Category Archives: Business

Case Study: Creating a SharePoint service

This post was written in 2010 or 2011, but sat in my drafts folder for a couple of years. Enough water’s passed under enough bridges for me to dust it off and publish it now.

I was reminded the other day how important it is to get the questions right when I caught up with a pal at the Contractors Reunion Ball1.

He told me how the right answer to the wrong question had produced internal tension within a service delivery team for over a year so that the service they delivered scored ‘6/10 – could do better’ but no-one could work out why.

This is a story about SharePoint. All you really need to know about SharePoint is that anyone who runs a blog can understand how to set up a SharePoint site. Rocket science it ain’t unless they make rockets out of widgets these days. However there is a huge difference between doing it and doing it well and hereby hangs the tale.

The service team’s job was to help the people who used SharePoint in the organisation to get the most out of it.  They provided the skills to bridge the gap between having an empty SharePoint site (a site address, a welcome page, a place to store documents and another to store pictures) and a fully configured SharePoint site which is more or less whatever you want it to be.

Two levels of service were clearly needed and during the year this story covers, the team discussed what these two levels of service were.  Were they

  • templated sites vs custom-build sites
  • off-the-shelf vs bespoke
  • off-the-shelf vs configuration
  • standard sites vs project work
  • simple vs complex

The service went live with two services based on a couple of customer scenarios or use cases.

  • collaboration and
  • gateway

A collaboration site would be a place for a team to work together, co-ordinate holidays and manage their workloads.  A gateway was much more one-off, it would be a mixture of shop-front, shopping basket and check-out.  The team expected to be able to deliver a collaboration site and walk away from it, but they knew that gateways would require weeks of consultation, configuration and user-testing.

However more and more people asked the collaboration team for advice because – guess what – they wanted to do do other stuff with SharePoint like publish process documents or whatever. So the team ended up with three de facto services

  • delivering templates
  • one off consultancy
  • gateway projects

This meant that the team were delivering a stellar service but failing to meet their yearly objectives and their work wasn’t recognised because they couldn’t report it to the service owner.  It also messed up who reported to whom within the team.  Meanwhile, the customers of the service were confused because there was no formal way to ask for the advice they needed.

The team muddled through, as teams do.  There was an intermediate service design built around the way the sites were actually used, which was more or less like this:

  • collaboration templates
  • document repositories
  • gateway projects

But the tension was still there because highly skilled customers were building their own gateways and customers with cash but no staff wanted fully-finished templates.

Despite that, the team played for a while with an even fuller offering based around more customer scenarios (use cases) but still it didn’t work.

Eventually, it dawned on my pal that the distinction wasn’t what the customer wanted SharePoint to do, it was what they wanted the Team to do, and there really were just three services:

  • Empty template with some rules, standards and help files
  • Occasional advice and QA
  • Full delivery

The problem, he said, was that the wrong questions were asked. He jotted them down for me:

  1. What does the organisation want SharePoint to do?
  2. What templates can we create?
  3. What skills do we have in the team?
  4. How complex are the customer requirements?
  5. What does the customer want SharePoint to do?
  6. What does the customer want us to do?

He said that it wasn’t until they had got to question #6 that they could finally create a service that was fit for purpose.  As I rather cruelly said to him, ‘ask a silly question you’ll get a silly answer’ and as he replied, nursing his hangover the next day, ‘hindsight’s a wonderful thing’.

1 – Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Mr and Mrs Net-Developer and their daughter Dot…. Net-Developer.

I guess you had to be there.

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A Wunch of Bankers

Today’s parliamentary report on HBOS is a fascinating correction to the assumptions I made and prejudices I came across working there. It’s also full of some wonderful turns of phrase; I found it a pleasure to read.

It provides a salutary lesson in cognitive biases (where people see what they want to see) and the Dunning-Krueger effect (where people think they are cleverer than in fact they are). Both can be seen in the Financial Services Authority, the HBOS Board, and HBOS Executives throughout the organisation.

In a nutshell, the Halifax – a retail mortgage giant – bit off more than it had the knowledge or skill to chew when it took over Bank of Scotland in 2001. It seems that HBOS would have failed anyway (I believe that CEO sir James Crosby knew this when he left in 2006) and the downturn of 2008 just made the inevitable disaster happen sooner.

I still blame HBOS’s Retail products for much of the housing crisis we face in the UK today because they broke the link between earnings and house prices. They also primed the negative equity situation with 125% mortgages. Wicked though this is, it seems the Retail Division did not break the bank.

The Corporate, Treasury and International Divisions (formerly Bank of Scotland) thought they were too cool for school and bought market share by lending to customers other bankers would not touch. Meanwhile, the leadership came from Retail (formerly the Halifax) and did not have the skills to challenge or control the other Divisions.

None of them saw any problem with this and it seems that some of them still don’t.

I have read the report, so you don’t have to. The numbers are the paragraph numbers of the report.

Denial is not just a river in Egypt

137 – In many ways, the history of HBOS provides a manual of bad banking…

… but…

18 – Despite pursuing a strategy of high growth with commensurate risk, HBOS preserved the self-image of a conservative institution.

The writer of the report is exasperated by the way those involved STILL think HBOS was conservative, and mentions this several times.

19 – [The] culture … in the higher echelons of the bank… was brash, underpinned by a belief that the growing market share was due to a special set of skills which HBOS possessed and which its competitors lacked.

