Copyright 2001 John Zipperer.
(4/26/01) Does age play a role in a company's calculation of its employees' value? Last week's Internet Whirl column wasn't necessarily intended to focus on age discrimination itself; I just saw that as a natural consequence of the mind-set that pushes hipness and energy over wisdom and historical knowledge. But the reader responses I received suggest that it was the age aspect that was of most interest.
Techies.com has released a survey it conducted this past January, in which it asked 1,027 technology professionals about age discrimination in the tech workforce. Its results were not surprising, unless you didn't think people considered age to be an issue at all. Two-thirds of older technology workers (and here "older" was defined as those over 45) thought age-based discrimination was a "significant problem," and 31 percent claimed to have witnessed or experienced age bias at work. But of the under-35 techies, not even a third consider age bias a problem.
In addition, though younger tech workers believe that age bias works against them just as much as against older workers, a majority of their older compatriots believed that more-mature workers were the bigger victims of age discrimination. A sizable chunk of younger workers expressed a wish that their supervisors be older than they, themselves, are; workers aged 35 to 64 expressed no preference about their supervisor's age. But when it came to the age of the people working for them, the most popular response for all age groups was that they had no preference.
Though it's not confined to technology workers, the 2001 Randstad North American Employee Review may have some surprises in it; in fact, it is touting what it claims are myth-busting results from its own phone and online interviews of 2,600 people. For example, the popular rap on "mature" employees -- defined as those aged 55 to 69 -- is that they are stuck to old ways of doing business and are uninterested in changing. The Techies.com survey results suggested that just such a perception was one of the reasons that older tech workers sometimes suffered in the job market. And an earlier Techies.com report, from October 9, 2000, referred to the belief that older workers are inflexible -- tied to older languages such as COBOL instead of Internet technologies such as Java or HTML. Randstad says nope; in fact, "Matures are very interested in trying new things at work." It finds that 81 percent of workers in this group are interested in doing new things, and 44 percent of "Matures" would like to get additional training or education.
A myth about my own generation -- that Generation Xers like to change jobs as often as most people change their socks -- is also attacked by the Randstad results. I've never felt the compulsion to change jobs, but it's nice to have some survey results that back me up. In this case, 77 percent of Gen Xers (workers aged 21 to 35) define success as finding a company for which they would like to work for a long time. But if this generation is seen by others as being job hoppers, they project that right back, seeing their employers as "terminators" (whereas Matures see their employers as "benevolent masters") and their formative business experience was "being downsized from dot-com businesses that went bust."
My own take on this is that the people who say workers -- and especially young workers -- are so thrilled about jumping from job to job and don't mind the downtime between jobs for the most part aren't workers, they're representatives of some of the employers and political groups that have vested interests in making us think that permanent career upheaval is never-ending delight.
What's the myth, what's the reality, and what's the effect of surveys that attempt to fit inexact data into exact categories? The ambiguities are what allow us to continue to argue about these things, making it a debate for the ages.
(4/23/01) The complexity of the tax system is the focus of annual media attention, ranging from local television reports to David Letterman Top Ten Lists (a recent No. 2: "Deduct $100 in medical expenses for all the paper cuts you suffered because tax form is 75 damn pages long").
The paradox is that as the tax system -- which flirted with greater simplicity in the mid-'80s rewrite -- gets increasingly Byzantine, the government is embracing technology that makes it simpler for users to file. As a result, there may not be much paper left with which to cut yourself, and good luck deducting treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome.
Keynote, a company that does performance testing of Web sites, released its measurements of how online tax services did during the recent tax season, and its results should bring a smile to the face of the IRS. During the panic peak on the deadline for filing taxes, Monday April 16, the test company reported that the irs.gov home page performed creditably, with 97.5 success rate. By way of comparison, the success rate for hrblock.com was 98.8 percent, 91.1 percent for MSN Money Central Taxes, 99.1 percent for Turbo Tax, and an average of 96.7 percent for all of the 11 sites measured.
Keynote does report that irs.gov had a problem in February and March when its availability sank to 65 to 76 percent, but it bounced back up after removing some slow servers. Overall, the performance was good enough to suggest that the Internal Revenue Service is at least on a par with the business world when it comes to exploiting the possibilities of the Internet.
