Social Marketing

I’ve been reading ‘Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World’ by Kristen Lamb, as recommended to me by Pip Marks after I wrote a few weeks ago about my efforts to build a “personal brand” in cyberspace. It’s been a real eye-opener, because although I’ve been dabbling in social media (very cautiously) for a couple of years now, I still have a lot to learn.

Maybe I’m thick, but I needed it spelled out for me… just like I found ‘Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions’ to be a revelation. (I used to just bumble into job interviews and try to answer ‘live’ when asked a question. Can you imagine? It never occurred to me that other people in interviews are less than entirely honest, and are prepared to game the system with techniques they learned out of a book.)

In the same way, I used to think that I was too busy writing to spend time on llllarch engine optimisation or promotion… which may be a more honest approach to self-publishing, but is kind of dumb if you write in the hope that people are actually going to read your output, someday.

Social media wordcloud

The simplest plans are the best ones…

Social media has involved a steep learning curve for me, not so much technically as personally. When I left school, I went straight into a job where I had to sign the Official Secrets Act. Thus, I became accustomed to a “need to know” culture that continues to affect my thinking to this day. My Facebook page is set to ‘private’ and has a very small number of friends on it. I seldom post there anyway. I shudder when my son’s nursery puts out photos and they’re geotagged, not so much because I believe that there are paedophiles or kidnappers lurking everywhere, as simply because unknown people on the Internet don’t need to know. You might have seen my son’s leg appearing at the edge of a picture on ‘A Logistically Challenged Holiday’, but you won’t find his face on this blog. Need to know.

I wouldn’t fare at all well if I were a character in ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers. His dystopian future features a thinly-veiled Google-like entity that dominates the whole Internet, demanding that people share everything about their lives. The book (love it or loathe it: opinion is divided) introduced several wonderfully Orwellian pronouncements, such as “Privacy is Theft”, and “Secrets are Lies.”

Trouble is, Kristen Lamb argues that we need to be real people in order to reach out to our audience. Acting as a real, social human being breaks down the barriers that everyone has in place: the unconscious filtering out of sidebars, pop-ups, and everything else that we didn’t request. Like the way that everyone ignores the second item on their LinkedIn feed, because that’s the spam slot… you tune it out. The things that you don’t tune out typically come to you from people who appeal to you on a social level: your 21st century ‘tribe’ vet and validate content for you. That’s why your own personal brand is so important, and shouldn’t be diluted by endorsing any old thing.

It seems that in trying to ‘sell’ a blog about the sustainable supply chain, I’ve neglected the personal aspect. Capacify puts out a tweet automatically each time I publish a new post, but (as Kristen has made plain) that isn’t social. Why should I expect strangers to care about my tweets, if I’m not a real person to them?

I’m going to try to do better, but it’s hard for a person who used to keep secrets for a living. It’s also prompted some interesting discussions with colleagues about the extent to which an educator should be ‘accessible’ to his or her students, and communicating in a medium where they don’t have control. Most of us feel that it would be unwise to go out on the town with our students, so why would we mix it up with them on Facebook?

I’m unconvinced by claims that social media enhances learner retention (which is teacherspeak for “saves the ones who are in danger of failing and finishing”) because boring old messages from educators must inevitably be drowned out by diversions such as the Jedi Chipmunk Lightsaber Battle. We try to make our teaching interesting, but Jedi chipmunks will always be more fun than exam revision tips… so I tend not to expect miracles from social media.

There are exceptions, inevitably. When Salman Khan was providing tuition for friends and relatives, he used YouTube, and inadvertently acquired a mass following, leading eventually to the establishment of Khan Academy, a major force in online education since 2009.

I learned something about the unpredictable power of the social Internet on a rainy day last year. We were disembarking from a train and I struggled to carry my son and a share of the paraphernalia of parenting, which is to say a changing mat, baby wipes, spare nappies, nappy bags, changes of clothing, push chair, toys, etc. To achieve this I stuffed his toy cat down the front of my coat.

We made it onto the platform and as the train pulled away with a cloud of diesel smoke we set about opening up the pushchair, putting its waterproof cover on, and stowing the aforementioned bits and pieces. Then I had to say the thing that every parent dreads most:

“Uh… where’s [favourite soft toy]?”

A quick search of the the immediate vicinity and ourselves revealed that I’d messed up. The cat must have dropped out of my coat while I wrestled with everything else.

We hurried back to our holiday cottage, and started making inquiries, such as telephoning the lost property office. Inevitably, it was closed for the evening, but while I frantically searched the Internet to see if a replacement could be bought, Mrs. F. hit upon the idea of tweeting an appeal for assistance.

