Off Ramp

7 12 2011

There are few things more exciting than a road trip. Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel took a season-long road trip from New York to Los Angeles in I Love Lucy. Ted and Marshall recounted a crazy trip to Chicago in “Duel Citizenship” on How I Met Your Mother. Chevy Chase took us on four Vacation installments, the first of which was an amazing journey to Wally World (“Sorry folks! We’re closed!”).And Steve Martin and John Candy wound up being reluctant road trippers on Planes, Trains & Automobiles.

While we Americans love to lay claim to the road trip as our distinct cultural experience, I think more importantly it speaks to our inner nomad. Adventure. Wanderlust. Saying the hell with it all and just getting away.

And while most of us wish these road trips would never end (possible exceptions being Martin and Candy), the sad reality is that they must come to a close.

Like this one.

We started this great learning adventure on the 29th of August. Ninety-seven blogs later (no kidding), we have come to the end of our tour of duty together. But while the journey may be over as far as you and I are concerned, it does not mean that the wheels have fallen off our vehicles. We’ll just be traveling separately. Learning goes on.

And so does change. It is a reality that anything not changing is in fact dying. People. Businesses. Ideologies. Governments. Even (perish the thought) religions. (I’ll let you battle that one on your own.)

Which is why I wrap this course under the cloak of Change. Yes, I know I am anthropomorphizing something that for many is a hard pill to swallow. But Change is a friend who transcends time and space; she is a stumbling block to the stubborn, but a warm welcome to those of open mind and resilience. Deny her, and she will beat you with a vengeance. Embrace her, and she will love you for eternity.

Even in our short 14 weeks together, much has changed. Facebook is in the process of unleashing its new Timeline feature. A flock of new products have been introduced (something on the order of 4000). Republican presidential candidates have come and gone, smoking or not. It’s just not the same place we inhabited at the end of summer’s intense heat.

I am not sure my students realize this, but I am the lucky one in all of this. It is neither burden nor chore for me to write daily for you. Why? Because I get to read your replies. I am not looking for affirmation or agreement. No, many of you have boldly stood up to me and disagreed. For those who seized the moment and fearlessly challenged me, I am grateful. For those who restrained themselves, I can only say I wish you had cut loose. It’s OK.

And for all of the comments you posted this semester, I have but two words: Thank you. You made my semester.

OK, six words.

One of the things I like doing with my kids is something that most 52-year-old men would never be caught dead trying: jumping on the trampoline. I am sure I am quite the sight. I know I am, because the kids are laughing hysterically. As much as I try to stay in good shape, I am just not as limber as a 10-year-old. Or coordinated.

Rob Bell wrote of his own father-sons jumping experiences in Velvet Elvis, “It is on this trampoline that God has started to make more sense to me.” I’d like to extend the analogy by saying that it is on our trampoline that life makes more sense to me.

It is a concert of ups. Downs. You. Me. Together. Apart. Reaching. Falling. But all the time fluid.

Sometimes we land perfectly. Sometimes we hit with a thud. And sometimes, when everything goes just right, one of us winds up launching about 15 feet in the air.

Change is a lot like the trampoline. It’s about being willing to cut loose. Have fun. Take chances. Embrace the moment. The alternative is to sit on the deck and just watch.

And now as we bring this road trip to a close, may you see the world through a different lens than when we started. May you fill your tank often, focus on the road ahead, and keep your safety belts fastened, for the future is a crazy uncharted place to navigate. And may you be willing to hop on the trampoline and laugh, scream and holler like a kid. Cut loose. Everybody. Because life is pretty boring sitting on the deck.

Dr “Go Ahead And Jump” Gerlich





Klip Joint

6 12 2011

A little over 30 years ago, The Buggles secured their place in pop culture trivia by having their song, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” played as the very first song on MTV. It’s funny how we remember such stuff. But those kind of honors only go to the first. No one really cares after that. For example, who among you remembers what the second song was?

Told you so.

