TECH TALK: SME Technology Utility: ebusiness or Out of Business

What is this new way of doing business that we are talking about? It is about centralisation, its about One, its about self-service, its about real-time, its about personalisation. Lets go into each of these areas. All information needs to be centralised. There needs to be a single instance of data, a single database where it all resides. This means a single customer model – One database, One enterprise model. Self-service means allowing employees, customers and suppliers to do their own thing on the Internet – no movement from information from paper to electronic, no re-typing, no calling up someone. It is about visibility of the information to everyone, and therefore getting them to act appropriately in the event of exceptions. All this means that information must be made available in real-time – the Power of Now – across the value chain. It is also about offering a view of the information that is customised to the work that a person is doing via the corporate [or enterprise information] portal.

The Net provides companies and individuals in the company with incredible access to information. Companies need to take that information and use it to remove huge chunks of cost, and build a competitive advantage via the network of relationships they build – again, by making that information visible across to all.

The new way of doing things is also about treating software as a service, a utility. Today, one of the reasons SMEs are not targeted by many companies is because they are hard to reach and hard to support, especially if the software needs to be tailored to their needs. Keeping a single instance of the software is perhaps the only way to cut down dramatically on support costs, and provide ongoing enhancements. But from a vendor perspective, software cannot and should not be customised for each client.

There needs to be a single version of the software live at any instance. Customers will not be doing development on it, they will be using it. Since the software is centralised, so is support. In the words of Larry Elison: Software needs to move from being a parts-and-labour business to one which involves selling a car.

It is easy to talk about readymade solutions. But they have never existed beyond the desktop. On the backend, everything has been customised, except perhaps the operating system and development tools. This is where one has to think very innovatively about the architecture. It also means that while doing so, one does not take a Lowest Common Denominator (and therefore least functionality) approach The focus should be on centralizing complexity and distributing information. And yet, in doing so, the solution needs to be kept simple for the SMEs.

The question to think about is whether software should be standardised or customised? Can one size really fit all? Does software adapt to business processes or vice-versa? My take on this: business processes need to be changed to take into account the existence of the Net, and Internet-centric software. The Internet is a fundamental discontinuity. It is not business as usual, it is not an incremental change. The Net makes possible things which were hitherto impossible. By creating technology silos with implementations and taking months to put together custom solutions, companies cannot realize 10x efficiencies. New processes need to be created which are built around the Net and standardised software: this is the next stage of re-engineering. And perhaps the final.

TECH TALK: SME Technology Utility: Small Business Challenges

An interesting point to note is that typically small business adoption of new technology lags big business by 2-3 years. In the last few years, we have seen many of the larger companies use Internet technologies to automate many of their processes. Smaller companies have been limited to using software to automate and manage a few of the functionalities like accounting, contact management and sales. These have been done by using software from different vendors with little or no integration across these packages.

In fact, there is not much of real information management in many SMEs (small and medium enterprises) – it is all in people’s heads and pads, there are few systems. The owner-manager has little time to go and figure out a process and a system for that process. And yet, if something came along which could be used easily and without customisation – yes, no need for consultants and system integrators – then it would be used. In many cases, the owner-manager realise that the current processes and systems will not scale. They are good enough for to manage growth 20-30% a year. But they cannot manage and enable growth 100% a year, or more. This story is perhaps replicated in millions of such companies.

Look at what is happening in various Indian industries now. China is entering many of these markets and selling products at much lower prices.

What are the options for the Indian companies? They can either shut down or fight back. (Many are of course whining to the government, which is a fairly useless and temporary approach). Indian companies which want to fight back have to improve their efficiencies, they have to cut costs and grow revenues. It is not an either-or situation; both have to be done at the same time. Technology and the Internet can now help the companies which are willing to do battle cross the chasm.

These are the companies which need a technology ebusiness solution: what they need is an software suite automating and integrating not just a company’s internal functions, but also helping it collaborate with its partners. Along with the software, they need the services to help them manage their IT infrastructure (computing and communications) and help them with their core business processes.

