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Thursday, April 03, 2008


Stats, stats, stats

Can't get enough of statistics, I really can't. First of all, you have to question them. Don't give in to the allure of your first interpretation. Dig deep and dive in, and keep questioning. Chances are that if someone is using stats to prove an argument then they are using only those stats that help their case. So it follows that other stats will work against their case. Only when you see the full picture will you get a chance to make a reasoned, informed choice. Sounds simple enough but just a quick look in the media (any medium) will show you an example of biased use of stats. Whether by accident or design, it happens every day.

Interesting Wharton article on this topic here.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Environmental cues and marketing

Well, yes, it does make some sense. Read this first, from Wharton: "Marketers should consider the nature of consumer environments when designing product names, packages and advertising campaigns," the researchers conclude. "A car dealership in Minnesota might consider linking itself to cold weather or mittens, whereas a restaurant in Arizona might want to consider links to the dry climate. Depending on what planet NASA decides to go to next, the Mars candy company might even want to think about introducing a new candy bar."

And then imagine what it means. Well it means that a sizable number of us are influenced by environmental cues - heck, probably all of us are influenced by these cues, surely? Anyway, some of us are influenced to actually do something, be it to subconsciously remember to eat healthily or just to favor one color over another. Well that makes sense, doesn't it, as whatever is lurking in our working memory does tend to hang around in our heads, like pop songs and certain smells and their associated feelings. Somethings just "jog" our memories and away we go...

It's not unreasonable to think that targeting colors and messages tightly around a product will help sell that product. I can remember being told many years ago when I started in the sales game (a game I left some years later) that my choice of suit and tie color would have an impact on my sales. Well I never really noticed but I can say that a sober, dark suited salesman entering a recording studio in the mid-80s was treated with undeserved respect!

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Dell's continuing case study

You can't ask for a better case study, really. The Kodak vs Polaroid debacle, followed by Kodak vs Digital photography, perhaps? Well Dell vs everyone is a good one, anyway, although sometimes it looks like Dell vs Dell. Here's a link for you: Dell, the world's second largest PC vendor, plans to cut costs by $3 billion as it slashes the price of materials and components going into its gadgets and reduces operating expenses, including jobs, the company said Monday. "Now this does not happen overnight," said Lynn Tyson, vice president of investor relations at Dell, on the company's investor blog. "In fact we said we believe it will take three years to achieve an annualized savings of $3 billion. This means that before you adjust for growth, we believe our costs at the end of our fiscal 2011 will be $3 billion lower than at the end of fiscal 2008." Money saved from the cost reductions will be invested back into the business and used to improve profitability, Tyson said.

Now they are saying that they will cut some labour out of the business, which is a common way to cut costs. And they will cut out a PC production line - apparently they misjudged the size and timing of the switch to notebooks, although how they could do that is beyond me. Perhaps more worrying is that they plan to "seek savings in all areas, from design, manufacturing, logistics, materials, and operating expenses", and that they "may also sell or spin off...Dell Financial Services".

For a company that started out with a claimed innovative means of assembling PCs "to order" via super-cheap phone and on-line distribution, it's worrying that incremental review of operational costs is not embedded into the company ethos. After all, that's where they started. Pulling together reasonable quality components from competing suppliers in a just-in-time assembly process that met the individual needs of consumers, without the added overheads that the big players had built in. Oh dear. Maybe they became fat and lazy too?

Well if if needs to be knifed, so be it. As long as quality is maintained, at least where it is now, I mean. Any less and the compromises will peek through just a bit too clearly. But hiving off the finance arm? Is this a reflection of recent loss of focus on core competence? Or are they bleeding so badly that they need to convert assets to cash, pronto?

All very interesting to watch as this case study unfolds.

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Monday, March 31, 2008


Lacking subsidies, or lacking a competitive niche?

