Delivering Libellous Content

March 17, 2014

The DeliveryDemon had to chuckle at this article

The law has certainly been working hard to catch up with technology, and the impact of this sort of libel is very real to those who are libelled. But the legal profession is missing a trick here. Behind the scenes, there is technology which looks for keywords and tries to interpret them. By and large this software is still remarkably primitive. It has yet to get to grips with the ability to interpret the context. Basically it lacks ‘intelligence’. It is designed to provide an answer at the expense of providing a sensible answer.

Google predictive text gives some good examples of what can happen and various mobile phone predictive text engines can be even funnier. The automated parsers used by recruiters cannot distinguish between Coral the bookmaker and Coral the programming language. Amazon’s ‘you might like’ suggestions suggest you buy an identical item to a recent purchase, with a different brand name.

To some extent, many of these tools are designed to depend on data which is not quality-controlled in any effective way. Certainly an Amazon vendor will enter the keywords likely to maximise search hits. that can mean the entry of keywords with little relation to the product being sold.

Google is one of the more sophisticated players since its product depends on understanding what a searcher is likely to want, but the Telegraph article shows how primitive the logic is. Asking users to log in and relating searches to their search history has the potential to improve search result quality, but people are becoming increasingly sensitive to the amount of their data held by large corporations, and legislators are starting to respond to those concerns, so relying on users logging in may not be the most fruitful development path for this type of tool.

The examples in libel article certainly have merit. Either the tool is not fit for purpose, or it is being used unintelligently. A fairly obvious solution would be for the news website to flag articles as being either positive or adverse, provided the tool refrains from coming up with links to ‘similar’ articles unless they were also flagged as adverse. If the tool can do this, the web publisher is at fault. If the tool can’t do it, then there are two potential breaches. The tool may be inadequate for the purpose for which it is being sold. Or the web publisher may be making inappropriate use of the tool. Of course, when a payment model is based on click throughs, the incentives tend not to favour anything which limits the number of links displayed.

A fruitful approach for legislators would be to look beyond individual libels and examine the capabilities of current tools, and the processes which web publishers use to to mitigate the risks arising from tool limitations.

Delivering Stakeholder Management

June 14, 2011

It’s relatively easy to identify most stakeholders. Once they have been identified it’s relatively easy to put together a communication plan which allows you to tell them what they need to know. The plan can include two way communication events such as requirements analysis, Q&A events, document reviews and user tests. These are all part of the tried and tested approach to stakeholder management.

Rather more difficult is the management of stakeholder expectations. The project manager can issue crystal clear bulletins about what has been agreed and what is actually happening. At some point these butt up against stakeholder assumptions, recollections and aspirations. The bits which match will bolster the stakeholder’s world view. The bits which don’t match may provoke a reaction. If they do, that’s all to the good as it allows the project manager to identify and deal with any mismatch between the project as agreed and stakeholder expectations. But not all readers will bother to react. The danger comes when stakeholders skim project communications for the bits which confirm their expectations and ignore the rest. Then expectations may begin to diverge substantially from the project aims. Once that happens to any extent the project will never be a success. It may deliver to scope, cost and timescale but it won’t be viewed as successful because it’s not delivering what stakeholders have come to expect.

For a project manager to become a good stakeholder manager, it’s necessary to look beyond the project’s formal structured communication, and apply the black arts of expectation analysis and expectation management. Catch a straying expectation before it’s far from the straight and narrow and it’s easy to nudge it back on course. Let it stray long enough to become feral and you may not catch it in the lifetime of the project.

Becoming a curator of expectations requires a diverse set of skills, but the core skill is networking. Informal chats can alert the project manager to straying expections much more quickly than any formal discussion. It’s not just the obvious stakeholders who can be useful sources of information. Other projects and BAU targets may hide a reliance on invalid expectations, and people may set such targets as a means of pressurising a project to change its remit.

Sometimes divergent expectations arise because the business has moved on from the original project requirements, and the project may need to change in order to deliver business benefits.

It may not be easy to decide whether expectations should be brought in line or the project changed to meet expectations. This is where stakeholder management feeds into risk and issue management, and through that to the broader project governance and sponsorship if it appears that problems are going beyond the authority delegated to the project manager.

You can, in isolation, deliver a project which meets all its objectives. But unless you step outside the ivory tower and keep abreast of events in the wider context the project may not be seen to be successful. That’s why a project manager needs a taste for coffee, beer and cocktails, not to mention a tolerance for the smoky, windy conditions endured by the huddles which gather outside the doors of most office buildings.

Delivering Lies, Damned Lies, and Politics

March 19, 2009

DeliveryDemon was more than slightly incensed to receive from the local MP a letter which delivered a blast of breathtaking cynicism with a nasty aftertaste of unsubtle manipulativeness.


