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The battle to transform your ‘front office’ heats up…put your goals & strategy first!

The battlefront between software vendors for automating your ‘front office‘ which are the parts of business that come into contact with clients, and in an ideal selling world engage in long term relationship conversations with them. In the current era there is an appetite to explore all areas that could attract and drive these customer relationships, with research and development, innovation and brand and product messaging tied into the huge streams of data that expensive technologies feed back about prospect and customer digital activities.

Enterprise software companies marketing the heck out of now widely understood ideas

For this fall’s IT fashion season, the big enterprise software vendors are rolling out their big marketing guns and hammering home messaging about the transformations they could provide for your business. Accommodating the pace of change invoked by our rapidly evolving personal choices of digital technologies and uses has proven a pretty big headache for enterprise software companies, and there’s now an element of Chutzpah about some of their catch up messaging.

The San Francisco Bay Area is currently peppered with 48 sheet billboard advertising for social software products and events, and books on our formerly emergent world seem to be published at a rate of several a day by all sorts of characters from qualified and opportunist. Public Relations professionals have been very vocal in wrapping product marketing messaging as business ‘social movement’ strategy for their employers and clients.

On the buy side of all this messaging, many have already had a few previous below par experiences after being impressed by the sizzle only to be disappointed by the actual steak when buying software, that turned out to be both unfit for purpose and sometimes unclear what the purpose for it was alongside pre existing ways of working. The resulting shelfware has also been the nemesis of a few careers.

The My Space lesson

Venerable My Space, whose odd journey from former fashion darling of the digital social set to ‘previous relationship’  status for most people is a sobering lesson, are attempting a major relaunch. The video above shows the old world of blinky animated gifs transformed into a hip place with a lovely use interface that ties in nicely with Microsoft’s   current look and feel demos and advertising.

The big old guard MISO vendors (Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Oracle) are striving mightily to avoid being relegated to ‘back office’ status, where more modern applications extracting relevant data from past generation technologies to display in agile, contextual flows of information limit their influence.

The MISO quartet, along with all the other big public market software vendor players, must continue to demonstrate virile growth to the financial markets on a quarterly basis. Their challenge is all the greater in avoiding cannibalizing their existing lucrative business lines with new fangled cloud solutions. The newer generation cloud vendors see  growth into these older players markets as we all know.

Much of the marketing hoopla and conference rhetoric we are now experiencing is similar to the My Space video above. Looks great, being asked to think differently about a familiar brand name we may feel jaded about (substitute software seat license audits and maintenance contract pain for digital social life ‘been there done that’ sensations), future looks bright, etc etc.

Solving the ‘Collaboration Silos’ problem

Where we have been and where we are going next – particularly collectively – are two very different things, and strategizing around what will work based on the actual needs of your business has never been more important. Putting the software cart before the strategic needs horse is all too common when we are dazzled by vendor offerings being presented as ‘The Future of Work’.

As Drucker timelessly said “It’s easier for companies to come up with new ideas than let go of old ones” and overlaying new layers of technology fits that thought also. A popular evergreen post on my ZDNet blog ‘Small, medium or large collaboration headache?‘ is where some of the work with clients I’ve been doing recently lies. Solving the fragmentation and information filtering issues that are plaguing efficiency in many larger firms across multiple ‘collaboration silos’, each served by different technologies and user bases.

Before making any big bets on the future it is money well spent to get our objective, technology agnostic opinion on what will be most fit for purpose to serve your company well in the future..

 

 

 

 

 

Over the social hype hump and back to practicality

 

 

Sensible voices are starting to be heard again above the noise as the new social enterprise realities mature
Cross posted on my ‘ZDNet Collaboration 2.0‘, whose profit center is display advertising…

There’s a sense of deja vu about some current funded digital entrepreneur and public technology company business models. I started writing this post last Friday after reading a piece in USA Today from 2001 titled ‘Dot-coms look beyond ‘stickiness’ and ‘eyeballs’ while doing some research for a project.

That Reuters piece happened to have been published on the same date as last Friday eleven years ago and starts ‘The Internet industry has quickly learned that “stickiness” and a lot of “eyeballs” do not add up to profits…‘.

Sound familiar to the cold shower reality check many of the more absurd social business ideas have encountered recently? The last fifteen months has also been accompanied by a blizzard of dubious ‘research’ statistics, colorful infographics full of mostly unqualified percentage figures, all made worse by the low barrier to self publishing by self proclaimed experts our digitally transformed world has enabled.

I’ve been preached to by VC’s and regaled with PR messaging masquerading as strategy by some technology companies, who claim to have invented unique new work and marketing methods in ways that have been all to reminiscent of the height of the dot com era.

