Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Tablet by Apple.

Apple and Jamaican tourism have something in common. The ability to grow when your competitors are contracting, even hemorrhaging. With Apple now officially a $50 billion company, their profits up 50% and the iPhone sales near 9 million they have shown that recession or no recession people want their digital wares from Cupertino, California.....bad! It is within this carefully crafted context that Apple is about to unleash the tablet today, January 27th. A date that seemed so far off a few months ago is now here. The hype has reached it's crescendo and I am reminded of that buzz you hear of musicians tuning their instruments and anxiety laced chatting in the crowd. This all ends when the conductor raises his baton. Mr. Jobs is about to waive his wand again and the press and the Apple fans are transfixed in another suspension of reality. We are plunged again into another techno-orgasmic escape of global proportions. Designed to drive their stock price even higher. Sigh...why didn't I buy that Apple stock in 2003.

There have been countless predictions regarding the tablet/iSlate/iPad whatever!?!?! But the ones that intrigue me the most are the following. Apple's partnerships with print publishers and the possibilities of the tablet as an input device. It was amazing to follow last year how the media covered numerous print houses that were crashing left right and centre as the Red Baron of the new digital reality shot them mercilessly out of the air. Remember the Napster days? Digital distribution was spear-headed by pimply-faced iconoclasts out to rule the world with gnarly code and a pirate server. Just like the music industry of yore before the iTunes store and Napster, the print industry was caught with their pants on the ground.

Last year, a very obvious tipping point for print was reached. Newspapers were folding (pardon the pun) all across the US. This accelerated Kindle lust and helped Amazon and others to sell e-readers like gangbusters. But Apple waited, biding it's time as they negotiated and secured contract after contract to enable their new product to be head and shoulders above the rest.

The tablet will create a whole new world for us content creators and designers. I can just imagine the next generation of children's books, sports magazines and the soon to be popular music LP that Apple introduced last year that I believe will transform our musical experience...again. As a designer, I am really looking forward to the input capabilities of the tablet. I think Wacom is going to suffer some serious losses over the next 2-3 years. It will not be pretty. They may have to shift to input wands and software for the tablet to stay in business.

One thing so many other pundits are not mentioning much of is that the tablet will not only be a platform for print media but also for Apple's twin juggernauts.

Apps and Music.

This is what the Kindle and the other players do not have. This One-Two-Three punch will really create the most sought after, life altering device Either way, Apple is doing it again. Ol' Stevie is proving why he was chosen as CEO of the new millennium's first decade. It just goes to show that even if you get kicked out of the company that you founded there is always a chance for a second coming.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Can We Reform Healthcare without Cost-Cutting

The short answer? No. (Read the article,8599,1917325,00.html). Aside from the hyperbole and exaggeration, we are a nation in trouble. Healthcare costs are crippling corporations and workers alike. Time for solutions instead of more fearmongering...or placating.

Most at risk are employees at the top of their pay ranges--generally people in the mid-40's to mid-50's. These are the people getting RIFed. They are also a decade or more away from Medicare eligibility.
Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®

ARRESTED: Raymond Clark III Charged With Annie Le Yale Murder

It's a story that captured our attention for the past several days. A graduate student, just days before her wedding, walked out of a campus building at Yale and vanished--only to be found, sadly, stuffed into a wall at that same building.

What we can't forget is that Ms. Le was a victim of workplace violence. If early reports have any validity, her alleged attacker (who worked as a lab assistant where she conducted her studies), spurned in his attempts to force her to operate in "his" lab the way he wanted, killed her.

My question to all of us is this: Are we certain that we're doing the work of screening workers and others who enter our workplaces for potential threats? Yale is in the heart of an urban area, but the threat to Annie Le came--not from random big city violence, but from within the university.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Apple Adds Video to iPod Nano, Cuts Prices. New Phone in the Offing?
Apple has been known to cut prices in advance of a new offering, and with the holiday shopping season around the corner, insiders wonder what's coming down the pike. 