29 – “We always believed and my colleagues in the corporate bank always believed that they had a good understanding of the risks they were taking.” – Sir James Crosby (CEO 2001 – 2006)

… but in fact they were just bad bankers

30 – [HBOS’s] losses were on a larger proportionate scale than those incurred by any other major UK bank. This was caused … by its distinctive loan book.. [which was] significantly more exposed to the domestic downturn than that of any other large UK corporate banking businesses.

31 – The roots of all these mistakes can be traced to a culture of perilously high risk lending. The picture that emerges is of a corporate bank that found it hard to say ‘no’.

32 – … the losses were the result of incompetent lending and not caused solely by the events of 2008.

… who blamed external circumstances

32 – we are extremely disappointed by the attempts of the most senior leaders of HBOS at the time to attribute the scale of the consequent losses … to the temporary closure of wholesale markets. The lending approach of the Corporate Division would have been bad lending in any market.

39 – The losses incurred by HBOS in Ireland and Australia are striking, not only in absolute terms, but also in comparison with other banks. … The repeated reference in evidence to us by former senior executives to the problems of the Irish economy suggests almost wilful blindness to the weaknesses of the portfolio flowing from their own strategy.

Risky Business

The people employed with controlling Risk were amateurs….

41 – some members of the Board may not have … understood that there was greater risk inherent in the move to instruments with higher returns … judging by Jo Dawson’s (Group Risk Director in 2004-05 …) admission that she “would not have known what an Alt-A security was”.

Let me repeat that: the group risk director did not understand different kinds of financial securities and instruments.

42 – All relevant functions at HBOS, from the Board downwards, did not properly understand the nature of the risks embedded in the Treasury Division’s structured investment portfolio

50 – the senior management of HBOS clearly had a lot less understanding of corporate banking than the divisional managers

54 – … the Group Chief Executives did not develop a strong Group-level risk function. …. Paul Moore [head of group risk and later a whistleblower] … detected what he termed a “cultural indisposition to challenge”.

57 – During her brief time in the role of Group Risk Director, Jo Dawson concluded that she had influence rather than authority.

58 – “In HBOS [the group risk role] was viewed more as a rotational set of assignments to round out people. So rather than getting experts, they would bring in people as development experiences.” – Eric Daniels (CEO of Lloyds when it took over HBOS)

61 – Jo Dawson indicated that Corporate was less open to challenge and that it did not believe Group functions had the expertise to advise it.

That was true so far is it goes, but it seems Corporate did not have the skills or appetite to assess Risk either.

64 – … Successive Group Risk Directors were fatally weakened in carrying out their duties by their lack of expertise and experience … by the fact that the centre of gravity lay with the divisions themselves … and by the knowledge that their hopes for career progression lay elsewhere in the bank.

Most shockingly of all:

65 – The weaknesses of group risk in HBOS were a matter of design, not accident. Responsibility for this lies with Sir James Crosby, who as Chief Executive until 2005 was responsible for that design, with Andy Hornby [CEO from 2006 – 2008), who failed to address the matter, and particularly with Lord Stevenson as Chairman throughout the period in question.

Wow. Just… wow.

To my surprise, the Retail business (formerly the Halifax and Leeds Permanent Building Societies) were not to blame….

46 – The impairments incurred by the Retail Division were substantially less than those incurred by the Corporate and International Divisions and were not a material factor in the failure of HBOS.

This surprises me, given the aggressively competitive nature of their mortgage products.

Regulating the regulator

The Financial Services Authority (FSA) comes in for criticism too

It had concerns in 2002-2003 including

69 – … A lack of clarity about the point at which management would cease to feel comfortable about increasing the exposure to commercial property;

70 – [However, independent firm PwC reported in 2004] that the risk management processes within HBOS in general, appeared “to work well”

71 – From this point onwards, the regulatory pressure for improvement appears to have diminished.

Note that in January 2004, Crosby was appointed a non-Executive Director of the FSA whilst still CEO of HBOS. The report does not note this conflict of interest and coincidence of timing, instead it says the FSA’s focus shifted to other regulatory initiatives.

83 – … the FSA’s regulation of HBOS was thoroughly inadequate. … The FSA failed to follow through on [its] concerns and was too easily satisfied that they had been resolved.

85 – Too much supervision was undertaken at too low a level

I am shocked and disappointed that the report does not mention Crosby’s dual role at this time.

All aboard …

Everyone on the Board thought the Board was wonderful

91 – The corporate governance of HBOS at board level serves as a model for the future, but not in the way in which Lord Stevenson and other former Board members appear to see it. It represents a model of self-delusion, of the triumph of process over purpose.

92 – … the expectation was that the Board would approve the executive business plans; challenge would be expected to come from the executives, rather than the non-executives or the full Board.

This is the opposite of how Boards are supposed to work.

The Board weren’t bankers, and neither were the people running the bank:

93 – There was insufficient banking expertise among HBOS’s top management. In consequence, they were incapable of even understanding the risks that some elements of the business were running, let alone managing them.


94 – The non-executives on the Board lacked the experience or expertise to identify many of the core risks that the bank was running. … The board was composed in a manner which appeared suitable for a retail-oriented financial services company, but that board lacked the necessary banking experience among its non-executives…

95 – Judging by the comments of some former Board members, membership of the Board of HBOS [was] a positive experience for many participants. We are shocked and surprised that, even after the ship has run aground, so many of those who were on the bridge still seem so keen to congratulate themselves on their collective navigational skills.

