Virtual Meetings: Will the COVID-19 virus accelerate a trend?

One of the big repercussions of the Coronavirus scare has been to shift most companies into a world where significant numbers of their employees are working from home. Whereas working remotely might have been an occasional thing for many of these workers in the past, now it’s the daily reality.

What’s more, personal visits to customers and attendance at meetings or events have been severely curtailed.

This “new reality” may well be with us for the coming months – not merely weeks as some reporting has indicated. But more fundamentally, what does it mean for the long-term?

I think it’s very possible that we’re entering a new era of how companies work and interact with their customers that’s permanent more than it is temporary. The move towards working remotely had been advancing (slowly) over the years, but COVID-19 is the catalyst that will accelerate the trend.

Over the coming weeks, companies are going to become pretty adept at figuring out how to work successfully without the routine of in-person meetings. Moving even small meetings to virtual-only events is the short-term reality that’s going to turn into a long-term one.

When it comes to client service strategies, these new approaches will gain a secure foothold not just because they’re necessary in the current crisis, but because they’ll prove themselves to work well and to be more cost-efficient than the old ways of doing business. Along the same lines, professional conferences in every sector are being postponed or cancelled – or rolled into online-only events.  This means that “big news” about product launches, market trends and data reporting are going to be communicated in ways that don’t involve a “big meeting.”

Social media and paid media will likely play larger roles in broadcasting the major announcements that are usually reserved for the year’s biggest meeting events. Harnessing techniques like animation, infographics and recorded presentations will happen much more than in the past, in order to turn information that used to be shared “in real life” into compelling and engaging web content.

The same dynamics are in play for formerly in-person sales visits. The “forced isolation” of social distancing will necessitate presentations and product demos being done via online meetings during the coming weeks and months. Once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, in-person sales meetings at the customer’s place of business will return – but can we realistically expect that they will go back to the levels that they were before?

Likely not, as companies begin to realize that “we can do this” when it comes to conducting business effectively while communicating remotely. What may be lost in in-person meeting dynamics is more than made up for in the convenience and cost savings that “virtual” sales meetings can provide.

What do you think? Looking back, will we recognize the Coronavirus threat as the catalyst that changed the “business as usual” of how we conduct business meetings?  Or will today’s “new normal” have returned to the “old normal” of life before the pandemic?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The “bystander effect” and how it affects our workplaces.

Here’s an interesting view into human nature: Experience tells us that far more people will pass a disabled motorist on a busy highway without bothering to stop, compared to stopping for a person stranded on a lonely country road.

This phenomenon creeps into the business world, too — and particularly in a situation which some of us have probably experienced at least a few times during our careers: There’s someone at work who is clearly deficient in their job. Worse yet, the deficiencies aren’t due to incompetence, but to undesirable character traits like sloth, a sour attitude, deficient interpersonal skills — or even questionable ethics.

Moreover, the behavior of the individual falls in the “everyone knows” category.

The question is, what happens about it? Too often, the answer is “nothing.”

Social scientists have a name for this: the “bystander effect.”   It means that “what’s everybody’s business is nobody’s business.”

In mid-2019, several researchers at the University of Maryland studied the topic by fielding several pieces of research. In a first one, nearly 140 employees and their managers working at a Fortune 500 electronics company were surveyed.  That survey found that employees were less apt to speak up about problems they perceived to be “open secrets.”

Two other components of the field research – one a survey of 160+ undergraduate students and the other a study involving behavioral experimentation with nearly 450 working adults – found essentially the same dynamics at work.

According to the University of Maryland research study leaders, Subra Tangirala and Insiya Hussain:

“In all three studies our results held even when we statistically controlled for several other factors, such as whether participants felt it was safe to speak, and whether they thought speaking up would make a difference.”

The inevitable conclusion? Tangirala and Hussain reported:

“Our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility — or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up.

They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. As issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of top management decreases.”

Sadly, the University of Maryland research shows that the “bystander effect” is the perfect recipe for companies to keep loping along without making HR changes — and not realizing their full potential as a result.

There’s another downside as well:  If left unaddressed, festering issues involving “problem” employees can engender feelings of frustration on the part of the other employees — along with the sense that an underlying degree of fairness has been violated because of the efforts the other workers are making to be productive employees. Unfortunately even then, no one wants to be the person to blow the whistle.

