Monday, June 30, 2008

A sad day in Space History

Today marks the 37th anniversary of one of the saddest days in space history when the seemingly triumphant Soviet Soyuz 11 mission ended in the deaths of three cosmonauts.

In what appeared to be one last effort to get one over on the Americans, the Soviets had sent a three-man crew to the world's first space station, Salyut 1 where they had conducted experiments in earth orbit for 23 days.

The Soyuz craft separated successfully from Salyut and appeared to return to earth successfully to a soft landing on the Kazakh steppe.

However, the capsule was opened and the crew was found dead. Investigators later discovered that a valve had opened just prior to leaving orbit that had allowed the capsule's atmosphere to vent away into space, suffocating the crew. The three Cosmonauts who lost their lives were:

Commander Georgi Dobrovolski
Flight Engineer Vladislav Volkov; and
Test Engineer Viktor Patsayev.

Like the Americans before them (after the Apollo 1 crash), the Soviets were forced to completely re-engineer their Soyuz craft. For the ext nine years, until the Soyuz-T came into service, the craft would carry only two cosmonauts, each wearing a pressurised space suit.

Checks and balances

So today is the last day of Leapfrog's financial year. And the very positive aspect is that turnover is up by around 29% - quite amazing as I've lost over 50 potential working days to University studies. What that has meant in practice is a bit more evening and weekend working and a far greater focus on implementation projects rather than strategic work.

Most of my regular clients have stayed on board through the year - for which I'm very grateful, and I've also built new relationships with the likes of Blue Goose (leading to work for a number of banks) and just in the last couple of weeks, Royal Bank of Scotland.

The costs of running the business have risen markedly too, so I'm not sure yet how much my bottom line profit will actually be up.

For instance last Thursday I stayed in Edinburgh prior to a day of meetings with RBS. A year ago, my Risborough - Edinburgh return with a hotel for the night would have come in around £150 using a budget airline. This time round, it was over £250. While the client's happy to pick up the cost this time round, I suspect it'll mean fewer face to face projects across the duration of the project.

Going forward, I'm making a couple of changes - while others are being made for me. I've lost the main writing role on one magazine, so am turning the days that frees up to writing for the web - the one area of internal comms I'm really focusing on for 08/09. I'm also going to actively look for at least one more piece of regular external comms work to sit alongside the quarterly client magazine that still retains my services.

I've also stepped back from Leapfrog's relationship with Penna, since I really don't have the time, nor frankly the interest any more, in the kind of internal comms strategy projects they've been asking me to work on. They're a really nice bunch to work with, and if I wasn't balancing work and academic study, I'd probably have hung on in there for another year. But the last 12 months have shown me that time really is finite, and to do well in anything, one needs to set priorities.

So, I head into 2008/09 in good shape and with a bit better definition to the Leapfrog offering. What effect the tightening market will have on my place way down the business food chain has yet to be seen, but I've got absolutely no time to rest on any laurels.....for a start I've got about 500 pages of training interventions to start turning into an intranet site - with the first checkpoint planned for this afternoon.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

It doesn't take much....

It's great to know where you stand.

Recently I've been pitching for work; fielding opportunities to other people and also waiting for the results of a tendering process on one of my magazines that was bound to have implications for me. In the first and third cases, the biggest frustration has been the lack of communication from the parties involved.

When someone contacts me, to ask if I need any support or have any jobs going or whatever, I always try and answer them - even if it's just to say 'no thanks' or 'not at the moment'. It's just polite - and I know how frustrating it is to be on the other end waiting for a response.

I'll draw the line at non-solicited and irrelevant emails or sales calls, but if it's someone in and around my field - another writer or a photographer, I'll always try and respond. I'm sure I don't always do it - sometimes the pressure of the task in hand overtakes the moment, but the will and intent is there.

It doesn't always seem to be reciprocated though. I pitched for a day's training, with some follow-up workshops recently - I know I didn't get it, because that initial day was yesterday! Initially, the guy I pitched costs and ideas to seemed interested, but he never go back to me after our first email exchanges. Had he not followed up my initial response to the invitation to tender, I wouldn't have minded, but he did - and the failure to complete the loop is just bad manners.

Yesterday, through my own prodding, I found out that it looks like I've lost the feature writing for a magazine I've written for the last two years. It wasn't entirely unexpected - I knew the design and production of the publication had been retendered and there was always a good chance that whichever agency took it on would have their own writers.

Yet the client was keen to keep me on board and had asked the new agency to talk to me. What really sticks in my throat is that the agency had gone back to the client saying they had talked to me. They haven't. Do I now even want to work with an agency that lies to its clients right at the start of the relationship?

It looks like I'll be working for the client on another project anyway, so all's not lost - but I'm saddened by the way things have turned out.

