Sunday, October 26, 2003

Uncle Theo, the Lout, and a Pig in a Tutu

I’ve decided to think of hotels as people. Every person is different, wonderful and infuriating in their own way. Each thinks they’re good, and that their way of doing things is best and natural – no matter how strange it might be to others.

The Hotel Kasteel Bloemendal in Vaals (in Holland, close to the German border) is like an aging, once-dashing bachelor: Uncle Theo. He was very handsome in his young days, and still wears a silk cravat. His tweedy jackets are a little frayed, and the cravat has seen better days. There’s still a shadow of the young man, but there’s now nothing to hide the cruel fact that he’s not very smart, or very rich.

The Bloemendal is an imposing building, with a red carpet winding up the stairs to the lobby. My room was large, but the carpet was worn. There was a kettle in cupboard – ah, so nice to be able to make some rooibos tea! – but no notepad on the desk. There was a phone with a modem jack, but it was next to the bed, on the other side of the room from the desk.

The Meridien Hotel on Piccadilly, on the other hand, is a Lout in Livery. The interior design is wonderful: flair, taste, sophistication. The serving staff, on the other hand, is young, unenthusiastic, and clumsy. I had dinner in the fancy Terrace Restaurant; my server had body odor and a flippant attitude. I will grant them, though, that the young wine waiter was smartly turned out and attentive.

The Dorint Quellenhof in Aachen looked like the perfect place, though as a Five Star it was way fancier than I needed. It’s a lovely building, and backs onto a huge park; going for a run in the morning is a delight. It (apparently) has a luxurious spa. I’m sure German visitors would find it a delight. On the other hand… the staff are gormless, and the facilities for business people are pathetic. Their English is limited at best, and absent as a rule. I asked for a room with an analog line; it didn’t work. I was moved to another room – where it didn’t work either. I suspect that’s because they have ISDN lines, but the staff were clueless. To add insult to injury, there was no room service menu in the room. I had to take the hotel facilities folder down to reception to prove my point. I went for a run, and was told that there would be one when I got back. There wasn’t… and so they sent up someone with the bar menu... I think they must’ve bribed someone to get their fourth and fifth stars.

The Quellenhof is a Pig in a Tutu.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Hearing the Little People speak

In "Measure for Measure", the Duke conceals himself as a monk, moving around under cover observing his subjects and the misdeeds of his deputy. This happens in other Shakespeare plays, for example when Henry V moves unrecognized among his troops before battle.

Leaders can't do that any more. In our culture of images and intimacy, it's so much easier to recognize celebrities. In earlier days, clothes made the man; one recognized the King by his vestments. Dressed otherwise, who would recognize him?

Leaders arguably now have much more "scientific" ways of knowing what their subjects think: opinion polls. But these are much more indirect than having a soldier say to your face, "But if the Cause be not good, the King himselfe hath a heauie Reckoning to make, when all those Legges, and Armes, and Heads, chopt off in a Battaile, shall ioyne together at the latter day, and cry all, Wee dyed at such a place, some swearing, some crying for a Surgean." (Henry V, Act 3.)

Leaders can no longer hear the unsullied truth - with a clean conscience. They either have to reveal themselves, and pay the price of sycophancy; or, have the truth mediated by polls and focus group sound bites; or, eavesdrop on conversations through surveillance techniques. Sure, it is ethically questionable for the King to disguise himself to hear his subjects - but it is much less immoral than to be a Peeping Tom.

It is the modern condition: we know more, but we understand less. The leader has more data, but less direct knowledge. The only anti-dote, I imagine, is for the Big Man to spend substantial time with his underlings; so much time that after a time they forget who they are talking to, and tell the truth.

Combating the Copy Droid

Who knew Deloitte had a sense of humor?

I loved Bullfighter, a readability checker for MS Word and Powerpoint. I was encouraged by their FAQ. For example:

Q: What applications can use Bullfighter?
A: Bullfighter works with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint 2000 and XP. It doesn't work with Office 97 or earlier. We tried it. There were small explosions and our entire drives were wiped out instantly. If you want to try it, go ahead.

Q: Is there any science behind Bullfighter, or did someone just come with this idea at a bar somewhere? How can I learn more?
A: Yes. The Flesch Reading Ease score is one of the accepted standards for measuring the demands placed on a reader, and the late Dr. Rudolf Flesch is still regarded as an important figure in the field of readability. His book, "How to Write, Speak and Think More Effectively" (Signet, 1960), is an excellent survey of his work.

Q: So you didn't use any research later than 1960 for this?
A: Right. Remember, we can stop answering FAQs anytime we want to.

Furniture Company Culture

I still treasure my visit to Herman Miller. I have vivid memories of the guest house, a converted lake-side mansion, which manages to be luxurious without being opulent. The people were friendly and energetic, yet reserved. I was reminded of them when I attended a course on organizational culture based on Bill Schneider's research, Herman Miller is a cultivation culture company par excellence.

