Friday, May 08, 2015

BPM is still broke. So I'll just take the bits I like.

Back in July 2014 I announced that I would be stepping back from Consected and the Improving It / Consected Blog. I had the excitement of a new startup drawing me in, and I felt then, as I do now that the technology and practice of Business Process Management (BPM) had become too partisan for me. There were too few right answers to the questions organizations were having about how to improve their businesses, but still no consensus on which of those few right answers would work well in any real situation.

The short story is, I'm Back!

I'm carefully stepping out of the day to day operations at REPSE, the startup I co-founded, having contributed some great technology. That technology worked amazing well, proven by how it morphed quickly in support of a business that moved from "commercial real estate not-quite-crowdfunding", to "online advisory and investor management for private companies" as they move through their investment lifecycle. It was a fun tech challenge as CTO, and I still hold the title and live up to my responsibilities on evenings and weekends. At this point in time it doesn't need me playing technology leader and coder 60 hours a week.

Humbled by the experience, appreciative of the amazing people I've worked with, and rested after a little break, I'm back in the land of Consected. So what is my new focus? If I still believe that BPM continues to be little more than a pile of "he who shouts loudest" marketing from software companies and consulting practitioners, how can I reasonably re-enter this space?

My focus is what I think Business Process Management should be. Stirring up the best parts from BPM practice (some Lean, some Six-Sigma, some smart analysis), formal project management (including the PMI PMBOK), balanced scorecards, agile development (Scrum-ban being a ready made melange), change management and good-ol' common sense. All whipped up and given some 21st century splashes of technology for good taste.

Here are some early thoughts on where I see challenges and how to make them better.

Balanced value generation

Recognize that business value is generated in many different forms, not just financial (or operational efficiency or customer service or human potential). Help organizations recognize all the components that they can control, and admit their true value proposition to customers, employees, investors, communities and the environment.

Structure drives ownership, communication and focus

Clearly analyze and present to companies how they are structured. Demonstrate how this structure both contributes to and impedes their generation of value. 

Businesses often choose to believe that some aspect of their operations is failing due to the people working on it (and that may be the case). The same businesses also need to see how a land-grab mentality to creating an org chart affects communications between individuals, leads to lack of ownership of objectives and subsequently failures in focus. This includes soft-focus, rose tinted, completely ignoring the truth that you just f'd up and it's time to fix it.

Continuous improvement

In these days of data everywhere, you'd think that businesses would have a clue what is going on. But using all that data, not just storing it is what matters. And if you can understand your data, you can measure your performance in the factors that affect value generation. And only then can you really make changes to see what got better and what potentially unintended side-effects you had.

I'm going to stop there. With a million other things that can be done we all have to present the grand vision. Mine is not fully formed, and it will continue to evolve. But I won't forget that with the "grand" there is also the simple and pragmatic: removing activities that are obviously broken or offer no value; processes that can be automated to avoid wasting time; and change controls that can be easily implemented to avoid project timelines from slipping.

We all have to start somewhere. I've started by fixing my business. Can I help you fix yours too?

A post from the Improving It blog

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

No more business process improvement?

This week I received some surprise congratulations on LinkedIn for my 5th work anniversary. Five years of Consected. Scarily, there are archives on this blog, pre-Consected going back to May 2006. Let me know if you find anything there. I'm almost too afraid to look!

On this Consected / Improving It blog I have always spent most of the time talking about businesses, the processes they run, and how they can improve. Occasionally, though sadly rarely, how these organizations are model citizens in the world of business process management or BPM.

Business process management, as anybody in the industry of helping companies work more efficiently already knows, is a term that comes with confusion, even from its own practitioners. Some believe that BPM is just about the discipline of skilled professionals going and helping companies see what they are doing wrong and helping them do it right (or at least a bit better, then a bit better again, etc...). There are others that believe BPM is about the tools and software to help people do their jobs better, faster, cheaper. They are generally the software vendors.

