TECH TALK: Innovation: Innovation Examples

Innovations drive the engine of growth forward, though not all innovations may result in commercial success. Innovation is necessary to get away from the monotony of sameness.

Witness prime-time Indian Television. A year ago, Star TV, lagging behind Zee and Sony, launched a set of new programmes in the 9 pm – 11 pm band: Kaun Banega Crorepati and two daily soaps from Balaji Telefilms (Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kyu Ki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi). KBC as a game show was high risk and offering an opportunity to win an unheard amount of prize money (besides, of course, the opportunity to meet with Super Star Amitabh Bachchan). Star backed it with a huge amount of advertising also. The move succeeded and how! It was different from the regular fare viewers in India were used to on TV.

Sticking with TV for another moment, an amazingly simple idea (in the US) has been the VCR-plus. It consists of a remote for the VCR with a series of numbers for each TV programme. The numbers are published in the newspapers along with the TV schedule. To record a programme, you simply type in the number. This makes recording TV programmes a breeze (no fidgeting with the VCR controls). The company (Gemplus) did incredibly well, and leveraged its position to merge with Murdoch’s TV Guide in the US.

A possible successor to the TV programme recording problem now comes in the form of personal recorders from companies like TiVo. They store the programming on disk, so you can watch whenever you want and more interestingly, easily skip over ads.

The result of this innovation: a potential revolution (and disruption) in the economics of the TV industry which relies largely on ad revenues. Says Kevin Werbach in an article on “The Webification of TV”:

My own experience since I got a TiVo is typical of every other subscriber I’ve spoken with. To put it simply, I watch more TV now, but fewer commercials. Furthermore, I have no sense of when and on what channel a program originally aired. Take those usage patterns and extend them to tens of millions of homes–which will happen as the devices and services become more affordable–and broadcast industry economics no longer add up.

Innovation also creates that “Wish I had thought of it” feeling. We have had this sentiment echoed many times when people look at http://www.Samachar.com. It is a simple concept – that of news aggregation on a single page. But when it was launched in 1997, it went against the prevalent notions at that time of (a) short Web pages (b) don’t send people to other people’s sites (c) unique content creation.

Witness also the Instant Messaging revolution wrought about by AOL’s Instant Messenger and ICQ – email has been around for more than 3 decades. What ICQ brought about was the concept of “presence” – so that you can be notified when your buddies are online. Communications made easier!!

TECH TALK: Innovation: Being Different

What’s common to Napster, Lagaan, Amul’s Rs 20 pizza and Google?

Napster changed the rules of the game and forced the music industry to think about the Internet as a distribution medium. Even though it may or not survive as a company, its legacy will remain. Aamir Khan’s Lagaan, a period film, did many things differently – it was a period film, the shooting was done in a single stretch of 6 months, it featured a cricket match for over an hour, its length was nearly 45 minutes more than the norm of 3 hours for Hindi movies and it even featured English dialogues and a mixed English-Hindi song. Amul’s price point for pizza is remarkable. Google launched a search engine just when everyone thought the game was over; today, it’s the gold standard and expects to reach profitability shortly.

Each is a result of Innovation, of thinking out of the box, of being different. The easy thing to do in business (and in life) is to take the easier approach, of doing what others are doing, of following the standard path.
Being innovative means having a strong belief in what one is doing and of willing to go against the consensus opinion.

Innovation is also about being to able to risks, being entrepreneurial in one’s thinking, of being able to change the rules of the game.

In the challenging times that exist today, it is easy to say No to innovation and to stick to the conventional knitting. While one is trying to please the investors and markets, the simple and seemingly obvious approach is to cut back on new projects and focus on what generates the money in the near-term. Why worry about long-term vision and planning when one is not sure about short-term survival?

It is at times like these that one is truly tested. Yes, the business has to tide over the immediate challenges because otherwise there is no future to look forward to. At the same time, can one think differently – precisely because many others are not? The opportunities of tomorrow do not go away in times of like this; competition does. New doors can only open if one is prepared to close some doors. To borrow a phrase from a CNN program, it is time for Business Unusual.

TECH TALK: Changing Times: Indian Opportunities

Within India, too, the ability to collapse geography opens up other opportunities. Distance Education is one of them. The gap between our (few) best educational institutions and the rest is large. Education depends to a significant extent on the quality of the teacher. We can take our best teachers and “virtually” make them available to students everywhere in the country. This could be in the form of video recordings which are broadcast and a live audio hook-up for interactions. The base technology is no different from that being used today by Indians in the US to communicate through the Internet with their families in India.

