dimanche 9 décembre 2012

Americans work in silos but terrific in execution, French creative but lame in execution (e.g. online journalism)

In this paper, let's talk about a crucial topic : the discrepancies in the way of working between US & France. I usually dislike generalities : America is not a "block" : eastern/western/northern/southern differences, white/blue collar, ethnic origin, ... Same in France. Basically, you'd need to work on a case-by-case basis but that's not possible so let's proceed with generalities. I'm no expert in US working habits. I never worked in US, been in business with Americans for 4 or 5 years tops. My main (exciting) experience is when the French company where I was CFO had been acquired by a California-headquartered one. I had to deal with US management for a year before moving on.

Basically, Americans tend to work like in the Army. When a manager gives a job description, team members follow it, no more, no less. And they don't waste time asking tons of questions. In France, that's the opposite. Team members are asking a lot of questions : "why this decision ?" "what's the rational ?" and they spend a lot of time discussing it a the coffee machine. Team members won't apply a decision if they don't understand it and copes with it (note it's the same thing with citizen and law. And myself. I don't understand the rational of speed limits implementation - why 70 mph at this place ? - and I don't cope with it, at all. So I do not respect speed limits, I follow my own rule : no more than 20 mph above the speed limit  - where the real troubles begin if you get caught and I've been several times - if the weather and traffic allows it - according to my very own perception). 

Job description small arrangements

So, when managing people in France, you'd better rely on explaining and manipulating (in the right way of the term and for a good cause) rather than use your authority. Now, pros and cons come with that. French people sort their job description. They will discard some items but also do some stuff not in their job description if they're committed and think it's good for company. They would also change some part of job desc items for the greater good of company - according to their perception.  Those working habits allow an organizational creativity to emerge and reinforce colleagues cooperation. At the opposite, American tend to work in silos. In my experience, the outcome is that, in a very small company, for a same job to perform, you'll need twice more people in US than in France. I'm talking about creativity potential dry-up here but Apple is the perfect example that US is at the leading-edge of creativity. But Steve Jobs biography shows perfectly that his creativity would led to nothing without a rock strong execution. And that's where we're failing in France : Execution. Our economical history is full of inventions made in France (the 1st "real car" had been put on the market in 1873 by a French but the massive production was led by Henry Ford. I could list dozens of example like this but, indeed, Internet is an US invention) but everybody forgot that it was French. Because we were unable to execute and other people, often Americans (Germans too), are executing our ideas so well that the world forget it was a French idea at the very beginning. And the cash is not flowing towards us.

As company grows, the advantage coming from our work habits tend to disappear and become clearly a problem. That's one of the explanation that, in the French blue chips, you have no companies founded later than 30 or 40 years ago. And many founded one or two centuries ago. No Apple, Google or Dell in France ("Free", a telco, may be a very recent exception). Cause we're unable to execute. Too many questions and approximations in the chain of command. No respect of the chain of command where US companies execution ability is as powerful as Stalin's organ like.

Note that if you persist in working on a part of your job desc only and, for each time, acting on what you think is the best despite the orders, your job will be at risk. But 5,000,000 french employees (15 to 20% of overall employees) are working, directly or indirectly, for government. And a lot of them have a "lifetime employment warranty" (except for massive fraud or grand theft - which is very rare. On a rare number I found, 264 out of 5,000,000 governmental employees had been revoked in 1988 - that's one over 500 in a lifetime - 0.2% probability). So some of them may be tempted to act "as they please".

The US/France discrepancy also exist within Europe. Like in many other areas, you can split Europe in "beer drinkers" (England, Germany, Netherlands, ...) and "wine drinkers" (France, Italy, Spain, Greece, ..). On the matter I've just spoken about, "wine drinkers" tend to act like French, Beer drinkers like Americans.