I think I am falling in love with whoever wrote this report.

Smugness, complacency and hubris…

HBOS’s management did know they had problems, so they were not entirely blind:

98 – The 2003-07 Business Plan (drawn up in 2002) cited funding and liquidity as possibly the bank’s “greatest single challenge”. … in November 2002 … Sir James Crosby acknowledged that funding was a “significant risk”.

Smugly, they thought they had done enough:

103. – “without wishing to be complacent or hubristic, management has done a superb job-a job that started five years ago and not in August … – Lord Stephenson to the FSA in 2007

And they whistled in the dark with excessive use of exclamation marks which is always worrying. Here is Lord Stephenson in March 2008:

105 – “I and we are feeling about as robust as it is possible to feel in a worrying environment which we would rather did not exist! … How would we fare if liquidity completely dried up, you asked? Does that keep me awake at night? Well yes of course one worries about everything, but the answer is no!”

The domino effect

It is easy to forget what a disaster this was – HBOS had more small-scale private shareholders than any other company in the UK

108 – Former HBOS shareholders have seen 96 per cent of its peak value disappear. [From almost £12 per share to about 60p]

108 – … the Treasury and Lloyds Banking Group injected a total of £28 billion of equity into HBOS. The market value of the Treasury holding in LBG is still £5 billion below the £20.5 billion invested.

109 – There has also been an adverse effect on the operation of the banking market. HBOS was weakened in its ability to continue its retail lending and its support for SMEs. The banking market has become less diverse and less competitive in consequence of the merger. UK competition law was altered … Consumers and the wider economy, as well as shareholders and taxpayers, have paid a heavy price for the blunders of the HBOS Board.

Not their fault guv…

Once again, the cognitive dissonance and denial comes through.

110 – in evidence to the Treasury Committee in 2009 and in evidence to this Commission, senior figures within HBOS have portrayed themselves as victims of forces beyond their control.

But the Commission has no patience with this

114 – As a home-grown banking failure in traditional banking, HBOS stands alone.

115 – The problems of liquidity were the occasion for the failure of HBOS, not the cause.

116 – The HBOS failure was fundamentally one of solvency.

In other words, they failed because of too much high-risk lending (they were insolvent); the fact they could not borrow money (lack of liquidity) to cover those risks just exposed the underlying problem sooner.

This gets the prize for the best use of the word abyss I have seen in the last 5 years:

125 – The Commission was very disappointed by the attempts of those who led HBOS into the abyss to acknowledge, even now, either the nature of the problems that eventually consumed the bank or the extent to which they flowed from their own decisions rather than unforeseeable events. … the scale of HBOS’s credit losses was markedly worse than that of any of its major peers. In these circumstances, the apologies of those at the top of HBOS for the loss imposed upon the taxpayers and others ring hollow; an apology is due for the incompetent and reckless Board strategy; merely apologising for having failed to plan for an unforeseeable event is not much of an apology.

It’s not just about the bank, though, it’s about the bankers. I have always thought James Crosby knew what he was handing over to Andy Hornby in 2006

128. After leaving the bank in July 2006, Sir James chose to sell two thirds of his holdings [in HBOS]

The Commission seems to think so too.

135 – In the view of this Commission, it is right and proper that the primary responsibility for the downfall of HBOS should rest with Sir James Crosby, architect of the strategy that set the course for disaster, with Andy Hornby, who proved unable or unwilling to change course, and Lord Stevenson, who presided over the bank’s board from its birth to its death. Lord Stevenson, in particular, has shown himself incapable of facing the realities of what placed the bank in jeopardy from that time until now.

Worryingly, not much has changed

136 – The regulatory structures at the time of the last crisis … have shown themselves incapable of producing fitting sanctions … in a manner which might serve as a suitable deterrent for the next crisis.

138 – One lesson relates to structural reforms [of the banking sector]. This was … a case of a bank pursuing traditional banking activities and pursuing them badly. Structural reform of the banking industry does not diminish the need for appropriate management and supervision of traditional banking activities.

139 – Another lesson is that prudential supervisors cannot rely on financial markets to do their work for them. In the case of HBOS, neither shareholders nor ratings agencies exerted the effective pressure.

The invisible hand is not operated by an all-seeing eye.

So in conclusion – HBOS fell because of bad management, it’s board did not have the knowledge to stop it, and the FSA did not regulate it properly. And, yes, it could all happen again.

Disclosure: I worked for HBOS from 2005-2010 well away from the dramas, deep inside the IT function within the Retail division. During that time, I used HBOS as a case study for several assignments in a Masters degree, including a case study of the failure of leadership by Crosby, Hornby and Stephenson which led to the failure of the bank.

This was first published here as a note on Facebook.