Me? I thought of BPM as all of the above and more. Hell, sometimes the best thing to happen to a business is an Excel spreadsheet, copied and pasted every time you use it. Sometimes, though I hate to say it, a Microsoft Sharepoint site is enough to help people work together better. But do anything seriously repetitive, requiring a bit (or a lot) of automation, and some controls to ensure compliance and you're hitting the essence of what business process management should be:

  • seeing how things are not working
  • using experience to understand how to do things better
  • defining the most cost-effective tools to help run the new process
  • implementation of that new process
  • measuring that it is working
  • fixing and improving it, over and over
  • throwing it all away and adapting to a complete change in the industry you are in
We've seen the software vendors fight, come up with their own terms to describe BPM, band together to generate silly concepts like the BPM suite (BPMS), 'adaptive' BPM, then get acquired and their technology integrated (in other words, forgotten). And we've seen the consulting practitioners fight to reclaim their turf, which they believe is the true BPM. Or call it Lean, Six-sigma, or something else that you can't trademark, or at times even pronounce the main concepts.

Me? I thought that applying close to 20 years of enterprise software, consulting and business improvement experience needed a little more than riding the bandwagon. I backed off a great job opportunity, with a solid company, with great people. Because I wasn't ready to retire myself to an industry that is clinging to partisan divides, and vendor lock-in. I decided that I needed to apply this experience back into a real business, of the type I'd spent years trying to help (and sometimes sell to).

So, with a couple of co-founders we created REPSE. It isn't BPM. It isn't technology. But it does have the vision that smart processes and carefully placed software can help businesses, investors, and financial technology (fintech) work better for more than consumers' iPhone apps. To help real estate businesses raise the money they need when the banks won't help. And to make sure that less money is wasted on administrative junk.

That for me is what BPM is about. Using processes, technology, tools and skills to make real businesses work. 

I'm now CTO at REPSE, and I hope to make a huge impact on the business (OK I believe I already am, only 7 or more months in, depending how you measure it). For now, thanks for watching Consected, and feel free to follow +REPSE on Google+, or @repse_inc on Twitter where you'll see me write more stuff about the REPSE business. Or if you really want to connect with Phil the person, rather than Phil the corporate brand, my LinkedIn profile is the place.

Check out my posts on REPSE and share it with friends, family and wealthy investors! 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

What can successful open source software projects teach corporate marketers?

A successful open source software project is the winner in a worldwide popularity contest. Marketers in corporations with budgets of almost any size should be jealous. This popularity is especially evident when you consider that most non-technical Internet users have heard the term ‘open source software’. Many even know that Wordpress is a blogging platform; some few million use Ubuntu as a free alternative to Windows; and a large handful might even recognize that Ruby on Rails is a hot developer programming platform, even though they wouldn't dream of coding themselves. Hey, even my parents (the gold standard for non-technical users) know that Firefox is open source, free and a better alternative to Internet Explorer on their PC. Without huge marketing budgets, open source projects have achieved international recognition, without which they tend to fade into oblivion fast. 

Open source software (OSS) projects are only successful when they can encourage a large, vocal group of users to adopt the software, install and use it in their homes or businesses, get involved in its development and most importantly advocate its use to other users. Since even the largest projects with big corporate sponsors rely on volunteers to keep them in the spotlight, you’ll find many of the current hot marketing strategies of the corporate world have been used for years by these projects, often by accident. Yes, you guessed it: I'm saying that open source software projects beat corporate marketers at social media and content marketing, with minimal budget and just a bunch of people giving their time for free. Just not in quite the ways you might think.

Undoubtedly, open source software starts with software developers. But it takes a huge distributed effort of community and content to ever become more than a chunk of software code dumped on a server somewhere for random people to stumble across and ignore. To see what works, I've taken a look at the three open source projects I highlighted at the start of this post to see how they might have achieved and maintained their popularity. There are likely to be others that could be equally deserving of mention, although I wanted to pick projects with very different profiles and user-bases.

So, what works? Let's start with the real application developers, progress through some website designers and finish up with a bunch of people using their PCs to write a document and browse the web.

Ruby on Rails = Software development made cool, with a “get started fast” mentality

The Ruby on Rails web development platform is focused on developers, for sure. It has been adopted by companies ranging from startups (including Consected) to Groupon, Yellow Pages and Twitter. According to the website it has 2,100 contributors to the code and documentation of the project, which is no small number. And its focus on making web application development faster and more productive means that it has to live up to that promise the moment a new developer hears about it. The website pushes a "see it to believe it" approach, getting a new developer a quick buzz from building a quick application in less time than it takes to eat a sandwich one handed while typing an email to your boss.

