Category Archives: The Firm

The benefits of being big are shrinking

Pumpkin-750x300Centre for the Edge AU is looking at how long-term trends are changing the composition of the business landscape: the change in the mix of large verses small firms, and how they relate to each other.

The work is developing nicely, but we’re still a long way from putting something formal out. However, one conversation (between Richard Miller and myself) was worth blogging about, which is the dynamic between a long-term trends for consolidation (markets becoming increasingly dominated by a smaller number of larger firms) and one of fragmentation (large markets breaking into many smaller, niche, markets). The result is over on the Deloitte Strategy blog as Market trends: The benefits of being big are shrinking. I even managed to coin a nice visual image that I think sums the post up nicely:

It’s as if our efforts to rip operational costs out of business have incrementally worked their way from left to right across the value chain – from sourcing through to marketing and distribution – only to bounce off the customer and start working their way back, from right to left, fragmenting the business landscape in the process.

The car you just bought is the last car you will ever own

How long until it doesn’t make any sense to own a car? What if you considered a car an accessory for your phone, rather the considering a phone something you plug into your car? With decent smart phone integration (via CarPlay from Apple, and Android Auto) and for-profit car clubs (from ZipCar, FlexCar through Daimler’s Car2Go and BMW’s DriveNow to Hertz on Demand and Avis On Location by Avis) allowing you to only pay for the hours you use, that time might not be too far away.

Cars are status symbols. They’re expensive, typically the single most expensive item that most folk will buy other after a house. Since the around the 1930s your car has also been something of a fashion statement.

The car we buy is an extension of our personality. Agreeable individuals seem to prefer brands like Toyota or Nissan while Peugeot owners are extroverts and Volvo is associated with safety.1)Press release (2013), What Your Car Says About Your Personality, Veryday. Black is the colour of luxury and status, while the owner of a silver or grey car driver doesn’t want to stand out; owner of blue cars want stability, truthfulness and serenity; a brown-car buyer wants value and a long life in their purchase, and doesn’t care about trends or fads; while yellow car owners exude joy and a positive attitude.2)Lora Shinn (2014), What Your Car Color Says About You, Fox Business.

If a car is a status and fashion symbol then why don’t we change our cars when we change our moods? The zippy little commuter (or perhaps the impressive black executive conveyance) for the commute to the office, something fun and red for the weekend, or reliable blue people-mover for ferrying the kids to weekend sport.

The main problem for many folk is that we can only afford to own one (or perhaps two). Having a car for every occasion is just not financially viable. For-profit car clubs are changing that though. At the moment you can pay by the hour for something reliable but boring to get you from point A to point B and back again. What’s to stop the same services from offering something more exiting, or something with a little more room?

Then there’s the problem of carrying your preferences – the selection of radio stations, GPS settings, seat hight and so on that we’re dialled in – from car-to-car. If, however, we think of cars as smartphone (or even smartwatch) accessories, rather than the other way around, then it’s not hard to imagine hopping into the car club car you’ve just picked up and dropping your phone into the dock, only to find the seat hight adjusted, radio stations tuned and a route to your mother’s house out in the suburbs plotted by the time you mange to get the car started.

At this point the only thing tying you to owning a car is the golf clubs that you store in the boot (trunk), and the strange iconic role that buying your first car has in your formative years.

While the baby boomers have a strong attachment to owning a car, this is not true for Gen Y, who are ambivalent about car ownership. Studies have shown that fewer young adults have driver’s licenses, that they hate the traditional car-buying process, and that they prefer urban living and socialising online and consequentially have less need for cars.

Why invest a large chunk of your personal wealth in a single asset that is worth nothing when you finally sell it, when you can access cars on on-demand, picking the car that fits your mood and needs at that particular time, and have the car magically become “yours” when you drop your smartphone into the dock?

This creates an interesting dilemma for the car manufacturers. On one side that have younger cohorts coming through who don’t automatically assume that they need to own a car, and who are consequentially harder to market to. On another side they have the emergence of fractional car ownership: what’s happened to private jets3)NetJets has provided a fractional ownership service for private jets since 1986. and handbags4)You can fractionally own, or rent, depending on your point of view, a designer handbag from services such as Bag Borrow or Steal. is now happening to automobiles. And finally, on the last side, they have new approaches to manufacturing such as iStream5)iStream is a new approach to car manufacturing that reducing the cost of tooling by around 80%, enabling new car models to be profitable in much shorter production runs. that slash the investment required to design and manufacture a car, potentially making all your expensive factories irrelevant overnight.

It’s not hard to imaging a time in the near future where you can have the car you want, when you want, without owning it. While it’s not an option at the moment, it doesn’t look like it’s to far in the future. The car you just bought could well be the last car you ever own.

Image source: Alden Jewell

References   [ + ]

1. Press release (2013), What Your Car Says About Your Personality, Veryday.
2. Lora Shinn (2014), What Your Car Color Says About You, Fox Business.
3. NetJets has provided a fractional ownership service for private jets since 1986.
4. You can fractionally own, or rent, depending on your point of view, a designer handbag from services such as Bag Borrow or Steal.
5. iStream is a new approach to car manufacturing that reducing the cost of tooling by around 80%, enabling new car models to be profitable in much shorter production runs.

90% of sales are in bricks-n-mortar stores, but many are dying anyway

The stats are in and the rush to declare bricks-n-mortar retail dead appear to be a bit premature. While online commerce appears to be growing at a fairly impressive rate (of somewhere around 15% to 20%1)NAB Online Retail Sales Index, depending on where you are) that growth rate is on a very low base. This means that somewhere are 90% of retail sales still occur in a bricks-n-mortar store, and that figure floats up to 95% if you include bricks-n-mortar stores with an online presence.2)Chris Lund (April 2014), “Reports of bricks and mortar’s demise have been greatly exaggerated”, Strategy.

The problem with this point of view is that it ignores that fact that while the future might be here, it’s still unevenly distributed.

At a whole of economy level retail might be growing, and most purchases still occur in a bricks-n-mortar store, but when you dig into the details a different story emerges.3)Winners and losers in retail @ PEG What we’re witnessing is the incremental destruction of small (and some not-so-small) areas of the retail market as consumer behaviour changes and makes them irrelevant.

The first wave of online retail – Web 1.0 as it’s called these days – was moving catalogues online. This enabled consumers, for the first time, to search for what they wanted from the comfort of their own home, rather than need to head out on a shopping mission. This created a distinct change in what consumers purchased, as they could now use the power of Google to find the best product at the best price, or the cheapest product at the lowest price, and make their purchase directly with the retailer (local or online) who offered precisely what they wanted.

This had two interesting effects. The first was the destruction of mid-market brands.

Historically consumers were forced to compromise, their choice limited to what the merchant around the corner chose to stock. Confronted with three options – a cheap option, a middle quality option, and a good option – the consumer was forced to compromise. They would pick the best that they could afford or the cheapest that the merchant chose to offer. Web 1.0 meant that if they they could find something better, possibly at a lower price in another country, then they could would avoid the middle quality option and go directly to the best. Many mid-market brands collapsed as a result.

The second effect was the destruction of many local retailers. Most of these local retailers – the small clothing shop on the high street, or the department store in town – were little more than the end point of someone else’s supply chain. Their value lay in the fact that they were convenient, being close to home. Web 1.0 enabled consumers to reach around these local retailers and source the products themselves. Unable to compete on price, quality or convenience, many local retailers collapsed (or are collapsing).

So while retail might be growing overall, some roles in the retail market are no longer sustainable. Typically this means firms that trade in easily transportable, durable goods, such as books, CDs, video games, clothing, jewellery and the like and offered little more than convenience shopping.

More recently the emergence of social media and smart phones (the information comes to us, rather than us going to the information) means that we no longer rely on brands or firms for the information that drives a buying decision. The tangible effect of this is a dramatic decrease in brand loyalty. Fast food chains have already seen this effect, as everyone from travellers to teens started using recommendation services (Urbanspoon, Yelp, etc.) rather than trusting the brand, and were heading to local bistros rather than the outline of some national or global chain.

This effect is causing consumer facing parts of the market to fragment. This is a second knife in the back for many retailers – such as department stores – as their “sell to everyone” model doesn’t work in a market that’s fragmenting into a range of niches. The firms that are successful in this space are those that use a range of media (face-to-face stores, pop-up stores, social media, mobile apps, web sites…) to build a relationship with the consumer, and/or which are focusing on niches. The balance of power has tipping into the hands of firms that are agile enough to address these niches, “sell to niche” rather than “sell to all”.

So, taking all that together, we can see that 90% of purchases are through physical stores is not surprising. The problem is that:

  1. retail sectors that are moving online will be seeing more the 10% of transaction leaving bricks-n-mortar (let’s assume 20%), which is enough to drive many firms out of business
  2. spend in many sectors is moving to the cheapest and the best, eliminating many local businesses and mid market brands
  3. mobile and social means that many niche firms are now successfully competing with larger firms, causing significant problems for the larger firms

While the top line number might seem quite benign, the terror for many firms is in the details.

Image source: Chris Talbot

References   [ + ]

WhatsApp wasn’t overvalued


I have a new post up over at the Deloitte Digital blog, ‘WhatsApp wasn’t overvalued’. I’d been watching the debate around Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp 1)Media Release (19 February 2014), Facebook to Acquire WhatsAppFacebook. and I was struck how many analysts and journalists were stuck in the past, trying to value WhatsApp based on the assets it holds (user base and ad inventory) when clearly the firm’s value lay in the information flow it controlled (~1,000 messages per month, per subscriber). It’s true that it you do asset-based valuation that the deal doesn’t make sense, but if you do an information-flow base valuation then the deal is a no brainer.

On of the big ideas behind the Shift Index 2)Peter Evans-Greenwood & Peter Williams (2014), Setting aside the burdens of the past, Deloitte. is the shift from stocks to flows: it’s not the stocks that you hold (assets, information, etc.), but the flows that you can tap into (partner networks, information, etc.) that drive your competitive advantage. Put another way, in a world where everything you need is available on demand and the world is awash with information, it’s your ability to tap into whats happening in the environment and react that defines your competitive advantage, and not the assets and data you hold.

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is a great example of this difference.

Look assets that WhatsApp holds and the deal doesn’t make sense. WhatsApp’s user base of around 450 million active monthly users, many of whom will already be using Facebook, doesn’t seem to be worth the effort, especially since the company is only making US$1 per year (with the first year free). Nor is the advertising revenue of interest, since there isn’t any and WhatsApp has a public position of ‘no ads, no games, no gimmicks’. That user base, with WhatsApp as a standalone service, is not worth what Facebook paid.

Since the deal doesn’t stack up based on a standard valuation most of the pundits are calling the acquisition a ‘strategic’ move. That’s usually code for ‘we’re not sure why they did it’. However, what if we value WhatsApp based on the information flow that the firm controls?

As I point out in the article:

The average WhatsApp user sends more than 1,000 messages every month, and receives more than 2,000 messages. That’s over 30 messages a day, few of which are the spam which dominates email. It’s also a user base where over 70% of the population is active on any given day.

Facebook as a fairly low click through rate, somewhere around 0.09%3)Miranda Miller (23 October 2012), Facebook Click-Through Rates Increase, Costs Per Click Down 20-40% in Q3Search Engine Watch. What if Facebook could use the information flow from WhatsApp to double it’s click through rate? They would double the firm’s revenue, making the 16 billion for WhatsApp look like a bargain. This seems quite possible since Google is running at a click-through rate of about 0.4%, over four times that of Facebook. Google gets there by snooping on your private communications (web searches, email, instant messages) to work out what you might buy. As I point out in the article:

WhatsApp might just provide Facebook with something like that Google Search box, as WhatsApp gives Facebook a big, fat data stream that tells them what their user base is about to do. WhatsApp might not grow Facebook’s user base, and it won’t be a direct source of ad revenue. It will, however, allow them to watch what you’re saying – privately – to your friends and relatives, and then use that information to tailor the ads presented to you on the firm’s various web properties. Tell your best friend that you’re test driving a car tomorrow, and expect to see ads from car manufacturers when you’re browsing another friend’s timeline later that night.