For enterprises, it now becomes possible to link-up offices, factories and distribution centres in remote locations. This becomes the foundation of building the Real-Time Enterprise, where information is available across the value chain irrespective of location. Given the challenges of transportation and managing logistics in India, information availability can make a big difference in helping companies reduce inventory costs. Better communications will also make companies focus more on what they do best, and outsource the rest, leading to the creation of specialist companies which use the Internet at the core of their operations.

India will also see in the next few years the emergence of more franchised operations of brands. We are already seeing this in the restaurants business with McDonalds, Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Pizza Corner opening up dozens of outlets across the country. To franchise a concept, there are two primary requirements: the ability to make the operations into a replicable process, and connectivity to send and receive information rapidly. This franchising trend will be far more noticeable in India’s second-tier cities.

As we look at the changes in our personal lives and how technology embeds different facets of it, we need to look at how these changes can be leveraged in business. Take a look at the younger generation growing up in a connected world, one where the distance of separation is only a single click. The magnitude of interactions has perhaps gone up by a factor of 10 in the last decade, and yet this generation is completely at ease. This new generation with technology embedded in its DNA holds India’s greatest hope in the coming years.

TECH TALK: Changing Times: Distance Bridging

The ability to communicate easily with little incremental cost has also increased the interactions we have. A decade ago, it would have been difficult keeping up with the hundreds of people that are now there in our address books. Mailing lists also ensure that we can belong to various special interest communities. It does not matter where people are, or in which time zone they are – communications is near-real-time with most of them.

This trend will get accelerated in the future with the availability of always-on wireless data devices. We are already seeing the first signs of this in the popularity of SMS (Short Message Service) on cellphones. The cellphone is a personal device which is with us all the time. The next generation of cellphones will integrate better with the Internet, creating services that are location-aware (where we are), time-aware and personalised.

Mobile data access in developing and emerging technologies is driven by a fundamental need for basic communication services while that need isn’t as urgent in developed countries, according to a report by Telecompetition, Inc.

“Developing and emerging economies are highly motivated to build an infrastructure as quickly as possible,” stated Eileen Healy, president of Telecompetition. “Adequate communications infrastructure is widely recognized as a key success factor for emerging economies. Mobile networks can often be built more quickly than a traditional wireline infrastructure, and the new IP-based mobile technologies will provide a more cost-effective way for developing countries to expand both voice and data communications.”

In essence, wireless data capabilities make the Net-ready phone an affordable data terminal in poor countries, the report says.

The compression of time and distance can open up many opportunities. We have seen the Indian software industry use the 9-12 hour time zone difference with the US to its advantage (“we work while you sleep”). A similar trend is now starting to happen with call/contact centres based in India. Communications technologies bridge distances and open up opportunities for Remote Services out of India. This is perhaps India’s single largest opportunity to boost exports and earn foreign exchange in the next decade.

TECH TALK: Changing Times: Net Impact

The impact of the change led by the revolution in communications and attitudes in developing countries like India is dramatic. One has only to think of life a decade ago and compare it with today. Can we imagine a world without email, cellphones or TV channels?

The Internet powers the Change Engine. Writes Frances Cairncross in “The Death of Distance 2.0: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing Our Lives”:

The Internet is, in one sense, merely an enormously efficient way to transport digital data around the world. In another, it is a laboratory for communications in the future.

“There has never been a commercial technology like this in the history of the world, whereby from the minute you adopt it, it forces you to think and act globally,” says Robert Hormats, deputy chairman of Goldman Sachs International. Developing countries will enjoy new freedoms: a way around overpriced international telephone and postal services, for instance, and a short-cut to information that may not be available locally, such as scientific articles and uncensored local news.

Once it has true global reach, the Internet may become the main platform for international contact. It provides a shop window in which a company can display its wares to a world market. It offers a chance for people from different countries to swap information and ideas. It provides the means for people who are cut off from the world by censors and oppressive governments to tell their stories. No other innovation has ever had quite such earth-shrinking potential.

The Internet will be integrated into other products. It will be part of the telephone service, part of the way a television works, part of a games console. It will connect things and people and animals and companies. People will stop thinking of the Internet as a separate entity and be aware only of the services it delivers, not of the network itself.