The irs.gov site, known as the Digital Daily, is maintained by the Department of Commerce's National Technical Information Service (NTIS). The site's staff uses the extended off-season between mid-April and January 1 to study what went wrong the previous year and prepare ahead. "This year, we changed a few things about our architecture," said Bob McClellan, NTIS technical lead. "We've gone to a globally distributed arrangement, where we serve the Daily from three sites. Then we upgraded Web servers; we had older legacy systems that had been in operations for years, so we brought into service Hewlett-Packard A-class servers." Toward the end of the season, some graphics links were replaced by text links to speed downloading.
The irs.gov home page is unexpectedly informal; its current design is a colorful, somewhat-humorous takeoff of a newspaper front page. In an available preview of its next design, the service is going for a more corporate, toned-down look that may well better reflect the seriousness with which people need to see their government.
Though it's not spectacular, the IRS's online presence is commendable, especially considering that it is the uber-bureaucracy to top all bureaucracies. That means there's an immense amount of critical data that has to be communicated correctly.
"When you're talking about the IRS, you're looking at the high-bandwidth, information-intensive stuff," said Craig Fuller, CTO of e-consultancy Proxicom. Fuller is somewhat of an evangelist for the ways in which organizations can restructure their relationships with customers by using the electronic communications channels available to them. Of course, the relationship between the government tax collector and the taxpayer is unlikely to alter radically; it's pretty much set in stone. But the ways in which taxpayers relate to that federal organization have changed. Most promising may be that the IRS has accepted new channels for communication ranging from filing via Touch-Tone phones to the World Wide Web itself.
Adapting to the electronic way of doing business also saves the IRS auditors from having to deal with paper-based taxpayers who follow another of David Letterman's suggestions: "In the 'For Office Use Only' area write 'Approved. Send refund immediately.'"
Bring the Adults Back Out of the Basement
By John Zipperer
(4/19/01) Cliche number one, meet cliche number two. First we heard about how the New Economy is remaking economic laws. Then more recently, we've been hearing about how the surviving e-businesses have smartened up to deal with these tougher times. The first cliche was never anything more than wishful thinking fueled by easy money. The second cliche is still new enough not to have lost all credibility, but if we're lucky, it soon will.
The flaw with the second cliche is that companies haven't become smarter at all. They've shrunk their business efforts and staffs, which in many -- maybe even most -- cases may be smart moves in themselves. But considering the ways in which many of those companies got into their predicaments in the first place, their actions now may be no more than instinctive reactions. Anyone can stop hitting their hand with a hammer, but they don't deserve a medal for having stopped doing a dumb thing. And if they had paid attention to what people had done in the past, they might not have started hitting their hand in the first place.
I think time will eventually make clear that one of the dumber things companies did was go out of their way to create the perception and the fact that they are hip and unencumbered by old ideas, old employees, and old ways of doing things. While meeting recently with an executive for a major technology company, I listened to him explain his efforts to get a group of programmers interested in joining his company. It was important to him to get across how far from its stodgy corporate image his company actually is. Similarly, a recurring theme of advertising lately has been companies stressing that they're not the boring old companies you thought they were but in fact are new companies with executives under age 40.
Now, if new employees and customers are really discounting the importance of long-term companies and steady management and tested principles, then they need some serious consumer education very quickly. Otherwise, they can't complain when they go to work for massive stock options that later leave them in megadebt, or when they are ripped off by a fly-by-night e-retail operation. Maybe it's the Midwesterner in me, but I believe companies should be doing more to reassure their employees, shareholders, and customers that they are reliable, sound, and trustworthy. That would make me much more comfortable with a company than viewing its commercial in which gerbils are shot at walls.
In the current issue of the Economist, there's an article that argues that many company chiefs are particularly vexed by the economic downturn because they'd never seen one before their company's lifetime or during their tenure at the top of their company. That's not surprising from my vantage point, from which I have formulated the half-serious viewpoint that much of the Internet business world seems to be run by people in their mid-30s to mid-40s. That's not disturbing in itself -- I'm in my early 30s, so it's even a bit inspiring -- but that brings with it good and bad. The good has been much remarked upon, and includes energy, new ideas, and a greater willingness to experiment. The bad is that it denigrates accumulated wisdom, which is actually the most important thing a company (or a country) can have, especially when it's enduring hard economic times.
It's really a matter of exchanging wisdom for energy, isn't it? And U.S. companies are true to form -- very American, in fact, in their response -- by not trying to meld the two but by jettisoning wisdom and its adherents and going instead for energy.
Corporate Tax Departments Get the Tech Edge
By John Zipperer
(4/12/01) With tax deadlines looming for many of us, it's a natural time for Internet Whirl to look at taxes and technology. And here comes word from KPMG that large corporations are using technology to improve the efficiency of their tax departments. That in itself is no bombshell, but it is of interest because of the relative slowness with which companies began to see their tax departments as places where they could expect solid returns on their technology investments.