The website is constantly updated, following the rhythm of the product releasing. It constantly shows new quick start guides, loads of screencasts showing how to perform simple and complex programming tasks, pushes Rails development and best-practices books, and has links galore to Rails related blogs and website through its Planet Ruby on Rails channels. This constant tick of content from the core Rails team, plus the huge amount of advocacy (and occasional griping) that comes from the network of regular and one-off bloggers keeps the community strong and the project in the spotlight.

Wordpress = Blogs about blogs and pure SEO from user generated content

You can’t argue with the success of Wordpress: it is used to develop 18.9% of all websites [view reference]

It is the broad Wordpress ecosystem that has made the project so successful, helped along with a big push from the technology. The ability for any software developer to produce a plug-in for a Wordpress blog, or a stunning theme to make it look amazing, and present these in a directory on the website, has led to a constant stream of new Wordpress related content directly on the site. Every plug-in gains a space to present itself, to capture reviews and to support users (many of which are non-technical). This makes the world an accessible meld of technology, bloggers, web developers and software coders with a huge amount of ever changing and growing content. This is an SEO dream. Google something about a blog, you'll most likely arrive at Wordpress.

When you tuck in the array of non-affiliated blogs about Wordpress matters, from those about the best looking themes to some clever hints and tips, (for example and you get what appears to be a great deal of testimonials to why a user should adopt Wordpress for their website platform. Then add in the commercial ecosystem that surrounds the project, all very vocal online, and you can see why they are on to a winner.

Ubuntu = A Linux desktop with clean design, and a constant push to appeal to non-technical users

Ubuntu represents the epitomy of design-driven free software, intended to appeal to a community of non-technical, semi-technical and complete geek users. To achieve this, Ubuntu has an obvious brand, and it pushes that brand hard on all of the core websites. Visitors know they have arrived at an Ubuntu site and are welcomed in with careful consideration of what they want to know, how it looks and the drip feed of constant new and useful information.

If the SEO potential is large from the six-monthly product release cycle, and the constant contribution of new content on the wikis even greater, then the community is key. There is an enormous amount of information about the desktop and server operating systems on the website; there are blogs; information about using the Ubuntu design and branding; Q&A forums; and more and more. There is a never ending supply of new, user generated content to help people get started, adopt and strongly shout about their use of the Ubuntu products.

Ubuntu is an open source project that has a marketing driven backer in Canonical. But it is the highly active, vocal, and welcoming community of users and developers that ensure the Ubuntu desktop stands firmly in the limelight.

What's the catch?

When I started looking at this post, I was considering how open source projects out-do their corporate cousins at social media and content marketing. Having really thought it through, I don’t know that is entirely true. Open source ‘social’ doesn't center on the use of Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. It is about Q&A forums, IRC chat channels and the occasional meetup. Open source project content doesn't have an editorial calendar or a careful email list tied into gated content, blogging and e-books. It is ad-hoc, unplanned and largely user generated, but there is masses of it and it never stops coming. In every form, media and every language. Open source projects rely on user generated content and collaboration that do not even sit on their own web properties, such as Stackoverflow and Github. With open source, the project's content marketing library is everywhere, published by everyone, with little control over what's being said. Corporate marketers are becoming familiar with this on Facebook fan pages, but the concept is still a little alien and uncomfortable. But open source projects know this is how it has to work.

Successful open source projects have more contributors than many companies have employees, more vocal advocates than big brands have Facebook fans, and more users than many companies could dream of having customers. It is the accessibility and openness of the community in some cases that creates this, and in others it is the lack of command-and-control over creation and publishing of content that makes the project come alive. There is no single answer, but when you stumble across a lively, active open source project you certainly know it. And it is that vibrancy and freedom that many companies could adopt in order to grow their social and content marketing into something really valuable, not just a droning broadcast of corporate messaging.

A post from the Improving It blog
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Thursday, June 20, 2013

What can a major sports team's IT teach the corporate CIO?

Feway Park. Photo from Wikipedia
Yesterday I sat in on the final keynote session of the Boston e2 Conference to hear from the IT leaders of major sports teams about their experiences using IT to support such unusual businesses. And the information they provided turned out to be hugely valuable for more traditional companies too. 

