kind of strategy so we can reach the customers who are traveling certain “internet roads” and make sure those roads lead to our web site.

There is whole a cottage industry that has sprung up around the need for knowledgeable internet marketing gurus.  And, yes, it’s a good idea to use their talents to make sure the search engines put your web site in front of the right kind of client or customer.  These talented internet geeks can put your business web site into the flow of web surfers so you get your fair share of that traffic.

That said, you don’t have to wait for the internet marketing experts to make your web site more successful.   If the business has made the effort to put that web site up, you want to see it start to pay off right away.  That is why you should consider some creative ways to drive people to your web site from your traditional markets thus educating your current customers, clients and partners about the site.  Ways to do that include…

§ Promote the web site at the retail level.  Some creative signage at your retail locations can create some momentum and interest in customers to go see your exciting new web site.

§ Put the link on all correspondence.  If you have flyers, a magazine or other current means of communications, your URL should always be listed there.  Add your URL to your email signature and on business cards and all other forms of communication so your community of clients, customers and partners get used to associating that web site with you as much as they do your business name.

§ Create excitement.  It is easy to operate a business contest from your retail sites that drives people to the web site for clues or to claim their winnings.  That kind of momentum can create huge surges of traffic through your web site with the corresponding surge of sales and leads.

The modern customer or client is used to seeing the promotion of a web site included with other forms of promotion and advertising.  You are not “assaulting” your customer base with this information. If anything, when your audience sees that the business has burst into the cyberspace world in a big way, they will be thrilled and as likely to respond with, “It’s about time.”.   

You know how much you depend on the internet to keep you informed about areas of interest and about businesses you like to patronize.  So you can see that not only putting up a good web site but letting people know that it is there and that there are big things there for them to enjoy is doing them a favor as much as it is creating new marketing opportunities for your business.

Cyberspace on Aisle Five

It doesn’t take a lot of research to find out that in this day and age, virtually every business of any real size has developed some form of internet presence.  Now, for many businesses, that may mean little more than an online business card that can be used to get the phone number and store location of the business into the mind of the prospective customer.  But in this new century, the idea of having a business without a corresponding web page to support it is pretty much out of the question.

But if you look at the two business worlds, the internet business environment and that outside of cyberspace, there are some pretty big differences.  While many companies like bookstores or concert ticket promoters have learned to build what might be viewed as parallel universes in which their business operations are just as sophisticated online as outside of cyberspace, other businesses have just not found that balance.

But as the legitimacy of the internet as a valid marketplace and business tool becomes more understood, more and more businesses are learning that cyberspace can become another valuable part of an overall marketing plan that drives business to the store shelves directly from their internet web presence.  

So just as that billboard or newspaper coupon program are just as much part of the businesses corporate plan, that online effort out there in on the corporate web site can become a vital part of the stores operation so much so that the store manager will come to depend on the sales driven by the internet.  To that store manager they will look for cyberspace on aisle five as a vital part of their plan for business success.

There is a systematic process that businesses go through to use the internet as a way of capturing web traffic and turning it into store traffic.  Make no mistake, there is one principle that should seem evident but is the key to turning cyber visitors to in store shoppers and that is that – Internet Shoppers are People Too!

When a businessperson looks at those strange internet traffic reports that show that they web site has X number of “hits” and that Z number of web browsers went to Y number of web pages, all of that cyberspace mumbo jumbo just means that X number of PEOPLE were on your web site and looked at Y number of products or web page advertisements or services.  And those PEOPLE are the same living and breathing humans who will walk in the front door of your store and buy products and services from you.

All we need to do is devise methods to drive those internet shoppers off of their computers and into the businesses retail operations.  And more and more you are seeing a businesses trend of internet promotions that are geared to put the customers feet down in the retail space.  Some great methods for doing that are…

* Online coupons that can be redeemed only in the retail store.
* Online sales that can be picked up in the store.  Many online shoppers might prefer to have the product shipped to them.  So you will have to “sweeten the pot” by making shipping charges out of the question or by adding a promotion if the customer picks up his or her purchase in person.
* Contests.  Need we say more?
* By promoting special events that will occur in the store.  You can stage a major cyberspace promotional campaign for a book signing of an author or celebrity that will occur live at the store itself.  The costs of the promotion and having the in store event will be offset by the increased sales. 

If your web site routinely uses promotions that result in positive incentives to the customer to come to the store, before long a customer base of loyal consumers will get used to first going online to see what this week’s big deal is and then going to the store to cash in.  That kind of ongoing momentum is what makes such a synergy such a success and what makes even customers come to your retail outlet and look for “cyberspace on aisle five.”

Decentralizing IT

For decades, the classic model of how a business organizes its computer services department was to establish a separate IT department with an independent management structure which may extend all the way to the executive suite.  Over the years, the autonomy of that centralized IT function took on almost mythic proportions and in some cases resulted in abusive attitudes and ways of doing business that almost gave the impression that the business existed to serve the IT department rather than the other way around.

This was a particularly prevalent model when all business computer processing was done by a large centralized mainframe computer, usually made by IBM.  These mega computers are and were expensive and complicated to program and operate which dictated that to be successful, a business had to keep on staff a small army of computer specialists, many of whom seemed to speak an entirely different language and come from a different culture than those in the rest of the business.

This was a natural and necessary business paradigm under the circumstances when “big iron” ruled the IT community.  However, the last several decades have seen changes to how IT gets its business done.  First was the introduction of smaller, powerful systems driven by operating systems like UNIX that were capable of great efficiencies that challenged the supremacy of the mainframe in business.  

The movement toward network computing which was a natural business evolution to facilitate greater data access and to build stronger communications between spread out departments in the business world further eroded the need for one centralized powerful computer operated by a select few who spoke a cryptic language.  Network computing started the process of democratizing computing power in the business world.  With the new dominance of the internet and the need to take the business paradigm into cyberspace, the business model of decentralized data processing has taken on new meaning and importance.

In many businesses, the final stage of IT decentralization has begun to become a reality.  By locating centers of operations and development authority and responsibility directly at the department level, the efficiencies of IT decentralization have become possible at every level of the business. 

This trend in locating department specific applications along with the computing resources to support them to the department level is a significant change to the business culture.  Not only do the departments who benefit from those applications take ownership over the operation of those computing systems, programming and development resources will be become part of the department structure as well.

For example, if the HR department has a suite of applications that are used to tracking payroll, benefits, etc., that application will be placed completely under the authority of HR.  As such, areas of authority that were formerly the sole responsibility of IT such as systems analysis, development, programming and computer operations will become part of the HR management structure.  As a result, each department develops an ability to converse in IT terminologies which results in a higher IT awareness across the business that is healthy for long-term analysis of needs and resources to meet those needs.