Why do these companies need such a solution? Because that’s how business is going to be done in the future by all the survivors (companies which grow, and have a competitive advantage, not the living dead), that’s the only way companies can be efficient. This is where the true promise of the Internet lies, it is also in some ways the Holy Grail of business: building that perfect enterprise. It will never happen, but companies can definitely come close.

TECH TALK: SME Technology Utility: The Real Internet Revolution

Many of us have looked at the consumer side of the Internet and been fascinated by the business models of companies like Yahoo, Amazon, eBay and Yahoo. As it turns out, the real Internet revolution is not going to happen on the consumer side.

The true value of the Internet is in helping businesses becoming efficient, in helping them grow their revenues while cutting costs at the same time, about getting access to information in real-time and leveraging it in ways previously not even thought of. This wave is only just beginning. There are millions of companies using IT across the world, but few are using it in an integrated sense. This is where the opportunity of tomorrow lies: creating a set of standardised applications for companies which can be used across their functions internally, and collaboratively externally – with suppliers, customers and partners.

Companies like Oracle, Siebel, SAP, i2, Peoplesoft target the large corporate accounts and perhaps the mid-market companies. Of course, there is nothing to prevent them from selling to the smaller companies.

But their one-price-fits-all approach will make it very expensive for the smaller companies (the start-ups, the growing companies, the learning companies), especially in many of the emerging markets. Such companies exist in millions across the world. They have to use the Internet as part of their business – the benefits are too large to ignore. And yet, most do not know or care.

It is like how many of us entrepreneurs have been – just get the work done, and since you really do not know anything better, you keep doing it the way you have been doing. And when you try and automate, you try and automate the flawed processes that you have been working at, processes which were not created assuming the Internet, but processes which have come from legacy or just evolved out of necessity. What really needs to be done is that one has to discard these processes and look at making the Net integral to the company, and adopt processes which are new, which means there will be pain, there will need to be learning.

TECH TALK: The Road Warrior: The Road Warrior

I have been travelling in Europe and the US for the past two weeks. I thought it would be a good idea to share how the Internet has made a difference to my life on the road.

Email: It is undoubtedly easier to get people on email than on the phone. (Maybe, its just the type of people I interact with!) But email is just so much more convenient. On phones, most of the time, its voice mail. On the receiving side, if others want to reach me when I am traveling, email offers a persistent solution, as compared to the hotel voice messaging system (what happens if you change hotels often). I am using a Global Roaming Internet account from Satyam Infoway which means I am dialing a local number to get connected to the Internet. Its easy, simple and reliable. So, email has become the lifeline as I travel. Do remember that if you are travelling you will need different adapters to connect into the various electrical sockets. Also, keep a long telephone cord with RJ11 jacks because the phone jack in hotel rooms may not be in the most convenient of places (though most phones now have dataports).

Maps and Directions: This is the next best thing to getting the equivalent of Hertz’ NeverGetLost (GPS) system in rental cars. Just type in the address ad one can get detailed maps and directions to destinations. I wish we could do the same with addresses in India!

Train Schedules: Services like Caltrain and Metronorth have put up their schedules on the web with details of the locations of the stations (it is amazing how many people living in the Bay Area have no knowledge of where the Caltrain stations are!) The online schedules help to plan out the day before the journey begins.

Airline Hotel Schedules and Booking: Sites like Expedia (www.expedia.com) offer a very convenient way to search for the best flights and fares. However, booking is only available for US residents, which means international travellers like us have to visit or call up the airlines. Funnily, in the US, while Southwest accepts international credit cards, United Airlines does not! Nevertheless, just searching for the right flights saves a lot of time.

Hotel Booking: Just like airline information, hotel information is also available online. In fact, many hotels have their own websites, and you can email them for rates ad bookings. This is necessary because most travel agents in India do not have a wide selection of hotels available in their repository.

News and Information: With no local (Indian) newspapers available, the web becomes the perfect way to stay in touch with developments. Its quite useful to actually subscribe to some of the email newsletters, because this way you get the day’s top stories without spending time online (which can get quite expensive). It also ensures that you do not miss ay important stories since searching for older stories on the web is very difficult, unless you know what you are looking for.