More detailed findings from the University of Maryland research can be accessed here.

What about your experiences? Have you ever encountered a similar dynamic in your place of work? Please share your insights with other readers.

LinkedIn’s Weak Link

On balance, most people would agree that the LinkedIn social media platform has been a positive development in the field of business. Until LinkedIn came along, often it was quite challenging to make and nurture connections with like-minded industry or professional colleagues, or to find relevant contacts deep within corporations or other organizations.

I’m old enough to remember the “bad old days” of fruitless searches through the Corporate Yellow Book, Hoover’s and Dun & Bradstreet mercantile listings to try to find good company contacts. Often the information was far too “upper-level,” out-of-date, or simply wrong.  Industry, state and regional directory listings were even worse.

Invariably, any data ferreted out needed to be vetted through phone calls made to beleaguered front-office receptionists who were understandably disinclined to spend much time being helpful.

Of course, as with Wikipedia all LinkedIn “data” is submitted information, and subject to varying degrees of accuracy. As well, the data are comprehensive and accurate only to the degree that each LinkedIn member keeps his or her employment and related information current and complete.

But as a crowd-sourcing database of information – and often with “deep-dive” data on members available to view – LinkedIn is miles ahead of where we were before.

That being said, there is one negative aspect about LinkedIn that seems to have become more pronounced over time — and that’s the burgeoning volume of LinkedIn connection requests that are happening.

Speaking for myself, I’ve spent an entire career nurturing my business relationships. That this has resulted in being one of the LinkedIn members who are in the “500+ connections” club speaks to a lifetime of establishing “real” connections with “real” people – not mindlessly sending out connection solicitations to just anyone.

But that’s what’s happening with many of the incoming requests-to-connect on LinkedIn. These days, I’m receiving requests daily from people I do not know personally and have never even heard of before.

These are the folks who take advantage of LinkedIn’s higher cost”premium membership” programs to gain access to the more detailed information contained in member profiles that is normally off-limits to all except first-degree connections.

In what ways are these people actually interested in connecting with me?  Are they simply sending out a rash of “spray-and-pray” requests in the hopes of getting a nibble … or perhaps making an effort to build their own network and look more like an “authority” in their line of work?

When I click through to view the profiles of those people requesting to connect, it turns out that most them are in fields that relate to my line of work, however tangentially. Likely they’ve identified my name based on shared professional organizations and vocational interests.

But their reasons for requesting to connect — if they even bother to give one — are so generic (or so lame) as to be laughable.

Early on, I did a bit of “empirical” research to see how a few of these connections might actually evolve after I accepted their request to connect. Big mistake, that was.  Recently, freelance copywriter extraordinaire Ed Gandia described something very similar about his own personal LinkedIn experience, characterizing the typical follow-up communiqué from a new LinkedIn connection as “the business equivalent of a marriage proposal” – to wit:

“I’d like to get on the phone with you about [marrying me/having kids/opening a joint bank account]. Here are three times I’m available to talk.  I’m so excited to hear what you can offer me as [my new husband].”

If ever we needed reminding about how not to engage in business development solicitations, these sorry LinkedIn communications are it.

The bright promise of LinkedIn is the ability to identify people with whom we can potentially work or collaborate.  In that regard, the platform can be very valuable.  It’s just too bad that so many people are now using it for ill-conceived (or perhaps desperate?) shotgun attempts to sell themselves, their products or their services.

It won’t work. Communications technology may have evolved but some fundamental things never change.  At the top of the list:  No one wants to be pestered by unsolicited pitches for products, consulting services, employment opportunities and the like.  Not then, not now, not ever.

Hopefully, LinkedIn can calibrate its business practices to ensure that the benefits of interacting with the social platform always outweigh the detriments. We all recognize that this is one way LinkedIn can monetize the data that’s valuable housed on its platform.  But LinkedIn needs to get this just right, lest they turn off their most consequential members – or worse, drive them away.

Cookie-blocking is having a big impact on ad revenues … now what?

When Google feels the need to go public about the state of the current ad revenue ecosystem, you know something’s up.

And “what’s up” is actually “what’s down.” According to a new study by Google, digital publishers are losing more than half of their potential ad revenue, on average, when readers set their web browser preferences to block cookies – those data files used to track the online activity of Internet users.