This is not to say that new problems and challenges do not come along with the decentralization of IT.  Some IT issues must be addressed at a global level because they impact the business as a whole.  So there is still need for a CIO and some high level IT controls to which each of the departmentalized systems must be accountable.  

Further, the issue of systems integration and finding synergies between systems to maximize the efficiency of systems becomes more difficult when each department operates its own IT operation.  If each department owns and operates its own hardware and network, communications across the business are challenged and there is a higher chance that underutilization of systems will be a result.  Quality control at the systems administration level is more difficult because systems administrators may be answerable only to the department level more so than to the business in general.

These organizational issues must be resolved at a high level so the transition from a centralized to decentralized way of doing business can be successful.  But the rewards of putting computing power at the department level outweigh the risks of failure and justify the effort that will go with such a large change to the corporate culture.

Employee Retention in the Twenty First Century

The business paradigm in virtually every department of the modern business has been undergoing continuous change in the last ten years to such an extent that it becomes necessary to step back and review how we do business in all aspects of corporate life in light of new markets and new ways even our employees do business.  This is as much true in our Human Resource Department as it is in Marketing.  The labor pool is changing and the impact on the bottom line of the business can see be serious if we don’t change how we go about recruitment and view employee retention in light of the changes to the available educated labor “out there” to draw upon for our staffing needs.

Employee retention and how we approach the concept of keeping employees over many years is an area where certain assumptions must be challenged if we are going to stay competitive.  Some assumptions concerning employee retention that are rapidly becoming obsolete include…

§ That there is an unlimited resource of eager employees out there to fill my staffing needs.
§ That it’s a good idea to cycle employees in and out of the company because that keeps benefits costs down.
§ That the “my way or the highway” approach to management is the right way to go to enforce your vision for how work will get done.
§ That employees are commodities.  There are always more where they came from.
§ That employees should be grateful just to get a paycheck.
§ It is better to keep a youthful staff and to move older employees out of the work place.

The labor pool in changing with shifts in the demographics in the country and those changes make these assumptions obsolete and dangerous if we expect to keep a staff that can provide quality support for our business objectives.  Because the “baby boom” is leaving the market and being replaced with a smaller and less skilled youth population, we have to adjust our expectations both in terms of hiring and retention.

Probably the biggest change we have to get used to is to begin to view employees as valued assets and to give significant attention to retention, not just once a year at performance review time but on a daily and weekly basis.  The assumption that employees will work for us for a paycheck and that we can exert leverage in the management situation because of a large labor pool we can tap to replace unhappy employees has become a flawed approach to people management.

The truth is the pool of talented labor is shirking at an alarming rate.  If you have a staff of skilled people who you have invested in to bring up their knowledge and skill levels, that is an investment worth.  Skilled and educated employees are in short supply and, above all, they know they are in demand so they can move from job to job without difficulty if they become dissatisfied at their current work place.

These changes to the paradigm of emplacement justify a corporate wide reevaluation of retention policies and strategies.  The HR Department should be on the forefront of changing the business’s attitude toward employees from one of “us against them” to one of employee empowerment and partnership.  

The managers who will excel at retaining valuable, productive and trained employees will be those who see the employment relationship as a contract in which management has responsibilities to employees to assure their continued growth and success just as the employee must pull his weight in the company.  A partnership approach to management will go a long way toward improving the company’s retention profile which will benefit the business in a multitude of ways.

Going Retail in Riyadh

Much has been said and written about the globalization of the marketplace in the new century.  More and more, business no longer sees their markets as limited to their community, state or even this country.  To be successful in the new world economies, we have to see our markets as international if for no other reason than that our competition and our customers are seeing these markets.

The press likes to make a fuss about the effect of international trade on the national workforce.  While that is a concern, the old axiom that every problem represents an opportunity applies well to this business paradigm.  If we as business people begin to see the international business community as our opportunity to tap into markets and revenue streams otherwise unimaginable in another market environment, we can capture a new profitability that can come with success in those markets.

However, doing business in foreign markets demands some changes to how we go about structuring our contracts and sales and distribution networks.  One of the most explosive markets that is just beginning to become available to western businesses are the wealthy cultures of the Middle East.  With the explosion of the Dubai projects and the westernization of many of the Middle East cultures, it is becoming possible to “go retail in Riyadh” if we are willing to learn the culture and how to approach those markets.  To do so, the following constraints should be taking into consideration.

§ Middle East markets are self protecting.  Many Middle East countries restrict commerce to occur only between business entities within the country.  This can be worked around utilizing partnerships with local businesses who can bring in your product and create a local franchise.  The business is still yours, as are the profits, but the localization of your presence in a Middle East economy is set up to honor these restrictions.

§ Middle East markets work under Islamic Law.  There will be interruptions for daily prayer and for Islamic holidays that you will be expected to honor.  So be prepared to be respectful of these customs.  Also be sensitive that nothing in your product offerings makes reference to other religious viewpoints.   This is not being timid about our own culture.  It is just being savvy about how to work profitably in an Islamic culture.

§ Distribution and management must be internationalized.  You probably will not be able to set up a warehouse in the middle of Saudi Arabia with your company name on it.  Because of the local bias of the states where you want to do business, take advantage of any existing distribution channels that go through Europe or other surrounding countries to route your product to the Middle East and turn over ownership, management and distribution of the product within the Middle East to your Arabic partners before the product enters the country.  This careful set up of your network will pay off in the long run.

§ There are friends and enemies in the Middle East.  Many fear doing business in the Middle East because of dangers due to recent conflicts.  Just be aware that the west has many allies in these countries and there is a desire to partner with us within the more sophisticated economies in the Middle East.  By taking care as you forge your relationships and using local wisdom to craft your business dealings, you can do business in the Middle East safely and profitably.

These are significant issues when considering whether it is time for your company to start offering your products and services to the wealthy nations of the Middle East.  But if the time has come that your business is ready to start building those international commerce channels, the results can be tremendously profitable for your bottom line.  The investment is worth the effort if the business structures are developed wisely.

Looking for Cheese

Every now and then a business book comes along that revolutionaries how the business world views an area of focus.  One such book had the amusing title “Who Moved my Cheese” by Spencer Johnson.  This short book that is illustrated like a children’s story has some profound ideas in it that will radically change how any business approaches the marketplace.  It is a book that has had his biggest impact in helping employees who have been displaced view their job change.  But the ideas that are made simple in “Who Moved my Cheese” can impact virtually every area of business dealings.

The book communicates its message through a story of a mouse who finds that the place where he can find his cheese is no longer reliable.  The mouse’s friend continues to go to that same place to find more cheese only to continue to get hungrier and hungrier.  But the hero of the story finds the new location of his cheese.  When he finds his new source of cheese, he not only is astounded by the bounty but that even after telling his friend of the new source of cheese, that friend continues to insist that his cheese will be there where it always had been before and that in fact, the hero of our story is mistaken about the new location of cheese.