GSM cellphone: To borrow a phrase from American Express, “never leave home without it”. If you are going to traveling, my recommendation is to get yourself a triband phone (like the Motorola L-Series). GSM is one technology which works just like magic. Just switch it on, and you are connected to the cellular network. Coverage is somewhat patchy in parts of the US (and the frequency is different), but that does not take away the ease of getting connected.

Tailpiece I just wish I could have used the Pizza Hut website in Paris to order a Cheese Pizza to my hotel room. I tried to order it on person. English seems to be unheard or (un-understood!) – I ended up ordering one with a lavish helping of mozzarella cheese (which I could have done without). Just imagine: if I can go to the website, tell it where I am staying (address with city and country) in English and have the pizza delivered (from Pizza Hut), I’d be a most satisfied customer, and would give plenty of business to Pizza Hut! Most of the infrastructure is already in place – what is needed is the “last-mile connectivity” (passing the order from the website to the Pizza Hut nearest to where I am staying). That’s the kind of integration e-business is all about!

TECH TALK: My Favourite Websites: My Favourite Websites

Sites to check daily:

  • News.com – www.news.com: the best technology news coverage.
  • Red Herring – www.redherring.com: combines technology and investment analysis. It is also now possible to get the hard copy in India (via Mediascope) – highly recommended. Each issue also has an in-depth briefing on a specific topic.
  • WSJ – www.wsj.com: excellent analysis of technology developments from the Wall Street Journal. Walter Mossberg’s column is a must-read. This site needs a subscription (USD 49 a year).
  • FT – www.ft.com: very good IT reporting from the Financial Times. The best things about the FT are their special supplements (FT-IT and Telecoms), ad Louise Kehoe’s column.
  • Venturewire – www.venturewire.com: they have a daily email newsletter which lists all the venture capital deals.
  • Upside.com – www.upside.com: along the lines of Red Herring, a little less known but equally good.

    Sites which you should check at least once a week:

    Among the business magazines, the ones with the best technology coverage are:

    Other sites which are worth a regular look:

  • TECH TALK: Three Good Books: Three Good Books

    The Unfinished Revolution

    “The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us” by Michael L. Dertouzos is a fascinating account of what needs to be done so that technology can help us “do more by doing less.” Dertouzos covers five human-centric forces: speech understanding (natural interaction), automation, individualized information access, collaboration and customization. He relates it to some of the work going on at MIT, especially Project Oxygen, to provide glimpses of how tomorrow will better in terms of usability of technology. An extract from the book’s description:

    If our cars were as difficult to drive as our computers are to operate, they would never leave the garage. Yet everyday we put up with infuriating complications and incomprehensible error messages that spew forth from our technology: software upgrades crash our machines, Web sites take forever to download, e-mail overwhelms us. We spend endless time on the phone waiting for automated assistance.

    In effect, we continue to serve our machines’ lowly needs, instead of insisting that they serve us — a situation that will only get worse as millions of new mobile devices arrive on the scene.

    Our world doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way.

    Wouldn’t it be great if using your computer was as effortless as steering your car? In The Unfinished Revolution, Michael Dertouzos introduces human-centered computing a radical change in the way we fashion and use computer systems that will ultimately make this goal possible.

    e-Business 2.0: Roadmap for Success

    This book by Ravi Kalakota and Marcia Robinson a recipe for leveraging the Internet and technology into businesses. It provides insights into how technology can make a difference in interactions with employees, customers and suppliers. An extract from the book’s description:

    Why are some companies relentlessly successful at e-commerce while others flounder? What are the successful businesses doing differently to solve customer problems or pain? How are successful companies, both old and new, moving from traditional applications to the new breed of integrated, e-business application architectures? Through detailed case studies and analysis, this book examines the e-business blueprint, offering step-by-step guidance in choosing and implementing the right application strategies to survive the e-commerce onslaught and to succeed. The thesis of the book is that durable application frameworks can guide you through the e-business chaos. Business models change. Technology changes. But application infrastructure design principles endure.

    The Power of Now

    “The Power of Now: How Winning Companies Sense and Respond to Change Using Real-Time Technology” by Vivek Ranadive is about becoming an event-driven company. Ranadive, CEO of Tibco, discusses how technologies like publish-subscribe can help managers focus on exceptions and make quicker decisions. In a world awash with information, it is important for enterprises to leverage it appropriately and more importantly, make the right information available at the right time to the right users within the company.

