Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Simplicity of Computing

Adam Bosworth recently posted an article that is required reading for all technologists and product managers. He argues that we have made software more complex than necessary in the B2B Entrprise world and there is a great need to simplify in order to effectively adopt these into mainstream technologies.

Case in point: consumer oriented technologies have overtaken enterprise technologies in terms of adoption, collaboration and data sharing. Why is it easier to have an RSS feed that can be subscribed and read by hundreds of users immediately, whereas trying to attempt the same via a commercial Integration Broker is a pain in the wrong place ? Not that this is not possible, but setting up the perfect configuration with the layers and layers of abstraction to get a simple message to go between two systems is incredibly difficult in my personal experience.

Bosworth argues that the technologies that have survived are simple, flexible and imperfect - they have allowed for immediate easier adoption and hence evolution. If people are interested in a technology, they will improve it. Trying to come up with the most perfect technical solution the first time around will probably ensure an immediate demise due to lack of adoption.

Quote: "On the one hand we have Blogs and Photo Albums and Event Schedules and Favorites and Ratings and News Feeds. On the other we have CRM and ERP and BPO and all sorts of enterprise oriented 3 letter acronyms."

The reality of this statement is that computing for enterprise users should be no different that for consumers for easier adoption. Yes - the requirements of running a business is arguably more complex, but if the future of computing is going to be based on reputation (as proven by eBay and Blogs) we need to take a serious look at this from a CRM perspective ASAP.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Pricing in Hi-tech companies

This is a favorite topic of mine - pricing. It intrigues me when we have so many ways of pricing to completely confuse customers. Here are some common ways, and what works and what does not:

a. Price by CPU

You pay an egregious amount of money like $one kajillion per CPU. If you add more - perhaps indicative of excessive usage since more CPUs = more people using the app - you need to pay more.

Pros: It's a logical premise to an extent.
Cons: Difficult to capitalize of falling hardware costs. If you can now afford a multi CPU box for much cheaper, the costs are offset by the increase in payment to your vendor. Definitely a bad strategy for a customer.

b. Price by Seat/Named User

You have to declare the number of people - internal and external - using the application.
Pros: For a small company with a back office role, it probably makes sense.
Cons: This ignores one critical aspect - growth of a company and user adoption. More users should mean good things for both the company and vendor (from a reference perspective). Definitely doesn't make sense to penalize the customer.

Companies like Chordiant, and other call center companies like Genesys have made their $$$s here.

c. Enterprise Pricing

The pricing model is not restrictive and is based on the revenue growth of the company. If the revenue increases over the next few years, you owe more to the vendor. You do not if the investment does not affect revenue.

Pros: Very customer centric, profit sharing model with growth actually being encouraged.
Cons: Not every vendor's solution has a direct impact on revenue or growth. Customers will be reluctant for such pricing schemes from smaller vendors.

Some examples of who do this are PeopleSoft, PeopleSoft and PeopleSoft :-)

d. Subscription based pricing

Based on per user, this is a monthly subscription fee that will be charged.

Pros: Useful is stretching out payments over several months, resulting in better cash flow management.
Cons: Lack of stickiness (really a vendor problem). Easy to switch. Low F

e. Utility Pricing

Pay as you go pricing,you pay by the drink. More you use, more you pay.

Pros: The nirvana of Sun and IBM and HP for utility computing. Helpful for companies that have a spike in computing for some weeks based on seasonal demand - so a period of spikes followed by slumps.

Cons: Practical solutions that have been put into place is still in the early adopter phase. Large upfront investments will need to be made by some companies desirous of introducing this functionality to their customers to budget to spikes in demand.

f. Free

Now what can beat this ?

Pros: You gotta be kidding me!
Cons: Cost of support, maintenance. Necessary to have skilled resources and/or a quick relief support structure to be viable for the enterprise.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

So what about Knowledge Management?

After working with several large Fortune 1000 companies re: their Knowledge management(KM) initiatives (or often called "contact center consolidation project", "web self service project" or by several other names, the end result remains elusive - KM is still remains a buzzword.

