The Man Who Mistook His Life for a Game

When your mother told you that life was neither a fairy tale nor a game, she was certainly right about the former and probably wrong about the latter. In fact, there’ve been a few notable thinkers since the mid-1800s who claimed that life was nothing but a game. The notion that people are Pokémon on the great board game of Life first vaulted into the halls of science and took hold of public imagination with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, followed only one year later by the release of The Checkered Game of Life, courtesy of the fine and inventive people at Milton Bradley. Since then some games have indeed become more serious than life itself (sorry, I’m not talking about Dancing with the Stars); and with the advent of game theory (a formalized, mathematical treatment, if you will, of social science) countless advances have been made in manifold fields such of evolutionary biology, political science, international relations, and of course computer science. You’ll really like game theory if you made it through Theoretical Econ 101, you can still stomach your applied math, or you’ve had the hots for Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. For that matter, game theory will come in very handy should you ever find yourself incarcerated with a fellow inmate named Johnny von Neumann, and you’re wondering whether to betray that strange man to the warden or to only say as much as the acteurs in The Blair Witch Project.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma (a formal study, again, of why two people might not cooperate even if it’s in both their best interest) and, conversely, other counterintuitive behavioral models that attempt to explain for instance why people might collaborate (to contribute, say, intellectual “property” into the intellectual commons) even if it’s not in their best interests, have become intellectual staple diet for Social Web connoisseurs. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) does a lot of work for Fortune 1000 companies that wish to implement effective “Web 2.0 strategies.” I put that term in parentheses for no one really knows what it means, except for Tim O’Reilly (who invented it) or Carl Jung (who would have described it as the act of individuation through socialization by means of solidarity networks, but Carl unfortunately is long dead).

Most our enterprise clients wish to harness the web’s social-media sphere as a way to expand their business (be it to grow their brand, widen their customer reach, or deepen their relationships with business stakeholders). If you think you can do that by just sticking a “Share it on Facebook” or “Digg it” button up on your corporate site you belong in a fossil collection, a Barock shrine, or a Tibetan monastery. It’s ironic for me to say so (for our company provides the technical talent behind many a successful Web 2.0 implementation), but Web 2.0 has a lot less to do with technology than with psychology (no, not psychiatry, and apologies, Oliver Sacks). If you want to make your brand attractive to millions and millions of people who live the Social Web, if you want to connect with them, to garner their attention, and to take them on a journey towards your product or your service offering, you must start to play the game. For starters, throw out your Ajax For Dummies (or say “asynchronous JavaScript and XML” three times in a row), and pack your Nash equilibrium, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, and your favorite body piercing jewelry and head over to our friends at social gaming powerhouse Zynga (http://www.zynga.com/). They’ve just changed their company slogan from “More Fun Than Robert Downey, Jr.” to “Connecting the World Through Games.” There you go. I promise you: play one of their fabulous games and you’ll get what Web 2.0 is all about.

Don’t worry – you don’t even have to like “computer games.” Try out Zynga’s Mafia Wars, and yes, you’ll just either love it or hate it (there’s no in-between, just like with anchovies, the London Tube, or Michelle “Bombshell” McGee). You might not even stand for the glorification of violence, vindicta, and organized crime, although the theme of the game is of less interest to us here, and it might as well be about finding seashells on a beach or blue helmets in a Sri Lankan refugee camp. What’s impressive is that Zynga has just nailed the psychological underpinning of the individual as an integral part of a social network. There’s an amazingly effective reward system. There’s compensation for everything. Behavioral modification and forced decision-making against the ever-present timer. There are rituals and archetypes. There’s always the “mob” (the collective unconscious) and the Complex (do I have enough friends / Mafia members, enough stamina / energy to kill, enough money / reward points, etc.?). The process of individuation is particularly powerful, where players become literally more “whole” by virtue of strengthening their profiles, attaining special powers, and recruiting more players. And yes, there is also the fetish which can be cared for or cured, as the case may be, by – in any event – buying lots and lots of little items from Zynga.