    TECK TALK: Messaging: Readers’ Ideas for Messaging

    Veer Bothra
    Some of the corporate messaging issues are:

    • Utilization of company time and resources for personal email
    • Lack of Screening, Intrusive, Direct Reach, Knowing no hierarchy
    • Viruses and thus Possibility of affecting other Functional Systems
    • Legal Angle
    • Privacy / Security
    • Spam
    • Efficient use

    Here are a few ideas:

    Prioritisation: For “Always-give-special-treatment-to-VIMs” (Very-Important-Mails). Mail is queued or fetched based on a Priority Ruleset. Mail sent to a list of domains e.g. @hotmail.com get low priority, Mail received for specific domains get higher priority in download.

    Cancellation: For “Ooops-pressed-sent-button-by-mistake” clumsiness or Second-Thoughts, it can be cancelled or modified.

    Personalisation: For “you-are-an-individual-for-me-rather-than-a-group”. If a mail is sent to multiple addresses, a user can ask to personalise the mail sent by individually mailing to each address. That is one email address in the “To” field at a time.

    MailMerge: For “Look-I-wrote-this-mail-only-for-you”. Similar to MS Word MailMerge, special tags are inserted at places, which would be replaced by same variables for multiple addresses.

    Post-It Notes: For “each-mail’s-own-pencil-scribbles”. Every mail should have a facility to attach notes to it. This may be a thought, an idea, a comment or simply a note on the mail.

    Follow-Ups: For “I-will-make-sure-you-don’t-forget-me”. Automated messages with “Drafted” body used for follow-ups or for a request-for-action / request-to-reply which is sent automatically. That is, each message has its own standard follow-up options which shows some readymade options to choose one.

    Reminders: For “tell-me-when-my-railway-pass-expires”. Reminder service can be run on local messaging servers for bandwidth cost-saving.

    KR Mani
    Two ideas for email:

    Related Mail: If I am reading any story in web, I can go to any other related stories and get additional references. Likewise, I should be in a position to (automatically) group mail in such a way that, when I am receiving/sending mail, references should go with them.

    Escalation of Mail: In India, the email culture has not picked as well in many companies. As a result, emails may lie unread for a few days. There should be system to track my mail reading. If a sales executive has not read his mail (and taken action) for two days, it should be escalated to his manager with notification that action has not yet been taken.

    TECH TALK: Messaging: The Smart Messaging Network

    As Messaging becomes the communication glue for individuals and businesses, it is important to have a network with predictable service levels and quality of service. We are still not there with messaging, since it rides on the Internet and is therefore susceptible to the vagaries of the network. It may be necessary to think of an M-Network, to provide this quality of service to companies and consumers who are willing to pay for it. Think it this as the equivalent of an overnight-delivery service: you have the regular, cheaper postal service, but if you need guarantees of delivery in a rapid time-frame, you are willing to pay extra.

    This M-Network will consist of its own infrastructure for managing only messages (no voice, no browsing traffic). It works as a backend for ISPs and corporates. It takes their emails, routes them through this network to the closest node to the destination and then dispatches. It also offers the ability to track emails when they come in and go out of this network. So, a corporate email server or an ISP instead of trying to send the email to the destination directly (problem here is that emails can get rejected, delayed, or the server can get overloaded) sends it to the nodes closest to the corporate mail server.

    Think of this as offering the long-distance back-haul network infrastructure for messaging. To build this, one needs to create network infrastructure comprising of messaging servers and leased lines at various ISPs, data centers across the world. New kinds of companies – the M-Carriers (the Message Telcos, as it were), will operate such networks.

    Besides reliable and faster delivery, other examples of where this can make a huge difference:

    Streaming: When we get a large attachment today, we have to wait for the entire document to download as part of the attachment. Instead, it would be nice if we can get these streamed. This becomes especially useful as audio/video emails increase.