The Aussie car makers, and there used to be plenty of 'em, once made small cars, and small engines. Leyland and its predecessors, for example, made useful if unreliable small fours. GM locally made a version of the Opel Kadett, and similarly adapted another Opel to make the bigger Holden Camira, and exported its 4 cylinder engine to places like - gasp - Korea. Aussie factories made Ford Escorts (or more correctly assembled them, badly) and even Volkswagen Golfs. They assembled Volvos and Nissans, and even plugged Holden engines into small Nissan Pulsars. Chrysler had a go as well with the small-ish Centura before selling out to Mitsubishi who sold up a storm with the 4-cylinder Sigma. There were Mazda-sourced and Ford assembled Lasers. And they too sold well. Completely-knocked-down kits were a common way into the small-four market game, but there were examples of more elaborately transformed vehicles as well. It has been done, and done pretty well.

But for reasons of pragmatism or shortsightedness, coupled with lowering trade barriers and/or the strengthening of the Aussie dollar against the strong car-maker's currencies, making imports increasingly cheap, it all changed. The old guard died off, leaving just old hands Ford and Holden on one side with the blow-ins Toyota and Mitsubishi on the other. Now Mitsubishi has quit as well. Just 3 makers left standing, all making the same sort of big, fat, dull cars. Everything else - everything decent - is imported.

Now you could say that big "family" cars have become the Aussie car maker's core competency. But these dinosaurs don't even sell to families, these are corporate fleet sales vehicles, selling on the back of a flawed tax system that subsidises excess. On the other hand they export small numbers to the car-mad US, South Africa and the who-cares-about-fuel-efficiency Middle East; and fewer still to rich Europeans looking for a powerful car without a BMW or Merc badge. But this is all small beer. Currency fluctuations would kill these markets in an instant, and a big rise in fuel cost would do the same. Or a rise in shipping costs for that matter. After all, you have to ship these dinosaurs all the way from Australia to anywhere else. It's a big distance and an added burden to an already-struggling camel.

But the remaining factories employ thousands of people. They may be building doomed rubbish, or at best a dwindling niche vehicle, but they remain employees, voters and human beings. Nevertheless we can't just dump the truth on 'em, we have to play political games.

So, that's the background. Then you read stuff like this: AUSTRALIAN-based car manufacturers have fewer subsidies and less protection than others overseas and face more difficulties exporting to Asia, two new papers will reveal today. And you think, 'same old, same old'. Let's prop up a basket case - not fix it, mind, just prop it up - and all will be well for a few more months. But no, Victorian Premier Steve Bracks said this, instead: But it would be wrong, he said, to assume his final report would call for more assistance to the industry. Hmmm. If not "more" then does that mean existing subsidies stay?

Well he went on to explain that "The review is likely to lead to an overhaul of how the government allocates its billions of dollars of assistance to the car industry", or words to that effect. To translate that a bit, what is being proposed is that leaner, lighter, more efficient big cars are what we want, and that calling the subsidies "investments in green technology" will make them less of a subsidy and more like good government in action. Oh joy.

OK, so yes, we have accidentally or on purpose found ourselves building only big cars, and yes, you can call that a niche. And yes, plenty of other places make great small cars and we are unlikely to make progress trying to beat Korea, China and India at that game. But plenty of countries make far better big cars, too. In fact we make pretty poor big cars. They are dull and unenlightened beasts that don't sell well now. No amount of dressing up subsidies as 'technological investments in the future' will remove the urgency from the world's shift to smaller vehicles. And not only are we are thousands of kilometres away from key markets, we just don't make cars very well. Our economy has moved into "services" big time and old style manufacturing is just not what Australia does well. So let's (for once) admit it, cut our losses and find real jobs for these people, before they feel the pain of our indecision. These workers deserve better than being strung along endlessly with forlorn hopes that cannot possible pass the barest of reality checks.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008


So you think the world isn't changing?

What can we say about our world today? We are losing species and thus diversity as our human population and allied environmental impact grows day-by-day. Obvious enough, but what are we doing about it? We remain focused on economic wealth at the expense of our own futures. Well, that's probably true, although there is an altruistic side to humanity that will possibly - hopefully - one day get the better of greed.

