Four recipes to save Italy: “Meritocrazia” by Roger Abravanel

The Italian malaise, so widely chronicled in its various facets of gerontocracy, corruption, stagnation and economic insecurity, is one of those systemic issues that have become so entrenched that it seems nearly impossible to do anything about it. Yet, author and former management consultant Roger Abravanel believes that many Italians’ dissatisfaction with the status quo may have reached the threshold that triggers change.

A few words on why, far from being impartial, I am a member of the subterranean Roger Abravanel Fan Club. When I joined McKinsey, Roger was already a senior partner at the firm, having returned to Milan after his years in Tokyo, Mexico City and Paris. I had the privilege to work with Roger on several assignments throughout my years there, and I looked up to him as a leading role model; he was, I believe, the most sincere practitioner of the caring meritocracy that kept many of us going through those nights and weekends at work. After retiring in 2006, Roger spent his time as a board member at companies in both Italy and Israel, and started writing a book about meritocracy, published this month.

Meritocrazia argues, with Roger’s characteristic optimism, that four concrete solutions can inject a jolt of leadership and excellence into Italian economy and society, and jumpstart its turnaround. These are his four proposals:

  1. Establish a Delivery Unit for the public sector in Italy, modeled after the one launched by Tony Blair in 2001 to monitor progress on and strengthen the British government’s ability to deliver on its key priorities across education, health, crime and transport. Roger has extensively discussed that experience with Sir Michael Barber, the first head of the Delivery Unit, and argues that an Italian version of it could both improve quality and reduce waste in the public sector, and train a new generation of young leaders. The extraordinary civil service of Singapore and, though only in part, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in France provide more food for thought on how to turn around our dismal performance in government services.
  2. Create a standardized testing system for Italian schools, similar to the SAT Reasoning Test in the United States (“the secret weapon of American meritocracy”, in the words of Nicolas Lemann). No education reform and no amount of money showered onto schools and universitites can ever achieve any impact, if we can’t measure how schools and teachers are performing.
  3. Launch an Authority to deregulate and promote competition in private and public local services. From food retail to urban transport, from pharmacies to taxis, from water utilities to toll roads, from gas stations to local professions, local services are the bulk of the economy: and they have largely been untouched by liberalization, thanks to the extortionary power they exert on consumers’ daily lives (try driving through Rome during a taxi strike) and the political consensus that protects local monopolists and oligopolists. This Authority should lead an extraordinary effort to unlock competition in local services. “Devolution” is not the answer: on the contrary, getting results will require strong alignment from the center.
  4. Unlock the leadership talent of Italian women through affirmative action for women in corporate boards. The model here is the recent Norwegian law mandating that medium and large companies must have at least 40% of board members who are women, or face tough sanctions, including forced liquidation. Italian women themselves are not fond of the affirmative action idea, and some of them have, most insidiously, interiorized our culture’s worst stereotypes. But I believe Roger is right in saying that we’re not going to get anywhere without a shock therapy forcing the end of discrimination at the top of our economy and society. Women’s careers should also be supported through incentives for shorter maternity leaves and a better public and private child care network.

Roger’s book is well-documented, wide-ranging and convincingly argued; it has the crucial virtue of moving beyond diagnosis and adopting a “can-do” attitude to defeat the defeatism so prevailing in public discourse. It is also a direct appeal to our Prime Minister, whoever that would be (the book was going into print just around the time of the April elections), to adopt these proposals. Whether Roger is listened to or not will be, in my opinion, a crucial test for the openness of this government’s agenda to citizens’ needs.

Finally, an apology to some of my Twitter followers. Last Wednesday I inundated them with a live twittercast from the presentation of the book, in Italian – I understand it looked like a ton of spam to those who don’t speak it. But now you understand why I cared so much about what was going on!

Update, September 2008: Please visit www.meritocrazia.com to leave your comments and questions for Roger Abravanel!

What Women Want: a global BCG survey

Today I spent some time answering a thoughtful survey by BCG authors Michael Silverstein and Kate Sayre. I say “thoughtful” because, in spite of the odd question or two about your cooking skills, it moves beyond the traditional questions on respondents’ consumption preferences and patterns and tries to link women’s behaviors as consumers to their values, beliefs and priorities in life. If you want to spend some time thinking about your own (and you are, indeed, a woman), find the survey here:

http://www.womenspeakworldwide.com/

The survey aims at reaching 25,000 women worldwide and its findings will form the basis for a book on the needs of women. Somewhat pompously, the authors “believe this original work will contribute to a better world and enable a new conversation around hope and happiness”. This may be a bit of a lofty goal. Silverstein has co-authored two well-respected books about emerging consumer patterns, Trading Up: The New American Luxury (2003) and Treasure Hunt: Inside the Mind of the New Consumer (2006).

