“As a child, I often would go back home to spend my summers in Tokyo with my grandparents. A memory that stays with me are the trips we would take to Kamakura and Hayama. Hotels and ryokans treated every guest like a VIP—no matter if this was the first stay or the 100th stay. The attentive staff was neither pushy nor clingy nor obtrusive. It was a perfect balance. Everything from the first warm greeting to the way meals were prepared and served was an experience, executed smoothly and with such precision it never felt forced or unnatural. Moreover, the hotels had this uncanny sense of knowing what the guests needed. Every time I left, I couldn’t wait to come back again.“
The quote (bold emphasis is mine) is taken from a blog post by Mari Yamaguchi, who comes from a Customer Experience Design and Voice of the Customer background, and gives a good illustration of the five basic principles that underpin the Japanese custom of Omotensahi.
Greet the customers
Be friendly / smile
Use appropriate language
As business managers / owners I wonder how many of your team aspire to provide that level of service? Is it part of your culture too? Do your clients say, “I couldn’t wait to come back again?”
It doesn’t matter the size of your business or industry, operational and decision making processes can always be improved. Taking time to reflect in a non judgemental way is an essential part of the technique Knowledge & Information Professionals call Learning Before, During & After.
As a relatively young business (5 years old this month) Bees Homes has set out to provide exceptional customer service and to use it as a market differentiator. A quick glimpse of its current portfolio amplifies the strapline “Selling Beautiful Properties from the Downs to The Weald”!
First impressions count. Since 90% of property sales originate from online searches it’s essential to stand out from the crowd. Great presentation is key to getting a listing noticed and potential buyers interested and willing to pay a premium.
Bees Homes ‘Tailored Marketing’ (part of a trademarked process – 5Hive) is subject to continual improvment and refinement. Core, is the art of presenting the client’s home to its maximum potential. And to achieve that, a wide range of experienced and talented professionals with complimentary skill sets are deployed at the photoshoot along with an array of accessories and artifacts for staging and styling.
Each event is planned with military precision with estimated timings for each phase, the order in which rooms are to be staged and the role to be played by each professional.
The lead agent needs to ‘see through the lens’ of the photographer and imagine how an image will look online and in the bespoke coffee table brochure that’s produced for each property.
She/he needs to capture enough of the DNA of the property that the Copywriter and Designer can incorporate it in the brochure. And she/he needs to ensure the client is delighted with both the event and the resulting marketing collateral.
Each of these events throw up learnings that are fed back into operational processes. Here’s how:
Learning after: “Pause & Reflect”
Each Pause & Reflect session is run no more than 2/3 weeks after the event and lasts for a maximum of two hours.
It is led by someone who was not at the event and features those who were.
So many organisations fail to engage with the people who work alongside them. In the above example James (our photographer) was able to input a number of valuable insights and suggestions that will improve the conduct future projects and the result for the client.
As an illustration, a list of 10 enhancements emerged from the latest session all of which have been fed back into Bees Homes Tailored Marketing process. The latest brochure of a very desirable property in Rye reflects a couple.
Bees Homes is fortunate to be led by Ana Aguilar-Corney who is a qualified Interior Designer and experienced design blogger. Ana is able to use her skills to help the team present a property in a compelling way so that prospective buyers can imagine themselves living there.
Successful businesses draw on a variety of skills and give voice to the people who work alongside them. They are willing to hold up their hands when things don’t work out the way they’d planned but (and this is a differentiator) they are constantly seeking a pathway to excellence through process improvement. Dare I say it, to a culture of Omotenashi?
A few weeks back, Dr Madelyn Blair, a friend of many years standing, approached me to ask if I’d participate in one of her weekly tv slots. She left the topic up to me and, with the world emerging from the pandemic and international business starting to resume, I thought I’d share some of my experiences of working internationally.
Here’s a few of the thoughts I covered:
Looking back & looking forward
I am lucky; I’ve worked across five continents and experienced many different cultures over the last 40 years. I’ve been shot at in Ireland, detained in Sudan, been part of an aid convoy in the Philippines after Typhoon Ondoy, slept in a tin shack in Darfur, shared a room with a desert rat while watching oil fields burning in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Desert Storm and landed in Barbados after the island’s only hurricane. When I reflect on a few snippets from a lifetime of conducting international assignments it’s perhaps unsurprising that my daughter once said “Dad are you really a spy?”.