The impact of cookie-blocking is even bigger on news publishers, which are foregoing ad revenues of around 62%, according to the Google study.

The way Google conducted its investigation was to run a 4-month test among ~500 global publishers (May to August 2019). Google disabled cookies on a randomly selected part of each publisher’s traffic, which enabled it to compare results with and without the cookie-blocking functionality employed.

It’s only natural that Google would be keen to understand the revenue impact of cookie-blocking. Despite its best efforts to diversify its business, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, continues to rely heavily on ad revenues – to the tune of more than 85% of its entire business volume.

While that percent is down a little from the 90%+ figures of 5 or 10 years ago, in spite of diversifying into cloud computing and hardware such as mobile phones, the dizzyingly high percentage of Google revenues coming from ad sales hasn’t budged at all in more recent times.

And yet … even with all the cookie-blocking activity that’s now going on, it’s likely that this isn’t the biggest threat to Google’s business model. That distinction would go to governmental regulatory agencies and lawmakers – the people who are cracking down on the sharing of consumer data that underpins the rationale of media sales.

The regulatory pressures are biggest in Europe, but consumer privacy concerns are driving similar efforts in North America as well.

Figuring that a multipronged effort makes sense in order to counteract these trends, this week Google aired a proposal to give online users more control over how their data is being used in digital advertising, and seeking comments and feedback from interest parties.

On a parallel track, it has also initiated a project dubbed “Privacy Sandbox” to give publishers, advertisers, technology firms and web developers a vehicle to share proposals that will, in the words of Google, “protect consumer privacy while supporting the digital ad marketplace.”

Well, readers – what do you think? Do these initiatives have the potential to change the ecosystem to something more positive and actually achieve their objectives?  Or is this just another “fool’s errand” where attractive-sounding platitudes sufficiently (or insufficiently) mask a dimmer reality?

What’s the “long-game” in the U.S.-China trade conflict?

The efforts to craft a new trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China have run into some pretty major roadblocks in recent weeks and months.

Things came to another inflection point this week when President Trump announced that new tariffs would be imposed on more Chinese goods imported into the United States. As of September 1, pretty much all categories of Chinese imports will now be subject to tariffs.

If we look at the impact the protracted impasse has had on markets, the repercussions are plain to see. One result we’ve seen is that China has dipped from making up the largest portion of trade with the United States to being in third place now, behind Mexico and Canada:

But what’s the long-term prognosis for a trade deal with China? Recent world (and USA) statistics point to softening of the economy, which could have negative consequences across the board.

When it comes to perspectives on economic and business matters involving China and the Pacific Rim, I like to check in with my brother, Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked in the Far East for more than 20 years.  He has first-hand experience working in the Chinese market and is keenly aware of the issues of intellectual property protection, which is a major bone of contention between the United States and China and is one of the factors in the trade negotiations.  (Nelson runs a software company which has chosen to forego the Chinese market because of regulations requiring software firms that set up a joint ventures with Chinese companies to disclose their source code — something his firm will never do.)

I asked Nelson to share his thoughts about what he sees happening in the coming months.  Here are his observations:

Chinese President Xi has a lot on his plate right now. It isn’t just the U.S. trade war but also the Hong Kong disturbances, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the U.S. sending warships through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and China’s domestic banking sector weakness, to name just some. Trump has also put President Xi in a tight spot by demanding (or getting) Xi’s assurances that China will buy more U.S. agricultural products and will enact legislation protecting foreign intellectual property.  

In spite of his very substantial power, I predict that Xi will have a very tough time ramming Trump’s conditions down the throats of his countrymen. 

I should mention that the biggest issue here is intellectual property protection. The draft agreement that China “almost” signed had assurances that IP protection laws will be enacted, but Xi apparently nixed that draft whereupon the Chinese government stated that no government can promise, when negotiating a treaty with a foreign country, to change its domestic laws.

Technically, they’re right. For example, President Trump can’t commit to changing U.S. laws because only the Congress can do that under the constitutional separation of powers. Similarly, on paper, only China’s National People’s Congress (the national legislature) can change Chinese laws, and President Xi is not a member of the National People’s Congress. (Of course, this explanation conveniently overlooks the fact that both the Presidency and the National People’s Congress are subservient to the Communist Party of China, and that Xi is the General Secretary of the Communist Party, but still it’s technically correct.)