What is h2g2?

h2g2 is a world-wide community which strives to write a practical guide to life, the universe, and everything. Through this shared ambition researchers form strong friendships, develop their writing skills, and continue a legacy created by the author Douglas Adams.
Silly Willy – (London)

So it is a website which does many things well – it’s a community and a resource, but the one thing it does exceptionally is train writers, (which makes it a great place for readers):

It helped me learn to write … I’ve gone from a spotty, self-important seventeen year old to a confident pen-for-hire thanks to h2g2, The Post and PR. Oh, and thanks to people like Pin and Gnomon, it also taught me how to use constructive criticism to improve. A hard, but useful lesson.
Mr606 – (Salford)

A brief history

H2G2 was founded by Douglas Adams and Robbie Stamp in 1999 as an early experiment in online communities and collaborative writing. They founded”The Earth Edition of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. By the end of 2000 the site was struggling financially but Ashely Highfield, the newly appointed head of BBC Online, persuaded the BBC to take it on,  However, the site was never fully aligned with the BBC’s online strategies; it wasn’t pinned to a programme for a start, and they never saw the possibilities of selecting some of it for print. So it languished while Wikipedia over-took it, blogging platforms became the places to write opinion pieces or diaries, and eventually FaceBook trounced everything as a social network. Finally, just one day short of a decade later, the BBC announced it was “disposing” of H2G2.

Here the users explain what h2g2 is, and what it can become.

A good read

In the midst of discussing the writing, it is easy to lose track of the pleasures of reading h2g2.

At the heart of h2g2 lies an expanding and often quirky Edited Guide with more than 10,000 non-fiction entries. But h2g2 isn’t and never was Wikipedia’s competition.  It’s hard to explain but easy to show the difference between the two sites. Take socks, for example. Wikipedia has this to say about the subject:

“A sock is an item of clothing worn on the feet. The foot is among the heaviest producers of sweat in the body, as it is able to produce over a pint of perspiration per day.”

There’s more, but you get the idea.

H2G2 also mentions socks. It unabashedly discusses The Joy of Socks, finds Alternative Uses for Socks, struggles with Holy Sock – an Ontological Dichotomy, and ponders How To Take Socks Off – And Live. Not only can you learn How To Knit A Pair of Socks, you can also discuss your knitting project at The h2g2 Craft Guild.

Wikipedia tells you what you may need to know; h2g2 tells you what you might want to learn.

Happy Nerd – (California)

It’s a good place to read on a regular basis:

I’ve built a comfortable routine around reliable and fulfilling reading pleasure, in which the Post has been a stand-out.  I’ve wondered at some truly remarkable writers … There are two among them all who I know are simply on a different plane … They are Funderlik and Tonsil Revenge.
Pinniped – (South Yorkshire)

H2G2 encourages other kinds of non-fiction: memoirs, opinion pieces, reflective non-fiction and, tucked away in the corners, there are fiction and poetry. The only genres not on h2g2 are the ones slathered across the rest of the internet: there’s no fan-fiction, no slash-fiction and no porn.

The H2G2 Community

The community’s strength is in part due to its astonishing diversity. Aged from 16 to 80, researchers can be found on all continents, and come from all social backgrounds. They include students, teachers, bankers, doctors, security guards, lorry drivers, railway engineers and silver surfers.
Icy North

A silly, intelligent, lovable bunch of people who called themselves the internet weirdos, hootooizens, h2g2ers  …  It’s funky, it’s [playful], it’s informative, and above all, it is a community-centered site.
Montana Redhead – (California)

The warmth of the community is palpable. It has enabled members to form friendships they value around the world.

H2G2 contributors around the world

H2G2 contributors around the world

Here is Hypatia’s account of her husband’s funeral; Frank was not a member of the site but her online friends chose to honour her and commemorate his passing in Missouri:

Then we announced the balloon release. … When we started reading out the names of the cities where people were participating I nearly lost it. I am still amazed over the whole thing. We began by reading the names in the US. The audience was clearly impressed. Then we did all of the places in the UK. A couple of whispered ‘Wow!s ‘ could be heard in the chapel. Then we did the four in Europe and ended with the candles in Melbourne. As we changed time zones, we told them what time it was where the balloons were being released and the candles lighted. We ended with Pimm’s lovely remark – “There will be balloons rising free around the world and sparks of gentle light near the seas saying Frank is remembered and wishing him Godspeed.”
Hypatia – (Missouri)

The international nature of the community has proven a benefit to many.

Titania is Swedish:

I’ve improved my English tremendously, discovered I can write entries and even poetry in a foreign language.
Titania – (Sweden )

Maria is Spanish:

h2g2 is the best alternative to living in an English speaking country for those learners who want and need a linguistic immersion.
Maria – (Spain)

Bel is German:

I had some basic knowledge of English, but not enough to understand jokes (puns were particularly hard to understand, as were things written in dialect) …  I ended up taking over as Post Editor.
Bel – (Germany)

H2G2’s intelligent acceptance of people for who and what they are is mentioned by several users:

It’s been a stabilising influence in my life. I’ve been kicked out of my religious community, and lost a bunch of friends, but you’re all still here. And still as mad as ever. Being gay isn’t a big deal, but when I was coming out I thought it would be. It was comforting to know that no one here would care a bit.
TRiG – (Eire)

Intelligent (and silly) debate

If diversity and inclusivity don’t attract you, then perhaps intelligence and a variety of debate will:

I also think I owe a lot of my current philosophy on life to the people of H2G2. I came onto the site as a somewhat wishy washy “lapsed Catholic”. Now I’m an atheist, which is still relatively unusual on this island.
Woodpigeon – (Eire)

I don’t think h2g2 could be replaced by message boards or Facebook, … [It] always seems more thoughtful, you can often see ideas grow and minds change throughout the course of a conversation thread. …[ threads here]… are so varied, and the responses can be so eye-opening. Some of the topics … at the moment cover criminals rights, lots of threads about how to save h2g2, petty hates, useless facts, the weather local to you and what is the speed of beards – where else would you find that kind of variety in one place?
Deb –  (West Midlands)

H2g2 in a nutshell

So to sum up: hg2 is a site centred around writing, where what you write is constructively critiqued in a way that improved your ability to write; it’s full of great things to read and it is a community of playful people who enjoy each others’ company.