Just like video killed radio (well, not completely, but it did put a big dent in it), video is now poised to put a similar kibosh on still pictures. Yes, we’ve had YouTube for over 5 years, and Facebook does let us upload raw footage from our phones. But there has been a missing link until late that allowed for easier social video sharing triangulating between Facebook, YouTube, and whoever might be prescient enough to see this need.

Enter Klip, Vibop, et al, and welcome to the Next Big Thing.

Venture capitalists are apparently tripping over themselves to get rich on what promises to make a big splash on the social graph. After all, 50% of us now own smartphones…phones that are, unless you still iPhone1, capable of shooting and sending video. Klip, for example, is its own social media site, but has easy links to FB and YT. This creates a valuable triangle of visibility, for both you and Klip.

More importantly, though, it ushers in the next era of social media. It may be one thing to post lots of pics (we are shooting more stills than ever thought imaginable). But now we will be shooting and posting more video. With sites like Vibop, Klip and the rest, the viral potential of these clips is enormous. Cross-posting will be a snap.

Which may mean this is a perilous time to be going into broadcast journalism. Because each and every one of us smartphone-toting people is reporter, cameraperson and producer wrapped in one.

Oh, and we work for nothing.

In the long run, I suspect that only one or two of these services will survive. One will probably be bought out by Facebook (just like FB recently purchased location-based competitor Gowalla).

The fact of the matter is, it just keeps getting easier and easier for private citizens to be creators and distributors of original content. Most YouTube content is shot in the field or a studio, but then polished on a computer prior to posting. And Facebook’s video option is nothing to rave over. But with third-party specialization comes great improvement.

I just wish I had a passenger with me yesterday who could have handled shooting some footage during the middle of the snow storm. Who needs the evening news when you can shoot it yourself?

Oh, and in case you’re still wondering about that second song. It was by Pat Benatar. Ironically, she scored many more hits than did The Buggles, both before and after MTV’s debut. I guess you could say that seniority killed the one hit wonder.

Dr “You Better Run” Gerlich





In And Out Of Control

6 12 2011

Every time I teach my MBA Marketing Seminar course, I have students take a short survey I call the Survey of Personal Perceptions. The title is mine…I made it up to disguise the intent and source. But that does not diminish its value.

Actually students completed the time-honored Locus of Control instrument developed by Julian Rotter (1966). And lest anyone be concerned about my violating an IRB protocols, let me explain that I do not use the LoC fur research purposes, nor do I ever look at anyone’s score. It is strictly for the benefit of students to find out a little more about themselves.

And for anyone wanting to see what Rotter’s original 29-item scale looks like, click here (there are 6 “dummy” items in the original that are not scored). The LoC produces a score between 0 and 23, a continuum ranging from high internal locus of control (0) to high external locus of control (23). There are no “correct” answers, only indicators of what you perceive to be true.http://employees.oneonta.edu/hadsell/Rotter.htmAn alternate version of the scale (with 180-degree opposite scoring) is available here, along with excellent interpretations of results.

Basically, Rotter said that at the personal level, we vary in our perception of how much control we have over the events that shape our lives. A high internal LoC knows with absolute certainty that s/he makes his/her own luck, and is fully responsible for all consequences. A high external LoC, on the other hand, believes that much (if not all) of what happens is beyond their control, and either the result of luck or other people controlling him/her. (Click here for an excellent discourse on interpreting the LoC score.)

Absolute 0s and 23s are not common (although I confess to scoring a 0). What I have noticed through the years is that in the field of Business, most students score between 0 and 8. Scores above 12 are very rare. Maybe this says something about the nature of students who select a Business degree. I tend to agree. It takes decisive people to run businesses (as owners or employees).

Many semesters ago, I actually did use the LoC in research, and compared students in campus vs. online courses. I found that online students tended to have lower LoC scores. This is a very desirable, and probably necessary, trait for online learners, simply because the format requires students to stay extremely focused and be self-starters.