And the lesson here? Needless to say, without state-of-the-art web technology, none of this would be possible. But technology is just the enabler. Psychology – as in the psychological substrate of a successful social game such as Mafia Wars – is the driver behind any viable Web 2.0 strategy. The overlap between social gaming behavior and social media marketing is just striking. Imagine: getting your customers to self-select a particular affinity group, to connect with like-minded individuals, and to recruit them in significant numbers to make for geometric growth; or, for your customers to enhance their profiles (invaluable marketing data) for the purpose of sheer self-expression, validation in front of their peers, or to earn reward or “reputation” points. If you want to connect with millions of customers, forget about your social media icons (we’ll stick ‘em up for you later) and focus on what drives the individual in the social setting. Learn from the leader in the social gaming arena and play some more of Zynga’s Mafia Wars or contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) if we at Talent Trust can help bring some cutting-edge expertise to your Web 2.0 marketing initiative.

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Recruitment on the Orient Express: A Brief Primer on Doing IT Business in Eastern Europe

There is no pain, no sorrow, and no suffering in Philip Sanner’s world. His world is made of optimism – both manifest and militant – where charisma is a virtue not a curse, and good things happen because they can. And here in Sanner-Land not even little children cry, but only sales managers wince should they fail to make target. For in Philip’s worldview (or rather ‘Weltanschauung’ in his vernacular), there is little tolerance for failure; pity them who produce downward-sloping revenues, disappointing earnings, or bungled forecasts. Sure, they will get another chance to make good before they meet their maker, for a) Philip is a humanist, and b) this is Germany, after all, home to that fabulous invention called “Social Capitalism” (everybody here gets a second chance, and a third, and a fourth …).

Please, meet Philip Sanner, Herr General-Direktor (let me translate for you: director-general) of Elan’s Central- and Eastern European operations. Elan, of course, is the single largest pure-play – as they say – IT staffing firm in Europe, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Manpower, the global leader in the employment services industry. Sanner’s (please call me “Philip”) purview encompasses a business territory that once, over centuries past, was home to such pleasant sports as: the laggards of the Völkerwanderung, the last Roman conquerors-turned-ill-advised-tourists of Germania, the always charming Visigoths, the Carolingians, the on-and-off-again Huns, various Ottoman invaders ca. 1683 and ca. 1960s-1970s, and – needless to say – some of the most undesirable males the 20th century had produced.

Philip is part of the $16 billion business firmament of Elan/Manpower. Philip is a terrific business leader, and his team loves him, for he is firm but always fair, likes to lead strictly by example, and brings out the best in them. He subscribes to some unusual motivational methods though, normally observed at organizations such as the United States Navy SEALs or the British Army Special Air Service; when a mollycoddled German middle-manager publicly labors under the misapprehension that coming in second at a sales contest is the same as being “second winner,” he’s promptly enlightened by his director-general that “there is no such thing as the second winner, only the first loser.” Lovely.

I’ve personally known Philip “number-two-will-never-do” Sanner for over five years, and I’m proud to say we’re solid business partners and also friends now. We’ve launched a joint line of business called “global resourcing” or “remote staff augmentation” that is getting healthy traction across his territories, providing Elan’s clients with highly skilled IT professionals located offshore (for more information about the Elan-Talent Trust partnership see the ‘Harness Global Resourcing’ section at http://www.elansolutions.com/ as well as the dedicated services site http://www.elanglobalresourcing.com). I’m now sitting down in Philip’s palatial regional head-office here in Frankfurt – which, in terms of size and grandeur, makes Pope Julius II’s private study look shoddy by comparison. I’m always looking up to Philip, not only because he is one of the more successful IT staffing leaders in Europe; or because he rules his territories with an iron fist befitting one Götz von Berlichingen, every German’s favorite kick-ass knight; no, I’m craning skywards ‘cause Philip is an implausibly imposing 2.1 meters tall, as such barely meeting Frankfurt’s traffic height limitations for bridges and tunnels, and would have made a most respectable ‘Potsdam Giant’ under Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia.