If we value WhatsApp based on the information flows that it has, then the deal starts to make a lot of sense.

I’d greatly appreciate it if you head over to the article and leave your thoughts.

Image: Tsahi Levent-Levi

References   [ + ]

1. Media Release (19 February 2014), Facebook to Acquire WhatsAppFacebook.
2. Peter Evans-Greenwood & Peter Williams (2014), Setting aside the burdens of the past, Deloitte.
3. Miranda Miller (23 October 2012), Facebook Click-Through Rates Increase, Costs Per Click Down 20-40% in Q3Search Engine Watch

The myth of sustainable competitive advantage

I’ve mentioned to a few people that I was unimpressed with The End of Competitive Advantage by Rita Gunther McGrath. I’ve even be so impolitic as to call it ‘crap’ a few times, after which I’m usually asked why I think this, and I then spend time shooting over references and explaining how I came to my conclusion.

Rather than doing this yet again, I thought I’d compile some notes here which I can then point people at.

The End of Competitive Advantage claims to provide key insights into how business strategy needs to change, moving on from the foundations laid down by Michael Porter all those years ago. A few even called it an ‘important’ book, as they see it as the first proof that sustainable competitive advantage is a thing of the past.

My problem with the book is in three parts:

  1. The book provides insufficient argument and data to prove its thesis.
  2. The book ignores the fact that Porter’s work was shown to be lacking at least as far back as 2006.
  3. The simple analysis and lack of research into what is driving the shift results in trite recommendations.

The usual response to these points is are along the lines of:

  • ‘But everyone is using Porter still’ – which is an observations and not an argument.
  • They point out that the book is from a professor at Columbia Business School and published by HBR – which is just appealing to credentials.
  • ‘But the book is based on lots of analysis’ – which it is, but the analysis is riddled with holes.

Let’s handle the second point first.

Do Porter’s theories still work?

Porter’s work on competitive strategy might be one of, if not the most, cited works by business academics. This doesn’t mean that it’s any good.

Academia is riddle with frameworks that either have little or no evidence behind them, or which have been proved to be irrelevant in the modern context. This hasn’t stopped them being used as the foundation for new work.

Abraham Maslow and his pyramid of needs, for example, has been shown to have no basis in fact1) William Kremer & Claudia Hammond (31 August 2013), Abraham Maslow and the pyramid that beguiled businessBBC World Service. – it’s just something Maslow made up one day – and yet it’s taught in every b-school in the world. There’s similar problems with business value, technology adoption, and a whole range of topics.

Just because everyone uses Porter’s five forces doesn’t mean it works or has any basis in fact.

As Matthew Stewart pointed out in 2009 in his book The Management Myth2)Matthew Stewart (2009), The Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely Bogus, W. W. Norton & Company., the idea of being able to locate and explot a sustainable competitive advantage was ‘lacking any foundation in fact or logic’. It’s rent seeking of the worst form. There’s an earlier article by the same author from 2006 that points out many of the same flaws3)Matthew Stewart (June 2006), The Management Myth, The Atlantic.. Even earlier in 2000 Pankaj Ghemawat conducted a survey of the history of business strategy which found that ‘In the case of the five forces, a survey of empirical literature in the late 1980s—more than a decade after Porter first developed his framework—revealed that only a few points were strongly supported by the empirical literature generated by the IO [industrial organisation] field.’4)Pankaj Ghemawat (April 2000), Competition and Business Strategy in Historical Perspective, HBS Comp. & Strategy Working Paper No. 798010. The report he drew this from (and which I don’t have in my hands yet) is from 19895)Richard Schmalensee, ‘Inter-Industry Studies of Structure and Performance’, in Richard Schmalensee and R. D. Willig, eds., Handbook of Industrial Organization, vol. 2 (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1989)..

The market even rejected Porter’s theories conclusively in November 2012 when Monitor Group, the firm that Porter founded to consult around his theories, filed for bankruptcy. As Steve Denning over at Forbes commented6)Steve Denning (20 November 2012), What Killed Michael Porter’s Monitor Group? The One Force That Really Matters, Forbes.:

Monitor wasn’t killed by any of the five forces of competitive rivalry. Ultimately what killed Monitor was the fact that its customers were no longer willing to buy what Monitor was selling. Monitor was crushed by the single dominant force in today’s marketplace: the customer.

