Business

From the Economist

Economist-20160903_cover
 Some interesting articles from a recent issue of The Economist:

  • Superstition ain't the way, about China's data: about the apparent unreliability of certain figures and the search for more reliable indicators. Some quotes: "Provincial GDP figures do not add up to the national total. Quarterly and annual growth do not always mesh... Growth has not dipped below 6.7%, even as prices slipped into deflation in late 2015... As far back as 2000, scholars turned to indicators like electricity consumption as a statistical refuge from what one called the "wind of falsification and embellishment" rustling the official data. But electricity is a less reliable guide as an economy evolves away from power-hungry industry toward low-wattage services." The article discusses the combination of rail freight, electricity and bank lending to gauge the national index, an index called the "Li Keqiang index" in honor of the China's premier who suggested it. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has improved the index by fitting it to GDP figures from 2000-2009 but, while its predictive power remained strong until 2012, it decreased afterward, perhaps because of the boom in financial services that recently boosted China's GDP. The article also describes other attempts at constructing more insightful indices with more data. Goldman Sachs has even combined 89 products. An issue remains to convert those output figures into monetary data. Official GDP figures, though, may be improving thanks to technology advances.
  • Called to account: The disturbing prosecution of Greece's chief statistician. This is a must-read, about the high price Greece's chief statistician, Andreas Georgiou, who also has 21 years experience at the IMF, is paying for trying to keep the numbers honest. His crime has been to estimate that the government's budget deficit in 2009 was 15.4% of GDP, which has been confirmed by the European Commission as accurate. His detractors blame him for the panic that led to Greece's bail-out in 2010 and for harsh conditions imposed by Greece's creditors. The Economist writes: "Courts have rejected these charges three times. But on August 1st the Greek supreme court reopened the case." Georgiou is also facing separate charges for "refusing to allow ELSTAT's board to use a vote to decide on the level of the deficit. Statistics are not supposed to work by ballot."
  • Fashion forward, about Zalando, which sells shoes and clothes online in Europe. (This business model is old-news in the United States but not in Europe.) Part of its success can be attributed to the close attention it pays on data. It also targets higher-value, brand-conscious shoppers, while Amazon targets more price-conscious customers, so hopes to retain the lead in the market even as Amazon and Alibaba builds their offerings in Europe.
  • Leaving for the city: a Schumpeter's column about how lots of prominent American companies are moving downtown. The main example is that of General Electric, who is moving from Fairfield, CT to the Boston waterfront in the new innovation district and apparently won't have a car park to encourage people to take public transportation. And since I saw the innovation district at length when I was back at MIT for my sabbatical two years ago, I can only say this is the sort of ideas that look good on paper and will distress employees when they see what the Silver Line is like. On the other hand, this might have the unexpected side effect of encouraging employees to get home in time for dinner and spend time with their families since they're not going to want to take the Silver Line late. Taking public transportation to work sounds appealing when you're in your 20s and live in an apartment in the city a few bus stops away from your workplace. If you want your kids to go to a top school district like Brookline or Newton, the commute is going to seem less appealing. And I mention this about Boston but it is true of other cities as well. My guess is that at some point the tax incentives are going to lose their luster. The Schumpeter columnist recommends reading "The Big Sort" by Bill Bishop and explains: "It argues that Americans are increasingly clustering in distinct areas on the basis of their jobs and social values. The headquarters revolution is yet another iteration of the sorting process that the book describes, as companies allocate elite jobs to the cities and routine jobs to the provinces." But Fairfield, CT was never a backwater. Additionally, the part of the column that distinguishes between mass headquarters in sunbelt cities and executive-headquarters in elite cities was quite interesting. For a good view of the future, read the part of the column about San Francisco. 

Pricing Update at The New Yorker

NewYorkerUpdated Oct 9, 2016: The New Yorker updated its cover price again a few weeks back - it returned to $8.99 now. I've lost hope to make sense of it.