There’s a proposal to resite the outpatient facility of a hospital in the area, currently based in a town with a population of 50,000. It’s not being moved to another nearby town with a population of 46,000. No, it’s being moved to a much smaller town, population 9,000. This for a service used by older people, disabled people, ill people, people who may be unable to drive. This in an area with limited public transport outside the main population centres. Nothing in the letter to say why the MP supports this particular move, just a statement that the hospital deems it to be best for patients. Knowing the quality of service delivered by this particular hospital, the DeliveryDemon thinks this very statement is a good reason to question the decision, but that’s another story.


Anyway, the letter delivers a couple of paragraphs of unsubstantiated benefit claims followed by a tirade about political bias with a claim that only one view can be the right one and a total absence of any explanation of why the balance of benefits would favour the MP’s preferred option. The text is littered with ‘what do you think?’ but guess what options are offered in the poll at the end. Choose between the good of the patient and political pressure. In other words, either you agree with the MP or you are in favour of evil, underhand politicking. No room for dissent there.


Let’s step back from the issue of the hospital and look at the intended payload of this communication. No doubt Phil Hope would like to present to the local planning committee an interpretation of poll results showing that, of those who voted, the majority were in favour of his preferred option. Well, it’s a convenient vehicle for those in favour of the proposal to cast a vote in support of him. It has been lent dubious credibility by being sent to all local voters, and worded in a way which makes it unlikely that anyone not already in favour will vote against it. I refer back to my earlier comment on breathtaking cynicism and unsubtle manipulativeness.


And what is the actual delivery payload when the reader thinks about the letter? Any or all of the following:

  • Annoyance at an MP who thinks that voters are idiots who can be manipulated like this, and who thinks that it’s alright to do so
  • Annoyance at the waste of taxpayers’ money and the creation of landfill fodder in the form of thousands of pages and envelopes of expensive House of Commons stationery
  • Suspicion about the validity of the proposal
  • Distrust of the letter’s signatory
  • An inclination to question something which might otherwise have been of only passing interest.

This MP has made a massive mistake in ignoring the fact that successful delivery of a communication can only be measured in the context of the perception of the recipient. The implied message in his communication is completely at odds with what he intended. And that brings us to honesty. Successful delivery happens when deliverer and recipient have a shared view of what is to be delivered. Try and slip in something different from what you’re claiming to deliver and you’ll destroy the recipient’s trust. Honesty is the only basis for a strong relationship.

Well, What Do You Expect?

March 16, 2009

Driving up the A1 can be pretty tedious and it’s surprising where the mind can wander – while concentrating on the road of course. That’s exactly what I was doing when I noticed something which immediately had me thinking about delivery and expectations.

Of course, anyone involved in the successful delivery of goods, or services, or anything else, will have realised that it’s essential for the supplier and customers to reach a common expectation about what is to be delivered. Under-delivery is an obvious problem, but what about over-delivery – is it a good thing? In practice, over-delivery is a two edged sword. The customer may well be delighted to get more, or better, than they paid for but, by contrast, the next adequate delivery will look like  a drop in quality or in service unless the supplier manages the situation so that the over-delivery is viewed by the customer as a special event. Expectations need to be recognised, considered, and managed.

Back to the A1. Like many of the UK’s major roads, the fixed traffic signs are supplemented by expensive matrix signs which were originally intended to display warning text or symbols. In the past, the blank faces of these signs used to offer mute reassurance that all was normal on the signed road and others nearby. When this situation changed, a message appeared on the signs. The driver’s expectation was that a blank  sign indicated all was well while a lit up sign was a warning. The sheer simplicity of this allowed the signs to function with minimal distraction of the driver’s attention from the traffic. It also allowed the signs to exercise their warning function from a far greater distance than reading distance.

Now a driver can no longer expect that a lit sign is communicating information about current road conditions. It may:

  • Distract attention with wordy nannying platitudes – ‘Tiredness kills – Take a break’
  • Confuse with lack of precision – ’21 miles and 20 mins to J36′. For whom?  A caravan limited to 50 mph or a 60 mph lorry or a car going at the 70 mph speed limit?
  • Imply an undefined problem – ’15 miles and 20 mins to J13′. On a 70 mph road? What’s the holdup? What are they not telling us?
  • Lie! ‘Slow traffic queuing ahead’ remaining lit long after the problem has cleared.
  • Assume that local problems affect the entire road network. ‘Debris on the road’ without a matched sign indicating that the danger area has been passed.

On the surface all of this may seem like just another of the many factors which can make driving in this country a less than pleasant experience. But it’s much more fundamental. Drivers used to expect matrix signs to deliver warnings of current local problems. Over time, the operators have become sloppy about delivering that function so that information can no longer be relied on as current and accurate. Worse still, decisions have been taken to use the signs for several completely different purposes with little or no regard for the context in which the displayed messages are being delivered. The mute reassurance role has been lost completely as a lit sign can no longer be assumed to convey a warning. And the genuine messages are so outnumbered by the noise that they cease to register with drivers.

The taxpayer’s costly investment in the network of maintenance signs has been wasted. And it’s all because of people who thought their particular agendas were so important they could abandon the expected safety function of the matrix signs and ignore all considerations of context and good practice.