As Dillie Keane of Fascinating Aïda likes to say, it “went fungal”. Everybody wanted to help… and they all wanted news of the missing cat. Many people will sympathise with a child who’s crying because he’s lost one of his favourite toys, and everybody wants to hear a happy ending… but there was tangible assistance as well. An off-duty member of staff for the rail company sent us messages of advice… and a short while later we heard from The White Company, from whom the stuffed cat had originally come. Unfortunately they couldn’t find us another cat as the product was discontinued, but they sent my son a free ‘Harry Hippo’ instead. How’s that for customer service?

Have you seen this Jellycat?

Lost: one Jellycat ‘Maddy Cat’. (Also, another partial view of my son. Knee and elbow: still no face.)

Sadly, we never did get the cat back. She was still quite clean and new-looking (unlike so many really well-loved Kuscheltiere) so perhaps somebody decided to re-gift the lost cat. Or maybe a member of railway staff just found it quicker to stuff the cat in a binsack than to hand it in as lost properly. We’ll never know… but even though we were unsuccessful I was astounded by the support we received from strangers all over the country.

Pardon me while I try to save the planet with my writing on green manufacturing, where a new article probably gets 25 hits in the first few days. If you report a lost soft toy you pick up several hundred new followers within hours…

For a more up-to-date example of the unpredictable Internet, consider the Natural Environment Research Council, who recently invited suggestions and votes for the name of their new research vessel, currently being built at Cammell Laird on Merseyside. When James Hand flippantly suggested that ‘Boaty McBoatface’ would be a good name, he had no idea that it would attract 27,000 votes, and that the surge in interest would crash the NERC website.

They’ve had more publicity than they could ever have dreamed of… at the cost of having to explain that they might decide to overrule the British public, and choose a more sensible name for their £200m ship.

Back in 2013, suggested that only one percent of companies were “doing anything with social media for supply chain planning”. Perhaps this is unsurprising because it’s so hard to know which products, services or stories will “go fungal”, and which will fail to inspire action. It’s also hard to glean much information from users who use pseudonyms, choose not to reveal their location (that’s me…) and perhaps communicate on the Internet in ways that they wouldn’t do in a face-to-face situation. Call it the Boaty McBoatface Effect: it’s too good a name to waste.

Will social media enable more accurate planning and forecasting, presently? Perhaps, but our time is precious and we use a whole slew of tactics to ignore and actively rebuff those who seek to harvest our data. My web browser exterminates cookies at the end of every session. I prefer that the advertisements that manage to struggle their way onto the web pages that I view are for products and services I have no interest in, because it saves me money. I’ve got an extortionate mortgage to pay off, and a son with an expensive Lego habit as well: the last thing I need is advertisements that persuade me to buy things that hadn’t occurred to me… so I withhold information. Facebook thinks I was born in Canada, and work in China. Why? Because Facebook doesn’t need to know. It appears Dave Eggers was right: secrets are lies.

Perhaps we now value the opinions of our ‘tribe’ far more than we care about glitzy messages from professionals. I could share my opinion of the Fiat 500L we had as a hire car last week (surprisingly roomy, comfortable ride: horrendously bad satellite navigation by TomTom…), and my small social following might actually take note. They almost certainly won’t pay any heed to paid content, however nice the graphics may be.

It’s a funny old world, and it’s getting funnier all the time. Particularly the parts that involve Jedi chipmunks – and Boaty McBoatface, obviously.


A Book Report

What should have been a bit of light reading during the holidays turned out to be less recreational and more like my day job, when I selected ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ by John Ironmonger. I had no idea it would have so much to say about supply chain resilience.

Joe Haak is a city analyst, working for a department that specialises in short selling: profiting from the decline in a company’s share price. He leads a team developing a computer program that monitors the news media in order to predict the market consequences of reported events. It works remarkably well, allowing them to find many profitable ‘shorts’, but one of the bank’s partners demands that he use the software to discover something else:

How will civilisation end?

Over the course of several meetings with the doomsaying partner Lew Kaufmann, Joe learns that civilisation is surprisingly fragile… and that it all hinges upon effective supply chain management.

Have a look at this excerpt from the book:

“How do you feed a city of ten million people, Joe? How many lorry-loads of food do you need every day? How much fuel?’ He turned to the younger man. ‘How do you feed London? Who organises it all?”

“I don’t suppose anyone does.”

Lew Kaufmann was nodding. “Quite right. Nobody does. It works because of a hundred thousand supply chains. Because thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning, and the morning before, planting and harvesting and packaging and transporting, flour and sugar and cocoa and coffee and a great long list of foods and fuels and machine parts and devices. We know this, don’t we, Joe? We know this because that is what we do, you and I. We follow the supply chains, looking for weaknesses.”