The stars of the show were:

* Bill Schlough, CIO, San Francisco Giants
* Jay Wessel, VP of Technology, Boston Celtics
* Steve Conley, Director of IT, Boston Red Sox

Boston considers itself a serious sporting city, and is intensely proud of all of its top-tier teams, so to add sport into the enterprise software conference is always going to be interesting for the audience. And despite the expected rivalry, the insights all of the tech leaders presented were quite thought-provoking.

Really though, what can a corporate CIO possibly learn from these guys? After all, the largest IT team among any of the presenters is 11 people at the Giants. And maybe that is the biggest point: all of these teams have deadlines that can’t be moved (the new season opens, the next game is scheduled), they have an ever changing temporary worker base of thousands, so they all have to think ‘lean’ to get things done. No pressure then.

Forgetting the team rivalries, what were the memorable points a corporate CIO can learn from?

“Don’t  be a server-hugger”

For a lean IT team, your VP of IT can’t be too attached to the actual physical servers. The cloud for custom hosting and more importantly SaaS products that already package the functionality you need to run your business are essential. IT egos can’t be attached to the actual physical boxes, since managing those things just kills time. Applications just can’t be developed in house, so use what is available commercially and can be customized to suit your needs.

“Good job, the email server was up today”

This is not something any IT team hears. The daily grunge of operating important IT infrastructure doesn’t win anybody awards. Outsource this kind of commodity function to any of the big players who can do it better than you, probably at lower cost. This allows you to really focus on your critical services, such as ticketing, and front line customer systems.

“Demand-based pricing - or doing anything radically different”

Freeing up resources lets you look at transformational projects, enabling your IT team to really help the business. By getting data to support decisions, and managing external resources to trial new ways of working, the Giants were able to roll out a new demand-based pricing model for tickets. Much like buying a flight, nowadays ‘last minute’ doesn't mean cheaper. If you can commit to a ticket in the stadium early on when demand is low, you get a better price. As demand rises and space becomes limited, ticket prices rise, steeply. Since the major share of revenue for all these teams is supporters in seats, getting this right can have a huge up-side, or a terrible impact.

For this to work, the IT team needs to have the capacity and capability to look at the bigger picture. To look at how the current ticket sales systems work, what can be adapted and what needs to be replaced. They need to be able to analyze the current state, and model the future. IT needs a business head on its shoulders to operate in this environment. And it definitely needs to acknowledge that external advice and experience is going to be needed.

“Loyalty data is not Big Data”

If you have a loyal customer base like teams have with season ticket holders, and a city full of people wanting to watch a game, knowing your customer is essential. But outdated, paper-based, in-house systems can’t do what you need in this regard. At the same time, there is no need to fall into the trap of building out a huge Big Data facility to understand your customers. First, you actually have to get hold of information that can get you the insights you hope for.

Can you imagine that at least one of these major teams has only recently moved from paper tickets for season pass holders to a smart card? What does the smart card get you, beyond saving a tree or two? Well, once you have that central ‘identity’, you can use it to track purchases of beer, snacks and ice-cream at games. You can watch attendance at games. You can collect information that you never had before in order to understand how to attract new season ticket sales in future, and to reward and retain your existing customers. This isn’t a big data problem. It is just a “get the data” problem, and fixing up old ways of working can help you do that.

“If sporting performance has peaked, how do we retain and attract supporters in the future?”

Not every team wins the cup every season. Not every company releases new, stunning products every year. How can IT support the business when the primary product starts to lose some of its sparkle? Customers are fickle and have a short attention span. Fair-weather sports fans especially so.

Again, it comes down to having the time, the vision, and the right people to allow you to focus on keeping current customers happy, and making the experience of being at a major sporting event even more exciting. It has to be incredibly better than watching an HDTV in the comfort of your home. IT can provide fans with facilities such as free wi-fi, allowing tens of thousands of people to remain connected, to Tweet, to share photos of their experiences. And to feel like they are connected to the players who are the face of the team. It can enable more interesting online community experiences, and work with Marketing to keep people involved outside of the stadium. IT can help streamline business processes so the business can adapt more easily to customer demands and expectations ensuring that the nitty-gritty doesn’t get in the way of the experience.

The end game

The sports team CIO is really a model for how a CIO in any corporation that takes customer loyalty and experience seriously (not just lip service) should consider operating. Think:

  • identifying technology that can enable an exceptional customer experience
  • getting and using data smartly to understand your customer better
  • letting go of the physical servers and outdated business processes to allow transformational projects to be considered

A post from the Improving It blog
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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Tracking is not a dirty word. Understand customers through their actions.

