Friday, 30 July 2010

Why Experts Don't (Usually) Work in Service Companies.

A service company uses stuff that other people make and design to provide a service to other people. Telcos use optical fibre and highly specialised computers ("switches" if it's a SS7 / C7 network, routers if it's a VoIP network) built by someone else running software that implements very abstract and specific standards designed by someone else. You don't need to know the innards of C7 signalling or electromagnetic theory to run an telco operation, you do need to know how to make relationships and negotiate. Banks are service companies, so are bus companies, railways (unless they are vertically-integrated), travel companies and all retailers. So are hospitals and GP's - medics don't know how drugs work, but surgeons at least know their way round their bit of the human body.

Service quality can range from a five-star hotel with a concierge paid a very high salary for his knowledge of the town to a one-star bed and breakfast with a single girl on reception who seems to be there (as far as you can see) all the hours the place is open and who can just about direct you to the local railway station. The service sector tends to drift down the skill scale: if you need a palladium widget you have to pay for palladium and that puts a minimum price on the widget, but you can always live with a little less hotel service on this trip to save some money. A sustained bout of cost-cutting customers later and none of the hotels can afford to offer good service, so they don't. Quality decrease is the other side of the inflation coin: heads we put up the prices, tails we reduce the quality and quantity.

After a certain point on the way down the price/quality slide, the senior management of a service organisation gets concerned about the organisation's ability to handle any tasks requiring specific abilities, talents and knowledge. It make sense to outsource your freight forwarding to a specialist company because you probably don't do enough to keep the people you would need busy. The same applies to advertising, as very few companies have a culture that's friendly to the kind of erratic sparks who think up good ads. The problem starts when you outsource all your creative thinking about anything to outsiders, so that all your people are doing is managing agency relationships and the internal bureaucracy. Telcos and banks are nothing more than information-processing machines, yet many outsource their serious operational IT work (The Bank doesn't run your ATM's and current accounts, EDS does.). As a result, no-one in the business actual understands the systems any more and if they ask, it costs them a fortune in fees for meetings and Work Requests. So they don't ask.

A service organisation can wind up consisting of a large number of people who graft at heavily-supervised very specific front-line tasks, a senior management with a small supporting staff, and a middle management that is little more than groups of people managing relationships between the people who actually know something. In fact, that's a pretty good description of a lot of people in the product areas of The Bank. Relationship managers, project managers, team leaders, business managers, account managers - call them what you like, they don't need and often don't have much industry knowledge or technical skills. What matters is that they can handle people, politics and bureaucracy, and they don't rock the boat.

Which is not going to produce a culture that encourages skill and knowledge development much beyond the lower end of the advanced beginner on the Dreyfus scale. Why not? Well, what kind of person gets to be really good at something? Or to ask the same question a different way: do you really think that Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Alexander Grothendieck or for that matter Brian Kernighan and Denis Ritchie are (or were at the time they did what made them famous) well-balanced "normal" people?

Uh-huh. Normal people do many wonderful things, but only after those wonderful things have been invented by their neurotically-driven inventors. Think of the famous story about the discovery of penicillin: just how desperate for a discovery do you think Fleming was that he thought there might be something in what a normal person would have seen as a dirty Perti dish and cleaned without a further thought? Exactly.

People get to be good at anything because they push their current limits of knowledge and accomplishment a lot of the times they practice and work. There's a whole literature on this: the 10,000 hour thing and the idea of Deliberate Practice - see Geoff Colvin's Talent is Overrated. Try it at the day job: you have to read the manuals, acquire the background knowledge, find time and projects to learn on - which means you have to dodge the time-consuming routine junk work and be prepared to miss those fake deadlines so you can learn and experiment with something new rather than hack out an answer with what you know. You're going to do this how while you have a day job, a commute, a wife and children or you want a social life and to spend the weekends wind-surfing? Why bother even ascending to competent when you can get paid just as much for being an advanced beginner? Especially when that's all the company expects?

If you want to be good at anything, and you are in a large service company, you will leave for a small firm, a consultancy or private practice so you can concentrate on what it is you want to learn and work on. Which is the final part of the explanation as to why service companies don't have experts working in them, and precious few proficient people either. Now you know why governments, banks and other organisations don't have someone who Knew Better when they made that crazy decision. There was, but they left. Before they went crazy.

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