Friday, January 29, 2010

The Splinternet and how the iPad is pure evil

What a great term - the Splinternet. According to Forrester, this is where the Internet we know and love is going. And Apple is perpetuating the destruction for the free, open standards Internet with the iPad. (BTW, thanks to my wife, Melissa for pointing me to the Forrester report).

I chatted a little just before the launch of the iPad, (then it was just the Apple, let's guess the name, 'tablet') about how the iPad might be more than just a distraction to businesses, and may actually offer some value - given the right set of applications. Taking a look at the Xconomy discussion of how startups are targeting the iPad, I believe that its just a matter of the same-old stuff re-hashed on a bigger screen.

Apple is making the Splinternet a reality, since it is effectively a proprietary platform for building web apps - much like Microsoft Silverlight or Adobe Air on traditional PCs, just way more pervasive. The argument is that you can build far more engaging applications on these proprietary technologies, and that may be true. This hides a dark truth though. Developers are being guided into spending resources on building apps that are just reworks of the mobile website, locking otherwise freely available content into a proprietary interface. Oh no, Microsoft is not the only evil empire in the software business, and I wonder how long it will be before we see the equivalent of a really big EU led anti-trust campaign against Apple?

So as much as I want to be reading my daily newspaper on a big screen, does it really need to be a proprietary technology that prevents competitors from doing something better? Or just as profits stop accelerating, will Apple take the royalty route and start licensing the technology to third-party manufacturers? At that point, maybe the web and all its 'standards' will be dead.

A post from the Improving It blog

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

I'm a Digital Teenager

Have you ever wondered how you rank alongside your peers for your tech-savvy, your use of social media, texting and so on? You can admit it, its okay to be competitive...

Colin Henderson on The Bankwatch pointed out an interesting enough Digital Age survey by Wells Fargo, that pegs your 'digital age' based on the responses you give to a survey. As the title of this post suggests, I'm a digital teenager, willing to try out new things but suffering the growing pains of getting aquainted with the new things I can do. I apparently feel tech overload at times (which if you see my Twitter feeds, you'll understand why). I certainly won't be trying the Text Banking suggested at the end of the survey to manage my finances - that I fear is designed for real teenagers who want to know if they have 18 bucks or 22 bucks in their bank account, to make it worth heading to the ATM.

Finextra has the summary of the survey results and a link so you can try it yourself.

Maybe you can show a little more digital maturity than me (or maybe less is better!).

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apple 'tablet' - a technology distraction?

The soon to be officially announced Apple Tablet (or whatever name it will be given) is just another technology distraction for companies. How can this obviously consumer focused product help businesses or IT work better? It is doing a great job filling space on the tech websites (7 articles on Mashable, 6 on Techcrunch, top story on, which probably means that your geek employees will be watching the announcement rather than doing useful work (just kidding).

I expect that the device will be cool. It will almost certainly work incredibly well, providing a large screen browsing capability. Media such as movies and pictures will probably look amazing. I'm sure there will be some really cool games.

And for business? Oh, you'll be able to access your email and check out your corporate website. Maybe, Google Apps will work with the touch interface, for some nice document editing with your grubby fingerprints all over the screen.

Or how about something really game changing? How about providing 3D navigation of CAD diagrams for service technicians fixing complex machinery in the field? Drag and rotate the renditions of 3D components around with a greasy finger. Review the plans for those roadworks that will make commuters lives miserable, even as the first jackhammer hits tarmac. How about an online chart that a doctor could actually use when doing his or her rounds in a hospital? Not just the mini-PDA devices they get forced on them today, but something useful in size, that can pull the images of the patient's X-rays from the central server at the bedside.

Still, for the rest of us who spend our lives in offices, the most obvious appearance of the Apple Tablet will probably be when we venture out to Starbucks for a blast of energy. If you're in your mid-20's, I wonder how uncool it will be to have a MacBook and not a 'Tablet'.

For now, I think the game changer in the office will continue to be how we work, not how tactile the device is.

A post from the Improving It blog

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Monday, January 25, 2010

A return to high risk, low reward IT spending?

IT spending is to grow 4.6% worldwide, according to Gartner. Obviously this is good news, since it is an indicator that companies are starting to have spare cash to focus on a growing workforce and helping the business operations work better. The big question is whether companies will go back to blindly throwing money at Microsoft's next big marketing campaign, or whether they'll choose to invest in software and SaaS that can demonstrate a real return on investment.