It was Drucker who pointed out that the whole point of a company is to create a customer, not to try and squat in some magical place that would allow a firm to extract rents without any effort. Porter appears to have ignored this.

So no one wanted to buy the sustainable competitive advantage snake oil from Monitor, nor was Monitor able to apply the theory to its own situation and save itself. The idea has no basis in fact, the market rejected it, and it doesn’t work. And all this happened well before The End of Competitive Advantage was written or published.

Let’s set aside the idea that Prof McGrath’s book is the first time that Porter’s theories have been shown to lack potency: clearly she’s a decade or so late to that party.

The analysis

The second problem I have with the book is the poor quality of the analysis. Generally, the approach used by The End of Competitive Advantage is of the same level as Good to Great, which is another business bible that typically can’t be questioned but is riddled with holes. A lot of data might have been used, but the process is clearly deeply flawed.

The End of Competitive Advantage is built on a set of ‘growth outlier’ companies which out-performed the market. As is stated in the book:

In 2010, my research team tracked down every publicly traded company on any global exchange with a market capitalization of over $1 billion US dollars as of the end of 2009 (4,793 firms). Then we examined how many of these firms had been able to grow revenue or net income by at least 5 percent every year for the preceding five years (in other words, from 2004 to 2009).

These firms were then compared with their top three competitors and then with each other to identify what made them different. (Comparing a firm with its top three competitors is not the same as controlling for natural industry or geography growth, but we’ll let that one slide. At least there was some attempt to normalise the results. We can also set aside the question of why a five year period was used, even though it seems completely arbitrary.) The rest of the book presents what was learned, and provides the reader with some advice and a simple framework that you too can use to copy these growth outliers’ success. (This is why some reviews think that the book is an extended ad for consulting services, as the information presented is not much more than a teaser.)

As the book states:

The major conclusion was that this group of firms was pursuing strategies with a long-term perspective on where they wanted to go, but also with the recognition that whatever they were doing today wasn’t going to drive their future growth. Interestingly, they had identified and implemented ways of combining tremendous internal stability while motivating tremendous external agility, particularly in terms of business models.

The first issue we can call out with the analysis is a lack of disconfirming research. Consider, for example, if the CEOs of all the growth outliers wore red socks on Tuesdays. We might conclude that wearing red socks on a Tuesday will give us the edge we need. Humans have a natural confirmation bias so when you reach a conclusion you need to ask yourself ‘What would it take to prove this conclusion false?’ Can you find a significant number of firms where the CEO religiously wears red socks on Tuesday and which are not growth outliers? How do we know that the correlation they you’ve found isn’t just a happy accident, and that we’re reading a lot more into it than we should?

Next we have to consider survivorship bias. Someone has to win, but coming out on top does not imply that you were more skilful. There’s a lot of dumb luck in business; it’s not enough to be good at what you do, you need to be at the right place in the right time with the right product(s) and you still need a healthy does of luck. Did the growth outliers survive because they were good at what they do? Or is their success the result of happy accidents that took down their competition, or lucky coincidences that enabled them to leap ahead? Were they in the right places at the right time, moving into Asia when their competitors moved into South America, for example? Someone must survive, but there’s no rule that says that their skill was the only determinant of their survival.

Next we have the unknown unknowns. How do we know that the practices identified by Rita and her team are the right practices? Perhaps some of the outliers were more financially savvy and managed their cash flows, something which is hard at the best of times and even more challenging in the current turbulent environment, and which is inherently boring. Or perhaps they made a couple of astute (or just plain lucky) bets on which sectors to play in, nudging them past their competition. How do we know the survey or practices was complete? What was the framework used to identify these practices, and link them to changes in the environment. Correlations don’t cut it.

Ultimately, identifying a common set of practices for a set of companies that performed well over a given time period does little more than confirm that over the last time period these companies did well. That was already obvious.