As I’ve visited/worked in: China, Colombia, Cuba, Iran, Russia and Sudan and the fact that I have two passports it’s surprising I rarely attract the interest of immigration officers. Over the next couple of paragraphs I will try and explain why I think that is and share a few stories about conducting international Knowledge & Information assignments in an ever shrinking and connected world.
I’ve made 6 visits to Iran as part of an assignment to help develop a Knowledge Management Strategy and oversee the implementation of a set of pilots. All the preconceptions I had were wrong as I discovered on March 21st when Iranians celebrate their new year, Norooz, based on the seasons rather than the Islamic calendar.
Getting organizations to embraceKnowledge Management (and become Knowledge Driven rather than merely Knowledge Enabled) requires a deep understanding of the way they work and the context in which they work. The more challenging the environment the more some of the techniques I describe below come into sharp focus.
We practice what we preach and learn before, during and after and make sure those learning’s are fed back into the methodology we use.
Winning the business
We’ve all had ‘we’d like to invite you to tender for’ requests from organizations we’ve never met. As you become more visible and published so these increase. As a rule unless you can trace a direct link to someone you know or somewhere you’ve been then you are being used as padding for a tender process. Be warned. It takes a considerable effort to respond to tender requests especially when there are procurement specialists intermediating.
I learned this in my banking career from a Canadian client in the mining industry who set up an informal cartel in order to meet overseas government tender requirements for at least 3 bids.
Looking back over the major (£250k+) assignments I’ve won and led, in all cases they came as a result of a referral, a presentation or an enquiry stimulated by targeted marketing activity.
I use this criteria for deciding whether to submit a proposal: what new knowledge will be learnt as well as will it be profitable? To that I add, is it something I really want to do, will it enhance our brand, will it make a difference to the prospective client and will it be challenging?
Negotiating the ‘deal’
Having ‘teed up’ an opportunity, the next (big) challenge is how to tie down a mutually agreeable scope of work and a payment schedule that reflects the effort. Here’s where the fun starts and I try to find out how strategically important the work is as this can influence when / if you get paid!
Big international organizations have defined processes (and payment terms) that often make it difficult for SME’s to work with them. Cash flow is king so be prepared for the potential impact on your business of a delay.
An African friend of mine signed up for a consulting engagement with one of Africa’s major organizations. It looked great and met all of the criteria I outlined above. Payment was triggered by receipt and acceptance of a set of reports and recommendations. Now 9 months later he is still waiting for formal approval for his reports. His mistake? He had no milestone payment and no upfront mobilization fee. Next time he might insist on a payment for delivery with balance on acceptance.
Travelling and staying
Another big consideration is travel. Your safety is important, as is your health. Before I decide on whether to go or not to a country I check out what and whom I know who might help – I conduct my own ‘Peer Assist’ – and visit the members’ library at Chatham House.
Many of the countries I visit require visas and sponsors – that process needs to be built in to your budget and timetable.
Remember you are probably going to be more expensive than a local competitor and unlikely to be able to charge for travel time so do the planning.
Choose your carrier wisely – it’s how they treat you, how they respond when things go wrong and how quickly you get there that matters not the air miles.
My travel checklist works like this:
What’s the quickest route on the safest carrier (in my case that means leaving from Gatwick and transshipping if necessary)?
If over 7 hours, can I break the journey?
What’s the most economical way of getting there in comfort?
Does the airline have facilities to work while in the air?
So I have a working knowledge of schedules and use SeatGuru.com to check out the best seats with the most legroom on the plane.
Accommodation can make or break an assignment! A client will often give you an allowance or have preferential rates. Expensive doesn’t always mean good; proximity to your client is vital as is the ability to work in your room.
For Darfur I had to undergo UN security training. It taught me a number of things I use today when asking for a room:
Above tree line and below floor 7
Preferably not facing the street
Proximity to fire stairs.
Working & communicating
In an FT Article, A guide to (mis) communication Gillian Tett draws on ‘Mind the Linguistic Gap – Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide’, to illustrate how easy it is for people from developed nations let alone developing ones to have major communication difficulties. The guide lists phrases that are commonly – and completely – misunderstood when English and Dutch people talk to each other.
So when the English say, ‘please think about that a bit more’ we actually mean ‘that’s a bad idea’ whereas the Dutch (and many others) would assume we mean, ‘that’s a good idea, keep developing it’.
Gillian goes on to look at The Culture Map by Erin Meyer which notes that human speech varies depending on whether there is a “high” or “low” level of assumed shared cultural context. This affects vocabularies: the English use more words whereas North Europeans (and Americans) tend to be more forthright.