Basically, if your score leans toward internal LoC, you are in varying degrees of control of your destiny. If your score leans toward external LoC, you are other-controlled. Those on the extremes (he says as he looks in the mirror) need to be cognizant that there can be frustrations along the way. For example, a “perfect” internal LoC must be aware that s/he cannot be a control freak and expect to keep friends. Furthermore, s/he must acknowledge that, no matter how hard they (I) try to control their (my) destiny, there is always going to be some manner of luck involved. The bumper sticker philosophy is indeed correct. Shit happens. As for me, I have learned to accept those realities, and live my life merrily controlling me and hopefully no one else. Just don’t try to control me!

I would love to use the LoC instrument on a lot of different citizen groups. I suspect that some extremely conservative religious followers (regardless of the faith) tend toward external LoC. I would also not be surprised to find a lot of externals among the most strident OWS protesters (that whole 1% argument speaks volumes to me). I also suspect that LoC scores are lower overall today than they were a few generations ago.

As for how LoC might manifest itself in our buying ways, I also suspect that high internals are more cautious and decisive in their purchases, looking before they leap (especially with regard to credit). And even if they do “live dangerously,” they do so knowing there may be consequences…and they alone are responsible for their actions.

As my students review their scores from the beginning of the semester, I hope that they do realize there is no judgment being passed, and, as I said above, there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. There are only your answers. Figure out who you are, and what it means. And then try to live happily with that knowledge.

Dr “0 to 23” Gerlich





For Better Or Worse

4 12 2011

My life took a fateful turn in Spring 1974 when, in my high school freshman Honors Math course, we were introduced to computers. These were not like any computers we use today, of course. And, truth be known, we never actually saw the computer on which we worked.

Yes, I used the singular. It was a mainframe located at the Illinois Institute of Technology in downtown Chicago. We were connected via a very clunky cradle telephone modem. And we had to take turns using our one TTY machine, a beast of a contraption that basically was a massive keyboard with a punched paper ribbon output as “memory.” We spoke in Fortran IV, and stored all of our programs on those pale yellow rolls of paper. Perish the thought we might actually lose it. Or the dog eat our homework.

Things did get better after that, of course, and today we are so connected that the world hardly even resembles what I knew 37 years ago. Despite how crude this all sounds today, though, my peers and I were on the bleeding edge of technology. And it whetted my appetite for more. Much more. It helped shape who I am today. Gadget guru. Purveyor of all things cool. OK, sucker for all things geeky and expensive.

It is fun to look over my shoulder to see just how far I (and we) have come. Heck, we had just gotten a color TV about that time. We were rockin’. It’s also reassuring to read that most people think that technology has made our lives better.

Although I will admit to many instances of serious questioning. Soul searching. Cursing.

Ever since I started teaching online in 1997, people have asked me what I think about it. My standard response: “The good news is that I get to take it with me. The bad news is that I get to take it with me.”

Fast forward to 2011 and suddenly the majority of us are on 24/7 call, seldom more than a text or Facebook Message away. And when we aren’t, people start to get worried. I should know. People have become so accustomed to my being wired (in a wireless kind of way, of course), that anything other is cause for alarm. Just the other day my colleague tried to reach me for over an hour. I had silenced my phone and had not turned it back on. Worse yet, I did not have the phone in my pocket. It was not against my body, meaning I was, for all intents and purposes, off the grid. Completely. “Dude. You went cell phone MIA. Everything OK?”

I took this as a sincere act of friendship. In a 21C kind of way, of course. (Thank you for caring, my friend.)

Still, I do indeed wonder about all this technology. In many regards, it has made our lives much better. It has changed our homes, our workspace, everything we do. Today, tablets like the iPad are allowing us to put computers in places we never could have put a PC. Like on the fridge or hanging beneath the kitchen cabinet.