Given that my September 2015 post "Pricing at The New Yorker" is one of my most viewed posts to date, consistently garnering new views even almost one year later, I thought I'd give the quick update that The New Yorker has revised its newsstand price back down to the $7.99 level of early 2015, as you can see in the image to the left. As you can see in the original post, the newsstand price was $6.99 in September 2014, $7.99 in January 2015 and $8.99 in July 2015. While I felt $8.99 was too high, the opportunity to read any article by Jane Mayer should make the $7.99 price tag more palatable to non-subscribers, although personally there are quite a few New Yorker issues where I don't find anything I care to read, given all the other unread books and magazines I have. (Time is short, what can I say.) In fact I suspect the New Yorker business model is based on inane articles of utmost vapidity such as "Thoughts on my engagement ring" or (only marginally better) "Love in translation" driving traffic to fund hard-hitting, deeply important pieces of investigative journalism such as "Donald Trump's ghostwriter tells all". I suppose magazines do what they have to do to survive in this day and age, 

As a matter of comparison, I'm not sure what The Atlantic's newsstand price is, but a $24.65/year subscription is supposed to save you 65% of the newsstand price of this monthly magazine with 10 issues a year, so we are looking at a newsstand price around $24.65/(0.35*10)=$7.04 per monthly issue. The weekly Economist has introductory subscription deals of $12 for 12 weeks amounting to 87% off, putting the newsstand price around $7.69 a week. (The Economist website explains the savings are based on a $7.99 newsstand price, for which a $1/week offer for 12 week would correspond to a 87.5% savings.) This suggests a price point of $8.99/issue for a weekly magazine was too high given the other quality magazines that people can spend their money on. 

Ultimately I feel that the price increases were meant to push readers toward subscribing, but one has to be careful not to convince occasional readers instead that they should read the magazine at Barnes & Noble Cafe without paying for it and then go on their way. I also felt the previous increases had been too quick. It is easier for readers to understand a price increase if the price was at a certain level for a long time. But if a magazine increases its price several times within a few months, it just makes readers think that the magazine owners or managers did not know what correct price to charge at the beginning in order to maintain quality journalism.

As an analytics professional, I'd love to know what prompted the change. How much of a decrease in newsstand sales did the magazine see to motivate a price change downward? Were there decreases in airport newsstands sales (the kind where you can't read the article if you don't want to pay) or Barnes & Noble sales (the kind where you can browse through the magazine in front of a latte)? Was there pushback and if so, by whom? What is the trade-off between trying to get subscribers for the steady inflow of money (The New Yorker's approach to subscription renewal is automatic renewal unless you opt out) and introducing newcomers to the magazine? 

It'll be interesting to see if the price of The New Yorker changes again in the next year and if so, whether it is upward or downward.


Legislative Power Hour at the Regional Chamber of Commerce

The Regional Chamber of Commerce hosted an insightful Legislative Hour with State Senator Kelly Hancock and State Representative Eric Johnson. I found Rep. Johnson's advocacy for full-day pre-K for qualifying families particularly compelling. (This is not the same thing as universal pre-K, which would mean any family gets free pre-K for their children independently of means - a nice thing in a perfect world, but unrealistic at this time).

Rep. Johnson spoke with great passion and poise about the critical time of third grade, where the transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" occurs, which makes the current statistics of 82% of African American and over 70% of Hispanic third-graders reading below proficiency level particularly worrisome. (I'm not sure which survey he was specifically referring to, but this U.S. News article has similar numbers.) If students aren't able to read correctly by the time the transition occurs, it will become so much more difficult to bring them up tos speed. Rep. Johnson repeatedly emphasized his determination to use data-driven practices, i.e., practices that have been demonstrated to work elsewhere (maybe out of state), in driving policy.

State Rep. Johnson and State Sen. Hancock also talked about many related issues, such as how to fund education and the controversial rainy day fund (apparently not getting used for that, which has been dividing legislators - read here for details), General Revenue and Biennial Appropriations, the importance of oil and gas to the state revenues and the problems related to the low price of the barrel as well as two lawsuits of importance to the state, one concluded (Southwest Royalties) and one pending (AMC).

