Why the US is different to other countries

I have just spent 10 days in the USA, split between a week just south of Los Angeles in Costa Mesa, and several days in Lawrence, Kansas. Although I have been to the US several times before, this time it was different, for reasons I explain below. But also because I may have figured out the essence of what makes the US different to other countries when it comes to business and technology.

My previous visits were either as a pure tourist, or as an overseas employee of a US company coming to get an update on future plans and directions. For those work-related visits, I was a passive recipient. This time it was different. I went to the US to attend a sales conference organized by my employer in South Africa. This time I was one of the people helping to set future plans and directions. This time I had to actively engage – mainly, though not exclusively, with people who work in our North American offices about their concerns and issues.

One of the ongoing issues is that we, i.e. South Africans, don’t understand the US. In the past, I have always supported the view that while the US may start earlier with certain things, there’s not that much difference when it comes to business. But at the end of the sales conference, I had a strong feeling that things were much more different than I had been able to understand.

On my previous working visits, I received direction from US head office people, and used to consider them rather ignorant of the world outside the USA. Now the roles were somewhat reversed: I was the head office person, and they were saying people like me were ignorant of their world.

It took a few days after the intensity of the sales conference, staying with family in Lawrence, and talkininside Dillonsg with my South African brother-in-law who works at the University of Kansas, to distill what I think is the essence of the difference. It was after a visit to a local supermarket, Dillons, that it occurred to me.

It’s what is considered basic.

For each product category, e.g. bread, the range at Dillons was two or three times more than I have seen in South African, or UK, supermarkets. Moreover, the products in Dillons exploited every single consumer niche you could imagine, no matter how specialized the niche. In others words, the choice and competition was greater than I had experienced. I surmise that this makes US consumers more demanding than consumers elsewhere, and makes what they would consider basic different.

When hearing the North American sales people talk about their market and competition, the same kind of impression arose:
product category range + exploitation of niches = high degree of expectation from business

Perhaps it’s because the US economy is so highly competitive that the basics are different – in supermarkets, in business, in IT (and if you watch any reality TV, in relationships).basic differences

It’s something for both sides to consider. If you enter the US market to do business, be aware of how the needs and requirements will differ and be at a higher level. On the other hand, for US companies operating internationally, don’t expect the same issues to be of concern, and don’t assume US concepts are universal.

When it comes to business software, the requirements of a US business are likely to be greater or more detailed than business in other countries because what is considered basic fo US business is different. The same duopoly then applies – overseas software companies must get really immersed in the US to learn what is needed, US software companies may not find the same functional requirements from businesses in other countries.

Google disrupts the tech industry life cycle

Google is renowned for disrupting established standards. In the book Googled,  Ken Auletta discusses several times where Google’s engineering approach disrupted previously long-established business models. I wonder whether Google isn’t doing it again in another area.

A few years ago, an MIT Sloan Review article ‘Shifting Cultural Gears in Technology-Driven Industries‘ asserted that:

In technology-driven industries, as core technologies mature and mainstream customers proliferate, the primary source of customer value inevitably shifts from product innovation to business innovation, which focuses on processes (product development, procurement, manufacturing, sales, distribution or services) and marketing (partnering, segmenting, positioning, packaging or branding). To meet the changing needs of customers, technology-driven companies must effect a corresponding shift in their own competencies. However, attempts to accomplish that through changes in strategy, structure, processes or rewards without changing the company’s underlying cultural assumptions are almost always doomed to failure because culture strongly shapes both the competencies and rigidities of a company.

Then along comes Larry Page, reinstalled as CEO of Google, and starts changing his company is a way that seems to do the opposite of the MIT article.

The main theme that seems to be emerging: An elimination of Google’s more centralized functional structure–where Rosenberg was one of several manager kingpins–to one in which the individual business units and their engineers, such as its most independent Android division, rule more autonomously.

Reimagined like this, Google would become an ambidextrous organization with more powerful unit line execs, mostly engineers, doing what needs to be done to succeed

So is Google moving in the opposite direction to that suggested in the MIT Sloan article?

