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Corporate Elephantiasis

July 25, 2004 | 4 Minute Read

Reading through my blogs this morning I came across a post from Johnnie Moore about Culture vs Strategy. The point about people interaction is a very important one, but what caught my eye was his example: A while back I heard how the boss of a US hotel chain wanted his IT people to create a system to identify returning guests at check-in. The idea being that the receptionist could say “Welcome back Mr Bloggs” and win points for recognising him. The IT people tut-tutted and came back saying “Yeah, we can do this and it will cost x million dollars”. The boss was unimpressed and frustrated by the cost.

A few days later, he was in the lobby of one of his hotels and overheard the receptionist at work. Several times she said “Welcome back” to people. Our hero bowled up to her and demanded to know how she managed this feat of recognition.

“Well, see that bellboy who carries guests bags from the entrance. I have a deal with him. He asks “is this is their first visit?” and if it is, when they all get to the reception, he puts their bags down parallel to the desk. If it’s a return visit, he puts them at right angles. Then I know.”

This little example rang a few other bells in my ear about what I like to call Corporate Elephantiasis.

Elephantiasis of the system

So easily with technology do I see everyone looking more and more to the IT department for solutions. I agree that automating anything you can can have a great impact on business and open up doors and avenues which previously didn’t seem possible. But reading something like this reminds me of the simplicity of human thought. It was an easy solution. When reading this I felt a little shaken, because being a bit of a computer geek I fall into this pit all the time. “Let the computer do it”, “Automation is the future”, but this solution is easy and elegant.

It’s easy for companies now a days to make systems. They use the IT departments to find technologically “simple” (I say simple but with tech it never really is) ways to communicate information. But we find this kind of change takes time. As systems get bigger the get clunkier they become slower to change and less innovative. I’ve seen example after example of systems that if you want to change anything, it takes a committee 3 months to even decide if it’s something to investigate. Sure, at first it’s a cutting edge cheetah that speeds the process and holds back the demon. It helps and makes things better. But over time it’s like the human body and it solidifies. The skeleton after times starts to look more and more brittle. Rather then the ugly duckling it becomes the ugly duck. It didn’t take a million years or a million dollars to come up with this solution. And it took 2 people.

“People like me need to remember about the people like them.”

Elephantiasis of Head Office

The other thing that rang in me when reading this example was this: During coming up with solutions for this dilemma/idea, why didn’t this solution get sent back to the head office? Something like this should be communicated through and through. But then I was reminded of something from Tom Peters: Tom Peters’s True Confessions.

“Don’t always bet on the little guy, but do always bet against headquarters. Because headquarters politics will invariably and inevitably “bland up” and then kill any worthwhile project.”

Head Offices are nasty things. It’s a place where change becomes a monster. Like the system, the original cheetah becomes an elephant. Ever try to stop a charging elephant? Head Offices make “Committees”. And for me, who’s working on trying to build my own company, if I ever hear the word “Committee” in my office…shoot me. They are these mysterious entities with cultural memory. Every mistake that has ever happened is remembered in the head office. I slapped my own hand because I remember being part of this mob. Every new person who comes into the organization is a fresh set of eyes, but for some reason the old ones tell horror story after horror story until the new eyes have been beaten down, in a relatively quick amount of time I must say. Plus, so many “big wigs” should not be there. For those who aren’t in a management position and in a head office, take a look around people. Take a look at the amount of hidden fear that is around you. Take a look for the number of “yes”-people. Take a look at the percentage of suck-ups. It’s a war zone of politics and favouritism.

As you can tell, I don’t like “Head Office”