Are Consumers Paying Too Much for Text-Messaging?

Are Consumers Paying Too Much for Text-Messaging? That was the question posed by the Time magazine article I read this morning. With costs to cellular carriers being a fraction of a penny and billings to customers standing at roughly fifteen cents a go, it's easy to see that, for cellular carriers, texting is, well, deliciously profitable at 98%. What's troubling for carriers is the trend of consumers to dropping or scaling back plans, which has lead them to offer bundles with unlimited texting as a "teaser" to draw customers back (like the "loss leaders" for Walmart: prescriptions, shoe repair and so on).

Emerging from the back of the pack, for example, are carriers like Sprint, that are offering unlimited text, picture and video messaging along with 900 minutes for 90 bucks in a clear move to siphon off customers from Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. The churn in the cellular industry continues.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Sensitivity Training Gone Terribly Wrong

Many of you may know that I've lead a multi-division Affirmative Action and diversity initiative (why I have that white streak in my hair). "Sensitivity training" for the most part, left people scared of each other and tiptoeing around on eggshells.

So imagine how I giggled when I saw this.

Sensitivity Training - The best video clips are here

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Boards, Stockholders and Execs Gone Wild

The cascading systems failures in the mortgage, insurance, credit, automotive (stopping now...getting tired) industries has led us to a series of running postmortems to try to understand what went wrong--hopefully so we don't, well, do it again. In an article in today's New York Times, Roger Lowenstein has taken on an aspect of the economic debacle that has been largely overlooked: the role of stockholders. Here's a piece:

Let’s say you own a small business, maybe the local car dealership, assuming it is still extant. One day, you are feeling pinched and sell some shares of the business to a few folks in town. To keep things on the up and up, you create a board.

Every year you and the other shareholders get a report from the fellow you hired to manage the dealership. The business runs so smoothly you barely even think about it. Until one day, sales crash and profits, too. You would like to sell your stock, but it is in the tank. So you ring up the manager to see what happened. “Simple,” he says. “I quadrupled my bonus and I forgot to order a line of fuel-efficient cars. My bad.” Then he hangs up.

Feeling a little irritated, you try to contact some of the directors, but they are out driving gas-guzzlers that the manager supplied them and don’t seem inclined to return your calls. Now you are very irritated. As the biggest shareholder, you request that your name be included on the proxy ballot for the next election to the board. This the corporation refuses to do. Only the management (or its handpicked board) chooses nominees, and it is an iron rule of American corporations that ballots should not contain more nominees than seats. In the former U.S.S.R., this style of democracy endured for only 72 years. In American business it is timeless. Until last month, anyway, when the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed that shareholders who own at least 1 percent of the stock be able to nominate candidates to run in opposition to — and on the same ballot as — the slate offered by management. (Read the rest here)

The Compensation Gap Yawns
We've been having a pretty good time mocking executives with their huge salaries and giant bonuses. Truth is: as soon as we've moved on and the economy turns around, we'll probably go right back to the compensation structure we've known. We can't keep pretending that executives are solely to blame for bad business decisions and hefty rewards for failure. Truth is: HR wonks like me have been concerned about the canyon-like gap between executive compensation the salary/wages of the average worker. Just about 20 years ago, that ratio was 14:1. Now, amazingly, in the U.S., it's over 400:1. That might make some sense if corporate performance had increased by 28%; however, it hasn't.

"What did happen?" Now, there's a complex question. 
A piece of the answer is connected to the friction between the rank and file stockholders and executives selected to run companies. The long-held assumption was that stockholders would only think in terms of short-term returns while executives would plan for long-term gain. With the recent trend towards CFO as the feeder pool for CEO's and the anayst-driven mandates towards frequent restructurings, one wonders how much sense this has made--companies seem to be planning by looking in the rear-view mirror for the past quarter's (or worse, the past month's) results.