There are many techniques that companies could be using to assess where to focus their new-found IT budgets. They range from the extremely time-consuming studies by teams of consulting from the top consulting firms, down to the surprisingly simple and effective process-value analysis run internally or facilitated by an experienced business process improvement consultant. Consected has a 7 step guide to process improvement that many process and industry experts have given me feedback on. If you follow your gut around some business decisions, this may help you move from 'gut feel' to something actionable and easy to put into practice.

As money starts to become available inside businesses, will they choose to gamble on the high-stakes, low reward game of the mega-vendors? Or is it time to see how some simple thinking, smart technology and rapid solutions could really make the business better.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Thursday, January 21, 2010

End of SarbOx? Not the end of the world...

The efficiency killing, shareholder saving regulation for public companies has its head on the chopping block. Or something like that, according to Amanda Becker, in an article on BNET: The End of SarbOx - The Supreme Court weighs in. Maybe the companies who want to see the back of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act are hiding something - an inability to understand how to make their business processes better.

I'm not qualified to comment on whether the Supreme Court actually has the authority to rule the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), created by the Act, as being unconstitutional. I don't even know whether I consider the Free Enterprise Fund, a free-market advocacy group that filed the suit as particularly relevant in a time when the free market economy is in such a shambles. What I do believe is that if companies spent as much time and money automating their internal controls and improving their operations as they did lobbying against SarbOx, we'd have not only more stable investment opportunities, but the companies would be operating efficiently and cost effectively - better for everyone.

What's the problem guys? Still worried about how to quickly and easily implement some practical improvements to your business processes? BPM is effectively owned by IBM now, so don't expect anything too agile from that technology. Although I'm sure with a big enough infusion of cash into Big Blue's coffers you'll see some interesting results (and for more discussion of how to burn through your IT budget faster, see this ebizq forum).

If you are still trying to understand the difference between the SarbOx options of (#1) documenting your processes and internal controls or (#2) implementing them with systems, try to explain to yourself how the pretty Visio diagrams of your processes actually help your business. It is time for a new approach that allows you to document your business processes and internal controls AND make them better too, without the huge investment required from BPM. This can consist of new software and services, current systems, and some lean thinking to strip out the stuff you just don't need to do. Whatever you do, do it for the sake of making your business better, not just because the regulator says you have to do so.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Is your customer data worth $800k?

Customer data protection is taken seriously in Europe. What a company can do with customer data, and a company's responsibility to keep the data secure is legislated and enforced. And as reported on the BBC News website, a new rule in the UK will add teeth to the threat, with "Data losses to incur fines of up to £500,000". That's over $800,000 US. But if you are a US company, what do you care? All you have to worry about is HIPAA and the new HITECH rules that protect personal health information, right?

As a company located anywhere in the world, if you contract with companies or individuals in the UK, you might want to make sure what your obligation is to UK consumers under their laws. Even if you take care to ensure that your customer information does not end up on a lost laptop and your backup tapes are secure, you may need to pay more attention to the list of names you sell to 'partners offering related services'. You may have noticed that top international travel websites, such as Travelocity, Expedia and others, now have a checkbox for you to confirm your status as an EU citizen, so they can potentially handle your data differently.

The question for many companies will be how much income or cost savings they see from trying to run with the data protection matching the lowest common denominator regulations (for most companies, the US rules), compared to the customer trust that comes with following a policy that meets the highest levels of privacy and data protection that is possible, independent of nationality. I'm not saying that the UK rules are perfect, or the EU has everything right, but when it comes to my personal data not being abused I will buy from companies that value my data as much as they value their own.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I've done everything I can to fix my business and it's still broken...

You know that parts of your business aren't working as well as they should. Workers are crying out for help (or if they are not, you have even bigger problems). You want to do better. The problem is finding out why things aren't working. Like most problems, those related to business processes only become clear when you find a way of observing them differently.

Here is a real life example of how a fresh viewpoint, and some simple changes made a big difference to a business. A large credit union in the US thought it was doing all the right things to make the business more efficient and serve customers better: scanning correspondence, application forms and supporting documents; integrating customer information into an online portal; capturing reports directly from the mainframe into a searchable database. Despite these efforts, the back-office employees were still overloaded with work and the Customer Services workers couldn't always answer customer inquiries without having to phone them back later. With so many documents stored electronically, it seemed that there was not a problem with the availability of information, so what was the problem?

