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The Vigilance Department

February 13, 2009

Events in Beijing this week have caused Alaric Fairbanks to reflect on how we should never underestimate the value of seemingly obvious observations and recommendations.

This last Monday, around 5p.m. in Beijing, we had a visit from our building’s ‘Vigilance Department’. (Yes, that’s a rough translation, but it also is the English sign on their door.) This department is broadly equivalent to building security and safety, and I personally like these chaps – from their bouffant haired and rather dapper chief, to the security guards who are still smiling happily, or occasionally roller-skating, at 3 in the morning when I have been in the office having teleconferences with clients who have forgotten what time zones are.

Anyway, back to Monday, late afternoon, the visit was a quick, “please make sure your windows are closed when you leave this evening.” Naturally, we probably did not need to be told, and it sounded obvious, but then this was followed by, “I know, but we are just reminding everyone today as it is Lantern Festival and there will be a lot of fireworks, so we are being careful”. Again, probably nothing to worry about despite the fact that by nightfall there were rockets bouncing off the windows, which were, of course, firmly shut.

I am sure I would not have been thinking about this any further, but an unusually bad traffic jam prompted a quick look at the news on Tuesday morning: one of Beijing’s newest skyscrapers had been destroyed by a fire…with fireworks as the probable cause. I can’t comment on that incident, but full marks to the Vigilance Department in our building. It did get me thinking about the obvious advice we had received. The advice, although re-stating what should be normal practice, was pretty sensible and is reassuring to know that the slightly Orwellian sounding department is doing its job (it is covered by property management fees after all).

So what could have been dismissed as stating the obvious or spurious advice did have a point; a case, I suppose, of the Vigilance Department being vigilant. As researchers and consultants, we often feel that we are expected to provide “amazing” insights and recommendations and, indeed, I would like to think we do, but there is room, from time to time, for a “close your windows on lantern festival” type of recommendation.

Without being condescending, what may strike us as obvious or even common sense may have been neglected and/or not even considered, so it may be worth a reminder. For example, I know of cases where producers of highly technical equipment have invested in product adaptation towards Chinese users, looked at usage patterns and potential problems, and then provided promotional material or technical information in English not Chinese, missing out on sales opportunities. We all know of unbelievable findings that would never have been published if a bit of vigilance was employed in selecting the sample or even analysis, like 35% of Chinese people plan to join a gym in the next three months, or Milton Keynes is predominantly Buddhist (see The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer for that reference).

We probably all need a Vigilance Department at some time, and there’s no need to be afraid of supplementing those stunning insights with what we may feel is obvious, if it is useful, and especially if ignoring it has serious negative implications – although it may not cost us a skyscraper, bank or economy.

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