I'm greatly taken with Schneider's work, and I'm trying to figure out how to recognize a company's culture. I decided to compare the web sites of Herman Miller and their arch-competitor (and nearby Michigan neighbor) Steelcase.

These are evidently very different companies. Even though the content of the sites is very similar, the presentation is starkly different. Herman Miller's home page - and, indeed, the whole site - is a study in understatement. Text is sparingly used against a white background; the only colour is hints of blue in highlights and navigational elements. Steelcase's page and site is elegant, too - come on, both companies are selling design - but it is more animated and colorful. Pictures of people (all of them evidently "talent") and saturated colors are used throughout.

While Steelcase shows many people, it doesn't talk about individuals. It prefers objective statements about excellence, while Herman Miller gets its points across with anecdotes. Take how they talk about their values:

Steelcase: "Steelcase was founded in 1912 by a few people with a strong commitment to integrity and doing the right thing for their customers, employees, business partners, associates and neighbors. Their principles became the foundation of our company, passed on from decade to decade. Living our core values is essential to our identity, reputation and success today, just as it was in the past. "

Herman Miller: "Our founder, D.J. De Pree, committed Herman Miller to "modern" furniture in 1936 partly because he saw a moral dimension to Gilbert Rohde's clean designs, honest materials, and lack of ornamentation. In 1984, a major impetus behind Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick's Equa chair was a desire to give a reasonably priced, comfortable, good-looking chair to everybody in offices--not just the higher-ups. "

Herman Miller comes across as serious and a little rueful. Here's what the site has to say about taking risk: "Another aspect of innovation - risk-taking - is just as important. Herman Miller tries to maintain its appetite for risk. As we have grown larger and become responsible for more equity, the pressure to minimize risk has mounted. Nevertheless, getting behind promising new products - that sometimes become innovations - remains a risk we are happy to embrace. " It's clear that they regret that they can't take as much risk as they used to, but they forge ahead with a determined expression.

Steelcase is serious, too, but they won't admit weakness. Here's how they answer the question, Who Is Steelcase? "Whatever you need to accomplish, Steelcase can provide you with the environment and the tools to do it better, faster and more effectively. That's because we're passionate about unlocking the potential of people at work. It's the fundamental principle on which our company was founded in 1912 and it remains our single-minded focus in the 21st century. We make it our business to study how people work, to fully understand the ever-changing needs of individuals, teams and organizations all around the world. Then we take our knowledge, couple it with products and services inspired by what we've learned about the workplace, and create solutions that help people have a better day at work. " It makes me cringe that they can unburden themselves of such drivel with a completely straight face. The Copy Droids have taken over.

Steelcase shows many signs of being a "competency culture" company. According to Schneider: "This culture is all about distinction. It fundamentally exists to ensure the accomplishment of unparalleled, unmatched products or services. Conceptual systematism means that the fundamental issue in a competence culture is the realization of conceptual goals, particularly superior, distinctive conceptual goals." Competency culture is about excellence, continuous improvement, and competitions for its own sake.

On the other hand, a cultivation culture company like Herman Miller is about enrichment. "It fundamentally exists to ensure the fullest growth of the customer, fulfillment of the customer’s potential, the raising up of the customer. This culture is all about the further realization of ideals, values, and higher order purposes." Cultivation culture emphasizes creativity, dedication, and values.

So, which is better? What a competency culture question! I'd rather work at Herman Miller than Steelcase, if the web site is any guide. By the numbers, though, there's nothing in it. Evidence, if it were needed, that a company's culture alone doesn't determine its success.

Herman Miller has a P/E ratio of 88; Steelcase has been losing money, so the PE is undefined. S&P is "bullish" on Herman Miller while it's "neutral" on Steelcase. Steelcase employee base shrank by 17% over the last year, and Herman Miller by 13%. Furniture's a lousy business right now...

It's hard for a lay person to decide between them in terms of design; both cite reams of design awards. Both companies show up on Fortune's Most Admired Companies list, and CareerGraph's equivalent. On the other hand, Herman Miller was selected as one of the companies on's list of the world's top 20 sustainable stock picks. Herman Miller ranked 49th in the 2003 Information Week 500, a ranking of the country's most technologically progressive companies.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Blog Wanted

Settled middle-everything Anglo gonk (weenk?) seeks thoughtful blog for occasional companionship. Me: resident alien, catholic tastes, bookish, short attention span. You: eclectic, intellectual, witty, off-beat. No ranters, technophiliacs, or newshounds. Canadians welcome.

Friday, October 10, 2003

again the full moon
aloof and impudent both
springs itself on me

Thursday, October 02, 2003

empty air appears
winter's first cold breath
whites away distance