While we have not yet reached the point of the paperless office (some studies show us actually using more paper than before, thanks to the ubiquity of printers), none can argue that the way we do our jobs today is light years removed from a couple of generations ago. Yeah, in just a few decades. And the improvements I have seen during my professional career (23 years), is nothing short of amazing. What was once the forefront of computing power is now just a box of stone tools beside today’s workhorses.

Interestingly, though, while we say it has improved our lives, we’re not necessarily always happy about it all. One of the funniest skits on this paradox was performed by comedian Louis CK. Maybe all the advancements have made us techno-entitlement freaks. I know I am guilty. I curse my iPhone’s autocorrect for typographical blunders that would never have occurred back in the day of F2F communications. If I slip off the 3G grid into Edge, I become impatient when my Facebook posts hang and emails take forever to send (from my handy wireless computer phone, remember). And don’t get me started when there’s a little snow on my satellite dish and I have to venture out in the middle of a snowstorm with a long-handled broom. So I can receive television signals from space.

Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t complain. After all, it’s the weekend. I am taking advantage of every guy’s prerogative to spend a couple of days in low self-monitoring mode (read: I have not shaved since Friday morning). I’m working at home using Clear Wimax, listening to the Cowboys game from across the room via satellite TV, sending text messages, and downloading a book to my iPad.

Sure beats 1974. “Cradle modem? Are you freaking crazy? How did you guys live?” At least I’ll have stories for the grandkids.

Dr “Better? You Bet” Gerlich





Killing Time

4 12 2011

One of the recurring themes I encounter and write about when it comes to life in the 21C is that we suffer from an increasing poverty of time. It’s not like this is a new phenomenon, for I have been addressing it for a good solid 20 years. We crave convenience. We feel forced into multitasking. Walmarts and websites with 24/7 shopping are de facto requirements of the day.

And yet it appears that when it comes to one very important activity in which most of us engage…internet…we apparently have far more free time than we realize. In fact, according to a study by Pew research, most of us go online just to kill time..

Although they didn’t use these specific words, what Pew research has done is explore a very popular topic in communication research, that being Uses and Gratifications (U&G). This stream of research, popular now for about four decades, seeks to understand what people seek out of particular media usage. Implicit in studies of this type is the assumltion that it is not so much what the media vehicle does to us, as much as what we do with it

I must confess to be enamored of the subject. My research partner at MediaBuffs.org and I have jumped headlong into this field of inquiry by creating and testing our Reading Motives Scale to determine what uses and gratifications people seek with regard to books. The result so far has been a couple of journal article acceptances this fall, with another pair in the pipeline. We are also exploring extending the early research on U&G of Facebook and other social media, as well as smartphone apps.

U&G research has explored all manner of media-related phenomena. Early pushes evaluated why people watch television, read newspapers and other media forms. Niche-focused research has even looked at fantasy sports leagues and reality television. I sat through a paper presentation in New Orleans last month exploring why people watch shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Dancing With The Stars. One of the interesting results was that viewers watched for the sheer delectable taste of schadenfreude…the enjoyment of seeing others being humiliated.

Which may explain why these shows, all saying they are not scripted, seem to provide us with fools and foils each season, apparently for the express purpose of feeding our desire to see others make utter idiots of themselves on national television. I’m not going near an audition, because I could probably be worth a few ratings points exposing my lack of dancing and singing skills.

But back to the Internet. U&G is no stranger to this field, either, as numerous papers have been written about it. But Pew has brought it all forward with very current data, and excellent demographic demarcations so we can compare across age groups. Turns out the younger you are, the more likely you jump online is just to pass time. While the vast majority of adults confess to this guilty pleasure, the amount of time killing is inversely related with age.

And to be honest, I have a hard time imagining people having so much time to kill, but maybe we’re all just not coming clean when we complain to everyone else about how busy we are.