In view of all this, the natural Chinese instinct is to wait … and in this case, wait until the 2020 U.S. election and see what happens. If Trump is defeated for re-election, then perhaps many of Xi’s problems will disappear magically. On the other hand, if Trump stays in office maybe the pain that Trump’s China trade policy is inflicting on U.S. businesses and consumers will force Trump to lighten up a bit.  

In other words, President Xi has much to gain and relatively little to lose by playing the waiting game for a while. 

As for U.S. tariffs, those are causing Chinese businesses to adapt their supply chains by routing them through other East and Southeast Asian countries which are not subject to the tariffs. For instance, instead of sending products straight to the U.S., Chinese manufacturers are sending products to Vietnam or Thailand where a tiny bit of additional work is done – just enough to qualify for a “Made in Vietnam” or “Made in Thailand” label. (This adaptation partially explains Thailand’s large trade surplus which has made the Thai Baht one of the world’s best-performing currencies this year.)  

These maneuvers actually provide a safety valve for both Xi and Trump. For Xi, it cushions the reduction in demand for Chinese exports. At the same time it puts some additional pressure on Trump because this type of safety valve does not really exist for U.S. exporters trying to evade reciprocal Chinese tariffs.  But on the plus side for Trump, it tends to dampen the impact of higher tariffs pushing up U.S. producer and consumer prices.

If you ask me to bottom-line this, the trade problems look more like a protracted siege than an episode of brinksmanship.

How the siege is resolved depends on how strong Trump’s position will be after the 2020 election. If the Democrats continue with their leftward lurch, then Xi will eventually have to cave because Trump’s position will be strong (I’d say a 65% probability of re-election). But if the Democrats come to their senses and Trump continues shooting himself in the foot, then he’s in real danger of losing the election and Xi will come up the big winner (I’d give this a 35% probability as of today). 

So there you have it: the prognosis from someone who is “on the ground” in East Asia.  What are your thoughts?  Are you in broad agreement or do you see things differently?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

Evidently, America isn’t in IKEA’s manufacturing future …

Going, going, gone …

Over the past several years, the political mantra has been that jobs are now coming back to the United States – particularly manufacturing ones.

That may well be. But this past week we’ve learned that IKEA plans to close its last remaining U.S. production facility.  The iconic home furnishings company has announced that it will be closing its manufacturing plant in Danville, Virginia by the end of the year.

The Danville plant makes wood-based furniture and furnishings for IKEA’s retail store outlets in the United States and Canada.

The reason for the plant closure, as it turns out, is a bit ironic. According to IKEA, high raw materials costs in North America are triggering the move, because those costs are actually significantly lower in Europe than they are here.  Even accounting for other input costs like labor that are higher in Europe, shifting production to Europe will keep product prices lower for U.S. retailers, IKEA claims.

So much for the notion that imports from Europe are overpriced compared to domestically produced ones!

The Danville plant isn’t even that old, either. Far from being some multi-story inefficient dinosaur left over from a half-century ago, the manufacturing facility opened only in 2008, making it only about a decade old.  At its peak the plant employed around 400 people.

IKEA made staff cuts or around 20% earlier in the year, before following up with this latest announcement that will wipe out 300 more jobs in a community that can scarcely withstand such large economic shocks.

With the closure of Danville, IKEA will still have more than 40 production plants operating around the world. It employs around 20,000 workers in those plants (out of a total workforce of ~160,000, most of which are employed in the company’s vast retail and distribution business activities).

So, it doesn’t appear that IKEA will be exiting the manufacturing sector anytime soon.  It’s just that … those manufacturing activities no longer include the United States.

As a certain well-known U.S. political leader might say, “Sad!”

Making sense of the conflicting narratives about China’s economic and political aspirations.

Astonishingly tone-deaf and factually questionable: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man … they can’t even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains … in the west. They can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” (Former Vice President Joe Biden, May 1, 2019)

In recent months, we’ve been hearing a wide range of views about China’s economic and political aspirations and their potential implications for the United States.

Some of the opinions being expressed seem to be polar opposites — such as President Donald Trump’s pronouncements that the United States has been “ripped off” by China for decades.  Contrast this with former Vice President Joe Biden’s dismissive contention that China represents no competition for the United States at all.

Several days ago, the political commentator Dick Morris published an op-ed piece in the Western Journal in which he seems to be nearly 100% “all-in” with the alarmists.