“We do,” Joe said.

“Have you ever been to a mega-city, Joe?” Kaufmann turned away from the window and sank back into his chair. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Of course you have. London is a mega-city now. Twelve million people, but we’re way down the list. There are twenty-five cities bigger than London now. Rio is bigger. Lagos is bigger. Tokyo has almost thirty-five million citizens. I once sat in a traffic jam in Jakarta trying to get to the airport. There are twenty-five million people in Jakarta, Joe. How many of them do you think keep a larder?”

“Not many, I should imagine.”

“No. I don’t suppose they do. There are half a billion people living in mega-cities now, and most of them live pretty hand to mouth. Even here in London. What happens, Joe, when the supply chains fail? What will happen when twenty million people in Guangzhou or Cairo or Tehran or Paris begin to starve?”

“I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Not many people do.” Kaufmann gave a long whistling sigh.

The troubling thing about this chain of reasoning is that I can’t actually find anything wrong with it.

In the book, the ‘perfect storm’, that disrupts our global supply chains and threatens to bring about a new dark age is a combination of two factors, a flu pandemic and a disruption in the oil supply. Kaufmann is particularly scathing about oil:

“It is the craziest thing in human history, Joe. We’ve built the greatest society that mankind has ever known – a global society. We communicate across continents, we think nothing of jumping on an airliner for a meeting in Zurich or Seattle or Shanghai. And yet all of this, everything we have created, rests upon a finite fluid resource that we’re busy burning away.”

It’s not just the expenditure of oil for jet fuel that bothers these men, modelling the end of the world: it’s the difficulties that agriculture faces, without oil. Farmers can’t grow food, they can’t harvest it, and whatever diminished quantity they manage to produce can’t be transported before it spoils.

Again, the logic is faultless. In fact the hardest thing to believe in the whole book is how sensible and cohesive the people in the story are. I suspect that elsewhere things will have been a lot uglier – but ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ isn’t about that grim struggle. It’s a very gentle, British take on the ‘prepper’ mindset.

An array of ‘prepper’ tools

A ‘prepper’ toolkit. (What, nothing for use against zombies?)

Nonetheless, we are assured that anarchy ensues.

“… the instinct for survival won’t recognise that the man people are mugging in the street for his last litre of fuel is a driver distributing food. No one will stop to ask if the woman they just robbed of her last loaf is an engineer in a power plant.”

Again, I can’t fault the logic. (I really have to write about the Tragedy of the Commons sometime…) Nothing in this world is worth any more than a person is prepared to pay for it, and what we are prepared to pay is dependent upon everything else still being in demand. I’ve seen farming areas where the principal crop is mustard: that’s fine while transport is working and trade can happen, but if trade is interrupted, you can’t exactly eat the mustard yourself, can you? (Well, not much of it…)

Mustard crop

Mustard. It’s what’s for dinner.

Economies of scale make money, but perhaps they’ve built a kind of fragility into 21st century supply chains, of a kind that we didn’t have to worry about years ago. Another threat, overshadowing that of running out of food, and even the global pandemic, is simply other people.

“Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) observed. Hungry people: desperate people. And what will you do when they come calling?

Kaufmann and family head for the Azores on a yacht, while Joe seeks refuge (apparently at random) in the fictional village of St Piran, Cornwall, where he uses his life savings (and his knowledge of what’s about to happen) to build up a secret stockpile of foodstuffs, while the modern world collapses slowly, but inexorably.

Joe’s store of food is enough to provide for the village for several months, and the villagers use an excavator to block the single road into the village… but where do twelve million Londoners go? We don’t learn their fate, since this is a character-driven book about the people living in a small Cornish fishing village, and as such it works well.

It isn’t a textbook on supply chain resilience. That’s just a happy accident… but it makes one wonder just how perilous the situation could be. Truth through fiction – and reference to Thomas Hobbes’ (1651) ‘Leviathan’, with its discourse on the social contract, and the role of the state in preventing anarchy.

“… by the time you finish reading there might be a few more tins of beans in your cupboard than there were when you started,” wrote one reviewer at GoodReads.

Businesses know all about safety stocks, and maybe it’s time for us to bring the same thinking home. That “few more tins of beans” needn’t be a financial burden on the household, if bought in bulk and rotated properly. Money might actually be saved…

Or, there’s the alternative. Choosing to believe that “thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning,” … every day, for the rest of your life.