This, obviously, is not a tale about cheese location.  It is a parable of how to handle change.  The core value being taught by “Who Moved my Cheese” is that we cannot always look to the same resource for our supply.  Markets dry up, businesses go through slumps and have to lay good people off and revenue streams change.

But one thing is for sure.  There is always a new reservoir of funding somewhere in some market.  And the wise business can foresee a change in the marketplace well in advance and make the changes they need to make so that they go where the money is, or move with the cheese to find the new source of rich funding and tap into it.  

It is more than just a parable about looking for a new job.  But it sheds light on the plight of the unemployed.  So often someone who loses their job gets stuck in a mental cycle of waiting for their old job to hire them back or looking for an identical job in a very similar industry.  However, if that industry is under economic pressure or if the business paradigm for that industry has changed dramatically, there may no longer be rich sources of funding and employment availability there that was once so reliable.  In short, the cheese has moved.

This lesson has rich wisdom in business beyond the employment scenario.  The businesses who have learned to be adaptable in a changing marketplace and have made the changes to follow the changes to the new source of “cheese” are the businesses that survive decade after decade.  The grocery industry has seen that kind of change.  Many grocery chains went belly up waiting for the cheese to come back to the old paradigm.  But others saw the invasion of the big discount stores such as Wal-Mart and found ways to combat that change, to find new niches in the industry where an untapped market need existed or to compete in the new business paradigm.  Other industries where such dramatic changes have forced businesses to find out who moved their cheese are the record industry and the book sales business environment that have been so heavily impacted by internet sales.  

But those businesses have survived.  And if they can be aggressive and adapt and change with the markets, it’s a good example for all of us as we continue to look for the new source of “cheese”.

Making Money from the Inside Out

It is a well-understood axiom of the business world that there are two ways to improve the bottom line of the business.  Stated simply, those two ways are to make money or to cut costs.  Now no business can cost cut their way to profitability.  But by the same token, waste and excessive internal costs for any business can eat away any profits that business is enjoying.  So to get ahead in a competitive business environment, both methods must be employed.

When a business turns its eye to cost cutting, there is a stated or unstated business objective that the business owners will discover significant bleeding of revenues that are going on within the systems of doing business.  So if those systems can be improved to eliminate that waste, the business would literally make money from the inside out because the overhead of the business would drop so dramatically.

The usual progress of such a cost saving campaign by a business is to find “the low hanging fruit” first.  By that we mean that in order to satisfy the demands of management, middle management will identify superficial savings in hopes of satisfying the requirement.  Hence switching from disposable cups to mugs or cutting back on break room amenities often go on the chopping block first.

Sadly, while there may be some superficial savings to be found in such places, the significant introduction of efficiencies for any business lie at a deeper level and take a more in-depth process of locating problems with how things get done internally.  The methodology of finding these “money pits” within a business is often called “Process Improvement.”  The concept of process improvement is to diagram a particular business process from inception to completion and document the stages it goes through, the handing over of authority for the process and to pin point places where inefficient methods are causing excessive cost in executing that process en route to the final stage of process completion.

Routinely, the areas of business structure that most often identified as being candidates for a process improvement examination are…

* Excessive overhead between departments.  Departments within a business are notorious for taking on the atmosphere of a fiefdom and becoming resistant if not suspicious of other departments in the same company.  When that happens, department managers will introduce paperwork and unnecessary processing to cause “work” to move to his or her department from another or for completed jobs to continue along their path.  This excessive overhead can be costly at the department level and bog down the business as a unit enough to actually reduce the profitability of the organization.

* Communication problems.  A business process moves through the organization as each department or entity adds value to the process through to the completion of the job.  However if communications between departments or people along the process chain are flawed, a process can grind to a halt and wait for hours if not days before the missed communication is discovered and the work is put into the cycle to be completed.  This slow down or break down in communications can be a tremendous drain on the company.  To correct the problem, modern tools of communication should be reviewed so each significant person along the chain is quickly made aware of work that needs to be done and can signal to the next agent that their step is complete and that the process is moving to the next stage.  

* An inefficient IT infrastructure. Out of date computer programs that are not integrated with each other cause needless work to be done to take data from one system and moving it into the next computer program only to be entered again at the next stop along the chain.  Standardization and integration of data and systems will introduce huge efficiencies to the process.

By streamlining the process of moving a business requirement from inception to conclusion, we can remove much of the inefficiency and waste that has become inherent to that process.  We can introduce up to date integration designs both at the IT and process level to quickly move the process from one department to the next upon completion.   The outcome is a streamlined organization that is no longer “bleeding money” due to inefficiencies and as such is making money “from the inside out”.

Management by Walking Around

The MBWA method is a management concept that has gotten a lot of “buzz” and popularity in the last decade or so because it is part of a business model for cultural change within the enterprise that has proven successful in a lot of businesses.  The original concept was created by David Packard during the early days of the Hewlett Packard organization, a Silicon Valley company that was well known for its loyal and highly creative employee base that seemed to achieve levels of productivity and employee satisfaction far beyond the norm.

“The HP Way” which the “management by walking around” method was a part of was based on the concept that employees, particularly the subject matter experts in their fields, are capable of being part of the problem solving process and that a team approach to creating new business ideas and innovate ways to solve problems was far superior to the “top down” approach of management coming up with all the answers and dictating them to a mindless but obedient staff.

Packard was a believer in the open space, no walls and easy access to management corporate culture that MBWA exemplifies.  By enabling frequent and unscheduled interactions between employees and between management and staff, new ideas were given maximum opportunity to be birthed and encouragement to be developed which leads to a more responsive and flexible business culture and one that has a robust approach to growth and change.

In order to implement MBWA, the manager must embrace the concept of a flexible and relaxed relationship with staff.  The details of the method that MBWA promotes is summed up nicely in the title, management by walking around.  It suggests that instead of only meeting with employees at scheduled times in formal settings away from other employees or in a staff meeting where the agenda is published in advance, many opportunities for employees to talk to management are encouraged.  When the supervisor or manager walks freely amongst the employees throughout their work day, the opportunity to ask questions and to interact about new ideas the employees are considering is frequent.  From those unscheduled and frequent visits as the manager walks from cubicle to cubicle, great concepts can be birthed which can then be nurtured into new product ideas or novel solutions to problems.

However, if the relationship between management and employee is formal, based on fear or intimidation or not otherwise grounded in warmth and friendship, the MBWA system will go from a powerful method of collaborative problem solving to a tremendous nightmare for everybody.  You don’t want your employees dreading your “drop in” visits and seeing their productivity drop as you enter their work space because they are so concerned with impressing and serving management that they dislike your arrival in their world.  It is amazing how quickly a network of employees can detect and set up an early warning system when the manager is walking around so everybody “gets ready” for what they perceive will be an unpleasant sudden visit by management.