Why is this relevant? If you don’t adapt your style and (in my case) speak slower, write more succinctly and with less jargon, there is huge potential for miscommunication.
Here’s one vivid illustration of the need to adapt styles and approach. Many years ago I ran the energy portfolio for a bank. It involved frequent travel and meetings with clients from different backgrounds and cultures. I was in a meeting with the Deputy Minister of Petroleum and it was fully 15 minutes before we got around to discussing the issue to hand. He led the conversation, about the investment climate, the property market and the oil market and then when he was ready (body language changed) we got down to business.
That same day I met the US CEO of a major oil corporation. He opened with ‘you got 15 minutes, what have you got to show me?’ A rapid change of pace that reflected different contexts.
Importance of set up
If the way we speak, write and hold ourselves is important so are the technological underpinnings. Consider this: in many organization the jump drive (memory stick) is banned. There is a limit on email size (try sending a video to a client), browser activity is monitored and restricted and guest access behind their firewall requires countless sign off and takes days!
Before setting off on your mission, ask the uncomfortable, check whether you need a Mac adapter to show a presentation, are plug sockets receptive to your adapter? I’ve arrived at the HQ of a Swiss organization and discovered that the only way to access their power sockets was with a special plug.
The other key issue is to develop an advance view (hypothesis) of the organization and its culture. Is it a ‘red line’ organization where obsessive attention to detail suffocates innovation and creativity? Or one that is so loose nothing happens.
Agreeing a weekly plan is a great way to surface this as is developing specific agenda for each session.
And we all take things for granted, I once arrived at a ridiculously expensive hotel in Khartoum to be greeted by a sign that read: ‘No credit cards in Sudan’. Thank goodness we had a friend with a local account and a suitcase full of cash!
Listening ears and noticing eyes
How you are received on arrival is usually a good indicator of how important your visit is. I make it an objective to see the President (or similar ranking officer) of an organization during my stay even if to say hello, it is courteous as well as tactically smart.
I also try and get a view of the meeting areas and informal spaces early in a visit. And where the water cooler and coffee stations are located to see how people interact and what they talk about.
I also find it pays to listen more than talk especially in the early parts of an assignment, as someone once said ‘you have two ears and one mouth and should use them in that proportion’.
Assuming you are by now super observant and minding your P’s & Q’s, the next big challenge facing you is how to work with your immediate stakeholder group.
You need to establish separate sounding boards not just your project sponsor.
Wherever possible look to work with a cross functional/silos steering group to whom you can turn to for advice and critical friendly fire.
Show respect to everyone. While our organizational structures tend to reflect importance it is not always the same elsewhere and the power brokers / influencers who can help you to make things happen or identify blockers who can be opaque to the uninitiated.
When yes means no and timing is flexible
Working with global businesses I’ve come to realize a one size fits all ‘approach will fail. I once had ‘ownership’ of the integration plan for an acquisitive business during the dotcom era.
With offices in UK, Germany, Netherlands and USA (where the CEO was located) it became pretty apparent that incentives in the US didn’t play well in Europe (and vice versa).
“Employee of the Month’ is probably universally accepted as a way of incentivizing and measuring performance. I shall always remember the response of a Dutch winner who when told that her prize was lunch with the CEO said ‘And that’s worth winning?’
A serious point: in many cultures, yes means no or at best maybe and you need to know which is which.
I would turn up for an agreed appointment only to be told by the PA or Secretary: ‘Mr … is just coming’ ‘Mr… is on a call’ or ‘Mr… has been called to see …’
All are bad news. 15 minutes is about the maximum time to wait. I’d leave a card and suggest returning in the future or ask for an area to work in while I waited.
Timekeeping is often the biggest challenge on an international assignment. Rare are the occasions when meetings start and finish to time irrespective of the venue.
“Africa time’ is often jokingly used to describe that continent’s loose association with timekeeping.
But it is not only there! If you have a number of meetings in a day remember it can take considerable time to navigate from one office to another and you need time to catch your thoughts and make field notes.
Handling left field moments
Even the best of us can inadvertently put a metaphorical foot wrong.
Our actions are magnified when we are dealing in a different environment and out of our comfort zones.
I narrowly averted a faux pas in Iran. A copy of the Koran had been placed on the table I was sitting at in full view of the audience I was addressing. A technician came to wire me up and put my coffee cup and working papers onto another desk while he did so. He gave me back the papers and cup as he left and I was a whisker away from putting the cup on the book as one might in the UK.