Somehow I think that a better world does not necessarily have much to do with whether the products we buy are designed for our hope and happiness. For a truly better world, we need a different kind of societal change. More about that in my next post.

Women’s creativity

I admit it: I am a fan of the brief season when art looked like an avenue for women to reclaim their own bodies. But perhaps we expected too much of artistic expression, and we didn’t get feminism quite right either, seeing how fragile all our conquests have turned out to be.

Still, I celebrate when I come across whimsical crafts like these, reminding me of that season (photos courtesy of the Serpica Naro fashion collective in Milan, Italy).

Knitted vulva
Knitted vulva

I’m right and the world is wrong (Unicredit Group campaign)

Love the picture, hate the copy.

Maybe I\'m right and the world is wrong

What a lovely and whimsical image to shake off that stodgy bank feeling. And yet, what an arrogantly nonsensical statement they chose to go with it.

Eliminating the “Maybe” in “Maybe I’m right and the world is wrong” means no healthy skepticism. No awareness of what we don’t know. No willingness to learn more. If that’s what you aspire to, we’ve got a bank that’s ready to serve you. In fact, in its desire to foster certainty and eliminate ambiguity, this campaign stands as the polar opposite of the thought-provoking HSBC “Your Point of View” campaign, the one you’ve seen gracing several airport walkways over the last couple of years. In that campaign, who’s right and who’s wrong is about different points of view, and HSBC apparently maintains that celebrating differences is better than eradicating them. Feel free to call its cultural relativism naive and dangerous, but I find it a rather more appealing brand statement than UniCredit’s monolithic erasure of doubt.

More about the UniCredit campaign in the Advertising section of the bank’s site. The print ads show a campaign URL, www.be-free-of-maybe.eu, but that site doesn’t seem to be quite ready yet (as of today the URL merely redirects to the corporate site).

The Twitter language dilemma

When I started blogging, it was pretty clear to me that I’d have to have two blogs: one in Italian and one in English. Now that I’m taking Twitter for a test ride, that’s where I draw the line: I refuse to have two Twitter accounts, and I post my updates rather indiscrimately in whatever language I happen to have thought that particular though in. Still, I feel a bit guilty towards those of my readers who miss out on what I’m trying to say if it’s not in the language they speak.

If you use two or more languages, how have you solved the Twitter language dilemma?

“The Goldilocks Enigma” vs. “The End of Mr. Y”

Yesterday I finished reading The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas and I started The Goldilocks Enigma (also published as Cosmic Jackpot in the US) by Paul Davies (thanks for your recommendations, readers).

The Goldilocks Enigma is essentially about modern physics. The End of Mr. Y has interesting detours into thought experiments, Victorian freak shows, homeopathy and Derrida.

The End of Mr. Y throws in a casual mention of the anthropic principle, while the protagonist interstitially picks an inner fight with the treatment of women in most religions. The Goldilocks Enigma starts off with a proper discussion of the anthropic principle, as set out in Brandon Carter’s 1960s paper: why do the laws of physics seem to be so finely tuned for the existence of life?

The End of Mr. Y has a character who is a lapsed theologian. The Goldilocks Enigma has a number of scientist characters who in spite of being supposedly atheists or agnostics, still find themselves drawn to the notion of the meaning of purpose of the universe, and ultimately to a concept of God.

The Goldilocks Enigma is vastly more scientifically rigorous than The End of Mr. Y, but contains a lot less trashy sex and no detours into self-destructive addictions.

The Goldilocks Enigma promises to discuss what the universe is made of. The End of Mr. Y sets out multiverses that are made of language. (And Thomas, I believe, has an essential insight here. Look all around you: your house, your street, your city would not exist if we did not have language. Without language, we’d live in caves and occasionally huddle around fires.)

The End of Mr. Y has a very cursory interlude on the Copenhagen interpretation and the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics: this makes me look forward to more of the real thing (to the extent you can do this without the maths, which I expect is not a lot) in The Goldilocks Enigma.

So, you see how it’s impossible for me to be loyal to either fiction or non-fiction.

Seven things that don’t work at the Molino Stucky Hilton in Venice

Molino Stucky Hilton, Venice

Consumer advocacy is not the first need that comes to mind when spending a weekend in a Venice blessed by perfect spring weather after deciding that once in a while it’s worth splurging on a luxury hotel. However, the Molino Stucky Hilton, a late 1800s industrial flour mill sitting in a quiet location off the beaten track (the Giudecca island, also home to the historic Cipriani hotel) yet minutes by boat from anywhere in Venice, beautifully renovated as a hotel by the Caltagirone group and opened with great fanfare under Hilton management in 2007, manages to disappoint on so many counts that at some point I started keeping a list. Call me a snob, call me someone who can’t appreciate the fine things in life, but here are seven ways a hotel can go wrong – and at the Molino Stucky Hilton, all seven are wrong.