The column is titled Trump Is Waging (and Winning) a Peaceful World War III Against China.  My curiosity aroused, I decided to get in touch with my brother, Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked in the Far East for the past 20+ years. Being an American “on the ground” in countries like China, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia gives Nelson an interesting perspective from which to be a “reality check” on the views we’re hearing locally.

I sent Nelson a link to the Morris op-ed and asked for his reaction. Here is what he communicated back to me: 

I think Dick Morris is correct to contend that the Chinese government’s long-term vision is bigger than just accumulating more wealth and power. In fact, I wrote about this topic in the book I co-authored with Janson Yap, when describing China’s “Belt and Road” initiatives as a geographic positioning threat to Singapore.

 I wrote:  

“As a land-based strategy, the SREB [Silk Road Economic Belt] promises greater long-term rewards for China than the MSR [Maritime Silk Road]; these would echo the impact of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, which marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the U.S. to becoming one of the preeminent economic empires of all time.”

 The context here is, if you look back through history, the world’s most dominant economic empires were either terrestrial or maritime — but not both — until the U.S. came along. As I further wrote in the book:

“After gaining control over both strategic land and maritime trade routes with the completion of the Panama Canal in 1913, America became the first land-based and maritime economic empire in history; its dominance has spanned over a century, from 1916 to the present. Uncoincidentally, the American economic empire began when the Panama Canal was completed, but the Panama Canal has arguably contributed far less to America’s GDP than the country’s investments in transcontinental rail and road transportation infrastructure.” 

In short, I am absolutely sure China’s government aspires to overtake the U.S. as the world’s dominant terrestrial and maritime economic empire, and to hold that position for at least a century if not longer. But this would not be the first time in history that China has held such a position. 

For the historical context, refer to: http://fortune.com/2014/10/05/most-powerful-economic-empires-of-all-time/. There you will see that the U.S. produced half the world’s economic output in circa 1950. China’s Song Dynasty was the world’s preeminent economic empire in circa 1200 AD, producing 25% to 30% of global output. Only the U.S. and the Roman Empire have ever matched or exceeded that marker. 

I can tell you from my considerable experience on the ground in China that the strategic vision of its leaders is grounded in much more than just backward-looking grievance and necessity. Although the 19th Century Opium Wars (which were fought during the Qing Dynasty against the British Empire, and occurred during the period of the British Empire’s economic ascendancy) are often trotted out in China’s government-controlled English language dailies, the Chinese people I know have little or no knowledge of the Opium Wars or the colonial victimization China allegedly suffered a century and a half ago.  

But they are acutely aware, and genuinely proud, of China’s emergence as a leading economic powerhouse; and this is how the Chinese government maintains its legitimacy.   

China’s ambitions, in other words, have much more to do with reinstating its former glory (the Song Dynasty economic empire) than with righting wrongs (dominance by colonial powers), and are fundamental props for maintaining the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power. 

This view renders many of Dick Morris’ comments unnecessarily hyperbolic; for example “[China’s] goal is to reduce the rest of the world to colonial or dominion status, controlled politically, socially, intellectually, and economically by China. In turn, China is run by a handful of men in Beijing who need not pay the slightest attention to the views of those they govern or the nations they dominate.”  

No, China’s goal is to become the world’s dominant economic empire but, just as the Americans before them, they don’t have to exert the same degree of control over the rest of the world as they do within their own territory to achieve this goal.  

And no, they require constant support from the Chinese population to achieve this goal, even though they run an authoritarian state. Why else would they devote so many resources to the “Great Chinese Firewall” if there is no need to “pay the slightest attention to the views of those they govern”? 

Yes, Trump’s trade war with China is important but his motive is to reverse the flow of jobs and capital out of the U.S. to China, which is not the same thing as launching an “economic World War III.” At a more practical and mundane level, it’s to fulfil a pile of campaign promises which Trump made when he was running for President, and to secure the loyalty of his base. 

_______________________________

So there you have it: the perspectives of someone “on the scene” in the Far East — holding a view that is more nuanced than the hyperbole of the alarmists, but also clear-eyed and miles apart from the head-in-the-sand naiveté of other politicians like Joe Biden.

Let’s also hope for a more meaningful and reality-based discourse on the topic of China in the coming months and years.