Another issue that often comes up is the formal greeting. I now let the person I am meeting make the first move and respond accordingly. I’ve been slapped, kissed on both cheeks, put my hand on my heart, bowed, even touched noses (a strange experience) and had my hand crushed.
Rituals around food and entertaining can be the most challenging to deal with when working cross border. I was having dinner in Abu Dhabi with a Saudi professor who told me a wonderful tale about an early experience when he was just married and was at language school in upstate New York with his wife.
As is customary they were invited to dinner but did not take a gift as in his culture to do so would be an insult. His hostess was not impressed and it took some time for him to understand the reason.
Perhaps my most surreal experience occurred in Sudan when I was invited to visit a major company for a discussion only to find on arrival there were 200 people assembled to hear my presentation on ‘Knowledge Management in the Energy Industry’.
After recovering from the shock I conducted a 45-minute Q&A session prompted by an opening, ‘What keeps you awake at night?’
Reporting and getting paid
I’ve had mainly positive experiences dealing with international clients and getting paid.
Typically the more ‘developed’ the country the worse organizations (especially governments) are at making payment if you are an SME.
However I’ve found people will try and find a way to pay you if they feel you’ve done a good job. Your challenge is to manage that perception!
In the early contract negotiations it’s important to have an advance or mobilization payment built into the contact. The assignment scope should cater for that and it should be clear the work that is being done in order to trigger that.
Reporting steps should be specified and wherever possible adopt a Value Frame approach wherein each milestone is evaluated jointly to assess the value and impact you’ve provided..
I discovered one of the best ways of setting expectations with clients is to present an early draft to test the format and language. `
The most important technique is a visualization of the service you are providing which is updated frequently. It is so much easier to talk to people in their 2nd language with an image or roadmap as a backdrop.
When I set out on my Presidential journey last January it was in the expectation I would get to meet a cross section of the membership at the annual conference as well as regional events. As it turned out ‘my year’ was almost exclusively virtual. The upside: I got to meet a number of international members and speak at international events. The downside: I didn’t get to visit other parts of the UK to see first hand the important role libraries play in the community.
I’d spent much of the previous 3 years promoting the idea of an independent accreditation for the Knowledge & Information Management professional, so I had high hopes that KM Chartership / Fellowship along with the recently released ISO KM Standards might come to prominence during my term of office.
As the global community was attempting to get to grips with restrictions caused by and the aftermath of the pandemic I was intrigued: What will the new normal look like?; will work be a hybrid of virtual and in person?; will it revert to being location specific?; and will the communal spirit endure? I hypothesised that in 2021,
I am convinced that those who succeed will be agile, collaborative, tenacious, excellent facilitators and a trusted resource, good at curation.
How accurate was this hypothesis?
One of the initatives I introduced was “Presidential Musings. I invited a variety of prominent industry figures to examine some of the questions I’d raised. These were captured in CILIP’s flagship publication Information Professional and can be accessed below.
We started with the ISO KM Standard and it’s likely take up. We then looked at the rapid growth in digital publishing and it’s potential impact on Libraries. Following on, we examined the impact of onboarding new employees in a virtual world. We looked back to look forward in assessing the role of Libraries over 100 years. We tracked the journey of a senior University Librarian who changed roles and continents. We debated (and captured thoughts on) distributed working and its impact on urban centres. We rounded off with a look at the role Knowledge & Information Professionals played in helping to run a successful Olympics during the pandemic.
As I look back at each article I am extremely grateful to everyone who gave of their time and knowledge. I hope you find them as enjoyable to read as I did to research and write.
Isabel De Clerq and I have never formally met though, like many, we are virtually connected. So. it was with great pleasure / anticipation when this little green book, with a nice note from Isabel inside the front cover, landed on my doormat a few weeks back.
This is a book you will not want to put down. As one page merges into another, the dog eared pages multiply and whomever is in the vicinity hears “listen to this, we do that..”, accompanied by nodding. I knew I was going to enjoy “Hybrid Work: A manifesto” as the opening paragraph is set in Isabel’s kitchen and my good friend Luis Suarez‘s thoughts on #distributedworking are referenced early in the book.
I promised Isabel (who has a love of Portugal) I would read it overlooking the Rio Tejo.
It’s a book that spawns ideas. Here are some of my reflections.
What complements my thinking?
Meetings: Isabel places great emphasis on meeting preparation and conduct. A few decades back I was Business & Strategy Advisor to a fledgling dotcom business Sopheon. Globally acquisitive, with offices in Amsterdam, Maastricht, Minneapolis, Denver and Guildford, we added to the portfolio of companies by acquiring a software business in Frankfurt. It became rapidly apparant that work was needed to get everyone on the same page especially when holding meetings. We drew up a code of conduct “Meetings Matter” around preparation, attendees – roles and purpose and proposed outcomes. It worked and I use it for all client meetings.