In the meantime let's reflect on what's happening economically. An iconic powerhouse
like Ford is dumping its prestige brands one by one, raising cash for a last gasp attempt at survival, or just getting rid of failing brands. Does this say anything about the US economy, or US car companies in general, or US car company management vision? Probably a yes in all 3 boxes. From Fairfax: US automaker Ford has agreed to sell its luxury brands Jaguar and Land Rover to India's Tata Motors for more than $US2 billion ($A2.2 billion), a source familiar with the deal says.

So what does this say about India's economy, or the growth of Tata (a company that has fingers in many pies and plans to sell a super-cheap small car around the world)? I'd say India (and China) will be matching - perhaps passing - the US soon enough. 10 years, or 5? What will we make of that?

Meanwhile, again from Fairfax: Chinese cars are coming to Australia, but they won't necessarily undercut Korean cars on price. What does this say about the car market? Hello cheap small cars, goodbye to big, fat cars and luxo-barges, perhaps? Or about China's ambitions as an exporter of elaborately transformed goods? Or of Korea? What indeed do we imagine to be the effect on Japan and its car makers, or more likely, the US car makers? Anyone among the US car makers getting that sinking feeling?

Again from Drive, Fairfax's car section: If Americans take to the Commodore, it will help secure the future of Australia's favourite sedan. Sales of large cars in Australia are at a 14-year low as new-car buyers embrace imported vehicles in record numbers. What do we make of this? US-owned car maker can't adapt fast enough to survive in Australia, looks to export failing fat car to the biggest failing fat car market of them all, the US. Well "desperation" and "short-term solution" come to mind. If the US itself can't keep up with a changing market, how long will Holden survive as it tries to bolster its short-term future with poorly-targeted cars that the Aussie market doesn't want either? Are we getting that sinking feeling again?

Still, Holden sells far more fat cars in Oz than Ford, and it's better at exporting them, too. So Ford in Australia had better adapt, too, and fast. And it could be worse: Mitsubishi will build its last car in Adelaide on Thursday, ahead of the closure of its local assembly operations on Friday. If a Japanese manufacturer, admittedly one with a few problems everywhere, can't make a go of manufacturing in Australia, then what hope has anyone of making a go of it?

As it stands Australia is great at mining and shipping iron ore to Japan, China and Korea, and we buy their products in return. So it's a win-win whilst we have lots of iron ore and they build good cars and other products. But if the Aussie dollar turned around and bit us, and imported goods cost twice what they do now, where would we be? When you think about it we'd be better off as an exporter - and these dinosaurian local car makers would get some relief. And we'd be raking in even more export dollars. But gee inflation would go through the roof. Oh what a tangled web we weave.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008


Computing in the clouds: not just a book store

Here's a business case for you. Amazon is the classic example of a new model, but which model is it? What exactly does Amazon do? You could say that Amazon is an online bookstore, which it is, but it also sells just about everything these days. So it's an online retailer, isn't it? Well yes, but wait. It has the front-end of an online retailer but the back-end is a combination of a slick short-term warehousing and despatch service with a massively capable and finely-tuned computing infrastructure. So?

OK, so our online retailer looks like this.
  1. It offers goods at one website, sure, but also keeps track of what you buy and lets you know what other things you may like. It acts a bit like a helpful shop assistant with a fantastic memory
  2. It takes takes your orders, tells you if it's in-stock or not and organizes despatch, all online, again like a helpful small-store guy
  3. It also crawls other loosely affiliated websites and looks for product mentions that are within its scope; if it finds some they get hot-linked to the Amazon site. Search buttons are also provided. This is not so usual in the 'real' world, but possible. In return for doing some of Amazon's work the affiliates get a commission. Now it's not a unique method in and of itself but the way it's applied presents as an innovation. It adapts an old methodology to do new stuff in a new place
  4. So just to recap, it sells, purchases, briefly stores and slickly despatches; and lets you (the customer) know exactly what's happening at each step.
And behind the scenes are web developers writing the code that does all the smart stuff. And hardware that hosts all of the virtual retailing and supply-chain coordination applications. And this is the start of the next Amazon idea.
  1. Amazon realized that it could offer its slick despatch service to other organizations, for a fee. So another provider (of any sort, virtual or not) could use Amazon's physical presence as if it owned it, but only as much as it needed, when it needed it. This was a win-win, providing first-class despatch for anyone and taking up Amazon's slack
  2. But wait, it doesn't end there. Amazon further realized that the computer infrastructure itself could be turned over to other people's tasks, and opened up access to anyone who wants to buy a slice of computing power, no matter how small.
Now it's not a new idea, time-sliced computing has been around for yonks. But offering it to anyone, anywhere, on an as-used basis is an innovation. IBM may have offered shared mainframe time to big business decades ago but it didn't offer it to me personally, and I couldn't have accessed it anyway. But Amazon has offered it, and made it easy to access. Coupled with the Internet and you have frictionless, anyplace scalable computing, when you want it.

