Thursday, 28 January 2016

Understand and delight your audience

These are the opening lines of what will be one of the main publishing events of this year. A previously unknown Beatrix Potter book, “Kitty-in-Boots”, has been discovered by publisher Jo Hanks. It was found in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s archive, after Ms. Hanks spotted a reference to the book in some of Beatrix Potter’s correspondence. When she found it, it was a typeset manuscript with only a few simple pictures, 

not the fully illustrated book, although editing by the author had happened, so all that was needed was a few more images to bring the words to life and make the book true to its well-known siblings.

Beatrix Potter was distracted from finishing the book by the outbreak of the First World War and, thereafter, by getting married and becoming a sheep farmer. (How many of us have half finished projects we should re-visit?) Like the popular writer Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter didn’t believe in “writing down” for children, her approach, words and pictures are not patronising and this latest book, by reputation, is no exception. There are references to animal cruelty, with Kitty’s devoted owner fearful that her beloved puss might be turned into “black cat-skin muffs”, and there are ruffians and villains. Kitty leads a double life with few appreciating the full range of activities and exploits that occur away from home. Due to the paucity of original Potter drawings, the majority of the book has had to be illustrated by Quentin Blake (a wonderful choice);

his comments on receiving the manuscript were:

“I liked the story immediately – it’s full of incident and mischief and character."

The tale offers further treats through cameo appearances by favourite characters from other books, including an older, slightly rotund Peter Rabbit, a discussion with Mrs Tiggywinkle and brief sightings Miss Ribby, Tabitha Twitchit and Mr Tod. (that looks like collaboration and inclusion to me). The cover will be revealed in March and the book will be published in September 2016.  Two million Beatrix Potter books are sold globally every year, but I suspect that we will see a spike in sales this autumn. What a great year for the author Beatrix Potter to be celebrated on the new UK 50 pence piece.

Whilst on the subject of authors and books, I am delighted that a children’s novel is the winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year prize. If we cannot inspire a love of reading in the young they will be at a disadvantage in later life. Thanks to the Internet and our technology driven world, much of our day-to-day experiences now seem to revolve around written words.

Things that inspire the young were clearly on the minds of the team who released their latest findings relating to UK children’s media usage earlier this week. This Childwise report (which primarily focuses on how the young spend their leisure time) has been hailed as demonstrating a “landmark change in behaviours”: it is the first time (in the 25 years since the survey was started) that young people no longer choose to spend most of their free time watching TV. Those of you who, like me are parents, won’t be surprised to know that the young prefer to be online; 5-15 year olds are spending on average 3 hours per day surfing the web – with YouTube being the favourite channel (50% of the over 2000 individuals interviewed admitted to visiting the site daily). This compares to 2.1 hours now for TV. 

Reading books has fallen to just over half an hour a day (this figure has declined from over an hour in 2012 and I suspect for some respondents the reading reported was actually a homework activity). Thank goodness for books like The Lie Tree that can inspire young (and older) minds. The world is changing fast, no wonder TV isn’t popular, when on-demand video gives control over what and when you can view almost anything – this is how our children are growing up and will be what they expect when they enter the workplace.

People drive the change but also have to cope with change that they feel thrust upon them. We, as responsible employers and leaders, need to understand the pressures that this brings and try our best to support those who work with us. It is no use clinging to out-dated patriarchal approaches, custom and practice. You have only to look at the announcement and market reaction to the news of the decline in sales of Apple iPhones earlier this week to appreciate that market dominance is not a given. People are fickle and competition is fierce – this applies to the decisions around employment just as much as it does to the acquisition of a mobile phone.

Choice, variety, autonomy – these are the norms of the modern world. In many ways our home environment (with the use of our own tech and broadband) has superseded our workplace as the location where we get things done. A high proportion of offices still have fierce security firewalls and systems that prevent access to sites that many see as usual places to seek information (e.g. blogs and social media). As a result, people resort to their smartphones to search for solutions – I know of members of an IT department, in a respected global business, who turned to Google and YouTube to teach themselves how to install and run a new cross-border software package, because their employer was not prepared to pay for proper training and the provider did not offer any with the product. All credit to them for finding a solution for their lack of knowledge, although, by their own confession, the configuration produced was not as elegant as it would have been with better support and broader awareness. How dispiriting for those people to feel that their employer cared so little about them that they were prepared to leave them to “figure it out or fail”. It’s no wonder that there is high turnover in that department. As an aside though – it occurs to me that if the task had been set as a challenge to an action learning set (and therefore seen as a growth opportunity offered to a valued group of individuals, rather than a duty) the attitude towards the need to find a solution might have been different. It could have been fun although required timelines might not have been met.

It is important that leaders and managers understand the problems that people have to solve. As change has become a recognised norm, we must be forward-thinking. We, the employers of today, need to plan for the world of work our soon-to-be employees and contractors will expect in the future. If we fail to:

  • make our workplaces supportive and engaging;
  • provide opportunities and an environment in which people wish to contribute;
  • build a setting where people believe that they are recognised and rewarded for the skills that they bring;
  • have a shared confidence that we can provide a suitable place where all who have the desire can and will thrive and grow;

then vital employees and partners simply won’t come or stay with us.

In addition to engagement, empowerment and collaboration – individuals will need great people management. To be successful the leaders and managers within organisations will need to ensure that everyone is and wants to be involved, can make suggestions and have the autonomy to do the right thing. None of us are significantly better informed than others, as Mervyn Dinnen comments in the latest report, Creating a culture of innovation through smarter talent management,  produced for HR Zone

“The leaders that we need to develop for tomorrow will probably be facing uncertainties and complexities that have yet to be identified, whilst using technologies and digital tools that have yet to be invented.”

We need to take a page from Beatrix Potter’s book and not patronise the people we wish to appeal to, but appreciate them, be engaging, inclusive and at times surprise and delight.

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