I've started a new blog over on Tumblr, focused on social media and associated marketing topics. The initial thought was that it would allow me to get very much more onto a new topic than I wanted to do on the Improving It blog. That said, I want to give you a taster of what is going on over there. So  here is one of my recent posts, previously published on the new blog. Check out and follow me on Meaningful Social. And make sure to keep watching out for new posts on this blog (its not going away).

Tracking is not a dirty word. Understand customers through their actions.

So much emphasis is placed on tracking visitors to websites for advertising purposes that the words ‘tracking’ and ‘cookie’ has almost become synonymous with evil ad-spyware stealing your privacy and anonymity on the web. And that’s not to say that there aren’t some pretty aggressive organizations out there trying to know your every online move. Sometimes though, tracking visitors to a website, or even within a logged-in web app can really add value to their experience. No, really.
The thing is that using focus-groups to understand what a general audience of people likes about your product or service is just plain expensive, and sits squarely in the realm of multinational corporate brands who are pushing millions of units of packaged food gloop to overworked parents. On the web, we can get more information from more people, more cost effectively and more accurately. We are watching the wildlife in its native habitat, rather than dragging some focus-group animals into a zoo to be laughed at by a bunch of children. Tracking users on the web allows us to learn about mass behaviors, completely anonymously for the end user, and still improve our service. And the honesty of people voting with their mouse or finger tap is far higher than calling them up and asking them about their opinion.
Sometimes though, anonymous tracking doesn’t offer everything we need. It can lead us to segment our audience and only focus on the largest percentage of actions performed (see a related story by Christopher Penn on A/B testing of email & websites). And the other problem is that it is always based on how fast we can update our service based on historical information.
By tracking the actions of customers in real time, we can start to offer them the information and services they want more rapidly, with fewer clicks and less frustration. What this means is that we aren’t just enforcing a single path through our customer service process, we allow them to skip a step here and there, or do everything in reverse if their real-time activity indicates that is the right thing to do. The outcome for a company may be the same, but for the individual customer the experience can be hugely better.
Now, this sounds like nirvana. But it ain’t easy. It requires a lot of data, some smart decisions, some actively flexible business rules, and a recognition that some customers just don’t want to feel like they are being watched. 
Do you despise the thought of being tracked on a company’s website? Does your company use tracking data to make customer experience better? Let me know.

Originally posted on Meaningful Social

A post from the Improving It blog
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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

One Year Lived - the book. Or travelers make the best team members.

I’ve reviewed books before on this blog. Usually I take a look at an unusual business book or something about innovation. Readers seem to like the reviews, which is a good thing. So, when I was approached by Adam Shepard to review his new book “One Year Lived”, I was willing to take a look, even though it doesn't fall into either of the categories above. This is a book about Adam’s quest to ensure he would have great memories about life to tell the grandchildren, while doing a little good along the way. A year spent traveling in Central America, New Zealand and beyond. Something that average Aussies do without thinking and average American kids rarely even consider, and that's why this book matters.

As a blog that looks at tech and business and organizational and social issues, I think I can get away with talking off-topic without really being off-topic. More importantly though, I value travel highly. I associate well with people who have chucked in a good job to pick up a backpack and see a chunk of the world that is more real than any resort destination. A country and population and slice in time that has grime and crime and interesting adventures. I work well with people like that too, as perhaps a side-effect of working for an Australian company west of London as the first job post-university that I chose, rather than it choosing me. Travel brings out the best and worst in people. It also really makes it pretty obvious what you are getting when you interview or collaborate with a traveler in a business environment.

Generally as corporate working people travelers are quite transparent as to what they want and what their goals are. This makes travelers an important part of a team. Not every person who has traveled like this will fit your team, but that's OK, because it will be more obvious who fits and who doesn't. Getting mixed up in difficult situations in places where you have no control and only hand-waving as a way to communicate can strip away a lot of stupid ego. So that is why I wanted to read Adam’s book. He’ll make a great employee and entrepreneur and CEO and floor-sweeper, and he'll do the one that makes him happiest, not the one that necessarily makes his ego tingle. And we can all learn from that.