The next decade holds forth an amazing array of opportunities as communications occupies centre-stage and location becomes irrelevant. Just as India used its time-zone difference with the US and Europe to provide round-the-clock software development and maintenance, we must think about the new opportunities being provided by the concomitant change being brought by communications and attitudes. The world is full of conversations, choices and information. Yet, the one constant which cannot change and which will always be limited is Time.

TECH TALK: Changing Times: A Decade of Change (Part 2)

6. Instant Messaging
Real-time, nearly-free communications is changing habits. Instant Messaging has a unique quality — that of “presence”, being able to tell us when our buddies and business partners are online. I remember when I was in the US a decade ago communicating with family and friends back in India meant writing letters punctuated with short phone calls. Today, letter-writing is a forgotten art, as a combination of email, Instant Messaging, NetMeeting and VoIP have bridged distances to the extent of having daily conversations – in text, voice or video.

7. Air Travel
While air travel has been around for decades, what strikes you most about the last few years is the improvement in its quality. Private airlines like Jet and Sahara have forced Indian Airlines to improve. Punctuality is more the norm than an exception in travel nowadays. While air travel is still expensive, one is starting to see the impact of competition as multiple fare options are starting to make their appearances. Travelling by air is no longer the “once-in-a-lifetime” experience as it once was as the perceived value of time increases.

8. Outward-looking India
In 1991, India was still quite isolated. The first phase of reforms opened up the economy and the minds of people. Suddenly, India was part of a global economy. This has made Indians look outward – for technology, for ideas, for business. It has also made international companies look at India – as a marketplace. The success of Indians in software has also helped enhance the international image not just of India but also its people.

9. People Dispersion
Partly driven by the boom in software services (reversed a little off late), Indians are spread out across the world more then ever before. Indians are also travelling more than before. This dispersion of people (in transit or temporarily) increases the need for communications as families get distributed and businesses search for newer global opportunities.

10. Rising Aspirations
Perhaps, the biggest change has been in the mindset of people in India – for a better life. Salaries are rising rapidly. TV and the print media constantly deliver images of a better life. The Indian middle-class may not be the 200 million once envisioned by planners, but neither is it too small to be ignored. The roads have all kinds of cars, shops have a variety of brands. Choice – from among the best brands – is now available in India.

India has had its fair share of challenges in the last decade. Yet, inspite of the drawbacks, the overall mood is definitely one of optimism and opportunity. Ideas and entrepreneurship, technology and consumerism go hand-in-hand. Underlying this is the silent revolution being brought about by the mix of computing, communications and software. The distance which once separated India from the world is now being bridged.

TECH TALK: Changing Times: A Decade of Change

Life has changed a lot in India in the past decade. Perhaps the biggest changes have been due to the compression of time and space – “the death of distance”. The speed of communications, the velocity of life, the frequency of interactions – all have gone up. At the heart of this has been the increasing penetration of technology and the opening up of the Indian economy. This week’s columns considers these changes, their impact going ahead and the opportunities. First, a look at the changes.

1. Television
It is hard to imagine that a decade ago India had barely a handful of channels. Today, the real-time menu brings to us cricket matches played anywhere in the world, international stock market ups and downs, and even summits. Debates are played out by politicians in drawing rooms, financial results are announced first on TV, and Presidents have journalists for breakfast (while being watched by millions). 24-hour television has arrived in India.

2. Computer
What was a tool mainly for businesses is now finding its place in Indian homes. Spurred by reducing costs (down to about Rs 30,000), the computer is becoming a key purchase as parents invest in their children, and companies realise they cannot stay without it. The computer now becomes the gateway to a new world of knowledge and discovery.

3. Email
Email is rapidly becoming the primary business communications method. It is faster and cheaper than everything else.

The result is a shortening of the time between interactions leading to a faster exchange of messages.
It is also possible to send messages to many more people simultaneously. Thus, the number of messages each one receives is increasing. Email also allows for many more conversations to be ongoing at the same time with people all over the world.

4. Internet
This August will see the completion of six years of commercial Internet access in India. Even though the number of users may still only be in the region of 5-6 million, the sprouting cybercafes and Internet community centers across India have made access in the reach of many more millions. The Web has also put information access in the hands of anyone with an Internet connection: be it the latest research in scientific journals or live cricket scores.