To avoid this, the supervisor should in other ways foster a relaxed relationship with staff.  The employee must feel free to discuss issues and questions openly with management without fear of being scoffed at, mocked, belittled or punished.  Many a company has generated a “HP Way” concept that comes out of the human resources department that amounts to little more than color posters on the wall and a suggestion box but nothing changes in the corporate culture or how each manager interacts with the staff.  Employees are quick to notice the hypocrisy of such a program and the result is management because an object of ridicule instead of inspiration.

By making your visits enjoyable, a welcome experience and one where the employee doesn’t fear your arrival, you can expect outstanding results from the MBWA method.  And you will know you have achieved true change in your corporate culture when not only do you walk around to visit employees but employees “drop in” on you by walking around if for no other reason than to share a joke or a donut.  That is an ideal setting for team work and proactive problem solving.

Project Management of a Global Team

The world is getting smaller.  Well, it isn’t physically getting smaller but that is one way of saying that global communications have become so fast paced that the world is really one community in a lot of ways.  With the advent of the internet, email, instant messaging and VOIP, it is entirely possible to do business with trading partners around the globe without ever leaving your office.  

For many businesses who are on the cutting edge of new business paradigms, the concept of a geographically isolated business is becoming obsolete.  It is entirely possible to put together a business consortium or a project team made of subject matter experts spread across all time zones and from around the world.  In fact, this kind of decentralized management of business projects is becoming more of the norm than the exception in the twenty first century business environment.

So just as those in marketing, product development and investments have already learned how to maximize a project team that is separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, the project manager must also adapt the project management methodology to accommodate a similar approach to getting business done.  

Conventional project management is a systematic approach to taking a project from scope to implementation that has proven successful in thousands of companies.  We have no reason to abandon this well developed methodology.  But as new business paradigms come to play, we have to adapt even a standard methodology like project management to fit the way business is done in this century.

Communications is the key to any successful project.  This is the challenge of utilizing a team from across a great geographical divide.  It is entirely possible you may execute the entire project with team members you never see.  So to facilitate frequent and up to date communications, we must exploit the technology we have at our disposal such as…

§ Blogs, wiccis and shared working environments.  Group sharing environments on the web are becoming more and more common.  By setting up a tool set on line in which team members can post status reports, leave emails, update the project management software, file expense reports and stay in touch with each other, you facilitate the kind of communication that keeps the team moving forward successfully.  Blogs, private message boards and wiccis are also excellent means by which an ongoing “conversation” can be carried out between team members that anyone can check into and get caught up with the content of what has been done and what is being planned for the project.

§ Controlled email trees.  As the project manager, email is an obvious way to quickly stay in touch with team members.  However, it can get chaotic trying to keep up on fast moving email trees.  That may be a good reason to trap all emails trees within your online project management software so the contributions of everyone on the team can be captured for further review.

§ IM staff meetings.  IM can be expanded so it doesn’t just bring in two participants.  You can schedule your weekly staff meetings using an IM conference room and capture the entire proceedings in the IM log thus assuring yourself that nothing that was said will “fall through the cracks.

By becoming adept at using cyberspace as the primary “location” of your project team’s interaction, you can literally create a team of highly specialized talent that can be located from anywhere in the world.  This vastly expands your ability to tap the best minds for your work and to streamline the project management process.  It will take time to get used to and there will be some missteps along the way.  But if you can conquer global team management using internet tools, it will be a valuable skill for successfully executing global projects for your business.

Squeezing Blood from an Onion

There is a new to the business paradigm that can be easily noticed if you pay attention to trends in the business climate that we see in the business news sections of our local newspapers.  It’s odd when we notice that even in good economic times, there will often be sudden waves of lay offs in businesses that we know are doing well. 

Anybody who has been the victim of a lay off can empathize with the disruption and emotional trauma such a change can cause.  Studies in business trends have documented that the phenomena of large scale business lay offs has been much more prevalent in the last ten years than in previous eras of the history of our business communities.  So one has to ask, what has caused this shift in behavior by employers?

While economic conditions and sudden shifts in the marketplace can have a lot to do with how employers manage their staffing, that is not sufficient to explain this dramatic change of behavior in the business relationship between employer and employee.  The real base cause of this change comes from a change in philosophy of employers.  

The historic business model between employer and employee is one of a mutually supportive contract.  Whether the contract is agreed to or just understood, the agreement is the employer will pay the employee and provide him or her with the basic needs they have to work on site for them.  The employee will, in return perform his or her duties on time and well, come to work reliably and to be a loyal employee.  This model is mutually supportive, creative and based on trust.

The business paradigm that has resulted in a lay off based model with a basic change to how employees are viewed such that…

§ Employees are viewed as a nuisance and a cost that many times the employer resents.  This resentment is especially acute in regards to employee benefits such as insurance and vacations which the employer sees as not his responsibility.

§ Employees are expected to fulfill their role in the previous business model but to do so strictly from gratitude for the paycheck and no more.  As such, the employer expects the same return from the previous model but they want to change the model in terms of employer expectations with no change from the employee side.

§ Long term benefits can be suppressed via a frequent turn over in the employee base.  By replacing experienced staff, the need to see salaries rise and to provide vacations and eventually retirement benefits is reduced because the employer keeps the work force at the entry level status indefinitely.

§ The base assumption of this new model is that there is an inexhaustible supply of skilled labor “out there” in the unemployed labor pool.  Therefore, current employees can be easily replaced with eager unemployed people so the human resource equation becomes exploitive.  

While this business model does make some economic sense, like any equation, the base assumption has to remain perpetually true for the model to work long term.  But this equation only works in a depressed economy where there are a large amount of skilled people on the labor market.  This approach to human resource management can backfire badly if there is a shift in the labor markets that eliminate that abundant supply of replacement workers.

This exploitive approach to management of employees changes the assumption of trust between employee and employer to an assumption of distrust.  It can have a devastating affect on employee morale so that even employees still being employed will deliver poor performance because they no longer are in a supportive relationship with management.  The answer of “Well, then we will just fire those dead beats and get new ones” is not a working solution because once the employee morale is low, productivity across the work force goes down and stays down.  

This affects the ability of the businesses to support current projects and deliver quality good and services to the marketplace.  And as an exploitive attitude toward workers results in poor products and services for clients, the business will begin to lose market share which is the early signals that the business is destined for extinction.  This is reason enough to reexamine the business model of employment and reconsider returning to a trust relationship with the employee base in our companies, for their good as well as for our own.