H2G2  is the most unbland thing I’ve ever encountered.
Effers –  (London)


I’m distracted this week by the campaign to #saveH2G2.

What is H2G2, and why should you care?

H2G2 is one of the community sites shivering under the BBC’s axe. It was bought by the BBC on the 25th January 2001 and a decade later less one day the BBC announced it will be “disposed of”. “Disposed of”, note, not “closed” because there is something here of great vitality.

H2G2 is an open access writing site, where you’ll get thoughtful and constructive feedback on what you write through a system of writing workshops and peer review and where you can make friends (and enemies) that you’ll value for life.

H2g2'S new front page - the new skin is a bit buggy - oh the irony

H2g2’S new front page – the new skin is a bit buggy – oh the irony

But whenever I try to say more I just end up saying what it isn’t:

  • It’s not Wikipedia even though it predated it as an experiment in user-generated content and on-line communities being founded in 1999 by the late, tall, Douglas Adams as “the earth edition of the HitchHiker’sGuide to the Galaxy”.
  • But it’s not a fan site.  It really isn’t.  “Hootizens” respect DNA, but  don’t revere him.
  • It’s not a blog-and-comment site though users have their own “journals” and create “entries” with “conversations” hanging off them.
  • It’s not a creative writing site though there is a lot of creative writing on it.
  • It’s not even primarily a social network though it predates just about all of the ones still standing,  and it’s not  “a small town in cyberspace” though that is how I’ve described it for years. Well, a decade, I guess.

And after –  or because of – it’s indescribable past it now faces an uncertain future.  Nick Reynolds (Social Media Executive, BBC Online) and Jim Lynn (who developed the original platform) both express cryptic goodwill and commitment to the community.  But it’s hard to see who’d want to buy the site.

The future then and now

One of the great wistfulnesses about h2g2 is the difference between what it could have been and what it was.  Douglas Adams was an astonishing visionary about all things online…

49 minutes of uncanny prescience.
Where we are now predicted way back then
by Douglas Adams in 1990.

… but  the BBC never really took first mover’s advantage in any of the then-cool things that h2g2 was first to have.  And now the BBC are disposing of what has become a site that even those of us who love it have to admit is quaint.

Community action

And how have the h2g2 community responded?

By and large, pretty well.  As Nick Reynolds said:

H2G2 is the best behaved and most civilised community I’ve ever encountered. The way that you have reacted to the news is a great credit to you.

Members of the community have gathered in a Google Group called the h2g2 Continuity Consortium (h2g2c2 – geddit) and are trying to put the show on right here in the barn… er… server farm.

Some of the comment is skeptical,  but slightly to my surprise, I think we’ll succeed, partly because we are not trying to buy the site off the BBC. We want to ensure that the best possible group runs the site, but are rather reluctantly aware that group might end up being us.

We will succeed in the short term because the BBC is not pulling the plug immediately, because we’ve been overwhelmed by offers of server space, by advice from people who’ve done the same thing in other online communities, and by practical support from within the community.

And I think we will succeed in the long term because we are so old.  We know each other.   We’ve fought, flirted, argued and made up across timezones and forums for a long time.  We’ve danced at each others’ weddings, stood godparents to each others children, and grown from being school-children to adults, collecting relevant (and gloriously irrelevant) skills, experiences and qualifications in the process.

We know how the internet works, how online communities and social media and web servers and all the things that Douglas Adams predicted but the rest of us took ten years to find out.

And best of all, it turns out that we are not just a bunch of quirky names and flirty posts, but also a bunch of coders and project managers, change programme leaders, doctors and people claiming disability benefit or who are just plain on the dole.  We have skilz and we have time.  (A lot of the former and a bit of the latter).

In management speak, we’ve Stormed (ye gods how we’ve stormed) Formed and Normed (and abNormed, but that’s a different story).

Now we are ready to Perform.

Enron in Edinburgh

I’ve finally seen Enron on stage. Briefly, for those who don’t know, Enron used clever and initially legal accounting techniques to big up their profits and tuck their losses away out of sight and, for a while at least, out of mind.   Not the most obvious material for a play. However my initially-not-very-interested-in-the-subject husband came away enthralled by the story and with a reasonable understanding of  hedging, trading above book and the role and effects of the raptors. So kudos to Lucy Prebble for that. Plus, it’s excellent.

Enron the Play

Enron is not a Greek  tragedy of our times, even though the tale includes hubris, ethical dilemmas (not that many of those, actually) and a suicide.  It’s too technical to be a farce, not quite funny enough to be a pantomime (“We did nothing wrong” “Oh yes you did” “Oh no we didn’t”)  so a musical play is just about right.