7. Internet access, provided by Swisscom, is fast and reliable but offered at extortionary prices. Business packages are 24 hours for €27 or 7 days for €108; if you choose Economy access (bandwidth and data volume limitations apply), you can choose between 60 non-consecutive minutes within a 24-hour range for €12 or 24 consecutive hours for €22. During a three-night stay, I burned through three of the sixty-minute packages – I hardly ever used the full hour, mind you, which only left me the added frustration of not being able to carry any unused minutes over to the next day.

6. There is no turndown service for the night, unless on request. And even on request, there is hardly any turndown service – it mostly consists of the removal of some pillows to a chair or a closet, depending on the housekeeping whim of the day. Drapes were left open for us to remember closing on our own. For rooms that set you back between €400 and €700 per night (but you can also choose a €3,700 Tower Suite, should you be so inclined), I find it in extraordinary bad taste not to provide turndown service by default.

5. I’m all for the environment, and in principle I do sympathize with the effort to conserve water and not dump synthetic detergents into the Venice Lagoon. Yet, for the aforementioned €400 to €700 per night, I expect to have the option to keep the same sheets night after night, should I so desire, by placing a little green card that says “I’m green, don’t change my sheets” on my bed before leaving the room in the morning. I do not expect the default option to be that I’ll have to sleep in clammy sheets, unless I remember to place on my bed the little green card that says “I’m just not that into green, so do bother to change my sheets, please”. That is precisely the unpalatable choice that the Hilton management inflicts on any morally conflicted guests at one of its most hyped luxury locations, and probably elsewhere too, considering how much cheaper it is.

4. Suites and junior suites come with complimentary access to an Executive Lounge on the sixth floor. On inspection, however, this turns out to be a singularly depressing space, dimly lit with minimal amounts of natural light coming from gunholes on top of the walls, and reminiscent most of all of a narrow airport lounge at some minor hub. An inexplicably undrinkable orange juice is served, and Sunday newspapers only appear on Sunday morning after reminding the lounge staff that Sunday is, indeed, a day of the week when many newspapers are regularly published.

3. A beautiful swimming pool on the seventh floor of the building is surrounded by such precious few deckchairs that, on a sunny afternoon, guests start getting turned away. This may be indeed a structural limitation, yet it is not one that the hotel designers couldn’t foresee. Another rooftop solarium, perhaps? Deckchairs in the garden? It’s only May and you’re running the pool at full capacity – how many guests are you going to disappoint by July?

2. Ah, no pool, but at least one can get up in the morning and go to the state-of-the-art-gym for a good workout, right? (Remember the open drapes issue above – item 6. – and the fact that the sun does rise at a very early hour these days, especially for a weekend morning). Most people who work out are used to getting their workouts sometime between 6 and 8 am, right? Well, no such luck. The gym, which is described in the in-room Guest Services book as opening at 8 am, really doesn’t open until 9 am. Guests who show up in workout gear anytime before 9 are turned away.

1. Finally, the staff is spectacularly untrained and occasionally clueless. (With a notable exception at the spa, the only department where people were competent, experienced and friendly: if you need a beautician, ask for Ella). Almost everybody looked like they’d just shown up for their first day of work. A request for Earl Grey tea at the aforementioned Executive Lounge (item 4.) was met with an uncomprehending stare and two consecutive attempts at tea that were not Earl Grey. A pool attendant (5.), asked whether there might be a house phone nearby, gleefully answered “I have no clue”. Lapses in training, even at a hotel costing you the aforementioned number of Euros per night, can be forgiven; lapses in attitude will poison the guest experience to the point that a guest will only return under extreme duress. (For a well-thought-out philosophy of the hospitality business, I recommend Setting the Table by New York restaurateur Danny Meyer).

Back in the mid-‘90s, I had what I recall as one of the best hotel experiences in my life at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California. A stroke of management genius had led them to conclude that, when a guest spends that kind of money to stay at your property, you might as well throw in a few minibar drinks and Terra chips for free: it’s a little thing, and of course it’s not free because you pay for it in the price of the room, but it completely changes the tone of your relationship with the hotel bill. Unfortunately for us customers, the Post Ranch Inn method did not catch on, and almost everywhere we go we are still being charged megabucks for a bottle of water. (On the minibar issue, there must be a conspiracy among hotels that’s worth an antitrust investigation). My pleasure with the Post Ranch Inn experience was only marred, on my subsequent visit, by the loss of a digital camera with all my Hawaii pictures on it, accidentally left in the Post Ranch Inn restaurant and never found again. Still, years after my first visit, I rave about the Post Ranch Inn. Yes, that kind of boutique hotel is a different business from the large hotel chain business. But still, one would wish to enjoy some glimpses of good service, and good management, even when staying at a bigger place. The Park Hyatt in Tokyo, in my experience, had just that kind of magic sauce. The Molino Stucky Hilton doesn’t.