A personal experience in online journalism

I wrote an economic blog for Liberation, one of the three main generalist national French newspaper (although  only 175.000 copies printed and 125.000 sold daily only - 14% of them by the Air France airline). It did this for 3 years, published about 170 posts, generating 1.6 millions pages viewed (not that bad at french scale), 6,400 comments and great readers appreciation. A very good experience and a lot of fun. So why did I stop ? The deal was very clear from the beginning and I was OK with it : Liberation was getting some free content and traffic (not insignificant for the online edition as an exec told me "off") , I was gaining some visibility to expose my views and thoughts (personal branding). But, as the time goes by, I was expecting a little bit more : some recognition signs from Liberation. Nothing fancy, no over-expensive diners. The last thing I got was a half-a-day visit of the newsroom (I got to pay my train ticket to come from the town I live but don't be greedy), such a great experience. But I expected some small free other signs of Liberation : get to talk with economics journalists of the newspaper, got to meet other bloggers. Liberation is organizing conferences where experts and politics are debating in front of a 1,000 people attendance. The entrance was on invitation only (maybe you can pay and go if you're not invited, I don't know). I would have expected an invitation, not in the VIP lounge, not having my travel and accommodation paid. Just an invitation. Again, nothing fancy. Just some "recognition toys".

A glimpse of French press business model

The french press is in bad shape. The national press is less and less read and numbers of copies sold per capita is #23 in the world. Between '94 and '04, the number of sold copies had dropped by 7.2%. More than 3% drop for 2008 only. All national paper sales are lowering. Readers are older and older. Marketshares are being taken by free press and regional press (progressing sharply). The five daily papers best-sellers are, in order : Free press one (782,000 copies), Regional one (722,000), Free press one (736,000), Regional one (532,000) and, finally, one of the "Big 3" of national generalist press, Le Figaro (320,000 copies sold daily). Le Monde, the most glorious in the "Best 3", is selling 300,000 copies a day vs 2 millions for US Today, 3 millions for The Sun (UK) and 13 millions for Yomiuri Shinbun (Japan where the population is only twice the French one). The five english best sellers are 5 times more sold than the five french best-sellers. Between '06 and '07, ads spending, had rose by 39% on Internet, 2% on TV but dropped by 10% on national newspapers.

Liberation, among them, is fighting to find a new business model. Its financials are awful (huge indebtedness and no assets other than the brand) and any other companies would have had go to bankruptcy. If Liberation, Le Monde or Le Figaro (the "Big 3) are still alive that's because :
  • French press get yearly subventions equals to $30 per french citizen aged 15+. That's 13% of the press revenues
  • Liberation, Le Monde, Le Figaro got equities from rich folks with absolutely no hope of Return on Equity (RoE). That means those people either are disinterested sponsorship either thy got a political agenda. For The Figaro, the second choice applies. The investor / sponsor said he will use his newspaper to fight the "leftist cancer". Which does not mean french journalists are not independent and fight hard for this independence.
  • Basically, the Big 3 is surviving because politicians think it's the better way to address population (TV & radio would quote those papers with the reinsurance given by the brand). If they have not found a new business model before, the day the politicians realize they's better address directly TV or radios or talk to citizen through social networks, the Big 3 is dead. In a blink of an eye.
Ajouter une légende
Back to my story, those papers are trying to find a better business model, trying to convince people to pay for online content by providing better analysis, fact-checking or interactive content. Bringing free content from external contributor like I was is part on the plan (building an ecosystem). Except the content I provided was freely available and Liberation did not want to put ad banner on my blog (except ads for Liberation itself. They say they don't want to make money on bloggers that are not paid. Nice ethic but I would have preferred that Liberation get some cash through ads on my blog and give me free recognition toys). I hope press will find a new business model because I love press and I think it's a mandatory ingredient for a real democracy. I also hope Liberation will do so cause I really love this paper (especially writing style, paper angles, layout, photos, ...). Content too but you can also find very serious content in Le Figaro or Le Monde. I read Liberation for 20 
years now and I spent more time face-to-face with it than with most of my best friends.
    Stopping my blog and finding out that online Liberation's execution is just lame

    When I decided to stop my blog, I felt I owed an explanation to  my readers. So I wrote a good-bye post. I received 28 very nice comments right away, a lot of emails, Facebook messages. I published not using the usual process (when delivering a post, a contact at Liberation was checking (with no censure) what I wrote - note that I was never censored - before sending it online) because I feared Liberation won't authorize the publishing. The content was not insulting for Liberation, it was basically what you've just read on the two previous paragraphs. This was not a real breach. Despite I've worked 3 years for them, despite I wrote 2 millions signs for Liberation, they never made me sign anything : ethic code, publishing process, content policy, waive of rights on content, nothing. I also feared that, once published, Liberation would discard the note.