Stockholders are provided elaborate reports that provided them with enough keep investing. With the moves towards simplification in credit and mortgage documents, I can only hope that this trend will extend to the quarterly and annual reports, so that they can be easily read and understood by people who didn't get their degrees in accounting and finance. And those nominating slates for board members? Well, there's no democracy there. Stockholders are only supplied enough names to fill those empty seats and not a single name more. The SEC is now considering a policy change that will allow stockholders with 1% or more to add names to the board ballots. Good luck with that.

Another element is the composition of the Executive Compensation committees on most boards of directors. Committee members, who design the system of salary and perks that are supposed to spur a leader's best thinking and keep him or her interested in staying are, well, other leaders and corporate board members. In a sense, what has happened is that they've been voting to incrementally and inexorably raise all boats.

The Business Roundtable, a powerful lobby of corporate CEO's has shifted from their 1970's mandate to serve the interests of customers, employees, stockholders and the communities in which they operate to a single focus: making money for the stockholders, with an eye to ruthlessly reducing expense (read: employees). This shift had lead many thinkers in the areas of leadership and compensation to wonder whether it's infected our corporate goal-setting process with a "profits or perish" mentality. For example, in the 60s, then-Ford CEO, Lee Ioacocca gave marching orders that would prove both incomplete...and deadly:

Faced for the first time with competition from low-cost, high-mileage foreign imports, Iacocca set a specific target: Ford would design a new automobile that weighed less than 2,000 pounds and sold for under $2,000, and it would be on the showroom floor in time for the 1971 model year. What resulted was a mad dash to create the Ford Pinto.
The rush to roll out the Pinto had lethal consequences. Common-sense safety checks took a backseat to meeting Iacocca's deadline. In particular, engineers failed to examine the decision to place the Pinto's fuel tank only 10 inches behind the rear axle. When the Pinto was rear-ended, it often went up in flames. Fiery rear-end crashes caused 53 deaths, numerous injuries and a string of costly lawsuits. (Read the rest here)
Overly ambitious goals and overly generous compensation: A heady mix.

Now, maximizing stockholder wealth means something quite different when considered against the enormous stock offerings made to corporate execs...and the shift in comp and benefits mix in the last 30 years (from Big-C cash plus stocks to little-c cash plus Bis-S stocks to, everything). I get how challenging this is...vesting of stocks is a dicey thing: execs are taxed on the value of the stock when issued--not when vested and received. And stock values have been known to crater to zero in just weeks, leaving execs to jockey for more up-front money as a hedge against stock volatility.

Noted economist, Milton Freidman, in the '70s opined that stockholders would keep companies moving in the right direction. Milty didn't however, anticipate profit-sharing and stock ownership plans for managers on down to key employees or even ESOPs (employee stock ownership plans).

What a hot mess.

Monday, June 01, 2009

GM, Gone as We Knew It

Reading Michael Moore's account of the GM bankruptcy announcement from "GM town," Flint, Michigan (with over 40% of its workers employed by GM), I'm reminded of what it was like to work for R.R. Donnelley &; Sons in Crawfordsville, Indiana, when they announced a 70% reduction in force. Donnelley was the major employer and when it shed over 3.300 jobs in a town of 13,000 it landed with the force of a tsunami. Moore writes:

It is with sad irony that the company which invented "planned obsolescence" -- the decision to build cars that would fall apart after a few years so that the customer would then have to buy a new one -- has now made itself obsolete. It refused to build automobiles that the public wanted, cars that got great gas mileage, were as safe as they could be, and were exceedingly comfortable to drive. Oh -- and that wouldn't start falling apart after two years. GM stubbornly fought environmental and safety regulations. Its executives arrogantly ignored the "inferior" Japanese and German cars, cars which would become the gold standard for automobile buyers. And it was hell-bent on punishing its unionized workforce, lopping off thousands of workers for no good reason other than to "improve" the short-term bottom line of the corporation. Beginning in the 1980s, when GM was posting record profits, it moved countless jobs to Mexico and elsewhere, thus destroying the lives of tens of thousands of hard-working Americans. The glaring stupidity of this policy was that, when they eliminated the income of so many middle class families, who did they think was going to be able to afford to buy their cars? History will record this blunder in the same way it now writes about the French building the Maginot Line or how the Romans cluelessly poisoned their own water system with lethal lead in its pipes.
Moore insists, like others, that GM refused to build fuel efficient cars American drivers wanted to buy. I don't agree. Following Moore's train of thought, the roads would have been filled with SmartCars and Priuses (Prii?). Instead, we kept buying cars with gas mileage ratings that were nothing to boast about even in the 1980's. Like that chestnut from Richard Pryor (scrubbed for sensitive readers): we ordered poo, so we had no choice but to eat poo (not the same punch as Pryor).