As the granddaughter of a survivor of the Armenian genocide on my mother's side and of a single mother who raised two children on minimum wage in the French-occupied part of Berlin after the war on my father's side (which meant that some days my dad only had one slice of bread to eat), I have no doubt that education is what helped my parents get out of poverty. I'm not sure if people in the U.S. today would be able to do what my parents did in Europe because of the heavy price of higher education, but giving every kid a chance is a step in the right direction. The first step is, of course, to help every kid read proficiently so that he can take his chance later on if he wants, when he reaches an age where he can decide those things for himself. 

Rep. Johnson was quick-witted, engaging and friendly toward State Senator Kelly Hancock in spite of their ideological differences. A Harvard grad with graduates degrees from Penn and Princeton, he came across as a highly personable and articulate politician who could think fast and make his point across clearly and concisely while allowing himself a touch of humor here and there. I'm sure he'll continue to represent District 100 well and fully expect him to have a nationally prominent career. He certainly deserves it. 

The speakers also mentioned the arrivals of new companies in the state and the need to evaluate whether the exemptions they are receiving are working and having the intended effect. For instance Toyota is moving its headquarters to Plano and Facebook is building a new data center in North Fort Worth. The New York Times i ran an article about the state tax incentives about four years ago and that article continues to raise timely questions. It is a rather long but thought-provoking article that asks about the trade-off between companies gaining and schools losing in those tax package deals aiming at attracting businesses. More general information about state tax incentives is available here.  

@JohnsonForTexas @DRChamber


Amazon's new strategies +WaPo

The New York Times had an article today on how Amazon.com is quietly eliminating list prices. That might be true, but I've noticed something else: it offers different shipping options depending on where you ship, even when location is not a limiting factor. Put it another way, you may have fewer options if you're shipping to a big city because Amazon.com is trying to push you toward the options it wants you to pick and is making the "middle-of-the-road" options either less attractive or unavailable.

For instance, if you want to ship an item to a mid-size town in Pennsylvania, you have the option of two-day shipping for a fee, in addition to one-day shipping, Amazon Prime, standard shipping (which used to be a 3-day wait and now has turned into a 4 or 5 day wait) and free shipping (where you wait 5 to 8 days for your item). If you ship to a big city in Texas, on the other hand, you don't have the option of two-day shipping for a fee. You can do a trial of Amazon Prime/Amazon Student to receive two-day shipping or schedule a delivery to an Amazon Locker, but besides that your choices are either to pay for one-day/same-day shipping or wait longer than you wanted, if your usual willingness to wait is in the 2 to 3 day range. (Obviously if you don't mind waiting 5 days or more, you should bundle your orders to exceed the threshold for free shipping, which used to be $25 and is now $35.)

Interestingly, the one-day shipping fee (order by early afternoon [1pm?] and receive it the same day, otherwise receive it the next day) is - for many things - only a couple dollars more than the standard shipping fee, from what I've seen, which suggests that Amazon is trying to get customers used to quick delivery: find an item you like, add it to cart, get it delivered fast. A new source of revenue is then not volume as in the early days of Amazon but the added shipping fee. Because one-day delivery relies on courier services such as UPS, this also means that the next phase of Amazon's success may rely on partnerships with other companies. 

I also enjoyed reading a New York Magazine article on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos's impact on the Washington Post. He seems to have an interesting business model, where first-person essays, lifestyle coverage, provocative headlines (in other words, everything that makes you worry that substantial journalism is going down the drain but creates web traffic) as well as his own money have funded investigative journalism. Under his leadership, WaPo has received two Pulitzer Prizes, one for national reporting and one for general nonfiction. While the credit goes first to the journalists who relentlessly pursued those stories, Bezos seems to have played an important role in changing the way the paper was perceived by moving its headquarters to new offices that resemble those of a tech startup and experimenting with software companies to, for instance, create a new web app. 

