19 July 2007

Oponia - Hyper-simple File Sharing

Yesterday was the official alpha launch of Oponia Networks' first product, the ucaster. It's a very simple concept: you have some files that you want to share - documents, music, photos - and you don't want to have to upload them to a sharing site. You might want to share them only temporarily. Or, you're working with people elsewhere in the world and you need to toss them a file or three. With Oponia ucaster, just drag and drop the files into the ucaster's shared file space and you're done. They become instantly accessible at your personal Oponia URL, and served directly from your computer. Here's my ucaster URL (assuming my laptop is online), from which you can download the text of some of my talks, or listen to my Generation Gap talk in the musicshare (via Oponia's built-in player; buffering is sometimes problematic, so once it starts playing, you can click the pause button and let it buffer for a while).

Directly sharing your files could not be simpler, and there are dozens of applications for this sort of thing that quickly come to mind. You can request an alpha copy of ucaster right here.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of Oponia's CEO, Leigh Himel, who, from time to time, asks my advice on this sort of stuff. I have been compensated with good lunches and even better conversation.
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16 July 2007

Atomic Theory? Close Enough

I'm doing some work with Unit 7, a forward-thinking relationship marketing company based in New York. Unit 7's president and CEO, Loreen Babcock has recently done an interview with Next Generation Pharmaceutical magazine, in which she uses the ideas of Valence Theory in a relationship marketing context (which is some of the subject matter of our current collaboration):
The best results for relationship marketing will rest on an insight that embraces the reality of UCaPP: the real power of RM today is our ability and willingness to connect consumers to each other and to embed this as a primary success metric for relationship marketing. When we facilitate these connections, we enable brands to connect, unite, react and interact with consumers, like atoms linking to form molecules. Connected consumers are actively revealing what is relevant and meaningful to them in exchange relationships. Whether praising or pounding a brand, they are freely handing marketers powerful insights into their motivation and behavior that point the way to mutual and binding relationships.
Nicely said, Loreen!
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15 July 2007

Customer Disservice at Sympatico (again)

Yesterday evening, the SMTP server (the one used for sending mail) went wonky at Sympatico. I could send to any email address in the sympatico.ca domain, but sending to any other domain resulted in a Mail Delivery Failure, with a “550 relay mail to [domain] is not allowed” message. This is a message that one receives when trying to send an email through an SMTP mail server that’s not on the network to which one is actually connected (e.g., if I try to send mail through Sympatico's server when I'm on the U of T network, I would get this message). Since I was connected at home, this indicated a problem with Sympatico’s server, especially since everything was fine earlier in the day, and I had made no changes to my system.

I called Sympatico tech support, and was connected to someone in their India call centre. After putting me through more identity verification questions than my bank or Revenue Canada does, I had the chance to explain the problem. As he was “reviewing my file” (file? What file?) the tech support guy asked, “how is the weather today?”

“Excuse me? Weather?”
“Yes. How is the weather today?”
“And what does the weather have to do with solving the problem with sending email?”
“It has nothing to do with solving your problem, sir. I am merely making conversation as I review your file.”
“Please don’t. Don’t make small talk conversation. Just get on with fixing my problem.”

Over the next nearly-an-hour, the tech support guy had a great deal of trouble understanding that:
  • If email worked two hours prior, and doesn’t now, and there were no changes on my end, the problem is probably at their end;
  • If the same problem occurs suddenly on two separate, independent computers, the problem is probably at their end;
  • I do not run Outlook or Outlook Express, and have no desire to do so, and that the problem is probably not in the email client I have been using for over ten years (that had not changed in over a year);
  • If email works from the web-based email front-end into Sympatico’s system (which is just a different UI slapped on top of MSN Hotmail), it does not mean that client-based SMTP mail is without problems, especially since the webmail interface uses a different SMTP server (smtphm.sympatico.ca, rather than smtp1.sympatico.ca - if I know this, their tech support should know this);
  • When a computer that worked fine two hours prior, suddenly has problems with an external server, the problem is likely not with the client-side computer.

And finally, “I’m sorry sir. We do not support Pegasus mail. You should install Outlook or Outlook Express” is not – I repeat, NOT – in any way, shape or form, an acceptable response to a customer. It is not only the epitome of arrogance and the antithesis of customer service, it is just plain stupid in light of not listening to your customer and being able to understand that the symptoms do not suggest a problem with the client’s computer.

Now, I was very patient with the poor lad in the call centre, because I understand his plight. He is given a very fixed script to follow, and he is not allowed to deviate from that script at the risk of losing his relatively well-paying job in Bangalore (or whatever city in India the call centre is located). The problem with Sympatico’s customer service is systemic, and it originates in Canada.