    Roaming: As customers move across the world, we find that email access can be slow since they are in a country which may not have the fastest access to the Net. In this case, if they were using our service, we can route the emails dynamically in bulk to the server closest to the user at this point in time, and then synchronise with the master database of emails. So, it becomes a very fast global roaming account.

    Monitorability: This is important for a corporate and its users – many times we send off a message and don’t know where it is. It will be good if we knew where it was – like a GPS for messages.

    Together, the Smart Messaging Client, Server and Network can help in ensuring that messaging becomes as reliable as the phone network of today, thus in effect creating the “Mailtone” for us to use anywhere we are and as naturally as we pick up the phone and expect a dial-tone.

    TECH TALK: Messaging: The Smart Messaging Server

    The Messaging Server can be either within a company (if the company chooses to manage its own mail operations) or can be outsourced. Examples of mail servers are Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange. Examples of outsourced email providers are Critical Path and Mail.com.

    As a service, messaging is critical, and yet must be scaleable, reliable, affordable and easy to administer. Messages don’t stop coming, so uptime has to be 24x7x365. Messaging volumes are also going up quite rapidly, as are the sizes of messages. Messaging Servers are where at least part of the intelligence within companies lies.

    Here are some of the features a Smart Messaging Server should have:

    Analytics: Emails can be analysed in various ways to extract intelligence out of them. Just be seeing who is sending to whom can provide information on the “hubs” within companies and with departments. This can even be taken to the manager-employees’ level: is there a skew in their communications? Just analyzing the “to” and from” fields can reveal all. Next, comes the analysis of the content of emails. Since all emails come and go from a centralized server, it is possible to look at all the emails and search for knowledge and experts. One company which does this is Tacit Knowledge. Writes Teri Robinson:

    Half the battle of managing knowledge is identifying the correct person to answer a question or solve a problem.

    “People often don’t know who in a company to request information from,” says David Gilmour, founder, president and CEO of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tacit Knowledge Systems Inc. “So, they do the dreaded thing and send out a broadcast e-mail, which ultimately impairs productivity.”

    Gilmour says Tacit offers a way for the enterprise to overcome this obstacle using e-mail. The start-up’s KnowledgeMail and KnowledgeMail Plus products work transparently with existing e-mail systems such as Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange, weaving the messages that workers pass back and forth into a knowledge infrastructure.

    KnowledgeMail products look for keywords and phrases in e-mail to create a profile of a worker’s knowledge and skill set. It uses the profiles to field co-worker requests for expertise and forwards them to the desired expert.

    Routing and Syncing: As devices proliferate and an always-on infrastructure becomes reality, emails will come to us continuously. This means that the Message Server needs to (a) be able to route the message to me on the appropriate device, and (b) be able to automatically sync the various message clients based on what action I take with the message. For example, if I choose to delete the message, it should show up on any other device that I have. In this always-on world, the server also knows two more items: my location, and the time. This can now be used to create location-aware and time-aware email. One such example is alerts.

    Spam and Virus Control: Unsolicited emails and viruses are going to be two of the biggest banes of email. While many message servers do have filters in place, more care will continuously need to be taken to safeguard against these twin threats.

    Speed and Availability: While some of us may store mail on clients, it makes greater sense to centralize storage on the server. This makes backup and other mail management easier. It also means that we must be able to get fast access to email from anywhere.

    Messaging Servers will be as mission-critical as web servers have become, because users have come to expect messaging as a utility service. To make this vision come true, we also need to think of the Smart Messaging Network.

    TECH TALK: Messaging: The Smart Messaging Client – 2

    Actionable Email: This is an extension of the idea used by Dertouzos (in yesterday’s Tech Talk). First, allow for the easy inclusion in email of forms, which allow for action. Second, create standard email templates which can be used for specific actions (e.g. scheduling meetings, participating in opinion polls, placing orders, etc.) One company, Zaplet, is doing just that. An extract from Forbes:

    Zaplets–simply put, interactive e-mails– combine the Web, instant messaging and e-mail, You also get a fistful of nifty features–from live chats and instant polls to real-time snapshots of your stock portfolio (or of the progress of long-term projects or of B2B deals) and a personal database of, say, restaurant and movie referrals or family photographs. You can custom build Zaplets and send them to friends; you can even time them to self-destruct after a certain period.