The Client Coworker

The idea of being customer service and customer satisfaction oriented is not a new paradigm in the business world.  Even in businesses that are not directly working with the public, the idea of structuring the company to satisfy the needs of the people that make it possible for the company to stay in business – it’s customers - is a core value for a large percentage of businesses, especially those that are successful.

But there are segments of every business that have no contact with customers so it is difficult for them to develop a customer service mentality.  And if the business itself is not structured to deal with the public or have conventional “customers”, that approach to the business world can be lacking in the workplace.  That is why a big business trend in all type of business settings is to change the work ethic internally so that workers view those who use their work as customers.  

When properly implemented, each employee actually begins to view each other, their bosses and especially people who rely on their work in other departments as customers or clients. In theory, this approach has as its objective to build that customer service mentality even in workers for whom the outcome of their work is only for internal 
departments or other workers in the company.

Its an innovate approach to changing the corporate culture of any business.  By altering the mindset especially of an office worker to that of someone who comes to work with that entrepreneurial or retail oriented outlook, the employee is freed to become more creative, more aggressive about completing quality work for their “customers” and get a greater feeling of satisfaction from satisfying their internal customers.

It’s a noble effort to try to alter the traditional culture of an office based business setting.  The traditional culture of a “cubicle farm” type of office setting often resembles the comic strip Dilbert.   That strip can be painful to read if you are a manager trying to keep a creative and proactive team moving forward in a business setting.  But Dilbert does point out some of the communication problems that are common in an office setting.  The distrust of management, the tendency by employees to drift toward unproductive attitudes and behavior and the low morale of many office settings is lampooned by the strip.

The client coworker business concept attempts to empower the employee to strive to perform to his or her best even when only performing duties for the department or another department internal to the company.  The client customer model calls for viewing that other department as a customer and providing customer service to that internal relationship with the same “eager to please” attitude that is necessary when serving external customers whose revenue drives the company.

There are some real values to be had by introducing a customer service attitude even to internal support functions within the company.  When combined with other empowering techniques such as process improvement and open communications with all levels of management, it can unify an office and put some real life into your staff.  

However, the negatives of the client customer model have to be avoided.  This approach can create animosity between coworkers and hard feelings when one employee feels that he or she is not being treated like a customer by another.  The client customer model can create distance between peer employees and reduce comradery which has a great deal of value in a team oriented corporate culture.  But a wise manager can implement the client customer model to a business setting and harvest from it the productivity gains while skillfully avoiding the pitfalls.

The Minimum Wage

In January of 2007, the federal government raised the national minimum wage.  This was old news in some states where the minimum wage had been raised months before congress took action.  No matter how you look at the increase in the cost of labor, it is going to have an impact on the business climate and on how businesses will make key decisions in 2007 and going forward.

In theory a raise in the minimum wage should be a nonevent economically.  It should be a simple adjustment for inflation which the business has already adapted to.  In fact, as inflation raises the cost of goods and the prices the business charges, one might expect the wages of workers to rise naturally to match that upward slope caused by inflation.  

How you view the good or the bad of the minimum wave increase may depend on which side of the fence you reside, the employer side or the employee side.  To the employer the rise in employee costs makes doing business more expensive and affects the bottom line.  To the employee, the employer is just being competitive and paying his or her employees a salary that they can live on.  In many cases, you may be on both sides of the issue if you own or operate a business but have people in your family who are trying to get by on the minimum wage.

The hardest hit businesses by this upward push in wages is small business.  Enterprises that employ a large amount of unskilled, lower paid workers can see a huge jump in the cost of keeping employees because of state or federally mandated increases in employee pay.  Many times small business enterprises operate on a thin margin of profit and any change to the cost structure can be a deadly hit to their budgets.  Moreover, since the small business model is intensely competitive, there is little room to raise prices to clients or customers without risking losing business to a larger competitor who can absorb the minimum wage increase without increasing prices.

These concerns are part of the reason that from a governmental stand point, congress is slow to increase the minimum wage.  There is already a tremendous resentment in the population for businesses that are relocating their production or support facilities over seas to take advantage of low paid workers to keep their bottom line on track.  You have to know that employee costs are a big issue when a business is willing to relocate much of their operation to a foreign country and incur all of those costs just to tap an employee base that will work below the minimum wage.

From the worker perspective, it’s hard to understand how this trend to take low paid jobs out of the country can be changed.  We are slow to stop businesses from taking actions they need to take to compete in the markets which is why passing legislation to stop the exporting of jobs is not a popular idea.  While it might help the plight of the worker in this country, it goes contrary to our priority on letting the free market and capitalism play out.  Sadly, when the free market does reign, sometimes good people get dealt out of the program.  

The best way for American workers to combat competition from unskilled workers overseas is to stop being unskilled.  By taking advantage of educational opportunities and gaining valuable skills, they can enter a new market where those skills will land them a good paying job that is not likely to go overseas because of the specialized skills the worker offers to employers.  So the best way for government to fight the export of jobs due to high employment costs is not to artificially suppress the market to hinder free trade.  The best move is to make our workers more skilled, more valuable and for workers to simply outwork their competition overseas.  This is capitalism at work at its best and if that line of attack is followed, the outcome for everybody is a stronger work force, the retention of jobs in America and a stronger national economy as well.

The Project Management Method – Curse or Blessing

Project management is an area of expertise that has undergone some significant development in the last decade.  A business project can have a far-reaching effect on the business and result in either tremendous improvement in the businesses ability to function in the marketplace or a significant setback to that business entity.

The idea of a formalized project management approach has been around for quite some time.  So it was not uncommon for any manager to find themselves learning the discipline of a structured project management system.  That project methodology takes any given business or IT project through the same standardized steps from conception through implementation.  Those steps would include…

* Project definition
* Needs analysis and requirements definition.
* Cost benefit analysis.
* Project scope.
* Project schedule and budget.
* Detailed specifications
* Development
* Testing
* Training
* Deployment

By utilizing a standardized process of doing all projects the same way, using the same reporting methods and tools, there is an economy of skills in that the project leaders and team members become adept at navigating these steps.  Further, by using the same systems and criteria, a scale of evaluation as to the effectiveness of the system is developed so the ability of project teams to do well over time improves.

It was natural that this standardized method would become codified and finally developed into a well-developed system that could that molds all projects to a single standard.  By developing an industry wide method that requires strict training and adherence to the same terms, tool sets and definitions of success, the “intuitive” nature of judging project effectiveness is reduced.  And so “the Project Management Method” was developed whereby project managers can undergo strenuous and exacting training in a standardized method that would be enforced via certification across the whole of the business community.

Whether or not the PMM represents a curse or a blessing to the business world depends to a large extent on individual applications of the method and measurements and observations on whether the method itself introduces efficiency to the process of project management or just another layer of bureaucracy.