So what is KM anyways ? Is it search? Is it classification of information? Several vendors have attempted to define it their way - notable among them are Primus (recently acquired by ATG - the content management company), Kanisa, Serviceware, SupportSoft etc.

The basic problem with this narrow definition is that it ignores the people and process aspect. Knowledge Management is the ability to harness knowledge between the ears of the your assets - the ones who walk out of the door at the end of the day. The boundaries of the enterprise are expanding - they include your partners,suppliers, distributors and customers - who have more knowledge about the quirks of your product that some of your employees. The challenge then is not limited to your enterprise that these vendors attempt to address, but how to extend these to others and bring them into a referenceable but growing database of information.

It is interesting to note that given the current parameters of a fixed time and fixed budget - the initial wave seems to be of expanding service by outsourcing/offshoring by adding new bodies at a fraction of the cost. Lets extend this forward to 5 years or more and offshoring too will become cost ineffective due the real problem - information explosion. It is impossible to keep pace with the exponentially increasing information and the demand for accurate service about specific products by relying on people addition alone.

So what's the solution? Transparency. Allowing all external parties like customers etc to collaboratively participate in documentation, review and feedback. It starts with basics - discussion groups. Then advances to Wiki-webs and more. Open source by definition is more open to this process than established oragnizations, even though the number of users touched by the latter is several orders of magnitude more!

The key concept here is keep people and externals interested in the contribution process - reputation tracking and rewarding is key. Can a customer or partner gain points in exchange for contributing solutions ? Do the points mean something? (for e.g. a million points at one point an answer to get a PeopleSoft Shirt is certainly not worth it).

Today the concept of reputation is silo'd and locked into systems (so laments Marc Andreessen) - for e.g. its impossible to pull your reputation out of eBay and apply it to Amazon or to a business website). One notable exception to this rule is credit history - it seems to be consistently followed in the USA - and again is silo'd in one way due to three credit agencies :). Can the next logical extension to credit history be reputation history? Hmm....

Will an enterprise automatically campaign to have the most reputable people in the industry be their contributors? Will Microsoft expand their Passport strategy to include reputations? And then again - maybe not!.

Tracking back to the original issue tof KM - the bottomline is simple - multi-million $$$s in procuring search software will not help here. The real problem is far deeper than that and requires thought and persistence to gain a competitive advantage in the long run.

Tell me what you think.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Will Product Managers get Offshored?

Intriguing (and scary)question. One that needs to be examined a little further. Here's some facts:
  • Most of the offshored/outsourced jobs are for call centers(inbound and outbound-telemarketing etc), back office workers(claims processing, underwriting etc) and HR related(payroll processing etc) .
  • With the exception of these above jobs, most of the customer facing occupations are not being offshored - sales, business development, account management etc
  • Companies have not yet learnt to leverage lower cost nations for strategic advantages, only for cost savings
  • Strategic guidance and direction is still being closely held in the US, with the execution activity being delegated to offshoring destinations
  • The mass job layoffs in Hi-Tech seem to be all those kinds of jobs that directly overlap with execution related or otherwise known as "non-strategic jobs".
Let's switch to India for a minute. Talking to my cousin who works there for a major software company, he mentioned some key challenges for workers there:
  • Emphasis on working US hours leads them to work graveyard shifts, causing a complete imbalance in their social life
  • Irrespective of the location of the work being done, collaboration is key between local locations/employees and remote workers. The knowledge that local employee may soon been let go causes a severe strain in building smooth business relationships, and delay in the work being performed; sabotage and process delays are very common.
  • Smarter employees in offshore nations often complain of lack of quality work being sent, and lament the lack of creative/design work - this leads to tremendous turnover and lack of job satisfaction.
So on first thoughts, if we define product managers as "representatives of the voice of the customer"- there is still a great chance that this will remain as an exclusive US-only activity. The reality of the situation is that most US centric companies have a poor understanding of product needs from a global perspective(short of multi-language transaltions and running on Unicode databases).
Customers in various geographies have unique and distinct needs that are very different from the US, and true representation is possible only when product managers are recruited from local regions, and are encouraged to enlist the participation of local customer groups in the evlauation of a product before launch. Unfortunately, this means a couple of things: The perspective of the company has to change from "offshoring product management" to "global product management" and empowering regional product managers to take business decisions that are not overridden by the US based HQ.
The shift has started from the bottom end of the labor pyramid and is slowly making its way to the top.
Bottom line: There is a plausibility that product management jobs will get globalized, albeit not in traditional sense of the "offshoring" word.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Netflix,TiVo and Six degrees of separation