Connection between people and organisation: This stood out
The presence of that greater good; the knowledge that your contribution matters; a match between your values and those of the organisation; and the fact that you can develop yourself through your work, these four elements ensure a strong connection. A connection that goes further than an office building with a trendy lounge and a matching coffee corner.
In Suggestion 4 – “The office as a vibrant hub” – Isabel casts doubt on its future role and that of the ubiquitous coffee corner unless underpinned by a deeper connection between people. While I totally agree with the importance of a collaborative and supportive culture (see my most recent blog Simple steps), as Gillian Tett wrote in an excellent article in The Guardian last year quoting from a study on performance of virtual vs in person co-located trading teams:
“in-person teams had more incidental information exchange and sense-making, and at times of stress this seemed doubly important.”
In “Suggestion 7” Isabel dares to dream. “I dream of an organisation where knowledge workers end the day with a satisfied feeling.” The term “knowledge workers” has never sat comfortably with me since I heard it back in 1994! To some extent we are all knowledge workers not merely those tasked with white as opposed to blue collar tasks. Tradespeople who use their hands also draw on knowledge. Likewise farmers, who might equally be termed agricultural engineers, often develop a sixth sense of weather and growing patterns based on knowledge. Where, if at all, does the term knowledge worker start and finish?
What are my takeaways?
Importance of neutral space and focus time: a few years back in advance of a masterclasses with Martin White on Managing Virtual Teams we ran a survey that asked contributors where they had their best ideas and conversations and where they worked best. The overwhelming response was “Not in the office”, universally they noted the importance of a space that was not home! In my 3rd CILIP Presidential Debate (Shift happens – the future office / library in a connected world) the premise was that “In the future, rather than being fixed in one place with a single purpose, people will move seamlessly between different contexts – home, work, college, community – at a time and place that suits them, enabled by always-on smart devices.” The conclusion, that people wherever they are working still need some neutral (decompression) space.
It’s ok to clarify: – “I heard you to say and understood you to mean” is a phrase I’ve often deployed with organisations with a polyglot of nationalities where English is a second language. It is especially important in hybrid work where the propensity for miscommunication is great. I advise every team I work with to develop a practice that encourages clarification.
Virtual peripheral vision: When I am giving an in person speech or masterclass I can guage the audience’s response and if need be to focus more on areas of uncertainty. I’ve not yet honed my virtual peripheral vision so build in more “I heard you to say” time to understand what landed.
From 90 to 60 minutes per session: Hybrid work is tiring and as Isabel suggests it is most effective when everyone adopts the same mode of communication rather than having virtual outliers. I try and build breaks every 60 minutes when working virtually rather than the traditional 90 minutes blocks I use when conducting in person sessions.
People who ‘wing it’ tend to get exposed in a Hybrid Work environment so preparation is one of the critical success factors!
Hybrid (Distributed) Work is undoubtedy the way to go – it’s revolutionised the way we interact with each other. Imagine how without it we would have coped with the effects of the pandemic. Our challenge now; how to retain the human characteristics that differentiate us from AI powered machines and create environments that allow everyone to prosper not merely those with access to technology?
Isabel’s lovely little book poses many questions as well as answers, it gets you searching for your own solutions. I commend it to you!
What do you do when one of your team has to self isolate just before Christmas and is unable to join the pre Christmas celebration? Put the celebrations on hold, go on with the show without them, or make them centre stage of your event?
The team at Bees Homes chose the latter and having dusted down a few of my “Managing Virtual Teams” notes, we asked our Team Executive, Gemma who was self isolating, to come up with an online quiz to accompany our hastily (re) arranged pre Christmas gathering.
It proved to be a success with much laughter. Why?
Snacks (and wine) were shared as we had passed by her home on the way to the office and left food – Gemma had what we had.
Gemma was the host so drove the pace of the event which lasted a couple of hours.
Drawing on some great ideas on this Team Building site, she came up with a “Spin the wheel” quiz and added questions such as “What is your favourite Christmas Song?”
The whole team were visible throughout – see Gemma’s view from my laptop.
We have spent time in f2f team meetings developing a collaborative and supportive culture.
Gemma is someone who responds well to adversity and takes responsibility.
It reinforced many of the tips I’ve given clients over the last couple of decades about managing virtual teams.