I think the strength of newspapers like WaPo is to provide context to current events. Too often, even online, it is a struggle to find related articles from the same publication unless the writer includes a link. The links at the bottom are often click-baits and everything about the next click after a story is finished is geared toward providing ad revenue. But a better use of web archives could help illuminate an article. Instead of scrolling down to read more inane comments, one could scroll down to read more related articles. A computer program could detect the keywords in the article or the key people interviewed and provide links to, say, the causes this politician has advocated for or previous headlines involving that company. Even if you want to read other coverage of similar topics by the same reporter, you often have to sift through many unrelated headlines.

I like the idea of new web apps, though. The Economist has something called Espresso, launched in November 2014, which delivers key news - "a concise morning briefing", as The Economist calls it - to the user's app every day so that it is easy to remain events of the big events, but when I've used it I've found it interesting for general culture yet not specific enough (because not allowing customization) to make itself indispensable. If WaPo could create such an app that would allow the user to  focus on specific areas, and deliver content suitable for quick reading yet accurate and giving the full picture of a situation, it could really emerge as the "newspaper of record" it dreams it'll become.


A Dud: HBR on the 24/7 Workplace

HBRJune2016What is it with all the underwhelming Harvard Business Review articles these days? "Managing the high-intensity workplace" in the June 2016 is a trite article that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the problem. (We are told the three coping strategies are: accepting, passing [devoting time to nonwork activities under the radar] and revealing [sharing other parts of their lives to ask for change]. The quotes of the anonymous people interviewed are what you'd expect, some people pretending to be ideal workers when they're far from it and some people complaining about their bosses. Just think about what people would probably say about the topic and you can be sure there's a quote along those lines in the article.)

This article is so shallow I don't even begin where to start, but here are a couple of points that crossed my mind. First, why is there a 24/7 culture? Two primary factors, it seems, are (1) trying to do more without having more employees and (2) testing employees' commitment to the firm. This is a viable strategy for companies that don't care about the long-term well-being of their employees, most likely because they don't expect their employees to still work for them in a few years. Consulting in particular is an industry where many employees rise through the ranks for a few years but then seek to join a company they have done consulting for, or take on supporting roles instead of remaining a consultant.

Investment banking is another industry where long hours are frequent. There can be terrible consequences to the 24/7 culture, as the sad example of a young Bank of America intern illustrates: he died after working for 72 hours straight, from epileptic seizures that could have been triggered by all-nighters. Some quotes in the Bloomberg article include: "It depends on deadlines... Some of it is peer pressure. There is a general expectation in our profession.” and "It’s not like anyone is forcing you to work... It’s way more subtle than that. The young people there just want to succeed. It’s like a race track." Those quotes, I might add, are much more specific and thus useful than the general quotes in the HBR article. Goldman Sachs then reduced the intern day to 17 hours, with the interns expected to go home by midnight and not be back by 7am. Goldman Sachs CEO had the following advice for interns: "You have to be interesting, you have to have interests away from the narrow thing of what you do... You have to be somebody who somebody else wants to talk to.” This is also a much better quote than what is in the HBR article. 

In the current state of things, rising stars often spend 2 or 3 years at a company after college before going on to get their MBA. The grueling hours they've had to put up with might also explain why some MBA students treat business school as college redux, with the difference that this time the parties are sponsored by eager companies. It's hard to spend several years in a 24/7 culture without feeling robbed of one's youth or health and some students may feel business school can help making up for lost time.   

Issues of work/life balance are also prominent in tech companies such as Amazon. A Wall Street Journal blog post argues that the work-life balance of Amazoners lags behind that of other companies while a Mashable article considers more broadly Amazon, Facebook and Uber. Tech startups such as Uber offer breakfast and dinner for their employees in part to help keep them at work longer (breakfast is early, dinner is late). "Glamorous tech startups can be brutal places for workers," said The Economist here. Time is a particularly scarce resource in startups, which often fight for more rounds of funding, but employees put up with the horrendous work hours in the hope of a successful IPO, or enough experience to launch their own startup some day, or to be hired by a prestigious company. 