The staging is arresting: the two main numbers are the trading floor in the first act (which is the poster-piece for the play) and the California power-cuts in the second.  Both of these are great set pieces, but I was mightily irritated by the first which showed traders in the brightly coloured trading jackets of an open outcry trading floor.  You see, Enron’s not just a story about greed, it’s a story about vision.  Like it or lump it Skilling really was a visionary and the people who worked there really were the smartest guys in the room.   So Enron pioneered online trading – “Enron Online”: the clue was in the name.  I accept that having 8 men wildly gesticulating their buy and sell messages is much more theatrical than having 50 of them crouched over computer terminals.  But the inaccuracy  annoyed me so much I couldn’t pay attention to the rest of the first half.  And  it detracts from the tension between bricks and clicks which is one of the more interesting things in the Enron story.  You see, they weren’t just crooks, they were also visionaries.  Skilling really was trying to bring about a technological future the rest of the world just didn’t get at the time.  A future that we live in now. Video on demand, anyone?

The four main parts in the play are Chairman, Ken Lay, CEO Jeffrey Skilling, CFO Andy Fastow and hot business babe “Claudia”, whose career and character echoes that of Rebecca Marks.  (Marks left before the proverb hit the fan, was not involved in the frauds, and would be  in a position to sue if her lawyers felt like it). This drastic pruning is I think fair. However I was unconvinced by the characterisation of Fastow as a jittery nerd.  From my reading of just about every book available, Fastow was neither fawning nor socially inept; like the others he was clever and corrupted by his own ambition.  I was also surprised by the presentation of Skilling and “Claudia” as sexual partners. Their rival visions for the organisation were more than enough reason for them to dislike each other without  any need for urgent and unsatisfactory sex. Which brings us back to the bricks and clicks tension:  “Claudia” in the play and Marks in reality focused on traditional businesses, power plants, water companies, pipelines and the like.  Ok, they were hubristic failures, but they did raise cash in the fire sale.  Skilling’s vision was to change the nature of business by introducing trading into markets which hadn’t been traded before.  They were both wrong of course, which ultimately was why Enron fell.

One thing that fascinated me was that at no point in the play did the Edinburgh audience applaud when I was there on Saturday night; not the set-pieces, not the soliloquies, and very nearly not at the end.  There must have been several people in the theatre that night, or over the run at least, who could have written the equivalent play about RBS and I could have had a good stab at writing one about HBOS myself.  Edinburgh is not unsophisticated financially, even if its financial services companies are banks rather than trading houses or accountancies.

Maybe the sights and sounds of plunging share-prices, lost life savings and venial leaders were just the teensiest bit too close to home.

Other stuff I’ve written about Enron.

The Facebook Privacy Row 2 – The Social Network

We went to see the film the Social Network last night, which is about how Mark Zuckerberg co-created Facebook, and the ensuing law suits with people who claimed he had misappropriated their ideas (in one case) and their money (in the other case).

What is shown on the screen must be pretty much law-suit proof.  We are talking about the bio-pic of a billionaire, after all.  There are other signs that the big spend was on lawyers.  It certainly wasn’t on special effects; the “outdoor” scenes at Henley Regatta were clearly filmed in a tank.  And it wasn’t on stars either; the only name star is Justin Timberlake playing Sean Parker who co-founded Napster. (We are of course meant to love the knowing irony of that casting).

In the first five or ten minutes of the film, Zuckerberg’s girlfriend when he was 19, Erica Allbright says:

You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.

And that more or less positions Zuckerberg for the rest of the film.

Would you entrust your privacy to the Zuckerberg portrayed here?  Hell no.  But of course, film is a two-dimensional medium.  If you look for them, you can see the usual narrative compressions: two of the four people who co-founded Facebook are barely mentioned in the film, for instance, and neither is Zuckerberg’s current girlfriend who (according to Wikipedia (I know….)) who was with him throughout.  And that is an interesting omission, because he comes across as someone whose IQ is stratospheric but whose EQ (emotional intelligence) approaches zero.  Portraying him as maintaining a relationship all that time would undermine the idea that he’s a nerd and an asshole.

I was intrigued that Zuckerberg is portrayed not as someone who  has good ideas, but as someone who spots them.  In one scene a friend asks if a particular girl is dating someone and Zuckerberg realises that “relationship status” is the thing that will change Facebook from an app to a killer app. Likewise, he is portrayed as using the Winklevoss’s idea for a campus-wide social network in the first place, and borrowing Savarin’s algorithm to rank girls based on how hot they are, which is itself an idea he took from some one else.  So he’s portrayed as a harvester,  not a creator.  But if harvesting ideas was easy, everyone could do it. In the movie, Zuckerberg’s stance is summed up by his line:

If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.

And he has a point.

So was anyone in the film actually a good guy?  Savarin, the friend who stumped up the original seed money for servers, is the nearest thing to a good guy.  But our sympathies lie with him because of where he sits in the narrative: he’s portrayed as being out-maneuvered when Facebook got cool and Sean Parker got involved and they all went to California.  He’s the loyal friend, shafted by the asshole.  Then there are the other litigants, the Winklevoss brothers. In one of those unnecessary strokes of narrative cuteness occasionally thrown up by real life, they are olympic rowers and twins.  As one of them says when they are discussing whether they want lawyers or the Sopranos:

I’m six-five, 220 pounds, and there are two of me.


Privileged, ambitious, with a sense of entitlement which is annoyingly substantiated by actual physical achievements?Just another kind of asshole, really.

If no-one touches the sympathy button, was anyone here a victim? No, not really.  Not as portrayed in this film. It’s an enjoyable movie about how the prospects of billions makes not particularly attractive people do not particularly attractive things. Im irritated that we are presented with Zuckerberg as a tragic hero in the last five minutes of the film. Heroism isn’t really something you can tack on at the end.