First of all, every U&G study I have seen has a “pass time” factor researchers have found. We found the same with reading books. Chalk it up to nervous energy, boredom, ennui…I dunno. As for computers, maybe they have come full circle. When personal computers were first gaining traction in the early-1980s, only a handful of people actually knew what to do with them beyond typing documents, balancing checkbooks, and playing games. In fact, prototypical cyber cafes popped up around 1982 whereby people could stop in a storefront to play games on very rudimentary computers. Asteroids. Pac Man. Space Invaders. We didn’t what the hell else to do with them, so we played games.

Which is another way of saying that we were killing time.

Of course, things changed after that, with many people learning how to design websites, and an endless stream of information and shopping websites. Shortly thereafter came online courses. And then came social media (Classmates.com was the first true social media site, in 1995…it’s just that it didn’t realize what it was at the time).

I think we have no so mastered computers in our lives that we get them to do everything we want them to do, and more. This leaves us with…hold on, folks…spare time.

I am sure we could do similar studies of smartphone and tablet device usage. I will admit that when I go to sleep, my iPad is always within reach. At my age (watch it there, you younguns), I wake up between 2 and 4 every night. So what do I do? I read the newspaper online a few hours before it reaches my driveway. I scan email. I catch up on Facebook. And I read books and magazines.

Basically, killing time and hoping to get sleepy again.

My point (and as always, I really do have one) is that the vacancy sign of our lives is lit more than we may like to confess. And as serious as we may like to come across, we spend a lot of time just goofing around. It’s the digital equivalent of going for a drive in the country.

Maybe our lives are not so bad after all. In a strange kind of way, I find some encouragement knowing that 24 hours may indeed be about enough. That 28 hour days are not some idyllic future tense in which we can get even more done. That it really is OK to mentally shut down.

And that is a time usage about which I can be extremely gratified.

Dr “How About A Nap?” Gerlich





Maybe They’ll Make It Up In Volume

4 12 2011

One of my favorite episodes of I Love Lucy is The Million Dollar Idea, in which Lucy and Ethel start manufacturing and selling salad dressing from their apartment.

It all starts well, and includes most of the basic nuts and bolts that any start-up must consider. Of course, the only problem is that they did not consider them fully. Like having a solid understanding of cost structure. Lucy, ever the optimistic airhead, figured that there was no way they could not get rich by selling jars of dressing at 40 cents a quart. The duo go on television, and suddenly find themselves bombarded with mail orders.

Ricky takes them to task and demands to know how much it is costing them to produce and ship each jar. He finds out in short order that Lucy and Ethel are losing on each jar sold. Looking at the mail bags full of orders, Lucy cries back, “But we’ll make it up in volume.”

Uh-huh. Kind of like the folks at Need A Cake Bakery in the UK, who nearly suffocated under the weight of 102,000 cupcakes purchased through a Groupon offer. They offered a dozen cupcakes, normally a $40 purchase, for $10. Worse yet, rather than limit their Groupon to a small area, they went nationwide with it. They had to hire temporary help and work through the night to make good on the offers.

In the process, they figure they lost thousands of dollars…both on a per dozen basis and for hiring the temp workers.

And therein lies the danger of making hasty business decisions, especially ones that involve viral programs like Groupon. There is no recovering via volume. In fact, there is always the possibility of no recovering at all.

The purpose of Groupon is to try to introduce new customers to one’s products and services, with hopes they will return as full-fare customers later. There is a huge risk, though, of attracting deal-prone consumers not so much interested in trying new products as much as they are in getting a steal. And how many of the 85,000 buyers do you think are going to return for more cupcakes next week? Next month? Ever?

Right. Most of them will be buying whatever Groupon is offering then.

Lucy and Ethel had to suck it up and exit the business gracefully, but sitcoms have the added benefit of it all being a fiction. The folks at Need A Cake, though, do not have that luxury. There are sunk costs. Rents. Wages. Materials. Depression. Taxes.

All for want of selling a few cupcakes.

Groupon has changed the way promos are offered these days. Living Social, their biggest competitor, is just as prominent in bringing deals to people, and helping them go viral. Add in all the local knee-jerk efforts created lately by local media outlets, and you have a marketplace filled with more offers than we could ever begin to exploit.