As people age, get married, have children, they become less willing to put up with such hours. In the same way that the workplace lost many women in the years where it was less accepted to leave early to pick up a child from school (even if the mother worked more hours after the child had gone to bed), imposing a grueling pace also means top companies will lose the creativity of talented performers who will bring their skills elsewhere. This is more than a side remark, since people who subject themselves to an unhealthy work schedule might be more temperamentally suited to following rules without challenging them, and thus be less creative or out-of-the-box thinkers.

It would also be useful to think of the bosses who impose a 24/7 culture without caricaturing them. What pressures do they face from their higher-ups? Are they simply trying to make their team achieve more so that they can list those accomplishments on their resume (as proof of their managerial skills) before they jump ship? What system of incentives could be put in place that would reward the long-term interest of both the firm and its employees? If a 24/7 culture can't be avoided at times - for instance during a challenging consulting assignment with client-imposed deadlines looming - how can it be counterbalanced by a healthier lifestyle in-between assignments? And how can we convey to students, who tend to be always reachable by their friends anyway, that a work culture of 24/7 is unhealthy and should be avoided?

The best companies should behave as if they expect their employees to still be working for them in ten years - not squeeze them like lemons to be discarded as soon as they've been emptied out. Not doing so has consequences on the type of employees they attract and ultimately their competitive advantage. I'll end with links to a 2015 New York Times article about the Amazon.com work culture (as well as comments it generated and a public clash). But in the end managers on the ground make or break their unit's culture rather than the name of the company they work for and it is worth asking whether the right people are getting promoted. Emotionally intelligent leaders don't drive their people into the ground. 


Nonprofit Alliances Gone Wrong

JJ16_AmericanCraftThe June/July issue of American Craft (an art magazine) has an interesting article about the failed merger between the Museum of Contemporary Craft (MoCC) and the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA). MoCC closed in April and the interview makes it clear the hoped-for synergies between MoCC and PNCA never developed. The people interviewed, especially on the now-defunct MoCC's side, have been quick to tout independence of museums as a core value. A staffer is quoted as saying: "We were told time and time again, 'You are to spend no more than 30 percent of your working hours on museum projects." The college projects would always trump the museum projects." Another says: "When you are independent, your programming takes a certain form. You are addressing broad communities. [After the merger,] Our focus shifted to serving students to faculty. [The new perspective [didn't work]."

This narrative about MoCC's sad demise (its exhibitions included Dropping the Urn by Ai Weiwei and Gestures of Resistance including Theaster Gates, leaving no doubt regarding the quality of its programming) was also apparent in a February blog post on the American Craft website when the news first broke that MoCC would close. The blog post provides more background on the history of MoCC's financial woes, which seem to have been triggered by a 2007 move to a new location, right before the Great Recession hit. The post's author notes: "The merger with PNCA seemed a lifeline to save an institution struggling with lingering relocation expenses during the economic downturn in 2008 [...but...] PNCA had its own financial difficulties and, in the years before its joint administration of MoCC, the college came within striking distance of losing its accreditation."

Later, we read: "More ominous is the seeming disregard by the college of the mission of the museum and the work it interprets. The move to jointly administer the museum in 2009 now appears to have been a Faustian bargain; it preserved MoCC for the time being, but put its future in the hands of an institution that doesn’t appear to care greatly about contemporary craft."

In the case of MoCC and PNCA, this might well be an accurate description of the pitfalls of nonprofit affiliations; however, while the blog post keeps its focus on the woes of MoCC, the people quoted in the June/July issue of the magazine seem at times to be drawing conclusions about the validity of nonprofit affiliations in general, along the lines that losing one's independent is bad. 

But to give an example, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival has been affiliated with DeSales University in Center Valley, PA for two decades and this affiliation has allowed the DeSales theater students, who are trained in one of the best programs in the country, to tremendously benefit from observing and learning alongside seasoned actors every summer. PSF has been able to serve the broader community through the WillPower tour every fall (where young actors bring Shakespeare to high schools in PA, NJ and DE) as well as through "Shakespeare 4 Kids" productions in the summer. The PSF productions are held in the Labuda Theater where DeSales students have their own theater productions during the school year, allowing top-notch facilities to be used year-round. PSF's artistic director also has an appointment in the Division of Performing Arts, as do members of PSF's technical staff. Students benefit tremendously from the festival's presence on the university's grounds every summer.

