Thursday, 14 October 2010

How Jamaica should be more like Switzerland

I was having lunch with a business associate from Switzerland the other day. He told me that the German that is spoken natively in his homeland, known as Swiss German, has no written form. Their written language is "High German", as he called it, also called Swiss Standard German. High German can be understood by non-Swiss German speakers. Swiss German can not.

Swiss German is spoken in all but a few contexts - the classroom (though not the playground - not only do the schoolkids use Swiss German on the playground, but so do the teachers); in multi-lingual parliamentary sessions; on the main news broadcast; and in the presence of German-speaking foreigners. There are many formal contexts in which Swiss German is the norm, such as business meetings, and court testimony.

He didn't say this (it would have been un-Swiss to say it out loud) but it seemed clear to me that the use of Swiss German was a matter of pride, and perhaps an important differentiator for the Swiss people.

Somehow it didn't seem important that his native language was not a written language. Nor that, as he admitted, Swiss German speakers are usually far less fluent in High German. Nor that their language was not intelligible to German-speaking foreigners.

It hasn't crippled their economy to have a native language that is unknown outside their borders. There is no social stigma associated with the use of Swiss German.

It has its place, and High German has its place, and that's all there is to it.

I can only wish that the same will one day be true for Jamaican Creole.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Management Lessons From The Road

I recently travelled to London via Miami. I flew American to Miami and British Airways to Heathrow.

While I was waiting for the agent in Kingston to check me in, I heard him asking his colleague what happens if they are checking in a code-share passenger when the second airline involved has a more restrictive baggage allowance than American. For instance, American allows two checked bags free, but Delta only allows one, and charges $27 for the second.

Although it didn't apply to me and my one bag, it was obvious that checking me in had triggered the question. And neither my agent nor his colleague knew the answer. I talked to them about it, and neither could recall the question ever being addressed in their training.

When I arrived at Heathrow I was waiting for the driver who was supposed to pick me up. I called the car company and they put me on to him. He was in the airport and so we had to agree where to rendezvous. I was standing under a large banner hanging straight down from the ceiling identified the area as the Northern Meeting Point. "That's a great idea." I thought, as I relayed this information to the driver.

He'd never heard of the Northern Meeting Point. "Can you see the Costa Café?" he asked. I could. It was 20 yards away from me, and I made my way over there, found the driver, and off we went.

What is the point of these episodes? I think they exemplify two of the pitfalls that face those who make decisions that then have to be acted on by others.

In the first case, the code-sharing arrangement created a practical difficulty that the agents did not know how to overcome. Either the system designers failed to recognize the issues that could arise, or they failed to communicate the solutions to the customer-facing agents.

In the second case, the well-intentioned banner seemed to be largely ignored. My driver, who presumably regularly does airport pick-ups, had no idea that there was such a thing as the Northern Meeting Area. The truth is, the café was a far more obvious landmark than the banner.

With respect to the code-sharing issue, it's not just a matter of failing to provide the correct training - involving people at various levels in the design process, with their different perspectives, is just good practice. A system that taps into the wisdom of crowds (link to James Surowiecki's excellent book), has a much greater chance of being robust enough to survive contact with the real world.

And the question of whether, and how, to provide landmarks at the airport would be best addressed by incorporating input from those whom the solution is intended to benefit. Perhaps there are particular areas of the airport that do not have readily identified landmarks, and that is where some signage should be posted. Or perhaps people will inevitably find their own way, and in reality the banner is a solution in search of a problem.

It's really pretty simple: as much communication as possible, as early in the decision-making process as possible.