This credit union, like many organizations, thought that making everything that was paper into electronic media would solve all their problems. What they had missed were the elements of time and flow: how soon was the information getting into the system and where did it go once it was there? The challenge was that although scanning paper documents and application forms made them available at a moment's notice, there was often a delay of several days from the time that a customer or agent dispatched the paper to when it was actually captured into the system. Then once it was in the system, how did anyone know it was there to be acted on? The employees resorted to sending out summary emails every hour, informing their colleagues of the existence of new documents.

Although it appeared that there was a problem with a lack of workflow (and this was certainly one aspect of the problem), the bigger issue was that many of the documents started off life as paper, with all the delays, errors and inefficiencies associated. Many important customer requests would take days to enter the system, during which time Customer Services was blind to their existence.

The solution was easy - bit by bit common application forms and requests were made available to agents over the Internet and to customers through their portal. This was not a matter of creating PDFs that looked like the original paper, but instead was a set of more useful forms that captured the key information directly in the web browser, submitting a form's data directly to a system that could store it and inform employees that a new request was available. No printing, faxing or scanning required.

The advantages were suddenly obvious:
  • the scanning of paper documents was reduced to a manageable volume; requests were available to Customer Services immediately
  • common errors on application forms were caught before they were submitted
  • the information was presented in a form that was far more useable than a mere image of a paper document
  • simple workflows could be put in place to remove the need for constant email work summaries

What made this all possible for this credit union? An alternative view of the way the organization was working and moving its information (stemming from a short consulting engagement), a solution that made it easy to configure and present secure forms on a website or Intranet without huge software development projects, and a simple workflow to push work to the right people as soon as it was available.

Some business problems are simpler to solve than they appear. There is often not a need to consider huge re-engineering exercises, just to identify the true source of a problem and use tools that help you fix it without introducing complex technology. Business process improvement is well within the grasp of any organization willing to look at what they do a little differently.

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

VMWare + Zimbra = Gmail?

The exciting rumor in the otherwise quiet enterprise technology news this week was of VMWare planning to buy Zimbra from Yahoo. The self-proclaimed 'Cyber Cynic' Steven J Vaughan-Nichols blogged about an article by Kara Swisher, questioning why VMWare should be interested in an open-source email platform. Why, in fact would Yahoo have spent $350M on Zimbra in the first place?

The virtualization market that VMWare claims to own is truly under threat. Not just from other proven virtualization vendors including RedHat sponsored KVM, XenServer (found on almost every serious server hosting package I've seen), Sun VirtualBox, but from the cloud too. So it makes sense that VMWare would want to do something to try and stay in the game. But email (sorry, 'collaboration'), really?! I honestly thought that between Microsoft Exchange (and the many vendors willing to host it for you), Gmail, and the sufficiently OK (for small businesses) free email that appears on basic web hosts, there was little room for another serious player in the enterprise email outsourcing market.

If Zimra truly is more than just an email server on steroids, then the competition may become IBM with Lotus in the cloud - if IBM finally works out how to start marketing that reinvigorated offering. Is VMWare really in that market? Maybe the company is in fact responding to's announcement of Chatter, its online collaborative tools. I wondered at this little announcement back in November. Either way, we all know email as a necessary evil, not something that can help you build control, visibility or efficiency into a business. Why buy into that overflowing inbox that most people complain about when they have nothing better to complain about?

EMC was truly renowned for making great technology acquisitions, making itself in quite a giant. It the major stakeholder of VMWare guiding this acquisition, or is this just the kid trying to beat Dad at his own game? The success of this acquisition could answer the question for us, though I don't see VMWare getting this right without buying a large cloud capability (VMWare + Rackspace = interesting) or partnering with Amazon EC2. Time will tell - though VMWare's stock seems to reflect a bullishness around this acquisition I just don't feel.

A post from the Improving It blog

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Production line = inefficiency

I am constantly shocked by the inefficiency I experience as a consumer of services. I'm not just annoyed by the quality of service that results, it is the sheer waste of everybody's time and money that really gets me. One pervasive example applies to many industries and services - the inefficiency of a sequential 'production line' workflow. Not only do I think this style of workflow can promote inefficiency, I believe that it is reinforced by many business process management systems and software 'solutions', making everyone suffer the log-jam that results from its strict control. The new year demands a new approach.