Going back to MoCC and PNCA, it seems that the problem originated from a lack of structure to create the synergies needed to make the affiliation a success. The magazine article talks about meetings to suggest new curriculum that didn't go anywhere. What they might have needed, I'll suggest, is an approach in line with John Kotter's Leading Change framework:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency. (You don't have round after round of meetings if you have a sense of urgency...)
  2. Creating a guiding coalition. (Both sides seem to be at each other's throat.)
  3. Developing a vision and strategy. (They do seem to have had some sort of high-level vision, although it might just have been paying lip service to what some people knew the vision should be.)
  4. Communicating the change vision. (Nothing about that is mentioned in the article.)
  5. Empowering employees for broad-based action. (This doesn't seem to have been the case.)
  6. Generating short-term wins. (There are very few student-related success stories.)
  7. Consolidating gains and producing more change. (This didn't seem to have happened.)
  8. Anchoring the new approach in the culture. (They never got to that point.)

It is a pity that the story ends in a seemingly acrimonious divorce between MoCC and PNCA. The students could have learned a lot from seeing the operations of a real museum up close. If too few students at PNCA were interested in craft and museums, this could have been the opportunity to develop a flagship summer program to bring in students from other institutions and give them hands-on learning. It would also have helped keeping the college's facilities operating year-round, increasing operating revenues, in addition to raising PNCA's visibility. So many missed opportunities here... What a shame.


What Barnes & Noble is doing wrong

Initially I wanted to write a post about B&N losing its prime location in downtown D.C., a few years after it lost its prime location in Lincoln Center in NYC, both at lease renewal time (put another way, the landlord wanted more money than B&N wanted to pay). Then I dropped by my local B&N earlier today and it was once again a struggle to pay because the cashier pushed and pushed and pushed for me to get the B&N member card, which I had no intention of getting.

This has happened every single time I've bought something at B&N so one has to conclude it is not an issue with a specific cashier but a company-wide policy probably incentivizes the clerks' annoying (I'm tempted to write: harassing) behavior. Somewhere the Amazon.com executives are popping the champagne at how easy B&N execs are making their job. The fact is, many years ago I used to have the membership card and I stopped renewing when they started requiring a credit card and forcing auto-renewal. I'm not sure they reverted to the old way but I never became a member again and haven't looked back. The cost of a yearly membership is $25 or a hardcover a year. Focusing on getting membership money by default instead of letting people opt back in makes B&N petty and out of touch with reality. 

This is where the fact that B&N lost its flagship store in D.C. comes in handy. Maybe headquarters should have put in more efforts in making sure that the Lincoln Triangle fiasco didn't happen again (I really miss that store) and fewer efforts in obsessing over membership money. Sure, given that B&N is a company - not a charity - it's probably priced at an amount that makes B&N come out ahead overall (many people probably get the membership but don't buy enough books to recoup their money in book discount). But really, one has to keep a sense of perspective. You have to sell a lot of membership cards to make up the revenue from the lost flagship store. More focus on leases, less focus on membership cards, please.

For those of you who want to improve their salesmanship skills, here is an overview of the sales spiel of today. The checkout clerk was particularly savvy because she asked me straight out for my B&N membership card number, not even asking if I had one, giving the feeling that of course I should have one, and then she opened her eyes wide and looked enormously surprised that I didn't have one and insisted in knowing why with shock still plain to see on her face. And I dodged because I wanted to give a truthful answer (I think B&N membership card practices are shameless and it is an outrage how they push the membership card when a customer is trying to pay for her purchase - do you prefer that I read the magazine in your store and leave it there?) but the day I do it I'll make sure there are a lot of other people in line so I have an audience while I give B&N a piece of my mind. I'm serious. So I dodged and the funny part was, the saleswoman had a high-pitched voice when she was asking for my B&N card number and then acting the surprise bit, but when she saw she wouldn't sway me her voice returned to a slightly lower register. I'm not sure if she realized that the change in voice gave away that she had been playing a role, but I felt sorry for her so I made a point of being extra polite and she was a whole lot less friendly when she handed me my purchase.  I suppose being a B&N clerk is no fun. 

