Saturday, September 6, 2008

Expat advice and surveys

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James at American in Amsterdam posted some useful reference information this week: I took his advice to pick up some breakdown insurance with ANWB.  I've always been a member of the AAA, a similar service in the US, and have gotten great value for the membership over the years.  The AAA provides road service, maps and trip books, and bail bond services (better than dropping off my driver's license when the patrolman stops me).  It sounds like a similarly good service to have here (although the 'all Europa' package is about double the US rate).

Along the way, they invited me to sign up for a 'work-from-home' day on October 9, in exchange for a commemorative keychain.  Why not...

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Several folks have suggested the new Expatcenter in Amsterdam as a good one-stop shop for getting forms filled in, questions answered, and rules explained. It certainly has the potential to save a lot of website- and office-hopping, and the Internet site is extremely well organized.  However, through the end of it's evaluation period (Dec 31, 2008), it's aimed mainly at highly skilled migrant workers and their families, living in Amsterdam or Amstelveen, whose employer is a participant in the pilot project.

The alternative is to use the ACCESS service, which has recently moved it's offices to be closer to the World Trade Center (where the Expatcenter is also located).

And, the new Holland Handbook is out for 2009: I lived by this guide for the first six months here.  Highly recommended if you are allowed only one book to take with you to your Dutch village.

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And, HSBC has released the results of their most recent Expat Explorer Survey.  Over 2000 people worldwide filled in the on-line questions, and destinations were ranked on the basis of how long expats stay, how well they are paid, the availability of "luxuries", and how comfortable the housing is.  The Netherlands towards the middle, alongside Canada: it scored well on longevity and pay.  Singapore led the list; the UK trailed.

I had to smile at some of the "luxuries": ownership of boats or multiple cars is down (was it ever up?), while more people "own a pool" or "have access to more than one property". It seems like some of these things might be better for HSBC than for expats.

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And thanks to India Ink for this summary of the Expat Life Cycle!

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Improved methods for innovating

stroke A large-company scientist, buried within the research organization, discovers a customer need: Stroke patients don't get to the hospital fast enough for treatment to be effective.

She finds a novel technical solution: an infrared sensor that measures brain oxygen saturation.

She works with university partners to collect data and prove that ischemic brain regions can be detected non-invasively through the skull.

She proposes that the company should build a "stud finder" for stroke that can detect brain attacks like the device at the right detects structural timbers.

How does the story end, and how can it be improved?

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A lot is made of the failure of large companies to innovate.  Analysts worry about pipelines, governments about competitiveness, and workers about the ways processes smother ideas.  Companies from Microsoft to Glaxo fight this perception (ours included), pointing to the magnitude of research investment, number of patents, and percentage revenue from new products.

This misses the question of how directly innovative these companies should be.

Big companies are good at many things: carrying out large clinical trials, manufacturing at high quality and low cost, strong marketing and distribution networks, understanding of the regulatory process, familiar branding.  There are a thousand small companies that are in the business of innovating, creating and testing new ideas for unsuspected market niches.

Surely the value is in the synergy between large and small?

The bunny looks really small in Big Daddy's hands"Open Innovation" has been around as a technical concept for years, but I think it applies equally well to business growth: find the best and work with them to do better.  Be innovative by becoming a champion of innovation, using large-company strengths to supplement small-company creativity. 

Pharmaceutical managers are increasingly growing their business by sending the people who best know their business out into the field with instructions to pick among the thousand flowers.  They invest appropriately to nurture and prove technologies, markets, and solutions, and manage their relationships with customers and innovators to harvest value from their partnerships.

Even so, innovation won't reach users unless it crosses the gap between research and development.  And, too often, large company politics and processes can smother their relationship with promising ideas and startup companies.

Traditionally, the prototype is thrown to development groups, where it dies.  This occurs for many reasons: the idea isn't fully understood, it's not mature, it needs too much work to bring to market, there is no market, there is no enthusiasm, there are no resources, there is no time. I've seen many solutions to bridge this gap. Some transfer the scientist into development, but few researchers make good entrepreneurs.  Some create gateway "Advanced Development" organizations that package innovation for project teams to assimilate.  This addresses the technical gap, but doesn't determine market value.

The new method, which I like a lot, is to form cross-functional 'core teams': essentially small businesses within the business.

image These groups, about 10 people each, move the idea from concept definition to business proposal, feasibility demonstration to product prototype, and finally to handoff or introduction, through a stage-gate process that gives autonomy to teams autonomy and oversight to management.  By bringing together all of the business elements early, the understanding of customer needs and the product concept evolve together, the organization builds buy-in and enthusiasm, and both market and technical risk are progressively reduced while overall value builds.

It's "Small in Big", an important organizational principal: Responsibility and accountability should push down to the workgroup and it's leadership, allowing businesses to function quickly, flexibly, and efficiently.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

'sorry to be scarce....

image I've been catching up with lots of life events the past few days, on the road Monday and Tuesday, locked in a writer's garret all day today.

I've been on a quest to answer some questions about long-term assignments in the Netherlands. It turns out that there is a former ex-pat (5 years, circa 1995, when corporate didn't check so closely about who was where doing what) who is about to retire, 10 years on local contract, living just to the south of me. I had a delightful dinner with him and picked his brain a bit. He's been happy with the local contract and living in Europe: it led to the work opportunities and lifestyle balance that he wanted (and that are the biggest draw for me as well). Pensioning is his biggest worry: he has bits of Dutch, US, company, and personal pensions floating around and he needs to make a coherent whole of it. Taxes were second: he has used Taxpat for years and has built up substantial US tax credits that now need to be unwound. Isolation was a distant third: he feels removed from family and colleagues, but still plans to make a permanent home in France when he retires.