There are some strong positives to utilizing a methodology that is standardized at an industry level.  Those project managers who have gone through the certification process can be depended on to implement that system the same way in each business setting.  As such, the process of finding qualified project managers becomes simplified because the certification process alone communicates to the business that it can expect the PMM system to be implemented correctly.

By putting into place an external method of certification and measurement of excellence, the project manager career begins to take a high level of professionalism similar to in the legal and medical fields.  So the PMM movement represents a maturing of the IT and project management disciplines as they move toward greater levels of accountability and control.

The dangers come in implementation of the PMM methodology on a project by project basis.  In order for a PMM certified manager to live by his credentials, all projects must conform to a standard mold.  The unique nature of each project may not easily fit into the PMM process of systematization.   

In addition, the PMM system is heavily dependent on a large amount of meetings to document that the project is adhering to standards and a methodical documentation process from which there is little room for variation or accommodation.  The PMM is a complex methodology so the tool sets that must be used to track the process can be expensive and difficult to use.

The outcome is that the introduction of the PMM system can cause the actual business objectives of the project to take on a secondary priority to the high standards of PMM itself.  Project leaders working under the requirements of the PMM can become more accountable to the methodology itself and lose sight of what is good for the business or what is efficient in terms of getting the project completed.  

There is very little room for creativity or individual judgment within the confines of the PMM and that is problematic because the nature of business problems have historically depended on the judgment and creative problem solving skills of middle management.  By dominating the project process with the needs of the PMM methodology, excessive cost is introduced as well as cumbersome requirements that do not benefit the business or the project itself.

The Quiet Explosion of Cell Phone Limitation Technologies

It is no secret that the explosion of functionality the world of cellular communications is nothing short of phenomenal.  Scarcely a month goes by when something new is added what people can do with their cell phones.  Now cell phones can take pictures, keep your calendar, let you send text messages or emails, surf the internet and do virtually everything except make the toast and burp the baby.  But along with the technological revolution in what cell phones can do, there is another quieter revolution that has as its objective the opposite goal, to stop cell phones from doing what they can do.

It stands to reason when a technology as pervasive as cell phone communications enables virtually every man, woman and child to communicate to virtually anyone virtually anywhere that at some point there would be a need for some controls.  That need has become more and more compelling when it comes to certain types of facilities where it is not only undesirable for cell phones to be operative but in some cases downright dangerous.  Some outstanding examples of where you do NOT want cell phones operational are…

§ Prisons where inmates can use them to plan illegal activities.
§ Federal buildings to protect classified areas and to restrict terrorist activity.
§ Religious buildings such as mosques where cell phones can disrupt the ceremonies.
§ Banks and financial institutions where cell phones could be used for robberies or for terrorism.
§ Theaters and music halls where you want cell phones turned off during the performance.
§ Hospitals or airplanes where the operation of cell phones can disrupt machinery.

The problem with securing a building from cell phone operation is that putting up a sign that cell phones should be in use is not getting the job done.  The phones can still be on and used as a homing device or create disruption to sensitive equipment.  So to be effective, the facility needs to have cell phone blocking technology in place to stop the operation of every cell phone that comes inside that facility for the time it is there and then returns operation to that device as soon as it passes out of the facility area.

This is a tough challenge and the technologies that have been developed for the most part bring as many problems as they solve.  There are basically three solutions to the problem.

1. Alarming.  A device is put in place that can detect the signals coming from user’s cell phones.  When the signal is detected, alarms go off to alert the user that the cell phone should be disabled.  The problem is that this is not that much better than a sign on the wall informing people that cell phones are not allowed.  It depends on compliance and the user can easily turn the phone right back on once inside.

2. Disruption.  Otherwise known as jamming simply sends out a disruptive signal to jam the cell phone while in the facility.  Jamming is destructive to machinery, dangerous to people and animals and in many countries, illegal to use.

3. Distraction.  This approach detects the signal that the cell phone is sending to the tower to be recognized and sends a false signal back to the phone so it is distracted and thinks it is in communication with the tower when it is in fact off line.  No calls can come to the phone because the tower doesn’t know its there and no calls can be made because the phone isn’t actually on line.

Of the three, distraction has the best chance of solving the problem permanently.  The business trend to look out for is the rapid expansion of any company that uses the distraction method for cell phone management.  That will be the business that thrives in this market.

The Roller Coaster Oil Market

There is a public mythology concerning the oil markets that has been fueled by a sharp rise in oil prices in the last few years.  That perception is that the oil companies whose job it is to acquire the raw materials to make petroleum products, including gasoline for transportation, are the source of the rising prices.  It is easy for the public to pin the blame on big business.

The truth is that those on the inside of the oil business know full well that the oil business is tremendously cyclical.  That means that the old adage, “whatever goes up must come down” definitely applies to the oil markets domestically and around the world.  The current high prices are more a reflection of problems with refineries and with supply due to tension in the Middle East than it does with the profit objectives of the oil companies involved.  In truth, oil companies have to cope with sweeping shifts in supply and demand and it impacts how they plan their economic futures as much or more than it affects the average consumer.

This upswing in the price of gas is not the first time the oil business has seen huge profits and gains in their returns.  And anyone who has been in the oil business for a few decades knows full well that the current high profitability economy which is benefiting oil companies tremendously will turn the other direction at some point.  Just as there is a shortage due to problems with repairs or temporary shut downs at the nation’s refineries, there will come a time when all refineries are producing at full capacity and there will be a glut on the market which will drive prices down.

Similarly just as oil shortages dominate the market and are on the minds of consumers because of Middle East tension, oil supplies can shift dramatically.  A new discovery in Asia, The Soviet Union, Europe, South America or off shore in America can suddenly send a glut of supply into the market that will send the price of crude oil plummeting and with it, gas prices worldwide.

This is not just pie in the sky forecasting but an industry trend in the oil business that is supported by years of experience, research and tracking by the businesses most impacted by sudden supply and demand turns in the markets, those big oil companies.  The oil business is so used to the roller coaster nature of the market that even though the market is good now for the oil companies, they are already preparing for the next downturn and how they will survive when supply exceeds demand and prices drop leaving them with big adjustments to make in how they do business.

As with any smart manager of a business or investor for that matter, diversification is the way to prepare a strategy for handling volatile markets like we see in the oil business.  And that has been a cornerstone of the strategies that have kept the oil companies able to ride the ups and downs their industry undergoes on these huge swings in supply, demand and profitability.  While the oil industry is enjoying unprecedented prosperity now, there is coming a time when they will see their profits drop and they will have to brace for a downturn of unknown length and survive it until the next swing of the pendulum back out.  

Even now, you can bet that every big oil company in the world is already investing heavily in diversified business interests that can generate revenue to keep the company afloat when oil revenues are not as lucrative as they are now.  Those investments will be in real estate, the stock market and even in far flung unrelated industries such as retail or the entertainment industry.  The more diversified a company can get, the more prepared they are to ride out the roller coaster oil market.  