Besides, I think the B&N membership card setup is profoundly flawed. Upfront membership fees for loyalty programs are outdated. Think of loyalty programs at fast-food chains like Cosi or Panera: the cards are free, when you visit enough you get a reward. This setup has been successfully applied by indie bookstores like Harvard Bookstore: once you have purchased $100 worth of books, you get a 20% discount on your next purchase. There is no expiration date for the dollars purchased. B&N should do something like that. Because customers would come out ahead (there is no downside for them because no upfront payment), it would show it is putting customers first, something that seems to be profoundly lacking from its current strategy. It would also give it an advantage over Amazon.com because the discount once you have reached the milestone dollar amount could be applied to any books of your choice (in that one purchase after you hit the dollar threshold), and Amazon.com doesn't give big discounts on all the books, so certain books could become noticeably cheaper at B&N when using the discounts.

Finally, let me end this post by suggesting ideas for what B&N should do regarding its brick-and-mortar stores. Since Amazon.com is opening physical bookstores, surely there is a future for brick-and-mortar bookstores. The problem with B&N is that people do a lot of browsing without buying and the inventory doesn't move much. So the big store with the big lease payments ends up being a book show room while the customer takes notes of what he will order on Amazon, now that he has seen what the book is like (and is further motivated by the desire to avoid interacting with the rude B&N cashiers.)

Maybe it's time to try something different - get a smaller store near one of the B&N warehouses and have it serve as a show room for the online store but rotate the inventory very frequently and have only a few copies at most of each book, so that people can't count on having a lot of time for making their mind. If the book really sells well, then fresh copies can come in with the next rotation from the warehouse the following week. For instance, the online best-sellers of that week could come into the store, people would discover books they may not realize are popular otherwise (if you've ever tried to find new ideas for book purchases by wading through Amazon's bestselling lists you know what a great help this would be) and they would use their free membership cards to accumulate points and later save money on a discounted purchase.

It would help, though, if more B&N clerks actually seemed to care about books. I've had a few rare good surprises but mostly the clerks don't seem to know anything about the books they sell. (This is also detrimental to the growth of programs like storewide bookclubs that could help position B&N as a pillar of the local community.) On the other hand, most of the clerks have tried hard to help me find a book when I asked them to, which is better than nothing. In my ideal B&N, there would be more self-service computers to find where a book has been shelved, self-service checkout stations like in the supermarket to avoid interacting with the cashiers who push the membership cards and some sort of tele-clerk you can call up or chat with on the computer if you need recommendations or don't exactly remember the title of the book you're looking for. At a broader level, I think brick-and-mortar bookstores should try to reinvent themselves instead of hobbling along and that doesn't necessarily mean putting more games and toys in the stores, the way B&N is doing.


First Quarter: Lesson in Success (It's the Little Things)

This is going to seem like a minor post, but the matter is important nonetheless because it affects how you are perceived and the post gains weight toward the end. I swear it does. But first, the minor part. All together now: It's the little things. If you are sending an email to someone, don't reply to the latest email they sent you (the one that has a totally different title and subject than the one you're writing about). Create a new email, with a title that matches what you're writing about (so that they know if they're busy whether they should click on it now or not, and how they should file it, and they will have a much easier time finding it later when they scroll through all your emails). Just replying to the first email of that person that you can find even if the topic is wildly different just makes you look sloppy.

Also, while we're on the subject of little things, if you're given instructions on how to submit, such as "the title of your project report should be titled Report_YourFirstName_YourLastName.docx", and you upload "Report.docx", then the recipient may not make a comment but won't think more highly of you because you made that person's task more difficult in actually finding your report next time she looks for it. So now she has to rename it for you the way she wanted it. Always put yourself in the shoes of the person you're communicating with. 