I’m wary of assuming that this bio-pic is accurate simply because it wasn’t made by Oliver Stone even if there are no actual law-suits against it, and it seems I am right to be wary.  An excellent NYT article quotes the film’s writer as saying:

“I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling” … “I feel like, had I met Mark, I would have felt a certain obligation to make the character sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things. And frankly, I probably would have had an affection for him that I wouldn’t have wanted to betray.”

So there are lies, damned lies, and movie scripts.

That said, it’s an entertaining movie if you like that sort of thing, which I do. On top of that, the script is sharply clever, and I like clever.

But I still keep my Facebook settings shut down tight.

Finding a workplace that’s good for you

Whether you are happy in your work doesn’t just depend on the job that you do, it also depends on whether you like the culture of the place you are working.  There are ways to route round the corporate bull**** to find indicators ahead of time that show what a place might be like to work in.

Many recruiters will ask you to take a psychometric test to check your aptitude for the job, but if you are looking for work, you should remember you can turn the tables to some extend and avoid a lot of unhappiness by knowing what sort of organisation and culture will suit you best.

The tool we are probably most aware of is good old Myers Briggs but I’m not a fan. I think it’s too complicated and too ambiguous: I think AND I feel, thank you very much. The four scales are:

  • Extraversion vs Introversion
  • Sensing vs iNtuition
  • Thinking vs Feeling
  • Judgment vs Perception

I can never remember where I sit on this, and it’s hard to map on to a work environment though it’s useful when thinking about your suitability for a specific role. It’s popular with HR departments and tests of varying quality are widely available, but I think there are better models out there.

My favourite model is Goffee and Jones’ double S-Cube because it is simple and powerful. Goffee and Jones consider that groups of people are held together by two different kinds of glue: sociability and solidarity.

Goffee and Jones' Double S Cube

Goffee and Jones’ Double S Cube

Organisations with high sociability scores are characterised by long-term friendships, so Monday morning meeetings start with a catch-up about the weekend and a lot of what’s done is done out of goodwill and comradeliness. Organisations and people with high solidarity scores are characterised by a complete focus on the task in hand, social chit-chat is kept to a minimum, people are highly motivated by professional success and when they go the extra mile it’s not for friendship.

Clearly, if you know where you sit in the front 2×2, you know what sort of organisation you will be happy in.  It’s fairly easy to uncover where the organisation sits on the 2×2. In an interview you can ask questions like “it’s clearly a busy department, how do people pull together when the heat is on?” or you can just describe the model and ask where the organisation sits on it. Recruitment websites are clear about their values:

Working at Goldman Sachs is a fast-paced, high-energy experience that can help you find the best place for your talents

Googlers range from former neurosurgeons, CEOs, and U.S. puzzle champions to alligator wrestlers and Marines. No matter what their backgrounds, Googlers make for interesting cube mates.

Another model which I prefer to Myers Briggs is Denison’s Research-based Model.  His two axes are Flexibility vs Stability in one direction and Internal vs External focus in another. When you use this  model to sanity check your workplace just work out which quarter you and they fit in: work out where you and they fit on the two axes Flexible vs Stable and Internal focus vs External focus, and you’ll be fine.

Denison's Leadership Development Model

Denison’s Leadership Development Model

If by temperament you have an external focus and are flexible, then you pay close attention to what is going on ‘out there’ and think the best way forward is to supply what the market wants. Working in an environment where the decision-making style is consensual, where you “have to get buy-in” and you “socialise” an idea will suck your soul. Denison’s view, by the way, is that all traits are equally necessary in an organisation. No-one said it was easy. However, a sales department would probably sit top left, while HR in the same company would probably be bottom right.

No discussion of organisational culture would be complete without mentioning the work of Geert Hofstede whose research compared international cultures.  The image below shows Hofstede’s five dimensions and how strongly each one is present in the UK

Geert Hofstede™ Cultural Dimensions - UK

Geert Hofstede™ Cultural Dimensions – UK

I found Hofstede’s work fascinating while I was travelling, but it’s of limited use when working out how you’d fit into a specific workplace. The dimensions are:

  • Power Distance Index (PDI)
  • Individualism (IDV) on the one side versus its opposite, collectivism
  • Masculinity (MAS) versus its opposite, femininity
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
  • Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation

Other models are available.

While I was researching this post, I came across the Kiersey Model which looks as if it would map neatly on to Denison’s though it’s even more complex than Myers Briggs. Hermann’s Whole Brain model looks at thinking styles, whether you are emotional, analytical, strategic or structural.

However if you want to work out whether you’ll be happy in a workplace, then I have yet to find models that are more effective than Goffee and Jones’s Double S-Cube, and their book is a quick and illuminating read, and Dension’s Research-Based Model whose the website is informative, but designed to sell consultancy.

Sorting the sheep from the goats

Earlier this year I filled out a lot of diversity forms. It fascinates me that Great Big Corporations are very hot on diversity in terms of gender, age, race, disability, sexuality and religious belief but are almost always strongly normative in all other respects.  They want you to be just like them (so you fit in) AND a member of a minority (to prove they don’t discriminate).

An organisation’s cultural norms are often explicit.  Many organisations have a list of expected behaviours mapped neatly on to grades and called “Competencies”.  So if your temperament isn’t suited to ‘acting as a local leader driving forward change’ or whatever it might be, then you’ll never make it to Grade D. At the very least you are expected to espouse their cultural values – the Five Cs or Six Ss or Three Bears, or whatever was thought up for them by the consultancy they hired.

