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I'm a partner in the advanced analytics group at Bain & Company, the global management consulting firm. My primary focus is on marketing analytics (bio). I've been writing here (views my own) about marketing, technology, e-business, and analytics since 2003 (blog name explained).

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August 17, 2015

Ten Things I Think*: Thoughts on The #Amazon Workplace in @nytimes @jodikantor @DavidStreitfeld

On Saturday the New York Times published a piece by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld titled, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace". Here's the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

The article provoked a large number of comments and showed up in several of the social media feeds I follow. Plus, my business is helping organizations build their capabilities to use data to drive results.  

Let's stipulate that the article presented facts accurately and in balance. Here's ten things I think (*Thanks to @SI_PeterKing). 

1. What a great litmus test for values. But don't listen to what people say, watch what they do.

You live your values every time you shop there, or anywhere else. I'm reminded of the mission statement of ArsDigita, where I once worked:

...Beyond that, we don't worry about corporate culture. We have a certain set of customers. We have a certain set of people. We have a certain set of tools. Discussions or theories won't change any of those things. If any ArsDigita member wants to change ArsDigita, he or she need only add to the customers, add to the people, or add to the tools.

So, shop at Amazon, or don't, or, since life's complicated, change the mix of where you shop, according to some rules that make sense to you. Like, "I'll start by looking for competitively priced and appropriately convenient and accountable alternatives, whose operating and employment practices are more consistent with my beliefs about how to treat people. But if I can't find one, I'll still shop at Amazon."

Or, if you work there, and the current culture doesn't work for you, either accept the fact that it doesn't fit and leave, or work to change it as far as you can.

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2. Everything's relative.

The article calls out Amazon, but doesn't explicitly contrast it with any other retailers, and examine the trade-off in performance with these retailers: prices for consumers, returns for shareholders -- which of course include many pension funds holding the savings of a wide range of investors. (Since Amazon competes in more categories than retail, and it's an icon of the global economy, it's worth extending this comparison of course, but you have to start someplace.)

Is Amazon an anomalous white-collar sweatshop? Why stop at researching the question? Here's an idea for a motivated someone: create a "Shopper's Bill of Expectations" service.  The service would articulate and promote a set of values / standards / expectations its members would like to see: for example, paternity leave, compliance with environmental regulations and trends, living wage, working conditions, etc. Then it would invite members to subscribe to an auditing service, like Consumer Reports, and invite retailers who agree to comply with the service's expectations to enroll in it. Finally, it would provide some sort of tracking mechanism, manual or automated, so it and its enrolled retailers and members can see how much dollar volume the service sends from members to retailers. There's a huge data play in here, too! I have no objections to this service leveraging that in ways that are transparent and which don't unduly compromise or pressure its core proposition. 

Naïve? Seattle's embraced Fair Trade for coffee-growing campesinos, why not for highly-compensated ecommerce executives? (Uh, well...) 

3. This isn't me.  

Whether I expect emails and texts to be answered at midnight depends on the circumstances -- and they have to be pretty dire.  If someone takes a planned vacation which business conditions support, and thoroughly plans coverage, and says he or she will be out of contact, I respect that choice. If someone has a short-term or longer-term health crisis, I do what I can to support that person as far as practically possible, and then beyond as far as I can.  I don't believe in stack-ranking and firing the lowest decile; I believe in setting and continuously raising performance expectations, being direct and thorough and fair in evaluating people against them, and encouraging anyone who doesn't consistently clear those goals to find something else, with compassion, and endorsement for the stronger things they do. I believe in courtesy and kindness. I believe in teamwork, not beggar-thy-neighbor advancement.

4. This is me.  

I'm objective about performance. I prefer a focus on ends, not means, as long as means are pursued ethically, which = Golden Rule to me. I believe in coaching and development, but I expect hard work and demonstrated progress and positivity and enthusiasm in return. I expect to care, and I expect my colleagues to care as well and as much. And, if I'm asked to be up late busting my behind to help someone under pressure, I do expect him or her to be responsive to late-night emails and texts. I don't care for passive-aggressive cultures whose members play nice superficially but work at cross-purposes behind the scenes; in this regard Amazon's directness and openness to public disagreement seems much healthier.

5. Context doesn't justify, but it matters to the assessment.

Amazon is a product of a super-thin-margin industry. It was founded by a man with the characteristics to succeed in that unambiguous, unprotected environment, and it has thrived by attracting managers with similar profiles. If and when you contrast a culture like Amazon's with some other avatar of corporate humanitarianism, it may be worth a look at the glass-house bulwarks supporting the profitability that enable those practices. These may take the forms of de facto technical standards the firm has established, or a monopoly in its market(s), or legal or regulatory actions -- for example, easy monetary policies -- or hard-won, carefully-cultivated brand strength. Assume the bulwarks weren't there: how would things change? Many successful firms would do well to ask this of themselves.

6. Data-driven, to a fault?

If what gets measured gets managed, we also manage as we measure. I see a spectrum: we ignore data at one end, we are slaves to it at the other end.  Both extremes are dysfunctional. Ignorance is of course not bliss, but in very few cases do we have enough clean, ungamed data to put our faith in it exclusively.  Digital commerce may be one such exception, but employee behavior -- measured as described in the article, and here -- is not.

In most cases data are "Platonic Shadows" for what's happening in the business. To be useful they need to be looked at holistically, and across as much time as is available to distinguish signal from noise. I believe in watching for emergent patterns from machine learning, but also in humans having their heads in the game with hypotheses and explicit sensitivity to biases of many kinds.

7. Development requires opportunity and demands responsibility.

It may be dysfunctional at the margins, but I admire the empowerment Amazon offers its managers to get things done, and its expectation that they will get things done.  There's nothing sadder than well-educated and qualified managers who feel blocked and just go through the motions for a paycheck. Well, actually, there is: employees with extremely limited choices who are ethically and illegally exploited.

I appreciate Amazon's bias for action, and for matching analysis to the stakes and uncertainty associated with a decision.

8. Is this a cult of personality?

What happens beyond Jeff Bezos? Paging John Galt!

9. How do you compete?

Amazon competes on utility and service, tightly defined and realized based on the firm's extreme degree of customer focus. Their managerial ranks thus reflect this.  If you don't want to join them, or can't, or want to leave, then beat them.  This means playing a different game. For example, Amazon doesn't create brands so much as it amplifies them.  Likely you will need to create a brand along an emotional dimension that Amazon under-serves, then partner with Amazon in ways that extend but don't erode it. What opportunities to speak to or reflect someone's actual or desired identity can you reinforce through an online-retail service? Maybe some sort of emo-oriented Edgio blending content and commerce in curatively creative ways?

10. On reflection...

There are older and fouler things than Amazon in the deep places of the world. But Amabots and Amholes at Amazon and beyond, remember: In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. 

 

 

 

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