This actually also crossed my mind at the wonderful Alpha Omega Epsilon panel discussion a few weeks ago. One of the AOE ladies asked about work-life balance, and three of the panelists started expounding at great lengths, with minor variations, on their awesome husband who cooks and helps with child care. Well... my guess is that the AOE ladies ranged in age from 18 to 22. While it is wonderful to hear about happy marriages with shared responsibilities, it would perhaps have been more helpful to answer from the perspective of a 21-year-old. If you want to talk about relationships, then I guess something along the lines of "be careful not to get into a pattern of doing all the chores at home for your boyfriend in addition to trying to succeed at your job" might have been more suitable for that audience. Then one person started praising organization, but in the context of child care and her husband picking up the kids when she has a faculty meeting. Which is a very valid and important point for that person, and perhaps not something the audience could implement right away.

I'm the one who threw a wrench into the whole pretty picture by saying something along the lines of "you know, work-life balance is always going to be tough, and of course it matters to be organized because if you aren't you will struggle mightily for sure, but it's a matter of picking your fights because you won't be able to do all the things you want to do." And then I said more, but there needs to be an advantage to being a AOE sister and taking part to the actual panel discussion, so I won't share everything here. Plus, the AOE ladies sent me a wonderful thank you card signed by all the sisters, which I put right away in my Box Of Important Things (this is how free-spirit me manages my organization.) All this to say, it is hard for everybody to put herself in other people's shoes, even long past college age. I also do it sometime. It is a tough skill to master but if you do, you will be ahead of the game!  

I also would have wanted to turn the question around and asked the AOE sisters how they thought professors perceived their work-life balance. One point I made was that I wished we professors knew more when students had a lot of school commitments because it is hard to know otherwise whether people are spending their time surfing the web or trying to finish the assignment for another class. Some other panelists seemed to be of the opinion that students would be on Facebook or Amazon.com.

I am of the opinion (being a goody-two-shoes at heart, of the kind who believes that most people start nice and then become mean and bitter when life disappoints them, although someone argued convincingly the other day that some people are just mean at heart and show their meanness when they get power, even when they're not old yet, but more on that some other day) that students try to enjoy college and also do well in school and when they're in class they might try to finish other assignments or projects or email about an event they're organizing as extra-curricular activity, in addition to answering their texts on their phone.

Of course, part of the reason I think that is that if students actually use in-class time to surf Facebook or buy stuff on Amazon, I wouldn't think very highly of their self-discipline, and the Stanford Marshmallow Project has shown that such students don't do very well in life later on (although admittedly the SMP studied the consequences into adulthood of self-discipline for four-year-olds). 

This is all about thinking about the image you want to project and seeing yourself from the perspective of the other person to evaluate whether s/he perceives you the way you want. 


Best presentation at the #Analytics16 conference...

...(at least among the ones I've seen) was by Dr. Tim Niznik of American Airlines who gave an outstanding talk on hub disruption management. He had the last time slot on Tuesday, which is always a difficult time slot since so many people are leaving to catch an evening flight, but his talk was extremely well attended. His presentation was very engaging with a mix of visuals about weather maps and tools such as the diversion tracker and the gate demand chart. The goal is to figure out how to strategically delay some flights in order to minimize excess gate demand, minimize operations beyond airport closure time, minimize system-wide passenger impact and minimize delay introduced without violating crew/curfew rules. This talk was so good I hope Dr. Niznik can be one of the plenary or semi-plenary speakers at an INFORMS conference very soon. The high quality of his team's work deserves the visibility and dissemination to as large an audience as possible (and I don't even fly American). If you're a conference attendee, you can see his slides by logging into INFORMS Connect, clicking on My Communities and entering the Analytics 2016 community and browsing through the latest shared slides on the bottom left - he was part of the Tuesday Decision and Risk Analysis track.

The Analytics16 conference was one of the very best conferences I attended in recent memory and I'd like to thank Elea Feit for doing such an amazing job chairing the organizing committee (I know because I was part of the committee), as well as all my colleagues who helped put together such a remarkable event. The bar is set high for next year. The conference will be held in Las Vegas, NV, April 2-4, 2017. Mark your calendars!