    My 3D Searchable Communications Portal: Messaging can do with a better UI than the multi-frame, flat UI we are so used to. Perhaps, it is possible to borrow some ideas from Gaming, so I am in a “messaging space”. Messages can be placed in my virtual home, office (based on themes), etc. All of these can be combined into a communication portal, which I can navigate using some of the technology used for games. This can be especially useful when I am searching for specific messages – I am more likely to remember messages on a spatial map, than by folder!

    Auto-Fetch: It should be possible to go fetch pages from key sites (for example, the news websites) and put them in my mailbox. This becomes especially useful when one is travelling. For example, I like to go to news.com, wsj.com’s Tech Center, and redherring.com everyday to search for stories of interest. It would be nice to have these top pages (and not the selection done in their email newsletters) emailed once a day, so that I do not miss out on any stories. Searching for archives or every back-issues of a single page is especially hard on most websites (unlike a newspaper, they are not static and not archived).

    Display Multiple Emails on 1 Page: This applies to the web mail services, so I do not need to click and answer one by one (on slow links, this can be especially time-consuming). Each message can have a small action window below it,. This way, I can bulk process emails without having to view multiple pages.

    Elapsed Time since email was sent: Many times, what is important is when the message was sent or more importantly, how long has it been since the message was sent (do exception handling: flag messages which have taken more than 15 minutes to reach me). No one seems to show this! What is typically shown is the time when the message was received by our message server. So if a message has been delayed in the network getting to me, I never even realise it.

    These have been just a few ideas. I am sure you also have ideas which can make email usage better and make us more productive. Do write in your ideas!

    TECH TALK: Messaging: The Smart Messaging Client — 1

    A small extract from Michael Dertouzos’ new book “The Unfinished Revolution” paints a picture we are all too familiar with, and provides a radical solution:

    It’s 11 p.m. and I check my email. Ninety-eight new messages have arrived since yesterday. At 2 to 3 minutes per message, my average response time, I’ll need 4 hours to handle them. I’d like to grant them my highest security classification, DBR – “destroy before reading.”

    Wish we could all do that! But the reality is that we do get dozens of messages a day and these messages do need our attention. It is no wonder that executives are spending on an average two hours daily managing email. Not only are messages going to get longer in the future, their volume is going to increase. Result: more time in front of the mail client. Email management must not exceed 10-20% of our time for us. For this, we need smarter message clients.

    Here’s one example from Dertouzos of how the messaging client can be smarter:

    I have constructed an array of screen “push buttons”. When I click on a button, it inserts a preset note informing the recipient of my conclusion or question, forwards the annotated message to my assistant or the person who emailed me the message, and removes the mail from the incoming message list – all with one click. I have different buttons which say, “Yes, I’ll be able to do it”, “No”, “You handle it”, “Let’s talk”, and so on. I have been able to reply to enough messages via these buttons to reduce my average below one minute.

    I will give some more examples of features which if embedded on the message client can help make our lives better:

    An Intelligent Email Assistant: this watches what I do – which messages I delete, how much time I spent responding, how quickly I handle which messages, and so on. This can help identify my favourites – the important people whom I want to accord priority. It can also get rid of the junk emails (so it would set up filtering also). They key point here is to watch what I do – a lot can be learnt from just that. Think of this as your Jeeves.

    Faster Typing: A lot of people (like me!) are still one or at best two-finger typists (and since most older people getting on the Net will definitely be these!). We need to make their lives less painful in terms of typing. We need to create a program which examines what I am typing and then allows me to create two-letter macros for frequently typed phrases. This is one way my typing actually decreases and I become more efficient. This goes beyond word completion. For example, I like to begin my emails with “Thank you for your email.” I must be typing this not less than 20 times a day, and probably make mistakes at least twice! I could replace this with just “ty” a two-letter shorthand which gets expanded when I send the email. So, the client needs to keep looking at all emails sent by the user, pick up common phrases by matching against a database, and then allow the user to give a two-letter short-form for that. I could give “addr” for the 5-line address of our office, I could give “ph” for the phone numbers in the office. As it learns, it makes me more efficient.