So what exactly is Amazon now? An online retailer or a start-up cloud-computing market leader? Well it's certainly not just a book store.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Apple Music Event 2001-The First Ever iPod Introduction

I don't necessarily think the iPod was an innovation in and of itself - but I can't argue with the successful launch, the enduring marketing spin and the market dominance. You have to respect a product that dominates the market not by technical excellence but by sleek looks and intuitive ease of use.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


Is there such a thing as a good meeting?

You know how a good meeting feels. It's fast, it engages, it gets to the point. You have the right people there, they have answers and all of the actions are documented. You can see how such a gathering will remove roadblocks and get the job done.

Whereas a bad meeting drags on, has poorly engaged participants - and often the wrong ones - and gets nothing done. There are plenty of questions at such a meeting but few answers. No-one talks in turn and a few people wonder what they are there for. It all gets pushed back to the next meeting, and likely as not no-one took any minutes so you repeat the exercise next time.

Worst of all both meetings cost money as well as time. So how do you fix this? It seems easy enough that you:
  1. plan ahead, investigate the issues and lay them down in a clear way
  2. you appoint a chair (if it's not you)
  3. and make sure beforehand that you have invited the right people: people who know what the topics are and have a stake in the outcomes
  4. you set time limits and stick by them
  5. you also need to control the meeting fairly, make sure anyone with a contribution gets a go and that the group considers all sides
  6. you make sure someone takes minutes and that actions are clearly owned and tracked to completion.
And then it still doesn't work. How about you just decide what needs to be done and either do it yourself or ask the others to do it? Well that may work, or you will miss some insight or not gain the necessary "skin in the game" and fail to "get traction". It comes back to company culture and that willingness to get stuck in - or fiddle-faddle about with bureaucracy.


Sunday, November 04, 2007


Care to Google up a robotic car?

You may have noticed the recent DARPA-organised robotic car competition. If you didn't you can read about it here in a Forbes article. It's certainly impressive and looked like a lot of fun. Aside from enhancing research into practical robotics, competitions between robotic cars completing 'races' in urban environments is an interesting look into a Sci-fi future of immense wonder. There must be a business model here for someone.

Just imagine: robotic sports, anyone? Google-search your way to an urban pleasure robot for hire, perhaps? Replace human-driven taxis with robots and cut down on those inane cab-driver conversations? (Unless the robots get speech chips as well of course.) Or robotic buses that eliminate the end-of-shift grumpy-driver syndrome? Or more seriously, competent robotic day-surgery in remote locations without the need for expensive, highly-trained human surgeons "on-site". It's potentially a mix of good and bad, isn't it? More programmers and robotics experts, fewer jobs for real people.

Now I'm not a Luddite, but I do wonder about whether we think these things through. Like Einstein wondering whether his work opened to door to nuclear war.

And sure enough these harmless-looking robot games have a military goal as well, with lives saved if you can send more robots into battle instead of warm bodies. The downside to robotic wars, however, are grim. Without the appropriate programming robots will not show human mercy or simple judgment, and may indeed be programmed to be exactly that - inhumane killing machines. And war with 'thinking' machines instead of people at risk may lower the barriers to war itself. So we get more war with fewer consequences - well, if you are on the winning side, anyway.