As Adam experienced, you find out a lot about what you are good at in surprising places. Shepard, from North Carolina, and educated on a basketball scholarship up in Merrimack New Hampshire, was, not surprisingly, pretty good at hoops. But put him in the middle of Guatemala volunteering to help with kids and he tells us in plain, easy to read English how not only did this become one of the most memorable things ever, it helped him realize how he worked in a team. Or maybe how he didn’t. He certainly tells us how he can identify clearly the team players of the volunteers, the people great in their roles, the people he would pick for their enthusiasm, and the others who were there just until it was time to be somewhere else. And Adam was self-aware enough to know that in that moment he just wanted to be an individual contributor. Collaboration and team work wasn’t working for him. So, he made another brave volunteering decision and went to dig ditches for water projects alongside locals in Nicaragua, because there is not too much planning and collaboration to do.

In doing so, Adam learned more about what makes workers tick, and equally how important it is to ensure people have accountability in everything they do. A water pump, which you’d thing would be treasured and cherished in a small village without a clean water supply just dies and becomes scrap when nobody feels accountable for its upkeep. Finding the ways to give the right people ownership, was by the sound of it an important lesson.

In “One Year Lived”, you can read about a 30-year old man, Adam Shepard, who drops everything to go and travel, absorb as much experience, language and learning as possible. And along the way he works out what he’s good at and what seat in the eventual boardroom of life, corporations or politics he’ll occupy.

Adam has kindly offered some free e-books for download for anybody that shares this blog post over the next 48 hours. Make sure you follow and mention @consected in a Tweet or add a comment linking to your post below and I’ll send you a link to the book. Just be quick. And take a look at the One Year Lived website for great stories about the book and more information about the author.

A post from the Improving It blog
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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Nothing says privacy risk more than an API

Less than a handful of years ago, mention the three letter acronym 'API' to a regular Internet user and you'd have got the look of "stay away from me, you scary unwashed software geek who is about to bore me to tears" (that's the bleeped version of the internal dialog). Now everything has changed. Not only is API part of the regular semi-tech word-dropping of web users, lack of one can raise questions about the viability of a modern web application. A publicly available API is a badge of honor for startup web apps that says "the information we have is worth being consumed by other apps, so its got to be good enough for you too". 

The Application Programming Interface, or API, is the technical Lego brick that lets developers from across the globe plug into an application, to use the data and functionality of the website without the annoying user interface of that website getting in the way. It makes it easy for other applications to see the data that you as a regular logged in user can see, as long as you click the OK button to authorize it to do so. If you can see details of your friends lives, there is a good chance that by authorizing that app by entering your password that app can see the details of your friends lives too.

A well thought out API is not technically the problem. Many APIs recognize that they are a great way to trawl through far more data than could be done by just browsing the website and protect really private stuff effectively. The problem is still that an API can allow a fairly anonymous developer to collect tons of data, process it and store it extremely rapidly. That developer has their very own, possibly limited privacy policy that you as a user of the primary web service have no control over. Your friend who clicked an OK button authorized a developer to access to your data as a proxy of what they could do on the website. You had no say in the matter that a third party app now has access to the data your friend sees on the website.

In the majority of cases the API itself is not the problem. It is what it stands for in terms of the sheer amount of data a web service has. Re-phrasing what I said at the beginning:
"API" says that a web app collects, stores and makes accessible a lot of potentially personal information that any number of third-party applications might find valuable to consume and reuse

The real problem is that in most cases the information web apps have is not original data and a work of exceptional creativity. It is data collected from its users who enjoy sharing details of their lives with their friends and occasional strangers. It is the data stored in LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, et al. The data is largely personal and untouched, beyond being transformed in a way that allows it to be retrieved in an instant. When you read "API" on a social networking site, consider this: the website in question probably collects a lot of personal information about its users and their daily habits and actions. Can you trust the developers that tap into your data through the API as much as you trust your friends?

A post from the Improving It blog
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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Big Data - and what we'll do with it

The Gartner Hype Cycle
Big Data: it is all just hype until the clouds clear, business users can use it, and customers are served better because of it. When Big Data truly arrives as some products in the enterprise, business decisions will start to be based more on information and insight and less on gut feel (by the highest paid person who trumps everybody else). While we are waiting for the final crescendo of hype, I’d like to consider what we are going to do with all that new information.

