In a recent blog, I talked about how the Cloud can be an economic equalizer, enabling almost anybody anywhere to create and grow a business, even where there is minimal local infrastructure. This time, I want to look at a different way to measure the reach of a company, or a government: something I call conversation “lag time.” For this posting, I will define “lag time” as the time between when a customer asks for something and you give it to him. It could be just the answer to a question, or a physical product.
For most of human history, lag time has been limited by the walking speed of a person and the usable speed of the wind over water. It did not much matter whether you had a simple question or wanted or order 100 pounds of nutmeg. The message and the product both moved at the same pace.
What is a walking pace? The US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) defines a brisk walk as about 3 miles per hour, which is also about the walking pace of a loaded mule or horse. A remarkably consistent over millennia estimate of a day’s journey is 20-25 miles. This was true in Biblical times, the Middle Ages (where it was considered to be 20 miles a day), or a Franciscan priest wandering through what is now New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah in 1776. The priest averaged 19.5 miles per day. A Roman Legion could travel 20 miles a day over the Roman roads, and Caesar’s forced marches were about 25 miles a day.
You can still enjoy a meal at many of the 18th century inns between Philadelphia and Lancaster or Harrisburg. They are 15-20 miles apart.
The reality of a lag time measured in days or months is that business or government works at that same speed. Also, the longer the journey the more opportunity for failure: bandits, storms, disease, accidents, …. With increased risk comes increased cost, and information or goods procured from far away were often prohibitively expensive.
Part of the reason for the strange presidential election system in the US is lag time. The Electoral College was created because the average voter in Boston probably did not know a candidate from Virginia – they were a month apart. In England, the new Prime Minister took power the day after the election. In the US, originally the new president took power about four months after the election. Part of that time is due to the Electoral College process, involving the electors physically gathering in the capital to cast their votes. The other part was that since the new President was not necessarily actually in the capital, after he was elected he had to physically get to the capital. In England, the new Prime Minister was already a Member of Parliament and part of the Shadow Government, so there was no travel time and no need for a long transition. With FDR, the inauguration shifted from March to January; lag time had decreased significantly.
There were some kinds of communication mechanisms that were not limited by the speed a man could walk. Smoke signals, lights (“one if by land, two if by sea”), and the sound of drums can all move faster than a person can walk, especially over rough terrain. However, the data rate is rather small, much less than one bit per second, and the distance is severely limited by line of sight or ambient noise levels. The distance from the Old North Church to the “opposite shore” is about half a mile, but it saved some serious time to row across at night. Often the only message is either “come” or “run” or “everything is fine.”
Many governments, including Persia and Rome, set up courier routes for galloping horses with periodic stations to change them. The US Pony Express had 157 stations about 10 miles apart, as far as a horse could gallop at one time. Riders, who had to weigh no more than 125 pounds, were changed every 75-100 miles. All of this to get 20 pounds of mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California in 10 days, a distance of about 1,900 miles. Cost to send a half-ounce letter via the Pony Express: $5, in 1860 dollars, about $123 today.
But the tradition of distance-relative lag time, and the importance of doing business locally, already had some serious cracks.
The first working railroad in England was established in 1804, although the track just ran around the Penydarren ironworks. By 1825, railroads were starting to link towns in England.
An interesting corollary to the development of the railroad was the creation of the timetable. Prior to this, you left when you wanted and got there when you did. Ships sailed on a specified day, or soon after (but never on Friday, at least in England). Waiting an hour for a ferry to get back to your side was just part of the day’s journey. Trains need a timetable – it is the first line of defense against collisions when there are lots of trains on the same track, possibly going in opposite directions. Suddenly, the average person needed a watch. Certain things had to happen at certain times, not just “morning,” “afternoon,” or “evening,” or even “maybe Tuesday.”
By 1840, a train could go further in an hour than you could walk in a day: better than an order of magnitude faster. By 1940, the top speed of trains was over 100 miles per hour and even “local” runs able to go 60 mph. With the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, you could comfortably get from the east coast to the west coast in 7 days, instead of an uncomfortable six months. A letter cost 2 cents to mail, about thirty-three cents today.
