Pushing on a piece of string?

Business is supposed to be quite simple. You have to sell something in which people see real value, but which costs you less than that value to supply. Since it normally takes time to develop that “something”, knowing what people will want in the future is a really useful ability. 

I seem to have spent a lot of time this week with people who are thinking about why things are successful and how they can increase the chances of success. The start was a meeting with Ben Reason of live|work on the idea of service innovation.  I had met Ben at the Design Council-organised breakfast at Number 11 a few weeks ago, and since we were now coinciding at a meeting at DIUS, we took advantage of the preceding lunchtime to catch up.  

At the Technology Strategy Board, in the development of Innovation Platforms we have realised that “societal challenges” all involve people.  This means that we have to balance two things - the ability of new technology to address the challenge, and its likely acceptance by those who, in the end, will use it.  Tackling these big challenges inevitably seems to lead to a heady brew of products and services, and we are working more and more with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and organisations like Ben’s to help us understand and target our efforts.

The meeting that followed was about how government can build some of this service thinking into what it provides.  There are things government does that are really good; my favourite example is how much easier it now is to renew your car tax disc. If you have a computer, you can log on with a unique identifier that they send you in the post, the system checks that your car has a current MOT and insurance, all nicely and quickly behind the scenes, and once they have processed your online payment, the tax disc arrives a few days later.  The same system is available through post offices and either way, the experience is painless, if costly.  There are some other bits of public service which are (allegedly) awful - as if nobody has thought through what you would be doing to access the service. 

As I understood the story, the people who redesigned the tax disk process considered how the end user might be accessing the system and what information they might – or might not – have. So they started with the idea that the identity of the car was the important bit, and tied the rest of the process to that.  I guess that some other parts of government have not yet addressed the concept of redesigning their entire processes – not just the front end – around how users “use”. 

If government can achieve its stated goal of spreading this kind of best practice, a lot of our personal interactions with government will get easier and quicker over the next few years.

I guess it’s like noticing how many red cars there are once you have bought one, but, for the rest of the week, this motif of thinking about what the end user wants seemed to come up again and again. 

Thursday was a workshop organised by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) about food security.  It focused on what underpinning research needs to be carried out to address the growing realisation that, in future, access to a proper, nutritionally balanced diet will become increasingly difficult.  As the population increases, as there is competition for agricultural land to “grow” fuels, and as climate change leads to water shortages or temperatures which make farming conventional crops or livestock more difficult, then we will need a new set of options.  As you might anticipate, the question of genetically modified crops came up – and the usual spirited debate followed.  One story that intrigued me was that where high-growth hybrid rices have been available in the Far East, they are often not used because they don’t taste the same as “normal” rice. This struck me as a classic example of getting everything right but forgetting the needs/desires of the end user.  Like all good damascene moments, once this idea had seen the light, the conversation on my syndicate table (at least) went in a different direction, thinking through how this aspect of use can be used to pull more new products and services into this market.

The following day, I was taking part in a workshop we have been jointly organising with Ofwat to unpack the challenges facing the water industry and how innovation might be able to help.  Water is an interesting “utility” to supply.  Without water, we very quickly die – so it’s more of a right than a need.  The average domestic usage in the UK is about 150 litres/person/day but we only drink about 2 litres of that.  The rest is used for washing (ourselves and our stuff), flushing the toilet and watering the garden.  Yet every one of those litres is purified to quite high standards at a cost of around £1 per cubic metre.  The water industry is trying to understand what sort of service we (as users) want from it.  Its history is rooted in public service – it was privatised only in 1989 – but it has recognised that the market it operates in is very different from most others.  It has a regionally captive customer base – unlike electricity or gas, it is difficult to practically “switch” water companies – and since only about one third of all domestic properties in the UK are metered, it would be difficult to have a tiered tariff system (as has been used in many developing countries to ensure people get enough but are charged for excessive use).  It would be easy for the water companies to try to impose a solution on its customers but, from what I have seen over the last few months as we work with them, they too are trying to work out what their customers actually want from them by way of a service.

The problem that faces all these organisations in thinking through what sort of service their customers want is how to ask them.  From my days in the chemical industry I remember only too well that asking people what they want usually ends up at something from the expensive end of the existing brochure but at lower prices.  To really understand the “unmet needs” of your customers takes time, patience, incredibly good internal information sharing – and probably a good bit of luck.  As I mused over the week, I only had to think back to Wednesday evening to see at least part of the solution.   Wednesday evening had been the Sciencewise-ERC Awards ceremony.  Here I had heard about people in various bits of Government who had taken the time to engage with the wider public, to understand their point of view and tailor communications to take account of their understanding and desires.  It’s a shame that more people couldn’t see and hear the examples on display and at least realise that these techniques are available to them as they seek to find out what the needs and problems of those who use their products and services actually are.

I was always told that it was Keynes who characterised non-use of the market as “pushing on a piece of string” and there are examples of the attempted imposition of new technology, either as a product or a service, which has foundered for that reason. However I cannot help wondering if it isn’t possible to link the availability of new technology to the customer end of the supply chain and so – not only pulling the string but using a pulley - drawing innovation into the system much more effectively.


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:31

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