First, the first line call centre scripts are designed with the assumption of a naïve customer/user with initial configuration problems. Although the archetypal naïve customer may comprise the bulk of trouble calls (and the archetype was probably derived from a theoretical use-case scenario analysis which prioritizes preconceptions above perceiving and thinking) it is insulting for Sympatico to treat all callers as - well, let’s call a spade a f*cking shovel – stupid. The script should recognize that sophisticated and technically knowledgeable users might call for support after having done all the preliminary diagnostics, and can alert Sympatico to problems before their technicians realize that there is a problem. In other words, customer service calls can reverse from a costly burden to be dispensed with as quickly as possible, into a no-cost, early warning diagnostic system for their own services.

Second, once the first line support person recognizes that the user knows more than he does, the focus should be on taking all the useful diagnostic information and escalating as quickly as possible. The going-in assumption should not necessarily be that when a user has a problem with the service, that the problem is with the user (see the preceding paragraph). Also, having second-level support available would be a nice (but unfortunately unlikely) change.

Third, it is clear that Sympatico techs were doing some monkeying around with the SMTP server in the period between when sending email was working and when it wasn’t. Is it too much to ask that all such activities should be reported as a potential service alert to the call centre, so that when (not if) a problem arises with service, the customer can be told that there is maintenance occurring, and the techs back in Canada can be notified that they screwed something up.

Ironically, I’ve been having a number of conversations lately about how companies can better listen to their customers, how customer loyalty is achieved, and how to engender trust and advocacy among customers. Sympatico is a perfect example of what not to do in relationship marketing terms.

I have been a loyal Bell customer, since it has been so bloody difficult to change the integration of the many Bell services in my communications life. And besides, my experience with Rogers – the other high-speed ISP in this area – was even worse when I was a Rogers cable customer. According to the traditional relationship marketing curve, I am way up there – I use multiple services, I wouldn’t consider leaving, and I would even “recommend” the service to a friend (“Yeah, it’s the lesser of two evils, since my experience with Rogers was worse, but Bell is only marginally less evil than Rogers, and they are trying really hard to catch up.”).

Message to Bell Sympatico: Don’t ever – EVER – confuse my relative position on the patently wrong relationship marketing curve with any association with trust, true advocacy, or the mistaken idea that you have a clue about how to appropriately listen to, or treat customers. It's not as if this is the first time, either!

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13 July 2007

Reversal of America - Pants on Fire Edition (again)

There have been many Menippean satirists throughout history leading up to the most recent great Menippean, Jon Stewart. But what I think we have just witnessed in President Bush's press conference yesterday is the very first example of auto-Menippeanism, in which the powerful and pretentious individual to be satired is satired by himself, by holding himself up in a serious way as an unintentional self-lampoon. Crooks and Liars has all the details.
Q Mr. President, you started this war, a war of your choosing, and you can end it alone, today, at this point — bring in peacekeepers, U.N. peacekeepers. Two million Iraqis have fled their country as refugees. Two million more are displaced. Thousands and thousands are dead. Don’t you understand, you brought the al Qaeda into Iraq.

THE PRESIDENT: Actually, I was hoping to solve the Iraqi issue diplomatically. That’s why I went to the United Nations and worked with the United Nations Security Council, which unanimously passed a resolution that said disclose, disarm or face serious consequences. That was the message, the clear message to Saddam Hussein. He chose the course.

Q (Helen Thomas): Didn’t we go into Iraq –

THE PRESIDENT: It was his decision to make. Obviously, it was a difficult decision for me to make, to send our brave troops, along with coalition troops, into Iraq.
Saddam Husein "chose the course" by not disclosing and disarming weapons that he didn't have. (Read comment 8 for another opinion.) Saddam was apparently trying to choose another course. And now that pretty much everyone in the world - including the President - knows that fact, George the Younger still has the temerity and the gall to make such a statement. It is even more galling that there are now well-researched books that make the claim that the invasion of Iraq was on the agenda prior to Bush taking office. Hello, Michael Moore.

As a Canadian, it is equally galling that our young men and women are dying in Afghanistan because of political policies that emerged from the complex interactions of international realpolitik and the ambitions of such a corrupt group in Washington. Sad. Very sad. (And, speaking about poor leaders and blaming others, Harper's announcement to "let the opposition make the decision" as to whether Canadian troops will end their misbegotten mission in Afghanistan in 2009, is a shameful, cowardly, and cynical statement. For shame.)

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11 July 2007

ZL'V: "Honest Ed" Mirvish, 1914-2007

The news is all over the country: "Honest Ed" Mirvish passed away this morning. The details of his own life, and his many contributions to life in Toronto will be recounted by many over the next few days. I have my own memory of meeting Honest Ed, way back around 1968. I was in junior high at the time, and a group of us were putting together some sort of newspaper - I can't remember whether it was a school-wide paper, or something for a class project. In any event, we decided that we wanted to feature an interview with someone famous. One of the bolder members of our intrepid little band managed to arrange an interview with Honest Ed himself.