Most rational people quietly accept that Big Data is mostly hype right now. Everybody is trying to stake a claim to their chunk of it and the chatter on social channels as marketers try to nurture the term into a real market is a source of big data in itself. The concept only starts being real as forward thinking CIOs focus less on the mundane IT networks and PCs and more on helping the business extract value from all the data they have access to using the tools borne of the hype. That is Big Data - the real use of analyzed data to help make business decisions, not just the technology hype about who has the best Hadoop or in memory database. Don’t know what these terms mean? You are a member of 99.999% of the business population, AKA normal people. Because you shouldn't have to know.

We are still in the early phase of the technology cycle for Big Data. The IBMs, SAPs and HPs of the world are still appealing to very early adopters who have money to burn on acronymic technologies that have yet to be formed into meaningful products with advertising friendly names. By 'meaningful', I want to imply that only a small team of consultants are required to install them and make them do something that regular business users and executives can make use of.

Currently most of the focus of the hype and actual product releases seems to be on the storage, manipulation, analysis and visualization of the data. I've seen little meaningful discussion about what I consider key problems:

  • making information actionable
  • taking business decisions from a concept through actual change
  • providing communication and business records without generating a ton of irrelevant email and wasted report writing along the way

This is where business process management (BPM), customer relationship management (CRM), and case management tools come into play. But not as the tech vendors might have you believe. The value is not purely from the extra data they pump into the system from day-to-day management of customer interactions and employee collaboration.

Of course, having a good insight into your customers and business activities is great. Being able to manage the flood of required decisions coming from future Big Data analysis is equally important. How do you actively handle all the business information coming out of the business? Losing it in email is not the answer. Never actually following up with your newly revealed best customers is just a waste.

Handling the flood of new work emanating from real Big Data analysis should not be yet another chore. This is going to be valuable stuff we never had access to before. Managing the work actively through flexible processes, using tools designed to help people follow up on decisions that need to be made, this is a key component of Big Data. Its not currently the sexy part (for geeks at least). But it is the final component that ensures that all the investment in technology, analysis and experience is not just lost into meaningless email conversations that go nowhere.

Speaking of conversations going nowhere... follow me @consected on Twitter

A post from the Improving It blog
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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Automation, BPM, ethics and competition. Or serving customers better.

A recent discussion on the ebizQ Business Process Management forum asks: “what percentage of processes should be automated?”. In any given company, how many of those routine processes that get work done should be taken largely out of the hands of employees and made into software, or painstaking converted into automated manufacturing production lines? An interesting response came back came back from Emiel Kelly on the ethical implications of full automation. What happens to all the human-beings that previously had jobs and have now been phased out? This is not new news, but it did touch a nerve for me, as I was just reading George Orwell’s 1984, filling the huge gaps in my school history classes with some time skim-reading Wikipedia about Marx, and thinking how to avoid the “race to the bottom” in the world of software development as the low-cost offshore talent pool continually grows.

So, is there an ethical issue to automating business processes that can be fairly automated? The question is perhaps, “who benefits from business processes being automated?”. Should an organization be holding back improving its products and services, and providing a better customer experience because it is afraid of the moral implications of significant organizational changes? Or is it just hoping to cut costs to be more profitable and serve shareholders with larger dividends? Really the ethics of a corporation are guided by its own policies and mission statement, within the very loose boundaries of the law. If corporate governance suggests “employees first” then it can have an ethical issue with large scale automation.

The reality of the situation is that automation of processes and using BPM to reduce waste and improve efficiency are not big evil entities, out to strip every experienced employee of his or her pride. If BPM doesn’t improve the way a business performs and serves its customers, competitors in the marketplace will certainly ensure that hard working people in an 'overly' ethical company lose their jobs. Or those competitors will force that company into a position where business process outsourcing or offshore manufacturing become the only option. From the standpoint of supporting the local population with employment, outsourcing is no better when it comes to your complex ethical quandary.

Companies have to decide for themselves the right balance between:
  • responsibility to their local labor-forces as potential employers of people
  • responsibility to existing employees providing value to the company
  • responsibility to shareholders to ensure continued investment to operate and improve
  • responsibility to customers to meet obligations and attract new customers.

At the end of the day, the majority of people want a secure job for a secure wage. Free-market economics, the social safety net, government (big or small) and technology all have a part to play in meeting the needs of the local population. There is no easy answer. But you can guarantee that by avoiding automation and organizational change for fear of facing such ethical issues, a more ruthless competitor will walk in and still serve what were previously your customers better than you can. A company remains in no position to employ people when it has no customers.