Meanwhile Google's 'first privately-owned car on the moon' competition is a bit wacky - and certainly way-out - but hints at where we may be going next in our personal transport. Despite the fun of it all it's possible that our obsession with cars will end on Earth when we run out of accessible, cheap resources; equally it's hard to see how lunar exploration and exploitation will solve our immediate problems. But that's humanity - pressing on, pushing the boundaries and fixing up the broken stuff later.

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Friday, November 02, 2007


OpenSocial opens can of worms? Naaaaah.

Google's strategy is clear enough, and it's a good one. They have fingers in all the pies, and a winner in Orkut. But they have a problem. Orkut is big in the wrong places, and not big enough in the markets that to Google (and its shareholders) really matter. It's "first-world-centric" and wrong, but money talks, yes?

So here we are, mired in a world of seemingly endless choice, with social networks all around us battling for the right market to share and the "un-social" networks desperately adding social-like features to boot. Given the popularity and the potential it's inevitable that an aggregator would come along to join the pieces and gang up on facebook. And who better than Google? After all, if you belong to 2 or 3 social networks already, as many of us do, we feel the pain of having to log into different, 'fenced-off' systems. Whilst OpenSocial has some big buddies on board already it still has to woo developers, as well as beat facebook and its locked-down, non-transportable markup. So it's not going to be a quick kill.

Indeed it will be an interesting tussle. But I'd bet on the most integrated approach winning.
And that's Google's plan, too.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007


The Globalisation myth?

You can poke holes in anything if you pick the right stats. I guess that's the great thing about statistics, isn't it, that it can be used so elegantly and persuasively in support or attack of an idea. For example many believe that lowering trade barriers and increasing world connectivity (both of which are patently true - it really has happened, if not yet to the "nth" degree) has resulted in a more level playing field for both individuals (that's you and me) and businesses (big and small) to compete on a global scale. On the face of it that's surely true.

Indeed there are many, many examples of small "local" businesses operating on the web and staking a global market share which would otherwise take major investment in distribution effort. Think of the marketing, sales reps, call centres, support staff, wholesalers and distributors required for a small business to expand beyond its local area. Now think of all the small ebay businesses that have prospered globally, the small shops that garner 10, 20 or 30% of their trade now from a global reach, the companies that leverage Amazon's computer services and back end distribution services. It doesn't take much looking to see new forms of distribution and profit-taking that takes advantage both of lower trade barriers and the near-frictionlessness of global Internet commerce.

Well maybe that's all wrong, or out of proportion, anyway. Apparently Harvard Business School professor Pankaj Ghemawat calls that vision of the early 21st century “globaloney” and has written a book about it. Now you could say right up front that he is saying "it's not so" when he's (a) leveraging the Internet to promote and sell his book and (b) taking advantage of the breakdown of international book distribution cartels by promoting and selling his book globally. But I'm being glib, aren't I?

He has been quoted as saying that international trade today represents less than 10% of most economies. He's criticising a popular "25%" figure but here in Australia I have seen figures for exports alone ranging from 12% in the 1950s to 22% in 1996, and back to 18% of Australian GDP in 2006. Which would indeed support around 25%, if you add in imports, surely? Maybe he's working on some global average when he gets the 10% figure? Even so, surely trade varies by country and fluctuates with exchange rates and commodity prices, so a net exporter of commodities (things like oil, iron ore and coal, notoriously hard to shift over the Internet) will need to look very closely at the figures and do some breakdowns by type of transaction to really draw conclusions that stick. I'm not sure even the OECD has done the sort of work needed to truly even out the stats globally, but probably they have (I'll look it up when I get a chance).

In any case his stance is that most economic activity happens locally, and you can hardly argue with that. Most of us shop at local supermarkets, buy most of our day to day goods and services locally and if we buy a car or build a house - well, there's a global connection with the car but for most of us it involves local trade. Indeed the highest price is paid by the end user and the global component is diminished substantially by margins added along the way.

So I guess I agree with Pankaj Ghemawat, in that local still rules overall. But that doesn't mean that the world hasn't changed, only that some things are more resistant to change than others. It's still hard to beat shopping at a local store where you can examine and receive the goods (especially food and clothing) immediately. However as real-time Internet commerce improves on static images and provides a more immersive shopping experience I'm sure it will garner a bigger share of these 'resistant' products.

