Sunday, October 25, 2009

The colour of money - learning the business of business

I’ve been reading the deliciously phrased “the Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, in which the talented Alain de Botton, unearths with the curiousness and wonder of a child, the narrow and peculiar worlds of our working lives.
By turns I’ve read about him discovering and exploring freight logistics and warehousing, and tracking tuna from catch, through cleaning and canning to final consumption, across cultures, seas and surprisingly short periods of time. He’s currently discovering biscuits, expressing amusement, surprise and captivation at the seriousness with which people take jobs, that to a philosopher, seem so absurdly specialised as to be patently ridiculous.

It’s all reminded me of the reasons for starting what has now been a significant part of my life’s journey—the path of learning that my career has taken me on over the last 11 years. I choose consulting precisely because I had a sense that running through and supporting this world, was a backbone of business and commerce with which I had little familiarity. My limited exposure through a student organisation while at Uni left me curious, and my academic background of mathematics and languages, had hardly prepared me to understand ‘the real world’. So I set off, quite deliberately, to get an education in just how things functioned…and really, that’s what’s it’s been.
For the first two years which were by turns both rapid fire, and super slow, like a long, long movie on fast forward, I worked in the beverage industry, in pharmaceuticals, in banking, insurance, shipping and mining. And each experience was a revelation.

It produced a sensation similar to trying on the right prescription glasses for the first time, where suddenly definition you didn’t know existed is vividly clear. Leaves have crisp outlines and people far away are suddenly visible. The world makes both more sense, and is also more overwhelming, without the ability to pull back, and be a bit apart from it, na├»ve to it.

Suddenly a walk in the supermarket, wasn’t about finding groceries, it was about category displays, and shelf-heights, and visual clarity of pricing. It wasn’t about buying food to eat, it was about seeing the people, and the lives, the thought, efforts, and yes—passion, behind each seemingly random decision. A trip to IKEA was no longer just about the meatballs – suddenly all I could see was a racetrack display and highly sophisticated visual merchandising. I was no longer a mindless consumer, I was mindful, educated. I was able to see up the magician sleeves yet still helplessly captivated, unable to exit without at least one plastic brush, a flexible ice tray and a 6 pack of glasses with embossed hearts.

It was everywhere – an innocent question asked by a pharmacist – did I want the generic version of my antibiotic —always asked slowly, in case my innocent consumer self might not be able to comprehend such a word. And yet, my dirty secret – that the question recalled hours of debate about how to make a brand last in the face of such competition - to fight them or to join them. A telemarketing call from an insurance company had me thinking about whether their IT systems could talk to each other sufficiently, and was she going to appropriately up-sell me?

All this insight was also sort of a secret, as every project and every client deserves and receives high degrees of confidentiality. So, just as his whole new world was opening, I found I couldn’t really share these revelations with old friends, and so suddenly I was part of a new clan, my own workforce.

It’s a journey I get to witness with our graduates now, as if they’ve been let in on a big inside joke, or invested in some way into broader society. This is what happens, this is how it works – at last – they “get it”. Now I’m older, more immune. The sheen of discovery has lost some of its lustre. But something must have stuck. Otherwise why would I insight on explain the concept of being a marketing category to my five year old?