It was interesting to see NetFlix lower their fees in response to Amazon's entry into the market - no wait... on rumors of entry into the market. The stock market reacted immediately to the news and dropped the price by 40% in one day. Why in the world would you want to do that ?

As I dug deeper into this mystery some things became clearer: Leslie Kilgore - the CMO of NetFlix previously served as the director of marketing in - none other than -! Wonder what her buddies warned her. Something so strong that NetFlix decides to cancel their UK launch and focus on the core US market. Hmmm...

On the other hand, TiVo and Netflix announced that they would jointly develop a product to download movies over the internet. And the driver of this deal: TiVo Chief Executive Mike Ramsay who also happens to sit on the board of directors for Netflix. To Mr. Ramsay's credit however he resigned from the board as soon as a"commercial" deal was made. Does this make the situation ethical ? hmmm...

Let's see another director : Richard Barton who sits on several board including the IAC. What - never heard of it ? Here's a summary from stockhouse:

IAC/InterActiveCorp is the world's leading multi-brand interactive commerce company. IAC consists of IAC Travel, which includes Expedia, Inc.,, Hotwire, Interval International, and TV Travel Shop; HSN; Ticketmaster, which oversees ReserveAmerica;; LendingTree; Precision Response Corporation; IAC Local and Media Services, which includes Citysearch, Evite, Entertainment Publications, Inc. and TripAdvisor, Inc.; and IAC Interactive Development which includes ZeroDegrees.

Here's my prediction then: Prepare to see more of Netflix in not only consumer households, but in hotels as well. Imagine a world where your rating,preferences and queues travel with you around the world. All hotels that you stay in are linked to NetFlix's servers to beam you the next movie you are interested in. TiVo already knows your habits, Netflix wil help propagate it.

And all because of six degrees of separation.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Collaboration Tools for Product Management

For those of you in product management, collaboration is key to identifying trends, gathering requirements, peer validation and basically having a single repository for information.

The issue with today's PLM (product life cycle management) tools is that they rely heavily on workflow processes, and expect documents attached at every step of the workflow to some how assist in collaboration. The fundamental problem with this approach is that even though process is very important when the requirements become clear, the chaos during the collection phase needs to be better facilitated- so that the important information floats to the top, and the rest can be at the bottom as a lower priority.

So when a tool like JotSpot came to my attention - I grabbed it for a trial run. So far - it addresses some real cool areas and is based on the wildly popular WiKi methodology, except that the founders talk about building enterprise applications on top of this.

There are several tools that offer the "workspace" centric approach - for e.g. Groove, Lotus Notes, Discussion groups etc that allow threaded conversations and searching across them. What is needed is a channel agnostic way to aggregate content (which Jot allows by integrating with email, RSS, web pages etc), and web service based external integration.

The founders in their conversation with Jon Udell seem to have missed the point about the key applicability in the enterprise space, but focus on a enabling Wikis as a quick development tools for specific business apps. This will point them against standard development tools vendors like IBM, BEA etc with far greater resources that they have, however innovative this product currently is.

What Jot needs is to clearly define what business market they want to go after, with tools to simplify adoption and more user interfaces. Editing a page and adding code may be a piece of cake for a developer but try showing the demo to a sales rep and sees if s/he'll dig it !

However, it is a great concept and I look forward to the founders repositioning this from something that is universally useful to nobody, to mission critical for somebody.

Call me if you need my help!