Automation and BPM can help a company advance to serve customers better, at a lower cost. This subsequently ensures the ability to survive, thrive, innovate and subsequently employ a greater number of local people.

Chat with @consected on Twitter if you think I'm missing the point. 

A post from the Improving It blog
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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Neaderthal named Grongus and Build Versus Buy

A Neanderthal was the first innovator of business productivity tools and started the road to the big question of “build versus buy”. Long before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, our early evolutionary ancestor (let’s call him Grongus) started spending the time to make tools. He probably didn't do this because it was fun (although maybe Grongus had a little time to kill between hunting and finding shelter). Like many an innovator he got lucky, by observing accidentally that a broken flint could cut things, allowing him to shape a piece of wood to fit alongside another piece of wood and make a frame for a shelter.

So add some time, thousands of years and a plentiful supply of flint, and tools became a natural part of what drew us out of the caves. It was long after Grongus that anybody started to think about making the creation of certain types of useful tools a repeatable thing - a product. Early craftsmen were the innovators of products (pots, spears, bags, etc), and we call all thank Grongus for why the iPhone exists today and you work with a PC or Mac on your desk.

Despite this long history, still today we struggle with balancing the cost of creating custom tools and the significantly extra time it takes to make them into useful, repeatable products. Modern day craftsmen, the innovators of products come at a cost. And as consumers of products we need to remember that if we want more of our unique desires and requirements for a product to be met, we have to pay for that to happen.

Software is a tool and it is the coolest thing, since it lets us create products that would not otherwise exist. There is not a person out there who doesn’t use software, on a PC in the office, an Android in your pocket, setting your microwave to cook a TV dinner, come to think of it the TV itself, driving a car, buying a train ticket at the station. Then there are all the amazing websites, the places where you can buy almost anything without disconnecting eyes and brain from screen (except to dig down the side of the sofa to find where your credit card slipped). And of course there is the enterprise and SaaS software that allow businesses to run more automatically and workers to be more productive.

I’ll say it again: software as a tool is the coolest thing, and that's because of the things that we can create with it. It also highlights the ongoing balancing act between tool and product. It is the balance between the effort to develop useful websites, automate business processes and build databases of your customers, and the exponentially larger time to make that pile of code into a product so that almost anybody can create a website, optimize business process management, or configure a CRM system.

The tool/product balancing act is always hard for innovators. It requires a strong business plan that shows you can create enough user-friendly functionality to hide the nuts and bolts technology, at a cost that is much lower than the number of times you think you can sell this product to people who find it useful. From the customer perspective there is a compromise, especially with business software. There are things businesses want to do with software that can’t be done with pure configuration of software products, especially if your business is in the slightest way unique. Most business software allows for customization, for additions to be made by smart software developers using tools. But then again comes a cost.

Balancing tools with products may mean buying a more expensive and more closely matching product up front to avoid manpower for customization. Or it may be in buying that more expensive product you are wasting a ton of stuff you don’t need, meaning that starting with a lean, lower cost product and paying for some customization is more cost effective. How much you tailor your software for the bespoke solution is often just a matter of taste.

After all is said and done when comparing software tools and products, calculating the “build versus buy” equation never equals a cost of ‘free’. The time you are pulled away from making your business more successful while you learn and configure software products, or the time you pay others to do the job through software development, it all carries a cost. If you have strong requirements for a website, a business improvement application or a customer marketing automation tool, you can expect there will be a price, in expenses or opportunity cost. The only way this cost (of the product and configuration and customization) can be avoided is to reduce your requirements and expectations to virtually nil, so you can use a free, advertising supported, sign-up and go product. And compromize heavily to accept where there are gaps.

If you have unique business requirements, creating the perfect product you can configure absolutely to your needs is time-consuming. With free products you get what you pay for with a leaner product that requires it to be customized with additional effort. Do you want to pay more for a product so you can do the work yourself? Or will you employ somebody to do it for you? One way or another software developers, business analysts, project managers and YOU all hope to get paid. You have options that Grongus never had: it is just about finding the balance of "do it yourself" or "done" that works for you.

Challenged with a build-vs-buy conundrum or selecting the right software for your business? Leave a comment to share your thoughts.

A post from the Improving It blog
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