On brand loyalty too far

Michael Schrage has written a provoking piece on whether firms will push employees to live brand values into their private, non-work lives. He elaborates in one of the comments:

… if a walmart employee and supplier won’t live the brand commitment by using cfd’s and being a ‘good citizen,’ is walmart entitled to ‘discriminate’ by not offering promotions, bonuses, good reviews, etc….?

… if an employee of an ‘equal rights/diversity’ championing firm is a member of a private club that excludes women and minorities, can the firm choose not to promote that employee – or even fire him?

The issue that such a  practice could be an invasion of privacy, or unconstitutional, is raised in the article comments but coming from the US, and the commenters being apparently US-based, I would submit that the view of the workplace as being unregulated is very much a US concept. In more regulated work conditions, such as those in South Africa and several European countries, employment conditions and terms would prevent an employer from forcing its values into areas outside the workplace.

On a different note, the kind of work environment that Schrage envisages sounds more like a ‘Stepford Wives’ community, one which values conformity above everything. The problem with conformity in today’s world is that it does not encourage originality, and it is difference and originality that provides the opportunity for innovation.

Is Schrage’s article really serious, or just a clever argument designed to ridicule the possibility of someone actually coming up with such a proposition?

The need for IT project management

The Herdings Cats blog had an article:

CEO/COO/CIO’s not confident in IT Project Managers, really?

In a number of companies, particularly in small- and medium-sized busineses, CxOs do not like project management (PM). On the PMForum there is a report that while CxO’s see PM as critical, they have little confidence in project managers.

PM guru Glen Alleman makes the observation that in many commercial IT organizations:

Project Management is an afterthought … [with] none of the oversight and progress reporting, no wonder the CXO’s have no confidence. They get what they deserve. PM costs money, don’t spend the money? Then as Dr. Phil say "how’s that work’in for ya?"

Management ideas of the first decade

On 1st January 2010, the people at the Harvard Business Review published The Decade in Management Ideas – their list of what they considered the significant management philosophies, or maybe fads, of the first decade of the millennium.

Here’s the summarised list:

  1. Shareholder Value as a Strategy
  2. IT as a Utility
  3. The Customer Chorus
  4. Enterprise Risk Management
  5. The Creative Organization
  6. Open Source
  7. Going Private
  8. Behavioural Economics
  9. High Potentials
  10. Competing on Analytics
  11. Reverse Innovation
  12. Sustainability

I would also add:

  • Software-as-a-Service
  • Web 2.0

Would you add anything, or remove something?

Big moves by international business into South Africa

In the past two months there has been news about international businesses making big moves into South Africa.

The first news was in July when the Japanese telco conglomerate NTT made an offer to buy Dimension Data; the take-over was recently given regulatory approval.

The next story was banking giant HSBC’s offer to buy Old Mutual’s controlling stake in Nedbank.

The last story, which came out yesterday, was the US retailer Wallmart announcing it was looking at buying Massmart.

This seems to be a sign that Africa’s economic growth and potential is at last being recognised by more than just mining companies.

On the down side, there are some concerns about international companies buying local ones that are listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), as this reduces the size of the local stock market, especially as the companies being bought are major entities on the JSE. On the plus side, it’s a sign of the recognised excellence of the SA companies and that their experience is critical to strategies that involve entering the larger African market.

Feel free to make your comments about these acquisitions here. I wonder if this might start big international software companies from thinking that a territory called EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) is appropriate, but instead have Europe, Middle East and Africa as separate divisions.

What business hates about IT

I would recommend that anyone involved in ERP projects or support read Susan Cramm’s insights into why business gets frustrated with IT – Eight Things Executives Hate About IT. In summary, here they are:

  1. IT limits managers’ authority
  2. Consists of condescending techies who don’t listen
  3. Doesn’t understand the true needs of the business
  4. Proposes “deluxe” when “good enough” will do
  5. IT projects never end
  6. Is reactive rather than proactive
  7. Doesn’t support innovation
  8. IT never has good news

One of the concluding comments is:

… companies can no longer afford to waste precious resources on IT “investments” sponsored by business leaders who believe IT is not their job – or wish it weren’t.

What’s your experience in IT working with business, or vice versa?