KPMG surveyed 273 tax directors of Fortune 1,000 companies to find out what actions and practices the companies are using with their internal tax departments. Though not all the questions in the study were technology-related, many were. In general, companies with lower effective tax rates (ETRs) made better use of their existing technologies and provided their employees with better technology for the reporting, storage, and retrieval of tax information, including an intranet and a unified general ledger system. By contrast, high-ETR companies didn't use a company intranet and used multiple ledger systems.
The intranets seemed to be key, for the collection and storing of information in large corporations can be a challenge. According to KPMG, 54 percent of the companies use their intranets to access work papers, templates, and similar materials; 47 percent of them use them to collect data; 37 percent use intranets to store the previous year's tax returns; and 32 percent use them to report to business units.
The results of the survey seem to indicate that when it came time for companies to invest in the technology for their tax departments, they wanted to make sure they got a solid payback for the money. "We're seeing tax departments being asked to actively contribute to a company's bottom line. The tax group is now perceived to be more of an operating function as opposed to a traditional maintenance function," Steve Martucci, a partner in KPMG's tax management solutions department, was quoted as saying in a release. "Companies that have spent heavily over the last decade to streamline operations are finally focusing on the tax department to wring out better returns, and they're relying heavily on technology to do so."
KPMG says 79 percent of the respondents reported that in 1999 their departments had made strong investments in technology, including making improvements and investing in software and intranets. The average amount of the companies' total tax function budget allocated to technology was between 9 and 10 percent. (Other expenses included employee benefits and associated costs, outsourcing, consultants, and the ever-present "other.")
This is not a new area of interest for KPMG. In 1999, Greg Smith, its national director of consumer markets tax services, wrote a paper on mass retail companies' use of technology in their tax departments. In that paper, he noted that "only 9 percent of the respondents have an individual within the tax department dedicated to technology. As the need for technology and automation increases, tax departments must have qualified resources to implement the necessary changes. Senior tax executives should consider dedicated resources to technology and process management either by adding a new person or redirecting existing resources."
In the earlier paper, KPMG also found that very few (less than 10 percent) of the companies involved looked at technology as a way to reduce headcount; instead, they saw it as a way to increase productivity. "This suggests that technology is allowing more work to be done with the same number of people, by changing how and on what tax department personnel are working with a push toward more value-added activities."
Now, it's a bit of apples and oranges between the two sets of companies involved in these two papers, but the lessons can apply to both, I think, without stretching the meaning too much. Both papers note that companies are expecting more from their tax departments than simply the management and maintenance of records and assurance of compliance with laws; they want the tax departments to actively contribute to the bottom line. And investment in technology is a large part of the solution.
Services Firms Told to Go Slow on New Products
(4/11/01) Financial services companies are ignoring their customers and focusing on sexy new services such as wireless products. Or not. It all depends on how you view a new report from Jupiter Media Metrix that claims that what financial services customers want is not what they're getting.
Jupiter surveyed financial services executives, 57 percent of whom reportedly told the firm that expanding online capabilities -- including wireless -- is a top priority. Another 25 percent of the execs gave improving trust and security as a major priority. But a Jupiter survey of consumers showed that a majority of them considered customer service and federal insurance for their accounts to be the most important issues. A disconnect between the execs and the consumers was expected, but the researchers were surprised by the extent of it.
But surveys need to be taken with a grain of salt. Online trading firm Datek, for example, says it isn't hyping wireless at all. In fact, it's downright skeptical about it for now. "Wireless is something that we don't quite think is ready for prime time," said Mike Dunn, a Datek spokesperson. For his company's customers, wireless phones don't offer enough visual real estate to carry out effective trading. Though he says, "One day wireless's day will come," he doesn't think today's the day.
Jupiter may be stretching a bit here for a story. After all, a wide range of online financial services are being offered, from online stock trading to personal banking to investment advisory products. In a broad sense, all of these services -- some offered by separate companies, some partnered with other providers, and some offered in omnibus fashion by mega-financial services firms -- are moving in the direction of the customers having increased control over and access to their accounts.
But they're not doing it very efficiently, in the view of James Van Dyke, a Jupiter senior analyst who worked on the report. He said a lot of sites are doing some of it right (such as Wells Fargo), but there's not a single one he'd call a best-practices model. He identifies the main problem as being the urge to be first in a market, so new services are rushed out without being fine-tuned to provide the stability expected of banking and investment institutions.