This post could go in so many directions.

  • The banality of these corporate values would be a good one: Enron’s were Communication, Respect, Integrity and Excellence, which says it all, really.
  • Whether to tick any of the boxes marked ‘other’ on the diversity forms. The box marked ‘other’ next to Sexuality is particularly worrying.  (Yes I **** sheep*, but there’s no consent problem because I only **** dead ones).
  • The fact that they don’t offer Atheist, Agnostic or Humanist under Religious belief, merely offering the option of ‘None’.  Technically right, but subtly discriminatory against Agnostics and Humanists if you ask me.

However I’m going to limit this post to the question of cultural norms; to the question of

‘How we do things around here’.

You see, I sound cynical about corporate culture and professional competencies, but I’m not. In fact I buy into both of them big time.  It doesn’t half make it easier when everyone is capable of doing their job well and behaves more or less acceptably. For the individual, it is hard to work with people whose behaviours or morals scrape on your nerves. And for the organisation, it is much easier to get a team to pull together if it doesn’t include mavericks, sociopaths, the suicidally depressed or pathologically dishonest, or even people who just don’t get on with each other.

Of course birds of a feather flock together to some extent, so some selection is done before applicants apply. The financially motivated are attracted to investment banking, literate arts grads veer towards the media, and those with social consciences virtuously accept the lower pay in the third sector.

However, when times are bad more people apply for fewer jobs and organisations really do have to do that screening.  So they use psychometric testing, Myers-Briggs and all sorts of other tools to make the selections for them.

Now the questions in my mind are:

1. How ethical is it to reject a candidate because of character traits?


2. How ethical is it NOT to?

* Eat. Obviously. What did you think I meant? Revenons à nos moutons.

PS: How amused am I that the recommended tags for this post are: “Myers-Briggs Type Indicator” “Goat” “Livestock” “Domestic sheep” “Reuters” “Grazing” “Flood” and “Cattle”? That’s right. Very.

PPS: How did “Reuters” get in there?  Suggestions in the comments thread please.

Who knows your name? Who knows where you live?

The other day someone worked out where I live from a previous post on this blog.


Now I’m reasonably careful online: I’ve written about password security, I know emails are less private than postcards, and I don’t geotag pictures out of an instinctive preference for privacy, and I certainly don’t tweet or blog about going away before I actually go.  So you may think it’s odd that I blog in my own name, but I’ve a professional interest in Web 2.0 and I need to type the type as well as talk the talk.

When we went away a couple of weeks ago, I dropped a very late email in to the folks who deliver our veg to cancel the box for the week. Unfortunately the email addy I used was a benwarsop one, and I am a customer of theirs in my married name.


Or so you’d like to think.

You see, my email sig includes a link to this blog and the top post that week showed  some flowers on my kitchen windowsill.  I thought no harm of it: central Scotland is full of kitchens with views like mine.

I see sunflowers, you see the house opposite

I see sunflowers, you see the house opposite

But Ms Holmes was smarter than that.  She knew which day I have my veg delivered from the email and it was easy enough to check the route for someone whose first name was “Ben”.  It was probably a list of 1, but even if it had been more, it was only a matter of comparing the relevant Google Street View(s) with the pic on my blog, and bingo! No veg left to rot for a week, and a happy but rather unnerved Ben.

So if you want excellent organic veg delivered by tech savvy folks, go to GrowWild and say I sent you.  They know both my names now.

And if you don’t want to be tracked down, find somewhere to live that Google Street View hasn’t got to yet. It’s good advice. Property values in places like that will soar.

How do you know when you’ve done enough?

The other day someone asked me an interesting question:

How do you know when you’ve done enough analysis?

I’m not really sure how to answer that one.

Sometimes you are forced to stop when you run out of time. But if time is your only guide you risk ending up  with something too vague to be implementable. Which means someone has to make quick and dirty decisions about how to implement it. And that’s a fast route down a short road to a lack of business buy-in. A short road too many of us have been forced down by sponsors who care more about delivery than quality or by project mangers who confuse analysis with planning on the one hand and specification on the other. No bitterness here, then.

The perfectionist’s answer is that you stop when you’ve nailed down every last detail. But that way another kind of madness lies.  Over-specification produces inflexible processes which cannot accommodate the unexpected. Remember those early web forms which required “Zip Codes” to be numerical, and therefore couldn’t be used by people outside the USA? Over-specification also infantilises the people using the process, which may or may not be a good thing. And it can give you processes or requirements that are just plain wrong unless the detail has been provided by practitioners.

But it’s usually lumpier than that because there’s never time for infinite detail. The bit that’s easy ends up being over-specified but the hard stuff is still vague, as exemplified by my favourite systems diagram:

Good work - but I think we might need just a little more detail right here

Good work - but I think we might need just a little more detail right here

This of course is why we use tools like use cases and swim-lane diagrams to impose standards, drive out that ambiguity and ensure we have detail where we need it, but not where we don’t.

In the end it’s a judgement call. You use your tools, consult the business, trust your developers, empower your users, and deliver on time.

In the words of Albert Einstein:

Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Make everything as simple as possible but not simpler. Albert Einstein.

The song that’s been driving through my head as I type this is Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, which is eerily appropriate in so many ways. The difficult thing, as Jackson himself illustrated so clearly, is to know when enough is enough.