Honesty for me is the necessity of building business relationships. I still have a good relationship with that client because we talk openly and honestly, and they have kept me up to date as the tendering process has progressed. I understand that it makes best business sense for them to have one company producing their publications, and have no problem with that.

I also appreciated a note from the client yesterday which said:

Seriously, I would hope they could find some way of using you but I suspect it will be little. I'm sorry for that and you do know it has zero to do with your quality of work. You helped us create a great magazine

I'll always try and keep an open approach - even if it's just taking the few seconds to type a couple of line email and hit the send button. It's not that hard, is it?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Are flexible workers more efficient workers?

I've just been sent the results of a survey conducted by Workology - here are the key bits:

When 1,000 flexible workers were questioned on their attitude to the 48 hour working directive
- 30 Per Cent Choose to Work More Than 50 Hours a Week
- 32 per cent work between 41 and 50 hours

For flexible workers, it’s not the number of hours they put in that determine a happy work-life balance, it’s the way in which they work. 43 per cent claim that flexible working has improved the quality of their life ‘a lot’, while 32 per cent claim it has improved ‘enormously’.

When it comes to ‘how’ opting out of the traditional full-time week has helped improve their quality of life, the most common answer cited (49 per cent) is ‘being able to control when and where I work’. Second was ‘escaping the rat race’ (35 per cent), while ‘more time to pursue own interests’ (30 per cent) came third. Having ‘more time to spend with family’ and ‘cheaper childcare costs’ trailed in fourth and sixth place respectively. 41 per cent of flexible workers would forgo a 100 per cent pay rise if it meant giving up control of the way they work.

Now virtually all of that squares with my experience - some weeks I'll work 60+ hours while in others I'll work just a few hours a day - especially when I'm balancing work and university commitments.

But what I've found is that I'm far more efficient as a flexible worker. I used work for a boss who was a great believer in presenteeism. She'd call meetings for 8.30am on a Monday morning; would holler from her office to make sure we were around and expected us all to be at our desks until she left (around 7pm most evenings). The effect on me was that I was permanently knackered - and also hugely underworked.

I've always been a fast and effective worker and found, after a spell of freelancing and then work in an agency, that I got the job done much quicker than my corporate counterparts when I went back into Head Office life. Now when I was working for Barclays, my boss just let me get on with it. He didn't care where I was as long as the job got done, and consequently I spent time in the office in London, but also spent part of my week getting out to my team members in places like Poole and Knutsford and also meeting with our various stakeholders around the country. I probably worked much more than my contracted hours, but quite enjoyed the changes of pace and scene that different locations would bring each week.

My two years at Forte were quite different. Chained to my desk, the time dragged horribly. Slowly work expanded to fill the time allocated - with the result that I was regularly working 50 hours + each week, yet achieving little.

Now, my goal is to get the job done in a reasonable time so that I can enjoy the benefits of family, a stretching academic course and interests beyond work. And I manage it. And up and down the country I'm sure there are thousands of others doing exactly the same.

Only getting paid if you deliver the goods (or in my case, services) really focuses the mind....probably in a way that being a salary man never can.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hmmm moments number 2

Over lunch today I flicked over to the CiB site to see what's new in the world of professional internal communicators.

One thing I found is that CiB is trumpeting its new agreement with Xchangeteam to carry the agency's job and freelance opportunity ads. On the surface it's looks a pretty good move. But digging deeper, I have my doubts. Now I'm wondering if such advertising is actually doing a disservice to CiB members.

My experience of Xchangeteam is that the rates they offer/broker for freelancers and micro-businesses in particular are at the low end, often very low - and certainly the job highlighted below, (taken from the CiB website) and the responsibilities that come with it - seem to bear that out.

Area: LondonRate: £120 – 160 a day

Our client is a global corporate organisation that places high value on the role of Internal Communications. Working within the London office, they are looking for a talented Writer to write for their internal staff magazine produced every six weeks.

Person specification:
You will have experience of working on a client/staff magazine
Be confident interviewing varying levels of staff – including senior management
Be able to write confidently and with creative flair
Liaise internally with the client and the IC Manager on angle and content of articles produced
Have solid writing and editing skills
Be able to work to deadlines and schedule

Of course the market will dictate was the going rate for any job is, but if CiB is accepting and promoting job ads at such low daily rates, is it not tacitly acknowledging these as acceptable? If that's the case, isn't there a danger that it could drag rates down for all professional communicators?

I'd question any organisation that says it places high value on the role of internal communications, and then expects to pay £120 a day for an experienced, confident professional.

In return for a quick buck from Xchangeteam, isn't CiB shooting itself in the foot and devaluing the worth of its members?
I'm normally very supportive of CiB, but this doesn't appear to be its smartest bit of business.