    Then a little game started and that showed me how online content managers at Liberation are unprofessional (I'm not blaming any individual here, just the organization and/or the French culture itself). Liberation is using Typepad as a blog platform manager. I've changed the password for my blog and Liberation lost access to their own blog (well my blog but published under Liberation name with their URL and logo). My contact (young but really good and promising, if you need someone, check her resume) asked me to give back the passwords. I've send back an email saying : let's cut a deal. You let "live" the post for a week and I'll send you back the password afterwards. No drama.

    I switched to my normal job activities, was on phone with a customer. I've got 3 messages, more and more on a pissed-off tone, from a deputy editor of online version of Liberation. I'm calling him back, he's shouting at me saying it's a "coup'" (like a military one), saying he can't wave his "editorial responsibility" so he needs this access right now. Well, I was thinking (and maybe told him) that it's something he may have worried about 3 years ago when they gave me the code with no policy, no ethic code, no nothing. He promised not to discard the post (he kept his promise but disabled the comment feature few hours later ; some comments were not very good for Liberation saying my posts were better than most of the paper's articles made by real journalists. Flattering indeed. But untrue : I don't want to compare, I published posts whenever I wanted to on the subjects I chose. Working on deadline on given matters are a very different thing. Well, that's a job. Blogging, as I used to do it for Liberation, is a hobby).

    Oops the newspaper lost access to its online platform

    When I tried to changed my Typepad access code (it was one of my "usual password"), it failed. The guy I got on the phone had called Typepad and reset the password. So he was proud to having gained back his "editorial responsibility" and "editorial integrity" of Liberation. But he forgot to ask Typepad to disconnect alive sessions. So, for days (until I reboot my PC), I was able to change the content, still having access to the blog management.

    And I've also created, months ago, a Facebook group for blog community management. There was on the blog a right-side panel with Facebook group members and ... member's discussions displayed. So myself or any of the member of the group were able for weeks to breach the "editorial responsibility" just by typing on Facebook. It stayed  like this for 3 weeks or so (it took an email from m for them to realize). Finally, I also sent an email to the 2.722 people that left a comment on my blog (a thank-you email). My contact at Liberation asked me about the CNIL. CNIL is a french organism that is checking that data gathering is not leading to any abuse (political or commercial) and that any significant data collection is declared (with associated information to users like "how to be deleted from the database"). It appears that my email was authorized by that Liberation stocking all the comments in the base (content of the comment, nickname or real name, email address - most of the time real and IP address) is supposed to be declared to the CNIL according to the french law. Liberation got a database of thousands (if not dozen of thousands) people with data sufficient to fully identify them associated to comments that often clearly indicate their economical, sociological, political or sexual orientation. Knowing that commentators ignore that and giving your political information to your friends is a taboo in France, you see the problem. I sent an email to my contact at Liberation and she said to me "I guess we're totally illegal here" with a smiley ... Typical.

    So Liberation best brains are trying to find a strategy to survive in an hostile environment, trying to move to journalism 2.0 and the ability to execute of their team is close to zero. I guess that's a good example of french problems with competitiveness ...

    When the generals talk 
    You better listen to him 
    When the generals talk 
    You better do what he say 

    There's a rumour in the ranking 
    Someone talking insurrection 
    So the general has a purge 
    'Cos he wants to win elections 
    With the certain satisfaction 
    That the people are appeased 
    Long live the revolution 
    The general's very pleased 

    Midnight Oil "When the general talks"

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