Template For Small Countries

A few years down the line, I intend to write a memoir about the golden years of the mobile industry in Portugal. But the past week brought to mind a particular moment that I think is worth sharing now.

I was in Vodafone at the time, and we were at our new building by the riverside, sunlight streaming through the windows with mottled highlights cast by reflections from the glassy condo across the street – the southern tower of the Vasco da Gama shopping center, freshly built at the time.

My boss (my director, not my line manager), a learned man who’d lived in Australia for a few years and with whom I’d worked for most of the time I’d been there, caught sight of me as I was walking past his door (I sat just outside) and waved me in saying “you’re going to want to see this”.

We’d re-branded as Vodafone a while before, and Group was trying to get its house in order regarding a number of things, namely what it later ended up calling (rather prosaically, I always thought) “Internet Services” – an ironic designation given that the company focused on trumped-up, closed garden WAP browsing to the tune of millions in wasted effort, but that over time became a convenient grab bag to shoehorn things like mobile maps, music services, etc.

Portugal was a bit ahead of the curve in a few ways (our services had good turnaround and business was brisk, largely thanks to local ingenuity, a good data network and a nationwide lust for gadgetry), and a lot of people on our department were ISP veterans from the dial-up era, so hardly a day went by without something interesting happening.

As I walked in, he pushed a sheet of paper towards me, saying “I’ve been looking at this for a while and wondering if it’s some sort of a lark, but want to hear your thoughts on it”.

I said “Sure”, and picked it up. It was the printout of an org chart, outlining the roles required to manage “Internet Services” as the usual tree of labeled boxes – product management for the WAP portal, ringtones, local partnerships, data pricing, handset customisation, on and off-net pricing, etc., most with solid (local) and dotted (Group) reporting lines.

Besides the number of roles and the amount of double reporting going on, I couldn’t find anything fundamentally wrong with it – Vodafone Group, like all large organizations who tackled businesses they did not fully understand, tended to over-complicate such matters, with the usual result that there was so much parallel reporting going on that the decision process was slow, incoherent and untimely.

Then I noticed the chart was titled “Template For Small Countries”, and looked up at my boss.

He grinned and said: “Before you ask, I didn’t get the version for large countries – but since you deal with these people so often, I was wondering if that title is some sort of a Freudian slip as to the way they think about us.”

Suffice it to say that we laughed ourselves silly that day.