To help visualize the idea, imagine you have just arrived at Boston 'Logan International' Airport. You have been traveling all day to get to the city, you claim your luggage (if you are lucky) and set off to find a taxi to take you to your final destination. You walk outside in the below-freezing temperatures to be elated to see a line of available taxis just waiting to load happy passengers. Then you see the queue of unhappy passengers waiting to get into taxis. Two airport staff are coordinating the flow of passengers (presumably to prevent anyone walking in front of a moving vehicle), and the flow of taxis (checking licenses and handling special requests for minivans, etc). Still, the people and the taxis are both stood in a queue for 20 minutes waiting to be united. Something is wrong.

In this example, the staff coordinating the flow of people and cars are like the supervisors dishing out work in an office and managing the workers tasks; the taxis are the workers; the passengers are the work cases to be handled; the taxi-rank and the road out of the airport is the workflow. Only one of these is the issue - the taxi-rank / workflow. How is this so?

In our example, the passengers are not at fault for wanting taxis, or occasionally minivans, as much as a recruiter is at fault for submitting candidates to an HR department's recruitment 'workflow', even if sometimes a person has perfect skills but needs a special license to be employed. The work exists and needs to be handled, even though at times there may be a valuable, albeit complex exception case.

Again in the taxi-rank example the taxis are not at fault for waiting in an orderly line to enter the taxi rank. They are doing what is expected of them, for the hope of suitable compensation. They are available for work. The same thing could be said of a team of temporary workers in an office tasked with handling the flurry of new job applicants when a company is hiring for multiple new positions. They are available for work, and will do it if it is available. If not, the coffee machine probably needs refilling regularly until the work is handed to them.

Finally, within the constraints of the current taxi-rank workflow, the staff coordinating passengers and taxis are also doing nothing wrong. Nobody is getting run over, taxis are correctly licensed and drivers are courteous to shivering passengers. This is the same as the supervisor taking some new resumes and handing them out to the workers as soon as the supervisor sees they have finished the last batch, then collecting and checking the results. Work and passengers seem to get matched with workers and taxis just like clockwork.

The problem is there is still a 100 person long line of passengers and 500 resumes to be reviewed, despite the apparent efficiency of the clockwork production line workflow. The taxi-rank / workflow itself is at fault.

At the airport, the taxi-rank forces all available taxis down a single orderly, safe, easy to manage lane. This results in holding up 40 idling taxis while 7 are loaded with passengers, one passenger finds that a pair of skis are too large to fit in a taxi and needs to request a minivan, and 90% of the passengers wait in the bitter Boston winter weather. The recruitment workflow similarly provides the appearance of orderliness and efficiency, but is really a choke on work getting assigned or handled as the supervisor hands out new resumes and collects results of completed work. There is always time for another coffee between batches of resumes landing on a worker's desk, especially as little brain-power is requested to do the repetitive work. The workflow is leading to inefficiency and a long wait for work to be completed.

How well does the taxi-rank or production line workflow respond to a change in demand or volume of work? Imagine the result if a new plane arrives at the airport, or a new job is posted for immediate placement; there is no way to make the workflow go faster. It still ticks along at its own pace with a long queue of work to be done, as taxis shuttle in and out, and resumes get delivered to workers' desks. No amount of supervision can make a well structured production line go faster.

Surprisingly, a reduction in demand with a proportional reduction in workforce is even worse for the production line workflow. When work enters a production line sporadically or at a rate lower than it was designed to handle, the work actually trickles through the end to end process slower. Proportionally fewer resources handling work leads to proportionally longer lags between sequential tasks being completed and the work stutters along rather than flows. The recent economic crisis and its impact on car manufacture has sadly demonstrated this: it was better (for companies) to shut factories for weeks on end, rather than trying to run them at half capacity. The efficiency experts at these companies probably recognized that it would cost way more than half to achieve half the output of vehicles.

Unfortunately many organizations have locked themselves into a restrictive production line way of working in the office, when truly there should be far more flexibility. From the inside, to the supervisor it may seem like there is no way out. Often the only answer to remove the log-jam is a change of tool such as a new workflow system, or an outside view to design a new workflow on top of the current tool. New software or a fresh perspective maybe all that is required to make things work better.

With a new year hear, what better time to break the old, inefficient habits of the past?

A post from the Improving It blog

To implement workflow and process automation in your business today, visit

Coming soon... Download the podcast of this blog post