On the appointed day, we all trooped down to the landmark store at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst that, at the time, was a major journey for a bunch of kids from Downsview. We were directed to the shoe department. The clerk swung out a wall display, behind which was a secret staircase leading up one floor to his office. In stark contrast to the haphazard displays of shmatas, shoes, and shine oil that characterized the funky department store, Ed Mirvish's office was palatial, with all sorts of memorabilia, art, sculptures, and photos adorning the walls and his massive desk. I recall that there were windows that gave him a panorama view of the main sales floor and the hustle and bustle of shoppers below. He was attentive, forthcoming in response to our questions, and seemed to have all the time in the world for this small group of school children. I felt as if we had touched royalty - and given the relative location of Toronto in the late 1960s in the large scheme of things, we probably did.

A great man who is truly one of the builders of this city. Zichronam livracha - may his memory be as a blessing.

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09 July 2007

And We're Off and Running... err... Researching!

For those who have been following my weblog, you’ll know that I have been working on the question of how to think about and describe organizations in the context of the massively interconnected world in which we now live. Somehow, the hierarchical and bureaucratic conception of organization seems dated in our contemporary context. A new model and descriptive vocabulary of what one might call, “the future of organizations” might prove beneficial and useful to managers, employees and volunteers alike.

I’m now at the stage in my doctoral program when it’s time to go out and learn from the real, lived experience of people in real organizations. I am seeking participant organizations of various kinds and sizes, from corporate giants to small volunteer groups, institutions, religious organizations, community groups, NGOs – the greater the variation and diversity, the better. I would plan to conduct one or two interviews with each of two to three people from the participating organizations. Ideally, the people will come from different hierarchical levels in the organization (assuming, of course, that the organization is hierarchically organized), from relatively lower to relatively higher. The names of the participating organizations and all individual participants will be kept confidential, unless they explicitly give permission for identities to be revealed.

If you would like your organization to participate in this exciting research, or know of an organization that might like to participate, please contact me at federman@sympatico.ca, with an email subject line of “Organization Research.” I will send you more detailed information about the research and the proposed interviews so that you can decide whether or not you and your organization would like to participate. Of course, you are under no obligation to participate, even if you request the information package.

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02 July 2007

Grab Your Headphones

...and listen to this amazing demonstration of holophonic sterophony in the virtual barber shop.

An explanation of what's going on is here.

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Training Oneself to Notice

The Spinning Silhouette is an fascinating optical illusion:
Which way is the silhouette spinning? Now focus your attention on the shadow beneath her. (Hint: watch the shadow of the foot.) Do you see the silhouette changing direction? With some practice, you can see her performing half-pirouettes, back and forth, at will.

Very cool - because the user completes the image. One of the issues with doing any sort of critical work - that is, analysis and praxis involving issues of power relations, control, discipline, voice (and lack or suppression thereof), privilege - in any field is that there are those who cannot, or refuse, to see the criticality. People who are used to engaging with their world in a hot way - fragmenting, categorizing, separating, applying linear, deductive reasoning - in other words, those who have been trained to be chronically literate, have a great deal of difficulty seeing the world "spin" in any other way.

There are lots of methods to help see the world turn in different ways. But each of them takes practice - practice to learn and master the techniques, and practice in learning how not to be distracted by our previous training and socialization. Not so coincidentally, a lot of what I've been doing lately - the Generation Gap, and How Do We Know talks, my thesis research on Valence Theory (plus another small summer research project on marketing), the playing around with cyber-education that I'm doing are all connected by seeking to notice what we haven't noticed lately, and thereby understanding our world in a new, expanded way.

As it turns out, I'll be doing an Applied McLuhan for Managers playshop in Ottawa on September 25 that is open to the public. Details (location, cost) are being arranged by a team in Ottawa, but if you're interested, write me and I'll connect you with the necessarily information. There are lots of ways to train yourself to notice, but this way promises to be fun.

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01 July 2007

On Marketing, Politics and Power

Catching up on some put-aside reading on this Canada Day morning. One item is an interview done a few months ago: Jon Stewart on Bill Moyers's Journal. As I have been thinking about critical (and valence) approaches to marketing lately, I've been noodling about relationships of power, emergence of hegemony and reversing some of the dynamics therein. And given the sorry state of politics and democratic engagement among the major (more-or-less real) democracies around the world, contemplations about politics being sold like so much dish detergent are not far removed from such noodling. So wouldn't you know that Stewart nails it:
Because I don't think politics is any longer about a conversation with the country. It's about figuring out how to get to do what you want. The best way to sell the product that you want to put out there, but not necessarily for the products on you know, it-- it's sort of like, when a dishwashing soap you know, they want to make a big splash, so they decide to have more lemon, as though people are gonna be like, "That has been the problem with my dishes! Not enough lemon scent!"
That's the problem with politics lately - too much scent, and it sure ain't lemony fresh!

Is it too much to wish for, as we collectively blow out 140 candles on our nation's cake, that our politicians at every level of government reflect honestly and authentically on what it means to have true democratic engagement with the public, rather than trying to sell us more soap at every turn. Happy Canada Day to all!
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