We need to build a model that allows us to feed in long term market trends (increasing competitive intensity, decrease in ROA – at least in the US – blurring of sectors, etc.) and ask questions like, ‘How would these companies have performed three or more periods back in the past, and how might they perform in the future as the market evolves?’. If we’re looking for a change in the market then there should be an earlier time period where these practices were counterproductive. It’s this sort of approach that makes Thomas Piketty’s new book so interesting7)Thomas Piketty (10 March 2014), Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Belknap Press..

If you’re going to write a book about what to do in the future than you need to do more than point out what worked in the past, even if it’s the recent past. The future, as they say, is a foreign country.

This is also the big mistake that Good to Great made: identify a group of profitable companies that have some shared characteristic, assume that what made them successful in the past will also make them successful in the future, and then call out the common elements from this set of companies. As Freakanomics, put it, a lot of the Good to Great companies went ‘From Good to Great … to Below Average’8)Steven D. Levitt (28 July 2008), From Good to Great … to Below Average, Freakonomics..

The recommendations

Given all this, the book introduces the idea of ‘areas’ as the basis for competition, rather than industries. Its a nice idea as it allows us to pull more context into our analysis of the market: industries modulated by a few different dimensions, such as geography, demographic, etc.

The concept falls down, though, as it ignores the fact that industry definitions have become fluid. (What? Apple is a PC maker, not a phone maker? And what’s this touch and apps store stuff?) This  means that areas must also be a fluid concept, but the book does not look into the dynamics of how areas change. (I expect that this is left as an exercise for the reader, or they assume that you use Porter’s model to evaluate opportunity.)

The model for managing change across areas is a simple launch, ramp-up, sustain, ramp-down, disengage process. This doesn’t account for the pace in the current market. If your competitor can launch a new product in two to six weeks from a standing start (as many companies now can) then, while your carefully thought out launch process taking six months might seem modern, it’s largely irrelevant. There is no insight in the recommendations on what the change in market pace means other than ‘the end of competitive advantage’.

The recommendations all but ignore the shift from stocks to flows9)Peter Evans-Greenwood (20 Feburary 2014), Setting Aside the Burdens of the Past, PEG., which has huge implications for how we think about, organise, govern and manage our business. There is, however, a brief mention to the idea of consuming services rather than building assets, and the book even name-checks Odesk. However, it doesn’t look into the implications that spring out of this. The coverage is only a few spare paragraphs and you’re left wondering if the author doesn’t really know what to make of the topic.

The rest of the book which follows is a fairly straightforward process of working through the stages of the model and providing a few points of sage sounding advice for each stage (‘Rotate you team through departments so that they don’t get comfortable’ type of thing). You’ll either nod and say yes to each of these (the Barnam effect10)From wikipedia: The Forer effect (also called the Barnum effect after P. T. Barnum’s observation that ‘we’ve got something for everyone’) is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology, and some types of personality test. in action) or go ‘meh’. Your mileage might vary.

My review

So, as you can see, my opinion is based on the following pillars:

  • The main thesis that ‘sustainable competitive advantage is over’ is very old news.
  • The analysis is suspect, at least, and doesn’t prove the thesis.
  • The model and recommendations provided hold little value.

Calling it ‘crap‘ might be going a bit far, but for me the book was a waste of money. Use the money to buy a coffee for a friend that you haven’t spoken to in a while; you’ll learn a lot more.

While the content might come from a major b-school and has been written up in respected journals, that doesn’t change the fact that we live on the internet now and we need proof that we can see. As Jay Rosen pointed out the other day11)Jay Rosen (March 2014), “I want it to be 25 years ago!” Newsweek’s blown cover story on bitcoin, PressThink., appealing to credentials doesn’t work in this day and age.