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Tough to be in IT

Look at the landscape if you are in IT today - vendors like PeopleSoft want to make it easier to use their applications, product managers are supposed to know their target users, goals and behaviors - so much so that the need for IT should be minimal. Your management is looking at the cost and feels that outsourcing of "non-strategic" tasks is the best strategy - except that 80% of the people in your company IT fall into that bucket. Look at your user community - they are never happy with the performance, usability, scalabilty of any thing you implement, especially a new application.

Painted this way, it really looks like the perfect storm. So is it the end of IT (as Nick Carr so infamously put it) ?

My answer - absolutely not! There is a LONG way to go as a hi-tech culture before we can even write IT off. My experiences with IT folks in companies show some revealing characteristics:

a. Vendors are light years behind providing the "perfect" solution

Yes - all the plans talk about making IT obsolete, putting the power in the hands of the business users ( like allowing end users to execute DML statements on the fly in production - ya you heard me right!) still leaves a lot to be desired. And why is that ? The key reason I see is due to the multiple points of failure in any complex application - there are just too many variables that the vendors cant design/test/foresee in a controlled lab environment. For eg. the exact mix of the platform, database, hardware, software version, skillset of IT, skillset of user will always yeild different permutations on how the software eventually ends up behaving. And who can help fix this - IT.

b. IT outsourcing

This is a hotly debated topic. While it is true that IT infrastructure has elements that can be outsourced, the competitive edge that a company derives by keeping resources onsite, well paid and motivated cannot be easily duplicated. Business Agility. What wins in the market is the ability to experiment, react quickly to feedback and experiment again. Outsource your IT and you are stuck with "standards" - the standards that once gave you a competitive edge are now becoming strait jackets - driven by vendors that serve only one agenda - theirs.

c. Business community - IT's customers

I was recently in a conversation where the business users were completely livid due to a migration to a newer system, touting the strengths of the older one, even though the newer system addressed 80% of the key pain points. Why is that ? Because change is hard. IT folks need to spend a lot of time with the end user community in recuriting leaders, educating them about the change well in advance and getting buy-in. Lets face - NO software will solve problems, people do. Its important not to ignore this fact and put in change management in your project plan.

So is IT needed. As far as I can see - absolutely! Will it be needed in 10 years ? perhaps. But that is another article all by itself...

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Innovation and Microsoft

Robert Scoble's website has an interesting discussion of what Microsoft's contribution to innovation is. Ok most of them are MS bashers who are critical about their "embrace, extend, extinguish" strategy, and argue that almost all innovations are NIH - "Not invented here".

While I agree with most products that the MS bashers talked about, the one attribute that MS has contributed IMHO is the user experience. It is an enviable competitive advantage that MS has to define the next generation of user interfaces in any application that continue to influence consumer and business applications.

Ok - I hear the Mac team screaming already - Notice I did not say that this honor belongs to MS alone.

Perhaps its the touch with the largest number of human beings on the planet that ever use a computer - the first learning with the MS UI suddenly raises the bar with all other applications that compete or that attemt to interact with a user. I have seen this many too often that the question posed is "Why can't you make it work like MS xxx" where xxx can be their favorite product.

In this new world of services-oriented architecture, the user interface title is again up for grabs. Can MS continue to dominate the interface standard with A2A (app-to-app) just as they did with usability for an end-user application? Hmmmm...

PeopleSoft Alumni Website

Steve Tennant, an ex-PeopleSoftie has created a new PeopleSoft Alumni website. This is absolutely great news and here's the blog to cast a vote in its favor!
The Wonderful World of Digital Photography and their Providers

Being a photography enthusiast, I'm really curious to see how the digitial photography market is shaping up. There are the manufacturers - the Kodaks of the world - fim makers and camera makers - the Canon's of the world. There are the consumers - like you and me. And then there is the Internet for the new virtual showcase.

Lets briefly list the players here who want to be our virtual showcase : Ofoto, Snapfish, Yahoo! Photos.

And then there are ones who want to help "organize" our virtual shoebox - Google, TypePad(from MoveableType), Microsoft and of course the 800 lbs gorilla - Adobe.