To quote George SantayanaThose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” -but fortunately there are a large number of grounded, sensible people who are not only all to aware of the dot com era’s lessons, but also have a good feel for what actually works in the digital strategy world. These voices are starting to be heard above the noise again.

It’s never the same twice of course and today’s fundamentals are very different to the Wall Street pump and dump and tax write off dot bomb era. Just as the web went on to fundamentally change the way we live and connect after the dotcom/infosuperhighway/cyberspace etc etc hype calmed down, so our new socially networked era has hit mainstream and continues to invoke colossal change …even as past funding logic foundations poster children such as Facebook stumble.

Quoting tech investor writer John Shinal’s ‘What the Facebook skeptics know‘ on Marketwatch

Every quarter, a greater percentage of Facebook’s most active users are accessing its site via mobile devices, rather than desktop PCs. And the ad revenues in mobile advertising are so far just a fraction of those for traditional Web-based ads.

This is a significant individual end use pattern shift which the mass advertising business is not currently geared up for from a Wall Street revenues perspective, and they are also understandably fearful of cannibalizing revenue from traditional display advertising sources. This is true for Facebook or any other new digital medium, web or mobile, but now that we are arguably getting over the hype hump these issues are being addressed in a far more pragmatic, grounded way…by some at least.

Regarding those traditional display advertising sources Mathew Ingram on GigaOM wrote in ‘What happens to advertising in a world of streams?

…The cruel reality is that traditional advertising, with its banners and popups and site takeovers and other eye-grabbing tricks, is fundamentally irritating — and it becomes even more so when it interrupts a conversation or a social activity. As even advertising giant Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP has pointed out in comments about Facebook, the more socially oriented a service is, the more difficult it is to make advertising work in the way it did with more traditional forms of content and older platforms. Then, the reader was held captive to a certain extent, but in a world of digital streams that’s no longer the case.

This is the same conundrum as the dot com era, when display advertising was deemed to have months to live. It’s an intractable problem that isn’t going to go away this time around either; everyone loves an entertaining Super Bowl spot branding spot but no-one admits to buying a product from an infomercial or clicking on a banner.

Autodesk, the 3D modeling software company, purchased Socialcam for $60 million US dollars last month in a move reminiscent of dodgy end dot com era roll ups. (“The products do not make a lot of money, but they attract a lot of people” Quentin Hardy NYT)  Socialcam is a Facebook click through parasite and will have the longevity of the very similar Washington Post reader application, whose user figures fell off a cliff after it dawned on people to avoid it. This is clearly not an alternative to traditional display advertising, and I believe Autodesk massively overpaid for an application with very little value. Like the dot com boom era this was a move by Autodesk to get into an area which is way outside their core competency, seduced by todays siren song equivalents of ‘stickiness’ and ‘eyeballs’.

I pay a lot of money every month to Comcast Xfinity for cable television and business class internet, two divisions of the same company. I was unable to watch the NBC Olympic video coverage online because those two divisions are two separate business entities, a classic Customer Relationship Management fiasco. This to me is the perfect example of how a typical ‘consumer’, expects a company like Comcast to be cohesive internally in a perfect seamless loop around the service they provide around my customer needs, like Roger Berry’s ‘Perspectives’ infinity loop sculpture in the picture above..

What I got was customer service telephone hell talking to people with no answers to my issue in their script. I didn’t have much time to waste on this so I gave up and didn’t watch any live Olympics online. I whined on Twitter but no one at Comcast responded. Subsequent marketing by Comcast to me has resonated in a very negative way. In an ideal world Comcast would provide seamless content service across devices, with any support issues speedily resolved and marketing communication that reinforced a pleasurable experience.

Apple has set the bar on this approach and arguably as a direct result just overtook Microsoft’s dot com era figures as the most valuable company in the world ever, surpassing the Bill Gates high point 1999 market value record of $620.58bn. (IBM were probably worth more in 1967 at their zenith if you account for inflation, but that spoils my dot com era comparisons!). Customer satisfaction is fundamentally what drives this kind of performance at scale, and conversely is why cable TV companies are so unpopular with their captive customers.

Advertising, word of mouth, conversations and support are all icing on the cake of a well organized company, and that culture has to be at the organizational core. For a successful company there is typically more of everything: more internal transparency, more display advertising that dovetails with social network interactions, more attentive customer support and so on.

Many of the business people I have talked to and worked with over the past eighteen months are far to busy to wade through endless discussions and propositions about social possibilities: they are very focused on specific goals. Context is king, and so are measurable results.

The end to end vision of the connected, social enterprise will define future competitive effectiveness, but boil the ocean propositions to the types of people who are constrained within business silos are usually a challenge to scale, even when there is aspiration and enthusiasm to create more network connections. What typically happens here is a social network for their silo, or a collaboration silo as I was calling this a couple of years ago. Multiples of these can have unintended consequences.