The financial services executives were "putting their money into things that add complexity to online sites versus increasing usability, at a rate of about four to one," said Van Dyke. Early adopters and corporate users may not have a problem with that, but the average consumer might. "Our point is that -- though it's good to be early -- you don't necessarily have to be first. What's most important is that you arrive prepared" with all the elements on the site working correctly and being easy to use.
(4/5/01) The Internet Whirl column is now almost six months old, so it's a good time for updating some of the issues examined here. Six months may not seem like a long time, but in the world of Internet time or dog years or whatever time measurement business uses these days, it's a long time. So to celebrate, I wanted to look at some stories that have been particularly interesting to me.
Last year, I looked at a site that seemed to be succeeding by covering the topic I'd love to get paid to write about: science fiction. Fandom had grown into a large collection of subsites and community features targeting fans of various genre properties, ranging from Harry Potter to science fiction shows. It went on a buying spree that included a magazine, an online shopping site, auctions, and a convention company. When I spoke with then-CEO Mark Young, he was enthusiastic about his company's properties and its growth potential.
But when I spoke with the current CEO, Debra Streicker-Fine, earlier this week, the story was completely different. Streicker-Fine was brought in by investors to take over the company in January and find a way to reach profitability. At first, the company issued a press release announcing that it was shutting down its online operations, but would continue with its Cinescape magazine and Creation Entertainment convention division. But things are moving fast, and Streicker-Fine said she's in talks with various potential buyers, and she sounded hopeful. "Right now, we are entertaining a couple of offers for the entire company -- for the acquisition or merger of Fandom overall," she said.
The culprit behind her company's troubles is nothing new: overexpansion in a rough market. Following the typical dot-com growth path, "the company did three acquisitions in about 12 months, because rapid growth was the plan at the time," she said. And when the market turned, well, she got a new job, and Mark Young lost his. She expected to be able to announce new owners for the company this week.
A music group that I've followed for many years is Alphaville , and I had a bit of a treat on a recent trip to Berlin, where I was able to interview its lead singer, Marian Gold. He talked at length about how the Internet has allowed his band to become truly independent, and he had some typically strong feelings on the topic of Napster and its critics. I don't believe he was saying he wanted people to steal his group's music, but he and fellow band mate Bernhard Lloyd are making demo songs available free on their Web site in MP3 format, so they at least understand the potential.
One of the nice things about this music group is that its members actually engage their fans directly, and both Lloyd and Gold receive its e-mail list. In the wake of my column, Gold's comments stirred up a friendly Napster debate on that listserve. For a group such as Alphaville that has used the Internet to connect with its fans scattered around the globe (and without a huge visibility in the marketplace), some fans have pointed out that trading MP3s is sometimes the only way they can hear the music.
Lloyd wrote that he has nothing against people copying or downloading songs or recording them from the radio or borrowing the music from a friend: "All of that is fine with me," he wrote. "Even more, I love it, if people are interested in music! I'm just against idealizing a company like Napster, that is making big business with something they don't own." My own feelings are similar to Lloyd's in that I want the musicians to make money and I have no love for Napster, though I am fascinated by the challenges created by peer-to-peer trading.
Last week, I wrote about security threats and the changes they're bringing to e-business. I asked readers to let me know how they handle the issue of trusting their company's important data to software-hardware solutions or outside companies. Among the responses was this fine one from Steven Teppler, chairman and CEO of TimeCertain: "The issue is what to do about a 'trusted insider' who may not be trustworthy, but holds the key to the kingdom. How is a CEO or board of directors to deal with entrusting their company to an inside security professional? The issue is how to make sure that digital data as generated becomes auditable. In other words, how to make data itself nonrepudiable to the extent that an organization can claim that not only did it not change or alter data, but that it could not have done so even if it chose to."
And, finally, there's the story I didn't write but wanted to. (It's hard to interview someone who doesn't respond to your queries.) I wanted to chronicle the humor troupe out of Minneapolis-St. Paul known as Best Brains. BB created and produced the wonderful cable series "Mystery Science Theater 3000" for about a decade before the Sci Fi Channel canceled it. They then moved online with a site called Timmy Big Hands. The name made no sense to me, either, but I appreciated the fact that it gave them a home for their particular brand of humor. But it failed, despite their using it to sell merchandise along with presenting their material. Now comes word that they're putting TimmyBigHands.com up for auction on eBay. According to their e-mail list, "The highest bidder will receive the copyright to all the material that's ever been on the site, plus many other goodies."
If any of you buy it, let me know. And let me interview you.