And then starts the great convergence war. Kodak - the maker of traditional films wants to be the leader in the new digital medium to avoid obsolescence. They acquire Ofoto.

Google looks and this and says - hey! We are the leaders in search, so we should go acquire someone so that when people want to search for photos, they will absolutely use Google. And oh - let's make it available free of charge so that there the ultimate form of vendor lock-in - free funtional product with high emotional investment value.

So what is Microsoft doing - why researching to make this experience easier of course. In this article entitled "Life of a digital Photo" MS reasearchers are hard at work in crafting a next gen software called "Media Browser" - which BTW will be completely renamed when the product marketing guys get their hands on it - whic allows quick identification and classification of photos - time cluster views, subject/topic views etc.

Since classification is a primary nut to crack for all these management software, here's another vendor that claims to do this, ableit for web search. Now the prospects of lasting against Google or MS - you can guess.

The latest vendor to jump into this is Flickr. Offering tons of new services, this is a service I have my eyes on at the moment.

And there always are the niche vendors - PaintShop Pro, Adode and others who really want to stay on the tools side of the business in making the experience of editing photos much better rather than get on the search side of the business.

The real question is - is digital search the future of photos ? Perhaps. I'm not convinced yet that we have seen the end of the competition in this space. Im still expecting the digital version of Creative Memories, and the makers of shoeboxes to wake up one day and go "Hey - we need to go digital!".

What are the pre-reqs of this business - One is disk space, the other is computational capacity, third is management. So I would predict storage companies like EMC, Processors like Intel in the first two categories to do very well. The third layer of management is very muddy right now with all the vendors mentioned above.

Add to the vertical integration confusion strategy with all major vendors wanting a piece of this digital phot0 pie (including HP, and the ability for the iPod to store photos) will be very interesting to watch.

And not to forget - what about the cell phone manufacturers with embedded photo phones ? It is only a matter of time when Motorola and Samsung and others embed 3.1 Megapixel camera phones and then they demand management and organization tools as well.

So as consumers - the best is yet to come. Who would I bet on ? A vertically integrated cradle-to-grave company or pure photo management company ? Right now it would be the latter.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Confessions of an IT Cook: Ingredients for a Service Oriented Architecture

So we have all heard this over and over. Here's the magic receipe for SOA, as per the industry :

  • Multiple business applications, preferably residing in multiple databases
  • Lots of platforms
  • Lack of integrations, needing lots of manual scrubbing and redundant data entry
  • lack of standardized processes
  • Lack of common definition of fundamental constructs like Customer, Product, Item
Steps to a perfect solution:
  • First, identify all discrete business steps within every application
  • Create web services !
  • Now mix all the web services in all the apps together and shake well
  • Make sure that you pour this into a container that can hold all of them - call it the "orchestrator", "glue", "process integrator" or whatever
  • Now slap on various user interfaces on top of this and call them "consumers"
  • Just for fun, sprinkle some "business process tools" on top of this and let your end business users run amok with the combinations, just like a kid in a candy store who wants a mixture of jelly beans !
  • After this, all you need is to examine how great your culinary skills are - just use a "business activity monitor" and if the tempearture drops or rises above thresholds - just set off an "exception workflow" and you are all set!
So - what am I missing ?

IP Telephony and Web Callbacks

An interesting technology gap exists the innovators of IP technology and the adopters in the Enterprise - specifically referring to the multitude of contact centers and helpdesks. As Jon Udell mentions in this article there is a big difference between computer telephony and IP telephony - nowhere bigger is the contrast in the enterprise consumers. The big problem does boil down to the inability to articulate business benefits brought on by cool technology.

Why are vendors like Genesys, Cisco and Avaya still able to convince enterprises to cough up millions of dollars (no kidding there) and still charge the antiquated "per-seat" licensing ? What is per seat when there are virtual call centers, work-from-home agents and the like ? Isn't it only logical for these enterprises to seriously look for open source linux-based solutions that are fundamentally cheaper and more easily tailorable ? No - not yet! The main reasons are as old as the open source v/s commercial battle with one twist - the business leaders in the call center have not yet come to appreciate the benefits of technology.