By background Philip is an Entrepreneur with a capital “E” – and as opposed to most of his colleagues who are regular employees who may well be entrepreneurial (small “e”) in their respective jobs, he’s built real businesses from scratch, all in the IT staffing space, the last one of which he’s sold to Elan now eleven years ago. He joined Elan’s management ranks in ever-increasing roles of responsibility, while keeping his Entrepreneurial passion for the business, and he exudes the confidence of someone who’s been in the biz for twenty-odd years and seen it all, or – someone who’s just sold every self-doubt in the world to Mephistopheles himself.

But today Philip is even more buoyant than usual, though his habitual outer calm – which makes any funambulist appear fidgety – scantly betrays his excitement at having just sold a 200-person outsourced Level-1-2-3 support center deal to one of Europe’s largest technology firms. The center will be located in an Eastern European country where the client already has “strategic assets,” which is euphemism for owning a very large building with not nearly enough clever people in it, and a local hiring manager with little hair left to pull out, for the competition for IT talent has become fierce across Eastern Europe. That’s when we sit down to discuss the state of IT recruitment in different countries and to discern different staffing options for the client engagement at hand. And that’s when I decide to turn the discussion into an interview of sorts, where I’m asking the questions, and Philip is providing the answers, and this hopefully for the benefit of our readers. (As an aside, the interview is conducted in English, and although Philip’s English is excellent, to the American ear he sounds exactly like you-know-who from Hogan’s Heroes; an accent – he explains – he’s had since he was twelve and that he’s carefully cultivated ever since – for personal branding purposes, he says – not to be mixed up with your run-of-the-mill Cambridge grads roaming the mean streets of Frankfurt.)

Christophe: Hallo Philip, you’re the archetype of the modern German business man: with more degrees than a thermometer, you speak more languages than the good people of Babel, and you run out of passport pages faster than one can say “Welcome to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Herr Sanner.” Dispensing with all jokes now, how much do you actually travel per year, what countries do you visit, and how do you divide your time?

Philip: Well, although we’ve only recently begun to set up an office infrastructure proper throughout Eastern Europe – at this point we’ve got two main offices in Poland and two offices in the Czech Republic – we’re starting to see promising signs of growth throughout the whole region. Just as a caveat, put in context with the rest of Elan, Eastern Europe is still very small and nascent but clearly a region with lots of growth potential. In addition to Poland and the Czech Republic, Elan is active in Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. Not to bore you with geography, but this leaves all the following countries untouched: Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia (in what we call “Central Europe”), Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia (in “South-Eastern Europe”), Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (the Baltic states, although we’ve got pretty good representation up there through our parent company Manpower), the “Transcaucasias,” i.e. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and finally the former Soviet states Belarus and Moldova. I’ve personally been to all but Azerbaijan and Moldova, and unless you’re boarding a good 100+ intra-European flights per year, you’re not going to get a grasp of the business in all these different countries. Lucky me, I guess … Let me just add that you should think of our Poland- and Czech-based offices as regional “hubs of excellence.” Clients with high-volume staffing needs (500+ people) in these and also adjacent countries come to us for strategic advice, established fulfillment capabilities, and a deep understanding of local market dynamics. Although we’re the market leader in both Poland and CZ, a close collaboration with our strategic clients is still required to drive successful outcomes.

Christophe: If you had to make a short-list, which are the top countries in terms of demand for IT skills?

Philip: They are in order of greatest staffing demand: Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and Slovakia. Note that we at Elan would consider Poland and Russia as already mature markets for IT staffing.

Christophe: And what about the top countries now in terms of supply of IT skills?

Philip: Definitely Poland and CZ again as well as the Ukraine. What these three have in common is an educated, flexible, and rapidly-expanding workforce. All three countries posses well-established, efficient, and remarkably practice-oriented educational systems so that they can produce new and especially relevant skills with – please pardon my saying so – “hungry” individuals eager to learn the latest and most in-demand skills at a rapid pace, thereby shifting quickly towards new and emerging technologies.

Christophe: Along similar lines, which countries are on your “favorite list” when it comes to supplying IT workers for “cross-border” deployment (meaning as travelling guest workers in other countries on finite-term assignments) or for near-/offshoring (in other words, the resources remain in country but do the work remotely for a client in a different country altogether)?