I also met with a physician-entrepreneur near Maastricht to get some idea of Dutch requirements for setting up a business. We walked through the procedures and he assured me that it wasn't as hard as the Chamber of Commerce literature implied. I will need a business plan and some tax advice, but if I collect my ideas together, then he agreed to guide me through the forms later this fall. I still want to explore the potential for going independent as a startup or consultancy, and this is a necessary component. I'll post progress notes along the way: suggestions are always welcome (for example, I had no idea that there was a Dutch - American Friendship Treaty to think about?)

And I interviewed for a position with a French company. It's good rehearsal if nothing else: I always think back on the questions and find places that I could have used a better example or been more concise. The company is looking for someone to lead a technical department of 150 people developing devices for automated laboratory testing, a bit out of my field. My first reaction is to say that I don't know enough about that to do the job well. It's mechanical and electrical, reagents and fluids, and I'm a computers and signals person. At the same time, .the world is full of managers who didn't earn PhD's in the function that they direct. General management is about talent and organization, processes and controls, so if I have a clear remit, competent people, and I'm willing to make the effort to learn, it's something that I can do. So, with a bit of reading about molecular diagnostics, I'll step forward along the process.

And, finally, today was spent hunched over a business plan that I'm creating for applying for UK government funding. The startup has been germinating for a couple of years (with corporate approval), unable to move for lack of money. My partner and I did a quick survey of where things stand, and there is such a clear path to feasibility that it seems like the moment to make the effort. I've written many business plans and, for me, is always a 'death march'. 'Like programming or data analysis, I have to immerse in it for long, uninterrupted periods to get my head immersed in the task. Once in the fugue, I can be really productive, but I have to pound my head into the task without distraction. Unlike most, I don't succumb to a continuous stream of nibbles to sustain the effort. Extreme programmers often are associated with coffee, pizza, soda, and crumbs: I think it's a way of avoiding breaks and not a junk food habit. I avoid it: it helps me to step back from the screen for a short break every few hours to get the big picture again.

'not much else going on...

My daughter called to walk thought her math qualifier for her economics course. 'nice to be needed...

My son called to let me know he passed the first of three tests in his training course. If he fails one, he goes from being an airborne battlefield management trainee to being a cook. 'it's nail biting time all the time...

'had a good post-mortem on the Olympics with a few Dutch folks...they are still trying to understand what happened with the bicycling races and why only the women seemed to win. There's always 2012...

Painting credit: Alex Everitt

Sunday, August 31, 2008

What makes 'Mooie Dorpen'

Baarn 06 When I pitch out into the Dutch countryside, I often take along my copy of 52 Mooie Dorpen, a guide to scenic villages throughout the Netherlands.  Yesterday, I visited Spakenburg and Baarn, two listed towns near the Emmeer waterway north of Amersfoort.  However, the visit was disappointing: both are modern towns, filled with the low brick shops and two-tiered apartment complexes typical of many Dutch communities.  Pleasant, but not exceptional.

Spakenburg was a major Dutch seaport before the Flevoland polder was created, and the town retains an old harbor with many traditional ships.  The boat museum, or an hour's outing on the local ferry, are good destinations to enjoy on day outings, but the town seems otherwise undistinguished.

Spakenburg 03 Spakenburg 40

Spakenburg 43 Spakenburg 10

Baarn highlight's it's "natural and architectural beauty, good facilities, nice shops and excellent connections by car and train to nearby cities".  My guidebook recommended finding the Hotel Promenade for high tea and gourmet meals and, indeed, the setting and the food were exceptional.  But the town was, again, otherwise unexceptional.

Baarn 02 Baarn 04 

Coming after a day of delightful discovery of Nieuwersluis and Sypesteyn, it got me thinking  about my aesthetic in hunting down beautiful Dutch villages. Desirable qualities are, of course, subjective, but the villages that I most enjoy include:

  • Tradition:  A winding central core with close streets, historic architecture, intriguing local cafes, brick walkways, punctuated by public spaces beneath churches or city halls.
  • Scale:  Human and walkable: limited scope and low heights, with walls decorated in historic relief, and streets, cafe's, and window contents that reflect the local residents.
  • Water:  Rivers or canals that capture light and mood; bridges and parks for watching the flow of boat traffic.
  • Color:  Green shutters against red brick, blue sky over yellow bridges, whimsical bits of art or plantings in parks and roundabouts.
  • Tranquility:  Cars are kept at arm's length; the town welcomes people taking time to walk, to sit, to laugh in conversation.
  • Balance:  The village itself has variety, shopping and residential areas (neighborhoods), and the town blends into the surrounding countryside.

People were delightful everywhere, though.  A couple taking the ferry out for an afternoon of bike riding gave me quick insight to the local waterways and the sights in Amersfoort.  A group of students experimented with unique bicycle combinations.  A waiter took time to find me a bit of shade for enjoying dinner.  A family celebrated their daughter's return to school.

The human scale and texture of Dutch life continues to be a delight, set amidst the background of their mooie dorpen.

Spakenburg 07 Spakenburg 34

Spakenburg 27 Spakenburg 29