Image: Peter Mooney

References   [ + ]

1.  William Kremer & Claudia Hammond (31 August 2013), Abraham Maslow and the pyramid that beguiled businessBBC World Service.
2. Matthew Stewart (2009), The Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely Bogus, W. W. Norton & Company.
3. Matthew Stewart (June 2006), The Management Myth, The Atlantic.
4. Pankaj Ghemawat (April 2000), Competition and Business Strategy in Historical Perspective, HBS Comp. & Strategy Working Paper No. 798010.
5. Richard Schmalensee, ‘Inter-Industry Studies of Structure and Performance’, in Richard Schmalensee and R. D. Willig, eds., Handbook of Industrial Organization, vol. 2 (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1989).
6. Steve Denning (20 November 2012), What Killed Michael Porter’s Monitor Group? The One Force That Really Matters, Forbes.
7. Thomas Piketty (10 March 2014), Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Belknap Press.
8. Steven D. Levitt (28 July 2008), From Good to Great … to Below Average, Freakonomics.
9. Peter Evans-Greenwood (20 Feburary 2014), Setting Aside the Burdens of the Past, PEG.
10. From wikipedia: The Forer effect (also called the Barnum effect after P. T. Barnum’s observation that ‘we’ve got something for everyone’) is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology, and some types of personality test.
11. Jay Rosen (March 2014), “I want it to be 25 years ago!” Newsweek’s blown cover story on bitcoin, PressThink.

Bitcoin might make AML/CTF regulation a problem for everyone

I spent a little time over the break thinking about what’s happening with anti money-laundering (AML) and counter terrorism-financing (CTF) regulation, since it had come time to update the Technological Considerations of AML/CTF Programs published by LexisNexis as part of their Anti-Money Laundering and Financial Crime publication. (There’s a blurb for my part embedded below.)

The interesting shift in this version is that growth of AML/CTF regulation for complementary currencies (ie. currencies that are not backed by a government). Organised crime groups are finding all sorts of creative ways to use complementary currencies to launder money, including the creation of bitcoin ‘mixers’ that are intended to improve anonymity for bitcoin transactions.

A side effect of this regulation – which is largely targeted at bitcoin but which is been written in a way to bring all complimentary currencies under regulation – is that the points-based loyalty programme that you were thinking about introducing might actually bring you under the AML/CTF regulator’s watchful eye. Something as ambitious as Facebook Credits definitely would.

This has all sorts of interesting implications for enterprise-wide governance, but that’s a different discussion since it’s well beyond the scope of the Technological Considerations of AML/CTF Programs piece.

If you’re interested then head over to LexisNexis (or we can catch up for a coffee if you like).

Image sourceMike Cauldwell

In retail you’re either a religion, a community hub, or a commodity

Being a successful retailer used to be a question of stocking the right products. Given that consumers all have their own preferences this usually devolved into trying to offer either the best or the cheapest, or products tailored to the unique needs of a specific market segment. Or, putting it another way, you could choose to sell expensive suits, cheap suits, or suits for the broad and tall.

Today – as globalisation, the internet and social media bite into retail – retailers have been working hard to build a compelling in-store experience. The theory is that by providing a pleasant and streamlined buying journey (or, at least, a more pleasant and streamlined journey than your local and online competitors) you’ll encourage consumers to shop at your store. This has driven the recent wave of investment in omni-channel, in-store WiFi and mobile apps.

The problem is that consumer behaviour is changing.1)The destruction of traditional retail @ PEG No longer do we identify a need and then head out to the store to find a product to fill it. Browsing is something we do in a spare moment, sitting in front of the TV with a tablet, or via a smartphone during our commute on the train. We purchase when we realise that we’ve found something we want or need, wherever we are at the time and via the channel that is the most convenient.

Building your business on the assumption that customers will come to your store looking for a product in no longer a viable strategy. It’s not enough to provide the best products or the cheapest. Nor is it enough to provide a more pleasant experience than the competition.

You need to find a way to draw customers to your store before they want to buy something. Retail must make itself part of the consumer’s identity, it needs to become one of their habits or rituals, rather than simply providing a convenient delivery mechanism for someone else’s products.

Three options seem to be emerging from he turbulent market we’re in at the moment.

  1. Make your business into a community hub
  2. Create a religion
  3. Resign yourself to being a commodity

Continue reading In retail you’re either a religion, a community hub, or a commodity

References   [ + ]

Has Apple made NFC irrelevant?