The UAW, management and shareholders were locked in a zero-sum game of Money-Money-Money, with the workers wanting higher wages even when the company, feeling the strain of competing with foreign-based manufacturers making cars in the US making for a fraction of the comp/benefits costs; top management demanding enormous compensation packages despite company results; and shareholders, in the age of Googlized (inflated like Octo-Mom's lips) profits, revolt-ready if profits fell.

There are several things I'd love to see GM take with it to the dustbin as it regroups. GM had one of the most byzantine HR systems to be found anywhere. Now, sweeping and immediate changes are in the offing, regardless of the direction their Chapter 11 filing:
Some retiree benefit obligations to be reduced by roughly two-thirds; hourly staff will hit 38,000 by 2011; salaried workforce to be trimmed to 23,000; and the number of dealers will drop to 3,600.  
Um, wow!

Human Resources at GM seemed skilled at figuring out how to line up employees in a orderly dance, even when profits fell below their historic highs. Called "Generous Motors," GM was known for high wages and lucrative comp deals for execs. However, in promising the moon in terms of retiree health and pensions in order to help keep salaries lower (yipes!), even when moving jobs offshore, it set itself a Sisyphean task. This from the Washing Post (H/T

GM began its slide down the slippery slope in 1950, when it began picking up costs for medical insurance, pensions and retiree benefits. There was huge risk to GM in taking on these obligations -- but that didn't show up as a cost or balance-sheet liability. By 1973, the UAW says, GM was paying the entire health insurance bill for its employees, survivors and retirees, and had agreed to "30 and out" early retirement that granted workers full pensions after 30 years on the job, regardless of age.

These problems began to surface about 15 years ago because regulators changed the accounting rules. In 1992, GM says, it took a $20 billion non-cash charge to recognize pension obligations. Evolving rules then put OPEB on the balance sheet. Now, these obligations -- call it a combined $170 billion for U.S. operations -- are fully visible. And out-of-pocket costs for health care are eating GM alive.
Retirement plans have historically been based on an actuarial formula that "works" for employers when retirees die within 2-5 years of retirement. Having retirees leave the company at as young as 48 (in their "30 and out" system), they stood to pay retirees and their mates for decades beyond the usually and customary (and grisly) benefits and comp formula. This report from Boeing shows a bit of what I mean:

Early retirement, as Boeing found, proved to be too costly, though there is some suggestion in the literature that early retirements have a greater illness and injury relationship. If that is actually the case, the new GM should focus more on wellness care and job design that takes a dramatic swipe at the possibility of injury.

We'll see.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

We Just Don't Have the Words...

I'm an HR wonk. I admit it. I love looking at the systems and strategies that have people be successful at their work. So, I admit that been concerned for quite some time that we no longer have the words to describe what we're doing.

"Layoff," a term that historically referred to hourly workers for whom there was not enough work and who had to be furloughed until worked picked up, no longer means what it used to. Now, due to administrative/legal alchemy, we use "layoff" to describe workers who continue to receive continued benefits and "salary" from a different budget "pot" that takes them off the books as a active employee, then "voluntarily" accedes to be separated from the company should there be no job for them to return to.

Of course, at no time is the employer looking for a new job for a RIFed worker.