And this shrewd business practice is a good signal to those who are investors in the oil industry as well.  Just as the companies who are fattening up our portfolios now are strong investments, we should know that the downturn is coming and diversify while times are good.  Then we can ride out the next oil slump just as handily as the companies that live or die by the oil markets do year in and year out.

The Steps to Finding the Perfect AD Agency

A good Ad agency can take a business and propel its success forward in ways that few other business partners can do.  If the business is one that will benefit from promotion or advertising, the right AD agency bring to the table the talent, the creativity and the resources to put together just the right advertising campaign and then to deploy it in a way that is a perfect fit for the business’s marketing objectives and for the market that the business serves.

But for every success story of how an AD agency took a business to the next level of success, there are plenty of horror stories of terrible advertising campaigns.  A bad advertising strategy not only fail to escalate the sales and success of the business, it may damage the business in the eyes of the consumer and cause damage that could take years to fix.  

There comes a time in the life of any business when the decision is made to either employ the business’s first AD agency or to change agencies to find one that can fit the marketing objectives of the company.  To be sure that this process results in one of those success stories and not one of those horror tales, some precautions are in order such as…

§ Nail down the company’s marketing objectives before you meet with candidate agencies.  Don’t allow the AD agency to dictate what your marketing goals are.  By taking charge of what you want before you begin the process, the chances of finding just the right agency are vastly improved.

§ Put together a review committee for the search process of finding the right agency.  This team is well informed about the company objectives and the marketing goals that lead to the decision to bring an AD agency on.  They can be kept together throughout the selection process so you have wisdom from many different parts of the company management structure to guide the process.

§ Nail down the budget for the project before you put the invitations out to AD agencies to bid on your business.  If you know exactly how much you can spend, that will help in the selection of the right agency and in setting their limitations early in the relationship.

§ Establish the schedule of how long you have find an AD agency and then the time frame they have to put a campaign together, get it approved, produced and activated so the outcome is in sync with the company objectives.  If you have a major product announcement coming along, the time to start finding an AD agency is months before the week when the product goes public.  By timing the project so adequate time is allowed for each step, you don’t rush the process and end up with an inferior promotion which will result in unsatisfactory results.

§ Make sure the AD agencies you invite to bid on the business understand your business, what you do, the product to be promoted, your market and your business image.   They should also be aware of previous marketing efforts that were done by the business.   If the previous efforts were successful, there may be a strong tie in to the next promotion that would work well.  If that last promotion was bad or needs major improvement, the AD agency should know that so they can steer clear of the same mistakes.

By doing some planning up front and being ready when you begin to bring AD agencies in to discuss your goals, you will vastly improve your chances of selecting the right firm.  And by finding the right AD agency, you vastly improve the success your advertising will bring to the company which can be a tremendous boost to the corporate profitability.

Virtual Employees
When we say something is “virtual” in modern terminology, we are almost always talking about something related to the internet.  So Virtual Dating is dating using the internet.  “Virtual” does not mean something that does not exist.  But it implies you are replacing a normal physical entity with a real but for the most part unseen entity that lives online.

The trend in strategic business planning is to incorporate an aggressive “virtual marketing” plan with your traditional plans.  So it makes sense that eventually the move to virtual resources would reach human resources with the availability of virtual employees.  

In the last two or three years, virtual employment has taken off and become a very real resource for businesses wishing to tap into valuable experience and subject matter expertise that cannot be found locally.  Agencies such as Team Double Click and Rent-A-Coder provide an army of ready to work professionals that can step in and get a job done quickly and efficiently for an employer.  

The obvious first application of virtual workers is to subcontract to an online employment agency certain task specific projects that have a short beginning, middle and end.  Building a new function into a web page is a good example of a project that can be packaged into an understandable project and signed over to a virtual consultant to perform the work and return to the online employer.  The handling agencies collect funds via escrow so neither the employer or the consultant are at risk and the handling company claims a percentage of the fee as part of their pay for facilitating the partnership.  Everybody wins.

But the concept of virtual employment is going beyond providing another variation on outsourcing to a consultant.  Many virtual employment agencies provide administrative assistants, sales support and many other functions normally associated with a full time employee but those services are done “virtually”.   A virtual office manager can have calls routed to his or her remote phone, emails redirected and conduct office meetings and negotiations with vendors via email or instant messaging.  Using these modern tools, a virtual assistant can provide almost every function an on site assistant might be able to do but do so at a lower cost to the employer.

The virtual employment trend in business has obvious benefits for businesses that are in need of qualified help.  It opens the door to recruitment sources that can supplement the local talent pool.  Many times virtual staffing agencies may have on their “employee roles” people with a specialized background or skill.  The agency is skilled at defining exactly what their client businesses need and matching up the right virtual employee to the job so the business has the right skill sets where they need them, when they need them and only for as long as they need them.

In addition to the benefits that virtual employment has for businesses to fill needs for skilled workers, it’s an excellent resource for talented workers who want to make a contribution to the business world on their own terms.  Virtual workers almost universally work at home or where they chose to work.  Often the work is task based with a deadline so the worker can select the hours that fits their family and personal schedules best.  And, like working for a temp agency, the employee can build a resume with the agency that improves the quality of work they get over time.

Virtual staffing is a trend that has been a success for all involved as it has matured in the last few years.  We can look for this twenty first century methodology for bringing in talented workers to continue to grow as more and more businesses get comfortable with staffing their employee ranks “virtually”.

What Google Knows

It wasn’t that long ago that a tremendous scare went through the internet community.    The issue had to do with the huge amount of data that can be collected on individuals using search engines online.  This large body of information naturally drew the attention of the Homeland Security agencies who are charged with the job of finding out all they can about potential sleeper cells of terrorism in this country.

The stand off came when the government began to demand access to the search records of all users of the major search engines.  When this upcoming struggle for privacy began to come to a head, many of us who depend on search engines for both personal and business research began to get that “big brother is watching” feeling.  

It’s a tough compromise.  We know that our government must have the ability to find and put a stop to security risks that might result in another disaster like September 11th 2001.  But at the same time, Americans are tremendously protective of their liberties, their privacy and their right to be left alone by the government.

Of all of the search engines who were in the spotlight during that struggle, Google’s resistance to allowing undue invasion of privacy of their customers stood out as an act of courage in a difficult confrontation.  It turned out that Homeland Security really wasn’t becoming “big brother” and was simply researching how to use statistical data to possibly find terrorist patterns in search engine usage.  But many of us remember that while Yahoo and others knuckled under quickly, it was Google who stood up and protected user information rather than immediately turn it over to Uncle Sam.