The argument is that the demographic of future customers for customer support is changing - the workforce of the future will be younger, will demand more channels and more flexibility in how problems get resolved. Why wait on hold for 30 minutes when I can schedule a web callback ? How about IM'ing me when you have resolved a problem ? Send me a text message if you can find me online. These are very plausible scenarios that will not be addressed by enterprises with their wait and watch strategy.

In the meantime, the tech divide will continue to manifest as one of the most annoying problems in civilized society today - customers waiting for a human touch. With the over emphasis on automation in the form of self service, Natural language processing (NLP) etc it's ironic that the same crowd has placed an over-reliance of technology in one area to effectively alienate themselves from the very audience they were expected to serve - the customer.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Now Amazon gets into Search...

I find it amazing that the equivalent of the OS battles of the past, and the browser wars is now being played out as search wars.

The undisputed king of search of course is Google, but now that they are public - the real question in management's mind would be how do you make this profitable?

One approach that they seem to be taking to become the operating system of the Internet. Which means that they solve the fundamental problem of providing the connectivity and plumbing to retrieve information - become a platform of some sort. All the other companies like Amazon with their latest spinoff A9 is planning to wrap content around the search OS.

And thus starts the grand convergence. Yahoo! Search takes on Google, Microsoft takes on Google and Yahoo!, and content again threatens to be king. Yahoo! has a great headstart from a Portal perspective ( is it just search in a different way?) and is what A9 trying to do here similar to Yahoo! ?

What is the competitive entry barrier for A9 ? In my mind - it will be access to content. Amazon has the proprietary technology that lets you search "Inside the Book" that Yahoo! does not have currently. Comparing apples-to-apples, the winner in this case would be determined by whether you are interested in searching for public domain (a.k.a free) information that is aggregated in a single place with some value added relevancy checks, or copyrighted content (such as books) where there is an e-commerce aspect to the right to view/consume it.

We'll be watching!
Any Email or Collaboration product managers reading this?

Harvard Business Review ran a recent article called Why Your E-mail Requests Are Ignored that claimed the degree of effectiveness of an email is inversely proportional to the number of recepients being addressed to. This means - you have a better chance of response when you send a note out to one person, than to four people.

How many times have you been faced with this situation: You need to send the same email to 10 people, with the same content with perhaps a change of the name, and still follow the effectiveness principle stated above?

Today there are a few options, in increasing degrees of complexity :
a. Copy and paste the name in Notes/Outlook
b. Use fancy mail merge in Word to generate 10 copies
c. Use a CRM app - like PeopleSoft, that has correspondence mgmnt and online marketing for mass email generation

I'm surprised that short of a BCC option which is really ugly, this is a simple mail requirement that has not been handled by any client that I have encountered so far. Have you ?

Monday, September 06, 2004

Here's a great collection of presentations at the SVPMA website.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Innovation in large organizations

A new browser to challenge MS from Google?Its not surprising considering the latest hires, says NY Post. Adam Bosworth (who incidentally moved from BEA to Google) mentioned that the excitement of web services is not in the B2B space, but in the B2C space - "making apps that my mom can use" - as he put it.

So what does constitute an innovative company ? The age old formula of attracting the best industry talent, providing them a sandbox to tryout concepts, a fundamental tolerance toward failure, rapid productization of ones that work, clear differentiation between core competencies and complementary competencies - and enabling easy access to complementary technolgies provided by partners will certainly help.

The Innovator's dilemma is a great book that talks about how bigger companies often stratgeically choose to ignore emerging technologies due to the low revenue stream during the inception stage and find that they have been superseded by the next generation of technology. A recommended read.

My take on this is that during periods of economic growth, companies often ignore the core competency model due to the inflow of cash that encourages risk in non core areas - a classic example is of GE acquiring an investment company, and in lean/declining growth go back to basics, "back into the box", "focus on fundamentals" - which seemed to be the theme at Connect anyways.