Philip: In that regard both Romania and Bulgaria top the list – both are super-hot right now for both Microsoft and SAP skills – closely followed by Poland. We literally have a plethora of IT services and support centers in Kraków. Manpower’s big American clients, for example, are setting up shop in Poland and CZ with just remarkable speed – ramping up to 3,000 employees per center is pretty much the norm within a very short period of time … you ain’t seen nothing yet, as I believe you boys would say over there, until you’ve seen what Elan can do for you here. Obviously both Poland and CZ are not the cheapest places in the region, but American firms in particular are hoping that long-term investments will help offset and indeed reduce upfront operational spend and will yield significant improvements in overall IT efficiencies.

Christophe: Please excuse my saying so, but as far as political and legal systems are concerned, the whole of what we call Eastern Europe is to me just like my mother-in-law’s Hungarian Goulash: it all looks the same, it’s pretty clumpy and sticky, certainly not for the faint-of-heart, and you shouldn’t have too much of it, and you really don’t want to know what it’s made of … Any truth to that? How would you navigate the different sets of country laws?

Philip: Tricky, specially for the uninitiated or, as you say, the faint-of-heart. Don’t do it, if you haven’t done it before. Developing and implementing local trading procedures are just absolutely key. This is never easy under the best of circumstances and particularly challenging as “flexible IT hiring” and related workforce management practices represent a hybrid between HR and the procurement function. If you’re thinking about programmatic training, high-volume hiring, outsourcing, temp-to-perm worker transitions and other types of work transfers, a deep – and I mean “substantially deep” – knowledge of local legislation and labor laws are required.

Christophe: Speaking of the letter of the law, which can be intimidating when that letter is part of a foreign language, what Eastern European countries would you rate as being the most “Western-friendly”?

Philip: Not surprisingly, Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary are the favorites here, as these countries represent parts of many clients’ fully and globally integrated resourcing strategies. Through historical and cultural ties, they are closely aligned to such Western ‘powerhouses’ as Germany and France. Furthermore, these countries have a perhaps surprisingly – at least to some in ‘the so-called West’ – effective approach to human capital management. They just “get it” when it comes to servicing the demands of next-gen hiring managers: here it’s all about the stability, predictability, and rapid mobilization of talent pools.

Christophe: How is this now for a ‘loaded question’ – your advice to anyone looking for a reputable resourcing partner in Eastern Europe?

Philip: My mother used to spank me harder as a child when I would eat all the cookie dough! C’mon, is that all you’ve got? Seriously, you’ve got to do your due diligence. And I mean solid due diligence with multiple reference checks. Be careful to include in that check-list overall and of course specific technological capabilities and not just price as a differentiator. You are in the quality business – picking a quality partner will ‘pay back.’ Sound business processes and underlying systems are important as well. Make sure to pick a partner with a strong management team, matching cultural values – yes “values”! – and someone with the right and relevant business expertise. Someone you can relate to as a business partner, as you would say in the West, except they’re here in the East.

Christophe: I think I like your mother. Second to last question: if you had one country to pick in the region, which one and for what reason?

Philip: I’m hesitating, really I am … OK, it’d be Poland for me. It’s just the location, it’s so easy to get around, and it’s safe. The workforce there is adaptable, and they are able to identify technology trends early on, and they can ramp up new skills and capabilities very quickly. Their language skills are remarkable: English, German, French – all top. And the Poles are the most effective social networkers I know – I mean using Web 2.0 for recruitment purposes. Listen, if you’re not on LinkedIn, you definitely cannot be Polish. And, please, let’s not forget about kuchnia polska: where else would you go for your fill of Bigos and Pierogi?

Christophe: Final question, as promised: your favorite travel destination or story?

Philip: I’ve tried to re-classify France as an emerging market for Elan so that I could spend more time in Paris at Le Marche des Enfants Rouges – that didn’t seem to fly. Just give me the wine, the food, the cheese, and the Bohemian way of life, and I’d be a lucky man!

Christophe: Philip, you already are a lucky man! Congratulations on all your success in Eastern Europe, and I thank you for this interview.