In The future of exchanging value{{1}} I, along with Peter Williams and Ian Harper at Deloitte, pointed out that a successful retail payments strategy should be founded on empowering consumers and merchants to transact when and where they want to. Investing in technologies such as near-field communication (NFC) networks might allow you to shave a couple of seconds off the transaction time once customer was at the till, but it ignores the fact that consumers are increasingly transacting away from the till as mobile phones and ubiquitous connectivity allow them to transact when and where they want to.

[[1]]Peter Evans-Greenwood, Ian Harper, Peter Williams (2012), The future of exchanging value, Deloitte[[1]]

We are seeing a shift from technology acquisition to technology use. Rather than building a payment strategy around the acquisition of a new technology (such as NFC), a successful strategy needs to be based on streamlining the buying journey. While NFC might enable the consumer to save a few seconds at the till, it does not address the far larger time they spent waiting in the queue beforehand. A more valuable solution might avoid the need to queue entirely. This is a design-led approach, focused on the overall problem the customer is solving and the context in which they are solving. Technologies are pulled into the payment strategy as needed, rather than building the strategy around the acquisition of an asset or capability.

Amazon used this approach with the development of the company’s mobile application, one that allows you snap an image of a barcode to purchase a product. Bricks-and-morter retailers see this as showrooming and unsportsmanlike. Many consumers, however, love the idea.

As I pointed out in The destruction of traditional retail{{2}}:

[[2]]The destruction of traditional retail @ PEG[[2]]

If you’re standing in an aisle casually browsing products then Amazon’s till is closer to you than the one at the front of the store[4]. You also don’t need to worry about carrying your purchase home.

The challenge for retailers (from The future of exchanging value) is to:

… manage a portfolio of technologies, from existing payment infrastructure through NFC to emerging tools, combining them to enable customers to transact when and how they need to.

The way for bricks-and-morter retailers to fight showrooming is use a range of low-cost consumer technologies to make it more convenient to transact with them than an internet retailer.

Apple showed how this might be done during the What’s New in Core Location presentation at the company’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference.

Imagine you walk into Jay’s Donut Shop. iBeacons from Core Location are accurate enough for the retailer to be sure that you have walked in, while other location technologies (such as GPS or those based on Wi-Fi) could, at best, provide a list of guesses. You don’t even need to check in. You could order you donuts before you entered the shop. When you reach the counter your iPhone would display a QR code that a clerk uses to verify the purchase. You grab your donuts and leave, the transaction charged to your iTunes account and your receipt already on your phone.

As Mike Elgan points out in his post Why Apple’s ‘indoor GPS’ plan is brilliant{{3}}, it’s not much of stretch to consider some much more interesting scenarios.

[[3]]Mike Elgan (14th September 2013), Why Apple’s ‘indoor GPS’ plan is brilliant, Computer World.[[3]]

A customer could scan the labels on clothing, process the transaction on the phone, then stroll out of the store with purchases in hand (the alarm would be de-activated for those items).

This is a solution that could be supported tomorrow on all iPhone 4Ss through to the new iPhone 5C. The hardware required to create an iBeacon is already available and it’s cheap, often in the 10s of US$.

NFC continues to struggle and it seems that Apple might have pulled together a solution that makes it irrelevent.

Governance isn’t a process

For some strange reason every time someone mentions ‘governance’ all sense is thrown out the window, the process wonks rub their hands with glee, and you soon find yourself waist deep in treacle like processes that slow everything down to the point that it’s impossible to get anything done.

Governance isn’t a process, and adding more processes won’t necessarily improve your governance.

Governance is a question of decision rights:

  • who gets to make the decision
  • what information should be considered when making the decision
  • who can influence the decision
  • who needs to be informed of the decision

‘Process’ is just a tool we use to manage the decision making journey.

Technological Considerations of AML/CTF Programs

I had the chance in the last couple of months to review the (very old) chapter Technological Considerations of AML/CTF Programs chapter the I wrote with a couple of colleagues for LexisNexis’s Anti-Money Laundering and Financial Crime publication. The world has changed quite a bit since then so it was more like a recreation than a simple revision.

LexisNexis have kindly made an extract available, which you can find below via a Scribd embed. If you’re interested then head over to LexisNexis (or I suppose we can catch up for a coffee or something).