As Idle as a Painted Ship

Over at ’The Disorder of Things’, guest blogger Charmaine Chua presented a fascinating piece of ethnographic research, detailing her travels as a passenger on a container ship. The researcher’s journey was from Los Angeles, USA to Taipei, Taiwan. At €100 per night, given that it takes around a month to make a one-way trip, this is never going to challenge business class air transport… but I have to admit that I’m envious. Just imagine how much writing you could get done in all those days of sea and sky! Above all, though, it’s a window on the fascinating and seldom-seen world of the merchant marine. Few jobs have changed as much as this one, where sailors once talked of shore leave in exotic destinations and now grind their way endlessly around the globe, on bigger ships with smaller crews…

Chua anonymised the vessel that transported her, and its crew, which is a good thing for a researcher to do when describing how the people she studied earn their livelihood. For the ship, she chose the fictional name ‘Ever Cthulhu’, which I have to admit grew on me as I read my way through the five-part series. There should be more ships named after Lovecraftian monsters.

The life of a modern-day seaman, as described, doesn’t appear to be an attractive choice. As Samuel Johnson once said, “Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” It seems the largely Filipino crew concur as they liken a typical cycle of six months at sea to being incarcerated. I already knew that a shipboard life could be grim (I spent some time studying the lot of workers in the cruise industry last year…) but I think that life on a cargo vessel is possibly worse, because there’s less of a requirement to keep up appearances.

Of greatest interest to me was the description of the “traffic jams” and delays experienced at the west coast ports of Tacoma, Oakland and Los Angeles, with many ships waiting days to dock and then suffering through a lengthy process of unloading and loading. It appears that while bigger and bigger ships make sense from a purely economic viewpoint, what works on paper doesn’t always work in the real world. Even with a gargantuan effort to modernise ports in order to accommodate the new generation of megaships (because no port wants to find itself sidelined) the efforts to dredge channels deeper and raise cranes higher doesn’t guarantee success. The whole logistic system needs to keep pace, including the road and rail services… and something isn’t working.

Cargo ships at anchor

Cargo ships at anchor near Los Angeles [photo: Los Angeles Times]

“Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean.”

This little bit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (as you might expect, it’s from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner) gave me the title for today’s blog post. Anyway, back to Chua and her observations:

“Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2½ to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.”

As a person who likes to use simulation to investigate logistics problems, this is fascinating. I’m itching to construct some models, and investigate the bottlenecks in a system that is worsening as a result of ever-larger ships introducing increasingly lumpy arrival patterns. It’s a problem that might get still worse with the completion of a third set of locks on the Panama canal; present-day vessels taking that route are constrained to specifications that have remained unchanged since the canal opened a century ago, but the new construction will permit an increase from the present Panamax constraint of around 5,000 TEU to a new limit of perhaps 13,000 TEU. There is also work underway to construct another canal, cutting through Nicaragua… and there are plans afoot to expand the Suez canal as well.

Panamax ship


In Tacoma, when no dockworkers arrive to unload the Ever Cthulhu, Chua opines that “a quiet port is logistics’ nightmare”. More accurately perhaps, it’s the simultaneous arrival of 8,100 twenty-foot equivalent units at a single berth that is the nightmare. If everything was to be loaded onto trucks, you’d have a queue almost sixty-five kilometres long… but that isn’t to say that trucks are always the bottleneck. If anybody that’s reading wants to offer some data (or assistance, or funding!) for a piece of research by simulation, consider me interested.

Chua claims that a failure to shift cargo at the rate that port employers would like to achieve is down to problems of infrastructure, and that dockworkers are scapegoated. This is borne out by observers such as Bloomberg Business, who report:

“While most of the attention around the port crisis has focused on labor, the cargo bottlenecks predate the labor stalemate and will outlast a settlement … Backups began in August, about two months before the Pacific Maritime Association accused unionized dockworkers of deliberately slowing down cargo movement.”

It seems that nobody is terribly happy in the 21st century box-shifting industry, and that’s important. Along with a failure to handle all the goods now arriving, and the facts and figures detailing environmental concerns such as the toxicity of heavy fuel oil, the toxic nature of “sludge” and the disposal of grey water and food waste by offshore dumping, there’s a human cost being paid by those who perform lonely, often menial and sometimes dangerous jobs, with little or no job security. In the industry we depend upon for the transportation of 90% of the world’s freight, that’s something that needs to be understood.

Six of the Best

The 99% Invisible podcast isn’t about the supply chain; it’s about design, in all its many forms… but it’s surprising how often something relevant to my interests crops up. (And even when it’s not related to the day job, this series of podcasts is a delight to listen to.) Here’s a shortlist of some particularly good 99% Invisible podcasts that contain something of interest to a person studying supply chain management… although I’d recommend popping over to iTunes and getting every episode. It’s a great bit of intelligent listening, guaranteed to make your commute seem a little less onerous!