Yes, this is all well and good for consumers, I suppose. Everyone can use a bargain. But if this continues to turn into an idiocracy of sales promotions, we’re going to see businesses going out of business. By definition, sales promotions are to be a short-term phenomenon, an inducement to get people to act now…but return later as regular paying customers. With so many promos being spread via email and social media, customer loyalty is something few may ever hope to attain. If I know that someone, somewhere is going to be blowing cupcakes (pastries, entrees, gym memberships…you name it) every day from now through the visible future, what’s the point in settling in?

Groupon, I may like the deals I get from you, but at the end of the day, I know it is building and reinforcing bad consumer habits. I should know, for I am doing it myself. I have been slowly having some of my favorite ohotographs printed on canvas, and then adorning my office walls with my handiwork. Would I ever pay $130 for a 24X20-inch print? Heck no. I wait until I receive a Groupon offering them at 60% off. I have six stockpiled right now in pre-purchased credits. All I have to do is sort through about 20,000 images to make my picks.

Although I could probably be persuaded to buy some cheap local cupcakes.

Dr “Make Mine Chocolate” Gerlich





Come On, Get Happy

1 12 2011

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Necessity is the Mother of Invention. And where there is a law, there is necessity to find the will to get around it.

Kind of like McDonald’s has done in San Francisco. Happy Meal ban be damned. Mickey D’s has found a loophole.

And I am sure they are laughing hysterically back at headquarters. The new law says that meals cannot be sold that include toys. OK. Big deal. So why not charge a dime for the toy? Oh yeah, and let’s put a positive PR spin on things by donating the entire 10 cents to their Ronald McDonald House?

That was almost too easy.

Here’s the problem. Laws have a nasty little artifact. It’s called skating close to the edge. I think it is both human and corporate nature to venture as close to the water as possible, but without falling in. McDonald’s found an easy way to skirt San Fran’s new law, which, by the way, everyone refers to as the Happy Meal ban. Because it was written specifically with McDonald’s in mind. Let’s not try to pick on anyone now, OK?

While I appreciate some of the intent (we are an obese nation, after all, and our children are going to pay the price later as adults), it is rather onerous and discriminatory. It only includes those vendors selling kids meals that include toys. Fast-casual restaurants like Chili’s, for example, can continue selling their Children’s Menu items without harm, even though the coloring-book menu probably provides as much entertainment as a McD’s toy.

But back to the law. I fully understand the need for laws and at least some semblance of structure and order, for without them we would have anarchy. The downside is that nearly every law implicitly encourages people and companies to figure out the workaround. This is why we have tax accountants, remember.

Recent legislation requiring 100 calorie servings caused beverage canners and snack food makers to reconfigure their packaging. This is why we now have a slew of beverage cans that all skate in at or just below the 100 calorie level. This allows them to get their products inside some school district vending machines or snack counters.

And you thought companies were just being sensitive.

The big takeaway is this: We should think twice before we try to legislate away every perceived evil, even if it is something which we truly hope would go away. Humans and corporations (and their marketers, paid shills that we are) will find a way to dodge the bullet. In the process, we/they make a mockery of our legal system. In the absence of a totalitarian regime, we must accept the fact that we are free moral agents. And with that free agency comes responsibility as well as the freedom to determine how we can cross the yellow line without actually getting in trouble.

Yes, the kids of San Francisco (and everywhere else) need to consume fewer Happy Meals, and their parents need to make wise choices. But mandating common sense never worked, and McD’s has turned this law on its side where it rightly belongs. Who among San Fran parents would even think twice about paying the extra dime for a toy, knowing that their money is going to a worthy charity?

You are as likely to see pigs fly or hear about a cold day in Hell when I raise my glass to McDonald’s, but this is that day. Watch out for porcine flyers. If you find yourself headed to Hell, carry a jacket.

And maybe take a Happy Meal.

Dr “Would You Like Fries With That?” Gerlich