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Improving Customer Relationships: Many Times It Comes Down to - Multiple Dialogs…

When I was in college, I had the chance to briefly study under Richard Feynman, the famed physicist from Cal Tech, who, as a visiting professor conducted a "long" lecture in Advanced Quantum Mechanics. Since we were using his book, The Feynman Lectures in Physics Quantum Mechanics for our course of study, several of us studied the section that he would be discussing in great detail. In this case, it happened to be the lowly ammonia molecule. We didn't want to appear stupid if he asked us a question. Of all the topics in his book he could have picked to discuss with us, I wondered why he chose this topic. I would soon learn why.

Without getting into the detail of mathematical physics, there are several ways to describe physical models mathematically. Usually, one picks the most appropriate method that is suited for the end result. As Dr. Feynman began describing the molecular, atomic, and subatomic models of this gas, I noticed that his dialog shifted quickly from physical chemistry, to solid state physics, to relativistic physics, and to optical wave theory in order to explain the various behaviors of this molecule. In addition, he did not follow the math examples in the book. He moved quickly through different mathematical representations to describe the theory that he was discussing in the moment. These math representations (or tools) were just as varied as his use of differing sciences. We constantly moved between different coordinate systems, using different math capabilities including non-Euclidean geometries, non-linear algebras, and traditional equations. When I returned to my room that evening, I felt overwhelmed and wondered what had happened to me that day. I had learned several important points:

1) There are differing dialogs that describe a model/function; one needs to be conversant in each of these to really understand the underlying principles.

2) For seemingly simple models/functions, things can sure get complex in a hurry. This is why a "simple" molecule was selected to study.

3) One needs flexible tools and an excellent knowledge of how to use these tools at the most appropriate time.

4) Don't underestimate the amount of work it takes to really understand something in-depth.

So, what does this story have to do with this blog entry about improving customer relationships? In order to generate business value for organizations, one needs to be able to speak on the same topic using multiple dialogs - dependent upon the desired business result.

Let's begin with an example focusing upon creating a new physical product that will be manufactured and sold to customers. This occurs every day in many manufacturing companies.

Today, product managers need to decide between two different modeling approaches to create new products. The "old" way (e.g., history-based modeling) is based upon models that have history context with complex integration "trees" to understand. In addition, differing areas in the product development lifecycle require different "feature" sets to describe the additional information in the model that is needed to satisfy specific criteria at this phase. Adding to the complexity is how modeling constraints are applied, either with a tool, a business process, an operations process, or some hybrid of the three. On the other hand, "direct" modeling, a technique to simply create the model efficiently without all of the overhead and complexity of history-based modeling, can be used. This modeling technique, being heralded as the best breakthrough in the last twenty years, is spawning new companies, alliance relationships, etc.

I bring this forward because this is a primary dialogue that engineering product managers engage in when it comes to creating new products in the portfolio. However, as an IT service provider, many organizations have few people that can engage in this dialogue. Most IT organizations focus upon a secondary dialog that interprets the primary dialog into terms of computing, storage, network, security, automated workflows, applications, and data. I refer to this dialog as "engineering for techies" - not an endearing term in that much gets lost in the translation. Furthermore, the dialog becomes more tertiary when we reduce the secondary dialogue to such questions as "how many volumes do we need to store the product data?", "should we use jumbo frame settings in our routers when moving these terabytes of product data?", etc. This sequence of dialogs becomes so constrained, and necessarily so, that we are not communicating what it takes to build world-class products with our customers.

IT organizations must have competencies to be conversant in the primary, secondary, and tertiary dialogues with our customers. Failure to do this introduces risks that that can impede productivity, efficiency, and worst of all, creates the wrong set of tools, technologies, and processes for our customer base, instead of maximizing value delivery. In order to be involved in the breadth of discussion required, it means we must know, in detail, our customer's business, how they run and operate their business, knowing and shaping our value to meet customer needs, and executing strongly, every day. I know this is motherhood and apple pie to many readers; however, there are gaps between knowing this and executing it. I know because I see it almost every time I engage with our customers.

Years later, when Dr. Feynman assisted in determining the reasons for the STS-51 (e.g., Challenger) incident, his analysis led the team to focus on the O-rings and their behavior in cold weather. It's my belief that his incredible strength at engaging broadly and deeply with all the different stakeholders (e.g., product engineers within the vendor communities, test engineers at the NASA centers, operations staff involved in the preparation of the shuttle for next flight, quality control leaders who oversaw inspections, etc.) to comprehend the entire incident at its most detailed level led to this discovery. After all, he was a great scientist who could speak many dialogues. As IT leaders, we need to learn from his behavior in creating world class products and services for our customers.

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About the Author(s)
  • Steve Simske is an HP Fellow and Director in the Printing and Content Delivery Lab in Hewlett-Packard Labs, and is the Director and Chief Technologist for the HP Labs Security Printing and Imaging program.
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