5. Cellphone
Four million users and counting. WLL, GSM or whatever – the wireless revolution in India is finally starting to happen, and is not just limited to urban India. The shrill ring of the cellphone is now escapable – be it in trains, movie theatres or meetings. SMS is only now starting to pick up in India. Roaming ensures reachability nearly everywhere. For the caller, time zones matter little. Think back to a decade ago when one had to wait months to get a phone connection: today, not only will the local phone companies give a wireline in hours if not days, one can even pick up a pre-paid cellphone in minutes.

TECH TALK: Entrepreneurial Learnings: Don’t Forget The Indian Market

Many entrepreneurs today want to build businesses to target the Western markets. Nothing wrong with that. That is where all the money seemingly is. But in doing so, we must not forget the market in our backyard. India is growing and changing fast, creating with it a rich set of opportunities for the ones who can see them.

The current set of entrepreneurs in India have been fed with the success stories of Infosys and Satyam in India, and Hotmail and Exodus in the US. The US is a bigger, much bigger market than India. It is also a richer market. It is the El Dorado for India. That is where we see the emergence of an entire set of companies, sponsored and encouraged by the Venture Capitalists (VCs), to target the US market through software services and IT-enabled centres.

The problem that I have with this “pure-international” model is that companies tend to ignore the domestic markets. Without a strong local market, it is not going to possible to build a healthy, enduring IT industry over the long-term. This is where investments need to be made, especially by the entrepreneurs and VC community. India by itself may not be a big market today, but we all need to work together to ensure that the market grows.

For startups, the domestic market can help build a “bread-and-butter” revenue stream. It is a market which is closer to them. Sitting in India and hoping to target the US (and other Western) markets is non-trivial and in fact very expensive requiring a strong base in those countries. An initial focus at providing solutions and services to the local market can help in creating a customer and reference base, which is so important for new companies. There are today enough Indian companies which are as technologically savvy as the best in the world which can serve as the early prospects.

The problem for many VCs of course is that targeting Indian companies does not require large amounts of capital. VC funds sitting on tens of millions of dollars cannot justify making small-scale investments. Yet, that’s perhaps what many companies need – not tens of crores (as many of the recent investments are happening), but a smaller fraction of that. This will help them get early customers, prove the concept and improvise, before they target the rest of the world. It is important to learn to swim in a smaller pool before jumping in the big pool to compete with the best of swimmers.

TECH TALK: Entrepreneurial Learnings: Entrepreneurial Learnings (Part 4)

8. Forget the stock markets – they are irrelevant

In today’s world, the stock markets, especially Nasdaq, have a big bearing on attitudes towards technology. TV Channels like CNBC and financial websites provide near instantaneous and round-the-clock coverage of what is happening. In times like these when the markets are down, there is doom and gloom around. It is easy to get swayed listening to what people are saying. Yet, what they are talking about is the near-term and the challenges their businesses face. For a startup, it is important not to get swayed or overly concerned about what is happening on the stock markets. The markets only come into play when one wants to sell some stock, which is only a distant possibility. The focus should be on thinking about the impact of technology on businesses, and how consumers lives or enterprise processes can be better.

9. The First Mistake can be the Last

Running a startup is a “life-and-death” business. An entrepreneur is perhaps no more than two or three mistakes away from business death. This makes it very important to weigh decisions carefully when they are made. Some decisions, especially in the choice of customers, need to be balanced so as to meet near-term needs with the desire to build a long-term business. For example, an important customer might demand significant product customisation. While there is no doubt that this would be of great short-term value, if it impacts the company so as to take away all its key development resources, then care must be taken before committing to the customisation. In these cases, there is no right or wrong answer: every scenario is different. These are the kinds of decisions which an entrepreneur has to make constantly, and especially in the early stages, every decision has the prospect of being the fatal one.

10. Read-Think-Write

Once the initial thinking and planning has been done, it does not mean that the process must stop. The cycle of Reading-Thinking-Writing must be continuous one. This is the source of new inspiration and new ideas. It also serves to evolve the business in the right direction, not something which is frozen in time at the start of the business. The time investment for this read-think-write cycle has to be made by the entrepreneur; it is not something which can be delegated. No one else has the same frame of reference as the entrepreneur. It is important to keep imbibing new knowledge to continually revisit and make modifications to the map and therefore the ensuing strategy. The Internet offers access to the best of content resources – it is for the entrepreneur to make the time investment. Reading needs to be combined with Thinking to see how things may need to be done differently, or how the future is evolving. Writing helps in putting things in perspective, and in sharing one’s thoughts with a group of people for further inputs.