And trade barriers have lifted and I can buy imported cars far more easily and cheaply than ever before. I know that's true. Ghemawat also writes of immigration rates falling as some proof that we aren't globalising like we think we are, whereas I know that that my personal contact with the greater world community is at an all-time high. Email, online chat and Web 2.0 has brought us all closer, surely? As well, tourism is at an all-time high. People may not be moving to another country to live, but maybe moving to another country is not so necessary now? Perhaps the drivers of population movement are different in the 21st century? Which is also in agreement with Ghemawat's view, but what actually is he saying by this? That because (for example) Europe hasn't suffered another World War recently and has been at relative peace and prosperity for some time we aren't globalising like we think we are? Is Ghemawat comparing the immigration stats for one period of history with another and drawing weird conclusions? Maybe.

To my mind Pankaj Ghemawat is stating the obvious and making some rather unprofound motherhood statements. Yes, it's true, people are not driven to relocate from country to country like they were. However tourism is up. Yes, it's true, local transactions beat global ones by volume and value. But the types and numbers of transactions made globally have certainly changed and bear some examination. And trade barriers are down and the patterns of world trade have changed.

If that's not enough change to mean we've 'globalised' then that's fine. It just means that what we don't actually have is clear and agreed definition of 'globalisation'. The BNET story that sparked my rave is here by the way.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Virtualization and servers

Pretty dull, eh? Actually I like the bit where the narrator suggests that the servers need not be "aware" that they are virtualized... hmmm, awareness. SO far I haven't detected any awareness out of my PCs, but I'm sure the day will come. It's a good animation, anyway, and will get you up to speed on the basics of vitualized hardware. From InfoWorld.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Strategy... overused, misunderstood

It's defined pretty clearly as the overarching main play of your business, yet few managers can spell it out. In fact most CEOs get confused as well and just sprinkle the S-word as often as possible to sound important "going forward" (as if we can or want to "go backward"). It's strategy. And once it's out there, it gets overused. A tactic is a smaller play, one that (hopefully!) aligns with your overarching strategy, yet we see almost everything become a strategy and every division of our companies become strategic. Like strategic HR, strategic IT and strategic coffee-breaks.

I was prompted to write this because of this quote, from Harvard Business Press...In a nutshell, as illustrated below, mission is about what will be achieved; the value network is about with whom value will be created and captured; strategy is about how resources should be allocated to accomplish the mission in the context of the value network; and vision and incentives is about why people in the organization should feel motivated to perform at a high level. Together, the mission, network, strategy, and vision define the strategic direction for a business. They provide the what, who, how, and why necessary to powerfully align action in complex organizations.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Blogging on...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Business Intelligence Demonstration

I was surprised at this one... SQL services explained in great detail and very, very well. Great case study of BI, OLAP and more. 26mins but worth it.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Le Tour de France 2007 - Stage 8 - Oh the pain

A Danish 'chicken' takes the stage and the lead; Mick Rogers falls, dislocates shoulder and calls it quits.; Moreau attacks anything that moves. And, distressingly, O'Grady - out. McEwen - out. The GC is all over the place and it'll be on again after the rest day. Well it's exciting but it would be nice to see some racing rather than so much crashing. I'm a bit afraid to get on my bike now, watching all of this falling.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007


Pretty cool network management tool

I stumbled over this one, Spiceworks and thought I'd share it with you. Basically it's a network-based device discovery and management tool. It may sound dull but it's (a) free and (b) works. If you have a small LAN and hanker after something that looks around and monitors your devices - workstations, routers, whatever - this is worth a look.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Dave Ulrich on HR's arrival - or not

Dave Ulrich is famous enough in the HR game - at least amongst those who study HR, anyway - that he's always worth reading just in case. In this article in Workforce Week he stresses the need for HR to remember to explain the value it is adding to the business as well as trumpeting what it does. Selling HR, is how I'd put it.

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