Another hmmmm moment indeed.

Hmmmm moments number one

I've just called the English Cricket Board's handling agents to enquire why, a month after the event was virtually washed out, I haven't yet received a refund for my two tickets to the third day of the England v New Zealand test at Lord's.

The ECB has a policy that states that the cost of tickets will be refunded in full, less a small admin charge, if less than 10 overs of play are completed in a day. Having shelled out rather a lot for Rory and myself to sit in the rain watching the FA Cup Final on the Lord's big screen, I duly dispatched my tickets to the handling agents....and noted the number to call if my money wasn't with me in 28 days.

28 days passed earlier this week, so I called the number today and was told, by a very pleasant call handler, that the repayments system was experiencing a slight delay.

'Why?' I enquired in all innocence. The answer made me smile: "Because we're having to deal with an unanticipated number of refunds.'
Now how could the number be unanticipated? The ECB knows the capacity of Lord's and knows how many tickets were sold for the day - even my scanning of the stands in the short while that play was possible could fairly accurately guesstimate 20,000.

So, surely the ECB had to bank on a worst-case scenario and prepare to deal with, say, 10,000 claims, since few attend the Test as 'Bill, party of one'.

Yet they're unprepared: unprepared in the way that Britain's unprepared for snow on the railways every year or in the way that Christmas creeps up without you quite expecting it.

The average price of a ticket to an international day at Lord's this year is something like £65. If we're expected to cough up that not inconsiderable sum, shouldn't the authorities be expected to have an efficient refunds process?

Hmmm - not impressed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Daft things that make work harder than it should be part 1

Yesterday I punched my car - and I may just have have cracked the knuckle where my little finger joins the rest of my hand. I didn't mean to punch the car. I've got an estate with a high tailgate and somehow managed to take an extra swing at it when I closed the boot, belting some fairly robust metal with my less-than-robust metacarpals and phalanges. The knuckle's swollen and the bruise is just coming out now and, being a very small bone, and me being a man, it hurts...a lot.
Despite an ice pack through ther evening, I didn't sleep much last night and my typing today is even worse than usual - and I'm a pretty awful typist at the best of times. It's sod's law that I'm really busy at the moment, with half a dozen pieces to complete for a magazine, and three other projects bubbling in the background. But whether bruised or cracked, there's little I can do about my knuckle other than wonder at my own clumsiness.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Rough diamond puts Risborough on the business map

So, Princes Risborough's Lee 'That's what I'm talking about' McQueen has been crowned as Sue Ellen Sugar 's new Apprentice.

The BBC series came to a close last night with most money on Claire to take the title, but Lee, the diamond in the rough, had done just enough to convince the beardy wonder that he's got the right stuff to make it in the Sugar'd world where being a grafter counts for more than having a nice line in presentation skills.

Actually, Claire could just as easily won, but perhaps Lee, the slightly inarticulate, bad-spelling, CV-enhancing pterodactyl impersonator needed the role more.

Certainly he seems more of a chip off the Amstrad block that oleaginous Alex or glowering Helene. Actually, I knew she hadn't won as she already had her website set up (ok, in development) several weeks ago.

I don't claim to know Lee at all, but vaguely recognised him when the series started as someone we'd see shopping with his girlfriend in M&S and Tesco in Risborough. He lives in Lacey Green, up the hill from us in Risborough, but hasn't been spotted down in town for ages, prompting speculation that he's been working in Sue Ellen's empire for a little while now (the series was filmed in summer/autumn last year).

I hope he does well. He came across as a naturally warm bloke, without the calculating plan and with the, seemingly, naive view that 'delivering' would be enough to see him through. It turned out not to be naive as the UK's answer to Donald Trump probably saw rather more of himself in Lee than in any of the other candidates.

I don't see Lee gracing the boardroom of many FTSE100s in the future, but for Sugar, the key to success is graft, tenacity and a willingness to learn. Lee, probably more than any of his other apprentices or candidates appears to fit that mould best.

Two highlights of the series stood out for me: why on earth did Lee whose speech is decidedly challenged when it comes to pronouncing his Rs decide on the name Ryan for his target market man in the last challenge - and for that matter, was 'Woulette' the best possible name for his fragrance?

My second highlight was the unmasking of Jenny C as the unmitigated snake in this year's crop. Unpleasant, dogmatic, devious and dishonest, she reminded me so much of my last corporate boss, and will probably end up as the HR director of a large organisation. Watching her squirm last night as Sue Ellen recapped her attempt to climb to the top over the bodies of others brought a very satisfied smile to my face.

Sometimes it's nice to see the good guy win!

Monday, June 09, 2008

How many is too many?