11. Faith in God

Above all, one needs Faith in God. There are many times an entrepreneur will feel that all doors are closed and there is no escape from the difficult situation one finds oneself in. It is at times like these that God shows the way – it is for us to see it.

TECH TALK: Entrepreneurial Learnings: Entrepreneurial Learnings (Part 3)

4. Need to Stay Alive long enough to aim for Gold

No business is a 100-metre sprint. To win the marathon, entrepreneurs need to ensure first that they can last the distance. To keep running, it is important to survive. What is needed is that once the space has been defined, it is important to “jump in” and keep swimming. Opportunities will become visible when one is looking for them. The longer one survives, the greater the chances of longer-term success. There is an important lesson to be learnt from the dotcom bust in the past 2 years: while everyone realized the opportunity that lay ahead as Internet penetration and usage increases, most went in for a “big bang” approach in the near-term and spent a lot of money in the process. Those who preserved the cash now realize that there is much less competition to contend with as others have simply burnt out.

5. An entrepreneur’s greatest strength is Passion

Entrepreneurs are dream-sellers. They have a vision of how tomorrow can be different and better, something which is not so obvious to others. In doing so, they have to convince non-believers and nay-sayers. They have to build a team and get customers, battling odds at every stage. In doing so, perhaps their greatest asset is the “infectious enthusiasm”, their passion for what tomorrow can be. This is where the ability to have a clear vision and tell the story – with conviction — becomes very important.

6. Be prepared to fail – and learn; Experiment and Explore

Failure comes with the territory. Failure is more likely than success. An entrepreneur will face more down-days than up-days. What is important in this is to keep learning. Embedding learnability in oneself and one’s people is what will set apart the winners. To fail and learn means one has to take risks, one has to experiment and explore. It is only through this iterative process that the good ideas will bubble up. There is nothing like “The Next Big Thing”. These phrases might sound great for a marketing campaign, but as an entrepreneur, the next big thing is more likely to be a series of innovations, small incremental changes.

7. When building, don’t think of exit; Build to Keep

Too often, entrepreneurs think of exit strategies (IPOs and MAs) even as the business is being built. This is the wrong approach. Build a business to keep, to manage forever. The business has to be something which makes you wake up every morning with excitement. One has to feel that the business can provide that joy – only then should one consider starting up. Exit Strategies and Wealth Creation are incidental and not controllable by the entrepreneur. The business must be like your baby – one that you will raise and nurture.

TECH TALK: Entrepreneurial Learnings: Entrepreneurial Learnings (Part 2)

1. Importance of Vision: Dream the future

Envisioning how tomorrow can be different is the starting point of the dream. For this, one should not just look at the immediate area of interest, but also consider other related areas which can impact it. For example, today, the world of computers, communications and software are inextricably tied together. Similarly, even in biotechnology, computers and software are playing an increasing role in the emerging areas of genomics and proteomics. Considering developments as an aggregate is important in building the vision of tomorrow. What the vision does is brings clarity: it helps in making many decisions which otherwise may be hard because one is not sure.

2. Think 2-5 years hence; near-term opportunities are gone

As one thinks about the future, it is necessary to look beyond the near-term. A new business must not be pressured by time at the start. If one is looking to capitalize on something in the next few months, it is already too late – many of the companies targeting these opportunities would have been formed a few years ago and thus are better placed to do so. It takes many months to build the foundation for a good business. Hence, the time-frame for targeting opportunities must be in the 2-5 year horizon. This is not easy because while we can say with some certainty what is likely to happen in the next few months, it becomes harder to look further ahead. But then that is the challenge: this ability to build a framework — a mental map – of the landscape in the future is what can help create the right foundation for the business.

3. Best way to raise capital is by being profitable

While the natural instinct on starting up may be to go and raise capital so one can build a business top down (with money and a strong management team), I believe that the best way to build a lasting business is by being profitable as quickly as possible. This is not to say that one should not raise capital or build a strong management team – both are very important. However, the objective inherent in the business should be to be cash-flow positive as soon as possible. For this, it is important to build a “bread-and-butter” business, which ensures that money keeps coming in and pays the salaries every month. Nothing is as habit-forming as making profits (or for that matter, losses). Keep in mind the long-term vision, but also work on generating cash in the near-term. Profits are the best motivator, and also a strong reinforcement that one is headed in the right direction.

