Understanding Aggravating Factors
Why do we have unemployed ICT graduates in Malaysia? Speak to ICT industry practitioners and they tell you that these graduates do not have the right technical skills and are therefore, unemployable. But think about it – ICT technical skills continuously evolve and no graduate is ever going to have just the right set of technical skills that a company needs at any given time. It is generally accepted today that technical skills learnt in an academic environment last no more than seven years. Frequently, they become obsolete in less than five years.
A software engineer with 10 years of working experience is likely to be programming in languages that did not exist when he was in university. Technical skills and other hard skills have to be developed on an ongoing basis. If a graduate has been trained to write software in one programming language, it is no great feat to pick up another programming language. In most cases, it is a matter of learning the syntax of new language as fundamental programming principles are universal and do not change overnight. What then are the factors that cause these graduates to remain unemployed?
Very often, we pick out factors which stand out like sore thumbs but have no real consequence or connection to the problem we are trying to solve. This is what the next constructive thinking tool, Factors of Significance (FoS), aims to rectify. FoS works on the basis of isolating what are known as “aggravating factors” and then attempting to understand their significance or relevance to the problem.
An aggravating factor may not be the cause of a problem. In the case of the unemployed graduates, the absence of the right technical skills is certainly an aggravating factor but is it the factor of the greatest significance? FoS forces us to ask this question in order to appreciate the underlying problem. When this factor is queried for it’s significance, we come to the realisation that as long as one has a strong programming foundation, one can learn to program in any language. This aggravating factor therefore, should have little significance.
Not all factors surrounding a situation are aggravating factors and not all aggravating factors are of importance. The innovator uses FoS to identify all the factors surrounding the problem or opportunity, recognise the aggravating factors so that the significance of each and every factor can be understood.
Let’s look at some examples of innovators who have used FoS successfully to capitalise on an opportunity. When the Tata Group, India’s largest hotel chain, wanted to launch a new hotel brand for business travellers, they applied FoS to understand the factors that were of significance to their target market. Among the factors that Indian business travellers looked at before making their choice were cleanliness, restaurants in the hotel, swimming and gym facilities as well as the cost of a room per night. These were important but run of the mill factors. Factors that really aggravated business guests were simple things such as rigid check-in times, the distance to the nearest ATM machine and centrally controlled air conditioning.
Through FoS, Tata found that guests were not fussed with restaurant facilities in a hotel as the majority of them preferred to eat out in the first place. Restaurants therefore were neither aggravating factors nor factors of much significance. Given that most hotels spend a great deal of money on in-house restaurants, this revelation was eye-opening. Tata focussed on the aggravating factors and now every Ginger Hotel provides offers flexible check-in at any time of the day or night, houses an ATM machine in the hotel itself and provides individual air-conditioning control in every room. The lesson that Tata learnt from FoS was that not every important factor is an aggravating factor and some of the least expected factors actually prove to be the deal makers or breakers.
In some cases, an aggravating factor is the cause of the problem and has to be resolved before one can go further. An innovative American company used FoS to create a thumb drive that physically inflates as the user stores files on it. The company correctly identified the aggravating factor for thumb drive users – the amount of free space left on the drive. Very often users begin to copy multiple files onto a thumb drive, only to discover halfway during the process, that there isn’t enough room for all the files. Some files are copied while others are not and the whole process has to be aborted. The inflatable thumb drive provides quick visual indication as to how much of it is full. Innovative, isn’t it?
Another thumb drive manufacturer used FoS to discover that one of the most important factors for a thumb drive, it’s size, is also the key aggravating factor. Users of tiny thumb drives inevitably end up leaving them in their pockets – resulting in the thumb drives being destroyed in washing machines. Users want small thumb drives but this very factor is the cause of their aggravation. The company now manufactures water-proof thumb drives that can survive a washing machine.
How do you know if an aggravating factor has significance or otherwise? When does an ordinary factor, one that is not causing any aggravation, have significance? Innovators use the Factors of Significance tool to list down all factors surrounding a situation and then select the ones that are causing aggravation. Each of these aggravating factors is then examined for it’s significance. If the cause of the problem does not become apparent from these factors, the remaining non-aggravating factors are examined. The FoS is a simple but effective method of creating a checklist so that all the factors of significance can be understood.
Source: Dr. Kamal Jit Singh is the CEO of British Telecom’s Asian Research Centre and specialises in using Innovation as a strategy for increasing competitiveness. He is passionate about changing the way Malaysians think and hopes his articles provoke and challenge conventional thinking. Brickbats are welcomed at: