Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Alligator in the kitchen

The Holy Grail for IVR designers is a natural language application that can handle a significant percentage of calls to a service desk. 911 call centers are a kind of mission-critical service desk: you call with your problem and address and hope that help arrives before things get much worse. In order to get natural language to work you'd need to anticipate what callers will say when they call (or at least have categorized a number of previously recorded similar calls).

Unfortunately, there is just no way a VUI designer is going to craft a system that will recognize "alligator in my kitchen" as a legitimate problem call. Even human 911 operators have difficulty with the phrase, as you can hear in this recording.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Innovation by "The Chosen Few"

Years ago, as I was documenting work processes in my first big call center project, I made what I thought was an astounding discovery. The experienced call center reps I interviewed had some very good ideas for improving their customer service process. They were having to work around some of the constraints of their IT systems in order to deliver service, and often working around the processes they were given by their managers. When I talked to management about the CSRs processes they were surprised to hear some of my findings. Second astounding discovery: managers don't always know their experienced CSRs' best practices. I recall thinking, "these reps really know their business. If someone could organize their ideas and get them pushed through IT and their own management it would really improve service."

Some years later the organization went through a period of identifying and selecting "innovators" whose role it was to produce innovative ideas and pass them to the rest of the organization. Watching the "innovators" from a distance, it was hard to see that anything was of any more value than the ideas produced by my CSRs in the call center, and most of it was probably a good deal less.

Jack & Suzy Welch's recent BusinessWeek article, Finding Innovation Where it Lives, hits the very point that I thought I'd discovered during my first call center gig. The article may be behind a password, so I'll quote the relevant parts. They debunk the notion that innovations come strictly from individual geniuses working alone, but more often come from coworkers "in the trenches" solving problems as a group and trying to make things work well. However, the organization has to make innovation part of its culture. As I saw in the call center, having great ideas means nothing if no one is there to harvest the ideas and push through changes.

The Welches finish by quoting an e-mail they received from someone who had an idea for a product but didn't know how to introduce it into his organization. They write, "How sad...another place where managers send the message that innovation comes from the chosen few. Imagine the possibilities...not to mention the fun, when organizations engage everyone else in the process, too."

That's innovation management, the ability to change the organization and draw everyone into the challenge of improving services and create processes that harvest and organize everyone's ideas, not just those of the "chosen few."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Designing for downsizers

If you're putting in some extra time at work in the evening or on a weekend and notice a group of people casing your floor and talking about new drapes and upholstery, look out. It could be a sign of an upcoming layoff. In what has become a new trend, apparently, companies are contracting with interior design firms to redesign floorplans and office space before announcing cutbacks. The idea is to make the empty desks disappear as quickly as possible, so that the remaining employees aren't reminded of their co-workers disappearances. Of course, companies want to make efficient use of their space as well.

I've always recognized the importance of designing to improve efficiency, but this seems a little bit too efficient. At any rate, keep an eye out for those interior designers off hours, and if you see one, it might make sense to polish up that resume.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Speech IVRs as hearing-impaired foreigners

I listen to recorded utterances from people talking to speech IVRs. One thing that people often do when when the IVR doesn't understand them is to change their speech pattern: they'll talk louder or more slowly. If the caller is soft spoken and there's noise in the background, then talking louder will help. Under most circumstances, though, shouting doesn't help, and talking more slowly almost never helps.

If you've ever traveled abroad (or live outside the US) then you may have witnessed US tourists trying to make themselves understood to non-English speaking locals. Often, the tourists will shout and talk more slowly, adding helpful gestures in an amusing pantomime, in order to make themselves understood. In fact, adding gestures can help, and speaking more slowly can help if the local speaks some English, and if it isn't done to the point of changing one's pronunciation.

Having witnessed these two scenarios many times here's my theory of the day: callers to speech IVRs believe the systems to be hearing impaired foreigners who are best communicated with by shouting and speaking slowly to. If you were to watch these people on the phone I'm confident that you'd see the pantomime routine as well.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Blogging considered harmful

Is blogging from your home office bad for your health? Yes, according to this slightly hysterical opinion piece in the New York Times. The article cites three reports of heart attacks and some uncredited opinions from people who are worried that "something has gone very wrong."

If I feel tightness in my jaw or shoulder I'll be sure to call 911. Until then, I'll guess I'll keep practicing blogging at home in moderation.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Remarks on Comprehensive Intellectual Capital Management

I've been looking for a book with a roadmap of how to implement an innovation program at companies. Comprehensive Intellectual Capital Management (CICM) by Nermien Al-Ali has delivers that and much more. Al-Ali places innovation within the broader context of Intellectual Capital (IC) management.

In the CICM model, IC is comprised of three stages: Knowledge Management, Innovation Management, and Intellectual Property Management. The book first describes the structure of each of these stages, then presents instructions on how to implement each stage.

A very important aspect of the book is the description of the organizational changes that must occur in order for the program to work. Chapter 10 is called "First get your act together," in which the author correctly acknowledges the importance of vision and corporate culture on the effectiveness of new corporate initiatives.

The chapters regarding culture and innovation really resonated with me. I worked at a company that had tried to implement some small-scale innovation efforts (and had been involved in one myself), but the culture and organizational structure were custom-made to prevent successful innovation: rigidly heirarchical, command-and-control, strong departmental boundaries, compensation and rewards for individual achievement instead of team performance, and, worst of all perhaps, no recognition by management on the importance of organizational culture on the outcome of innovation efforts.

I liked this book. Comprehensive Intellectual Capital Management, 2003, Nermien Al-Ali, Wiley and Sons.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Volunteer to help colonize Mars

Google is offering everyone a chance to help colonize Mars. You can even take a psychometrically validated personality test to see if you'd be a good candidate to join the mission (If you've read my early posts you know what a fan I am of personality testing for personnel selection).

I wonder if it's significant that this item was posted on April Fools Day. Naah. I'm sure it's completely legit.