I've been at my desk for well over an hour so far today, and slowly my clients are drifting in and starting to send emails to me. I started early-ish as 1) I've got a lot to get through; 2) it's hot and 3) I'm sunburned from yesterday so it's not comfy lounging around!
One of my first pieces of work was completing and sending off a proposal for a training day for 25 business people.
Now I was quite put off first of all because 25 is a very large group for one session, and I normally work with groups of six - 12. But this is a fairly basic course, so I think I can scale up and still deliver something worthwhile.
But what is the best size for a training group? As ever, it depends on what the group's doing, but my rule of thumb is that the best days have more than four participants and no more than 12.
You might think that 1:1 is best - and in executive coaching or employee mentoring that's probably the case. But for comms training, four for me is the absolute minimum. Fewer than that, and there's little chance for the sharing of ideas and the spark of ideas around a group. More than that and you can have two or more groups competing on the training tasks - and that also brings an edge that tends to lift the day.
But 25....that's a lot for the personal attention one would like to achieve. But, in my head, I've the thought that a few people won't turn up and that we'll end up with four or five groups of....four or five. It's eminently do-able. The trick is to make it not feel like a sheep dip but something that addresses personal needs.
Anyway, the proposal has now gone in, so it's back to a bank strategy document and a couple of business magazine features for the rest of the day.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

All we (should) do is talk-talk

There's a poll on the CiB website at the moment asking: 'what's the most effective form of business communication?'

At the time of writing, more than 70% of respondents are saying face to face, with just 3.5% favouring the intranet and just 1.2% selecting email.

Yet why are most businesses so obsessed with generating intranet content and, worse still, pumping out information masquerading as communication by email?

Since I first started in corporate comms two decades ago, the wisdom has been that people prefer to receive key information from their managers and to have the opportunity to discuss it with their peers.
But in this supposedly time-poor age, we're not supposed to have the time capacity to down tools and talk about what really matters. Instead, the emphasis is back to top-down - shifting information from the centre quickly and putting the onus on employees to seek it out, understand it and act on it. But the assumption that something is read and understood by the right people just because it has been sent is particularly crass.

How many emails do people receive every day? Far too many to act on. And if employees diligently took the time to read everything sent their way, or worse still, surfed the company intranet for new news all the time, wouldn't the time lost be longer than necessary for a quick team meeting or manager chat where the message could be tailored to the specific needs of that particular audience?
Perhaps we've just become lazy and timid as communicators, preferring to operate in our comfort zones where it's easy to pump out content without having to face the consequences of applying that content to the needs of our different audiences. We're not making our managers work hard enough or challenging our leaders to be visible embodiments of the business.

There's a danger that we're talking a great game, and delivering something completely different.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

And some days are the best

Saturday was a great day, and it has taken me a wee while to come down from such an emotional high. It's strange that the vicarious participation in someone else's sporting triumph can deliver such a surge of adrenaline, such a feeling of well-being and such a feeling of success.
I did nothing to enable Wasps to lift the Guinness Premiership trophy at Twickenham last Saturday other than turn up and shout a lot. But as a fan, I'm feeling suffused with the same sense of achievement that's running through everyone involved with my favourite rugby club at the moment.
Perhaps it's why sport and business will always be separate. Beating Leicester, our greatest rivals, 26-16 just felt soooo good. I've watched Wasps since I was a kid, and my emotional attachment to them is mighty. Perhaps that's why it has felt all the more wounding, all the more hurtful in recent years as the old 'clubby'; atmosphere where players mingled with supporters and the cost of participation through attendance was a fraction of football prices has been removed and replaced by a far more corporate culture. It doesn't sit easily even though we all understand the economics of it.
Perhaps after Saturday, the ruling powers of the game and of its clubs will acknowledge that our relationship with them is more than transactional. It's not simply a b2c relationship, but something far more emotional than rational. If Wasps can tap into that, they'll turn their losses round pretty darned quickly.
And it looks like they're playing a strong hand in so doing. On Saturday, Lawrence Dallaglio led the team out for the last time. He bestrides the amateur and professional era with 18 years of club service as a player now behind him. In every way, his representation of Wasps is immense, absolutely embodying the heart and soul of the club.
His next challenge is to champion the club off the field, to help move us to a purpose-built stadium where the club can generate the kind of income that will enable it to win future successes of similar magnitude to the four league titles, two European Cups, one European Challenge Cup, one Anglo-Welsh Cup and two domestic Cups that it has won in the past decade.
The gap between the club's needs and the goodwill of its communities is small, but previous regimes have built barriers rather than bridges. But if anyone is going to break those barriers and enable Wasps to generate the revenue the club undoubtedly needs without alienating all those with a strong emotional bond to the black and gold, it's Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio.
In very tough economic circumstances, I suspect Lawrence has only one chance, perhaps no more than 18 months to make things happen. But if anyone will, he will.