Despite the signal to noise ratio, there is a distinct shift happening right now, as success stories and ideas and competitive threats are absorbed by companies, with information streams and engagement ideas highly visible as key attributes.

Information streams and engagement models are manifestations of deeper planning – the tools put in place to get to specific goals – and we are seeing more serious engagement to get those foundational planning elements in place in our maturing digital world.

~

picture: Roger Berry sculpture ‘Perspectives’ commissioned by Cupertino civic art
located at intersection of Stevens Creek Blvd and De Anza Blvd in Cupertino, California USA

What I do

I was offered the opportunity to write the ZDNet Collaboration blog on the strength of my writing here in the period after I left Sony PlayStation three years ago, which has has taken up all my available writing bandwidth until now, but this year I’ve decided to resume discussing my work and ideas here.

My work

The vast majority of my work is inside companies helping find ways to simplify and make them run more efficiently. I do some consulting work with software vendors, mostly to provide some perspective on what their prospects actually want (there’s a whole other blog post on the fashion driven group think that goes on between vendors, analyst and futurists…) . I’m proud of my reputation for being vendor agnostic: I have a pretty good rolodex of contacts in the software business and deep knowledge of enterprise software and the culture around it, but I’m not in business bed with anyone and am dedicated to looking out for the best results for my clients.

Most of the work I perform is relatively sensitive in nature and typically under strict non disclosure – the more strategic the work the tighter the NDA – but I do think it’s important to convey some of the realities of the ‘real’ work going on around collaboration strategy, partly to oppose the tremendous volume of vendor/analyst noise and opportunists/ theorists in the space who endlessly discuss the ways people might work together in the future.

Cutting through all the froth and hyperbole we are subjected to, essentially the business world’s needs and actions are currently

•  The tactically urgent needs needs of business units of varying sizes at various hierarchical levels (often markedly different problems at different pay scales), which are more and more frequently solved with ‘shadow IT’ problems, sometimes temporary, sometimes with a rooted permanence. 

• The more formal and legally regulated area of Information Technology provisioning, aligned with centralized IT budgeting and strategic thinking

• The opportunities and challenges created by the fast evolving world of mobile technologies and the incursion of individuals smart phones/computers into the workplace, in an ever more interconnected world, and the relationship with existing unified communications infrastructure internally and marketing interactions to the customer and prospect base

• Alignments with existing enterprise technology commitments and bottlenecks, and of course office politics at all levels of the organization

These are the simplistic big buckets we’re all dealing with; variances of project and business scale have a significant impact on how we view challenges and solutions, and interoperability and collaborative interrelationships may or may not be of value.

Within the four bullet points above typically sit immense complexity, with time consuming and often deeply ingrained work processes of varying ages sapping the efficiency of the modern company. Document creation and email are easy targets when discussing the causes of what’s clogging up a modern firm’s arteries, but the reality is that it is always people and the way they work that should be the focus, and not the tools they use. I’ve seen lots of ‘cart before the horse’ thinking (people buying software as a solution and panacea to problems only to see it gathering dust unused, whether a lightweight applications or honking great enterprise systems.)

Much of my work has been around simplifying ‘information plumbing’ as I call it, in order to achieve greater efficiencies. While communication technologies of all types are evolving at a remarkable speed, so too is increased complexity, duplication and multiple branching of information. I’m sure you’ve heard the wonders of modern ‘social tools’ from software salespeople, but in my experience the reality in your company is that they are only as good as the clarity around how you want people to use them, and with everyone understanding their usage routes and end goals.

The ways in which people choose to communicate and collaborate together over time always transcends enabling technologies.

For this reason there has never been a more important time to create consistent  places artifacts are located and can be found along with consistent use patterns. Individual publishing, whether to the public internet or inside your company, is now push button simple, although whether anyone actually sees the published information of course can be a major problem…

Individuals and groups of people have familiar survival activities they rely on when they get very busy, which are typically based on a lowest common denominator of effort. No amount of shiny new technology will change this unless there are clear use paths and clear benefits to the end user and the collective company. What has been happening during the era since Web 2.0 technologies started to be incorporated into the Enterprise, either as stand alone modern applications or more recently as component features of mature technology suites has been mostly modular, contextual uptake to solve different specific business problems.

 

This has led to what I have called ‘collaboration silos’ – user name and password protected fiefdoms for areas of businesses who may be competing for power and budget with others. All too often these are the unintended results of fragmented uptake – formal or otherwise – after deploying technologies.

It’s not unusual to have multiple collaboration environments and ecosystems even in quite small companies, resulting in multiple streams of information and repositories. These issues are sometimes not visible to senior executives since they are in part of the nuts and bolts and minutiae of processes but are often adding to inefficiencies and complexity despite solving specific parochial problems for specific groups of people.