Meanwhile, an entirely different technology was changing the old rule: information could now travel faster than products. By October 1861, telegraph wires had stretched across the US, replacing the Pony Express after only 19 months of operation. By 1872 the world was largely linked, with oceanic cables across the Atlantic, to India and even Australia. However, while substantially faster, the telegraph was not instantaneous in any way. If you wanted to send a telegram, you walked or took the train to the telegraph office, hand wrote your message in block capitals on a form, and paid by the word. The operator would key it in using Morse code (at between 10 and 40 words per minute, or somewhere on the order of 25 bits per second). Another operator at the other end would write it down on another form. In some cases, it might have to be relayed onto a series of different wires until it got to the final destination. The form was then delivered by hand to the receiver. Secure? Not really. Not only did at least three people have the opportunity to leisurely read what you wrote, anybody listening on the line could read the Morse code. That could include someone who climbed a pole and clipped a clicker to the wire. But now you could get a message to someone in another city or even another continent in a matter of an hour or two. And perhaps get a response the same day!
Ocean travel was also getting faster, and safer. The Mayflower took 33 days to cross from England to the New World. By 1827 the trip could be done in 11 days, and today about 7. Considering that the average lifeboat on a modern passenger liner is bigger than the Mayflower, traveler comfort has also improved.
Airplanes completely changed the scale of the world. Now that six-month trek from New York to San Francisco takes six hours, an improvement of almost three orders of magnitude. Today it can take longer to get to the airport and get through security than the actual flight time.
But the biggest change in lag time has come with the Internet and Cloud Computing. Now information lag time is measured in seconds. Product delivery lag time has also shrunk. Last month I got online and ordered a new Mac computer, configured just the way I wanted it. It was built on Thursday and I had it up and working in my office on Monday. Oh, did I mention it was built in Shanghai?
The Internet, email, Twitter, and Google searches have changed the world of business and government completely. If your web site doesn’t answer most of my questions, I’ll go to another company. If you are a government, I’ll call up and complain, write letters to the editor, and maybe take it out on you at the ballot. If I can’t order a product and get it tomorrow or the next day, I’ll at least check out your competition. If I place a support “call” on-line, I expect a response immediately, certainly within an hour. I expect a solution within 24 hours.
I’m not sure I’m like most people, but I will not call you except as a last resort. I do not enjoy listening to bad music for 15 minutes with periodic “your call is important to us” messages, then getting someone who does not know American English, and in many cases can’t solve your problem unless you forgot to plug it in. If my call were important, you would answer it. If your help desk is “experiencing an unusually high volume of calls” then I know there is something wrong with your product.
If you want your business to survive in this “now!” environment, you need to be working at a speed that matches today’s lag time. This requires an efficient world-wide logistics ability, 24/7 support, and an impeccable on-line information and ordering experience. You may need follow-the-sun support and logistics capability, multi-language capability, and as one Cloud Service Provider (Rackspace) calls it, “fanatical support.”
Just like the Cloud is an economic equalizer, it also can be a big help in dealing with today’s almost zero lag time.
The last word:
One thing I have noticed is that the quality of communication seems to be inversely proportional to speed of communication. When email first was usable (yes, there was a time before email), email letters looked a lot like paper letters: formal headings, “Dear Sir:” and “Yours truly.” Like a paper letter, they were read after being written and were usually error free. But over a few years, they turned into hasty notes, not letters. No header, no “thank you,” minimal sentence structure, and often very hard to understand what was really meant. Many of the emails I get seem to have been write only – they were never read by the sender.
Just like a formal letter, an email represents you and your company. It must be clear, written in with good grammar, and reviewed. You can’t trust the automatic spelling correction. I once worked for a man named Rodney. The (rather primitive) Outlook of the time kept changing it to “Rodent.” This was not a good thing.
Blaise Pascal once wrote an especially long letter to a friend, and apologized at the end for its length. “I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is also supposed to have said it, but the seventeenth century French mathematician beat him by a couple of hundred years.
Keep your sense of humor.