Episode 55: The Best Beer in the World – a bold claim, and worth investigating at any time… but this episode is interesting because the brewer doesn’t seem to obey the law of supply and demand as we know it, and operates a curious kind of anti-marketing.

Episode 124: Longbox – packaging is always a supply chain topic worthy of investigation, I find… but the packaging for REM’s 1991 album ‘Out of Time’ may actually have changed the political landscape of the USA forever. Strange but true. Also, the episode provides an interesting picture of music retail in transition, from LPs to compact disc.

REM Out of Time - longbox

Do you remember when CDs had an extra layer of packaging; the ‘Longbox’?

Episode 64: Derelict Dome – providing an introduction to the work of R. Buckminster Fuller, an early advocate of sustainability. It’s not just about his fascination with geodesic domes, but his motivations.

Episode 30: The Blue Yarn – explaining how the Toyota Production System came to be employed not in manufacturing, but in the redesign of a hospital management system. A piece of yarn was used to map the path that a cancer patient would take on a typical visit for treatment, with surprising results.

Episode 70: The Great Red Car Conspiracy – because everyone likes a good conspiracy story, don’t they? Whatever happened to the Red Car, Los Angeles’ mass transit system that once had 1,100 miles of track? Well, it turns out there was a conspiracy… just not the one you’ve probably heard about.

Pacific Electric ‘Red Cars’ in the scrapyard

Who scrapped the Red Car, and why?

Episode 108: Barcodes – narrowly edging out the episode on Cow Tunnels, which was also good, but I felt I ought to acknowledge one of my sources. When I decided to start this blog to commemorate the 40th birthday of the barcode, much of what I knew about them (barcodes, that is, not cows) had come from listening to this podcast.

Happy listening.

Meet the Monstrous Hybrid

In their book, ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’, William McDonough and Michael Braungart set out a manifesto of product design principles for a sustainable society, centred upon manufacturing of suitably designed products. Their vision is a long, long way off, but there are some things that can be done within supply chains right now, not out of altruism but for our own benefit: to reduce waste disposal charges, and to ensure that material supplies last longer… which means that they are likely to cost us less.

A key concept introduced by Braungart and McDonough is that of the monstrous hybrid; a product that is an unholy combination of technical and organic ‘nutrients’. Technical nutrients can be recovered by established processes such as dismantling or melting down, whereas organic nutrients are materials that form part of the organic cycle: they grow, are harvested and refined, put to use, and then they rot away when they are disposed of, becoming compost that supports the growth of new organic products.

Organic and technical nutrients

It’s like the circle of life… only without the Lion King

The trouble comes when a product is a mixture of technical and organic materials. Consider a blister pack, commonly used in the retail of small items: it features a cardboard backing, and a vacuum-formed plastic bubble that displays the product. As soon as you open up the packaging, it becomes waste, and you throw it away… but how? Is it cardboard, or plastic? Even if you try to do the right thing and separate the two pieces so they can be disposed of in different categories, there’s going to be some cardboard and glue stuck on the remains of the plastic bubble. This is one reason why a manufacturer can’t simply melt down the plastic and mould it into something else; in fact it’s far more likely that the plastic will simply become refuse-derived fuel (RDF).

Blister pack

Blister pack, featuring a mixture of cardboard and thermoplastic

Braungart and McDonough go further, pointing out that the inks typically used for printing on packaging are oil-based. Thus, composting of cardboard isn’t an acceptable solution either, as the cardboard part has become a monstrous hybrid, never to be separated. Again, burning for energy recovery becomes the most attractive option.

This is not just a problem that affects packaging, though. Consider polyester cotton garments: they’re superior to pure cotton in that they’re harder-wearing, they resist shrinkage and they crease less… but at the end of life you’ve got a mixture of materials that aren’t easily separated.

Help is at hand, in the form of emerging materials applications such as the use of starch to make disposable cutlery: plastic cutlery would be contaminated by food, and food waste would be contaminated by waste plastic… use a starch-based bioplastic and you can compost the lot – for cheaper waste disposal charges and a clearer conscience. You can make your own bioplastics right now; it’s not particularly complicated, and your main feedstock might be something as inexpensive as potato peelings – producing a material that can be moulded using existing machinery and techniques. There’s no need to assume automatically that when you specify a plastic component that means you’re dependent upon the oil industry.

Perhaps we really can remake the way we make things.