This stand reflects a long established business ethic that Google has maintained to be protective of the data it collects about users of its search tools.  That protective nature has more benefits than just building our confidence that Google is a safe tool for all of us to use.  Google indeed has at its disposal a tremendous library of personal information on anyone using its search tools.  And as the dominant search engine in the industry, this potential includes just about anyone who accesses the internet.

The information that can be collected from you and I as we use the internet can tell an interested party a lot about your interests, what kind of business you are in, your religious views and your political affiliations.  Powerful analytical tools are available to take large volumes of search information and translate that into profiles that would be of great interest to the government and to marketers who would love to be able to target specific populations for sales.

For Google, this information has significant value to them as they fine tune their search engine methodologies.  They can methodically analyze this data to draw conclusions about how their search tools are working and how they should update the formulas that drive those tools to be more in step with how the internet audience is using cyberspace.  Yes, this is taking advantage of their already dominant position to secure that position and make their toolset even more capable of staying ahead of the game.  But we really cannot fault Google for using this data in that way.  That is just good business. 

It turns out then that Google’s protective posture when it comes to that massive database of search information serves their purposes extremely well.  If they can keep this mountain of very specific data secure and proprietary, it represents a trade secret of tremendous value to Google to help them maintain their market superiority for a long time to come.  

This is a case of the needs of the market serving the public good well.  For as Google protects our search information so only it can benefit from such knowledge, they also are protecting our privacy from the prying eyes of overenthusiastic government agencies, hackers, marketing campaigns and even the terrorists who could use that information for insidious purposes.  Therefore we can be thankful that Google jealously guards this data for its own uses because in the process, they are protecting us along the way.

When Banks Explode

The proliferation of branches of banks in most American cities has become so epidemic that it is hard not to notice the dominance of this kind of business on any street corner in your town.  In many cases, a busy intersection which might be used for retail operations such as fast food restaurants, cleaners, gas stations and quick stop stores has been taken over by banks.  In some cases you will see three of the four corners of a popular intersection in town occupied by different bank branches.

It makes you wonder, just how many banks do we need in town and why are the banking institutions spending so much money to put branches in virtually every location that has open space?  It is a business trend that gets your attention and it makes you wonder what is driving this bank explosion.  After all, in many cases there are not more customers for those banks.  You have to wonder how banks can cost justify such expansion when the growth of bank branches is not even in step with population growth in a given community.  

The phenomenon has become more profound in the last ten years than ever before.  And much of it has to do with changes in how banks are regulated and the financial objectives that these branches are targeting, financial objectives that bring big money to the banking institutions spreading all over town.

· Regulatory Changes.  The rules for how many branches a bank can own and where they can open them have changed significantly in the last decade.  Now banks can open branches inside grocery stores and at a greater density than before.  And this has set off the growth war of branch banking that we notice going on all over town.

· An explosion of services.  Along with a freeing up of the branch banking laws, commercial banks can offer many more services than ever before.  While we think of banks in terms of checking and savings accounts only, if you walk into the bank, you will be buried with offers for a huge variety of financial services including varieties of investment services and different forms of credit arrangements.  And these services are huge money makers for your local banker.

· How banks really make their money.  Obviously banks don’t make much money just keeping your checking account working correctly.  But using checking as a loss leader, banks can capture your business to offer credit services and investment vehicles that yield them much higher returns on the use of your funds.  Further, the fees that can be applied for overdraft accounts and other fee based services are a pure profit mechanism for banks.

· Visibility counts.  Each new customer a bank lands takes revenue out of competitor’s banks.  And if they can capture your banking business, the money you store in your accounts is available for loans and interest they can realize by using your money while it is in their care.  So they want to be visible to assure you think of them first when it is time to open a new account.

This trend is not likely to change any time soon.  The competition in the banking industry is fierce and bankers are aggressive business people.  So we should expect them to continue to work hard to capture the consumers business and make themselves available to consumers to steal your business away from competing banks.  And while it might be troubling to see every street corner filled with bank branches, its part of the market system that makes our economy strong.  And that is a good thing.

Will DRM Save the Record Industry?

Without a doubt the single most influential agent of change in business trends in the last ten to twenty years has been the internet.  There is virtually no business segment or market that has gone unchanged by this powerful force.  But of all of the various businesses impacted by cyberspace, the music industry has to the one that has seen the most dramatic change and the greatest challenge to keep up, adapt and survive an onslaught of change unprecedented in its history.

The first major challenge that cyberspace brought to the music business was a complete shift to how music would be sold to music fans worldwide.  In what can only be described as an avalanche, the music buying public virtually abandoned conventional record stores and retail outlets and took the majority of their music purchasing business online.  But this mass influx of business could not be tracked to any one web site that was executing the revolution.  Because of a revolution in how bands and Indie record labels do business online, the music audience followed and began buying their CDs and even concert tickets directly from artists or record labels online and getting those products instantly via downloads.

But as drastic as the market changes this paradigm shift in consumer behavior represented, it was nothing compared to what the internet had in store for the music world.  The next wave of change represented a threat to the music business so serious that it had the potential of putting the music industry out of business forever.  When music consumers began to share digital music electronically over the internet using file sharing software such as Kazaa, Limeware and BitTorrent, suddenly it was possible for a music customer to access all the music they wanted for free by simply downloading this music from another internet user’s computer.

The plummet in music sales as result of these two forces was drastic and traumatic to the music world in general.  At first, the music business executives were at a loss of exactly how to go about stopping the widespread file-sharing phenomenon.  They tried to shut down the software services that provided the networks to users with lawsuits and other punitive actions.  These litigations took a long time and cost a huge amount of money and all the while the flood of free music going out over the internet continued to increase.  Worse of all, when they did slow down one file sharing network, it seemed many more cropped up to replace it which began to look like a nightmare scenario of constant lawsuits against a never-ending and constantly growing enemy.

Public pleas to the music loving public were another attempt to appeal to the conscience of the music world that if artists could not get paid, there would be no more new music.  But the opposite seemed to be the case.  As more and more Indie musicians began to capitalize on file sharing and using it as a method of marketing, the quantity and quality of good music only seemed to increase in this new music marketplace.

The final attempt seemed to be this technology called DRM.  DRM is a digital “lock” that would be required to go on every piece of music released on the internet.  Music with DRM would not be playable except to customers who had a legal right to use it.  At first, this seemed like a viable solution.  But even DRM didn’t stop the flood of lost revenue through file sharing.  And hackers seemed more than happy to learn to undo any technical locks the music industry could come up with.

So as we move into the last half of the first decade of this century, the music industry is learning to work with this new music marketplace rather than fight it.  And by learning lessons from the Indie labels and how to serve customers in a digital world, there seems to be a new solution on the way but one that is dictated on the customer’s terms rather on the terms of the big music labels.  Somehow, that seems like it is the way it should have been all along.

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