TECH TALK: Entrepreneurial Learnings: Entrepreneurial Learnings (Part 1)

Entrepreneurs do not start to create failures. Yet, only 1 in 100 startups succeeds. If one were to ask entrepreneurs when the start about their chances of success, most would give themselves greater than even odds, even as high as a 60-70% chance of success. The reality though, as we know, is very different. While no one can predict success or failure, it is important to do things right to begin with.

There is no such thing as a good time or bad time to start companies. All times are equally challenging. Opportunities are always going to be there. What is important is the attitude which one takes to entrepreneurship. Nothing in the past that one has done can prepare one for “chucking it all up” and becoming an entrepreneur. No management education or theory can provide answers to the Right Way to build a company from scratch. Many of the best of management thinkers have been found wanting when it came to running their own company.

In this New India that is being created, first-generation entrepreneurship is here to stay. In parallel, we also have Venture Capitalists armed with money who are struggling to determine the right formula to maximise chances of success.
One keeps hearing about the “next hot thing” – whether it is Wireless, BioInformatics or IT-enabled services. That India is being “internationalised” is in little doubt when one does not hear “rupees” as the currency – everything is in “millions of dollars”. The hunt is on to create the next Hotmail – or the next Infosys.

Last Saturday, I gave a talk for TIE on “The New Internet”. The presentation, while showcasing the opportunities for the future, ended with some of the lessons I have learnt in the last 10 years as an entrepreneur.

  • Importance of Vision: Dream the future
  • Think 2-5 years hence; near-term opportunities are gone
  • Best way to raise capital is by being profitable (B-n-B biz)
  • Need to Stay Alive long enough to aim for Gold
  • Our biggest strength is Passion — “infectious enthusiasm”
  • Be prepared to fail – and learn; Experiment and Explore
  • When building, don’t think of exit; Build to Keep
  • Forget the stock markets – they are irrelevant
  • Our First Mistake can be our Last
  • Read-Think-Write
  • Faith in God

    These points are what I am elaborating on this week.

  • TECH TALK: Collaboration: Weblogs

    Weblogs begin where emails end. Email is excellent when one is sending emails to a specified group of people, and where immediate action is needed. Many times, one wants to share documents, news and other information with people – this information may not be of the utmost importance, and it may require comments from others. So, rather than sending an email inviting a chain of responses, one can use a Weblog as a platform for collaboration.

    A Weblog is like a diary. It consists of links to documents, with some commentary or analysis. Weblogs are thus like conversations, much like the conversations one has to lunch tables or in informal corridor meetings. Weblogs lend a persistence and structure to these conversations.

    Within companies, Weblogs can be created by people, who have that unique knack of sharing, of “reflecting” ideas and events, with their own take on them. They serve as “amplifiers of human thought”. They can also be created by project teams to provide updates on an ongoing basis. On many such occasions, the uni-dimensional nature of email becomes too narrow for the threading that is required.

    Take for example, a document written and circulated for discussion. Here is how a Weblog can be built around that document (or theme):

    • Each paragraph in the document can have a hyperlinked number at the end. This serves to uniquely identify that paragraph and the concept embedded in it.
    • The document is available on the internal Web server, and perhaps put in the shared IMAP folder for review and comment.
    • To comment, a team member can click on the hyperlinked number to open up either a new browser window (or a compose Mail window) to send in comments specific to that paragraph. If the paragraph is numbered 4, then this comment can be numbered 4.1 (assuming it is the first comment on that paragraph).
    • The comment is then inserted in the original document, in a different font or colour to distinguish it from the original text.
    • The email version of the document is also updated “in place” with the comment.

    Consider how efficient the process of sharing and soliciting feedback has become. I can comment on (annotate) specific sections of the document, and when I do so, they are available for all to see. Others can also add to the threads. If I am offline, the email version captures the document for me to read offline. Thus, there is a threaded discussion group created, and with all comments and counter-comments viewable in a single page (or in a single email).

    Summary
    Collaboration is about sharing, about participation, about conversations. It is about extracting knowledge from the people who know best. It is about doing so easily and cost-effectively. The combination of HTML email and the Web browser can be used to create components like shared folders and Weblogs to foster collaboration platforms.

    TECH TALK: Collaboration: Enhanced Email (Part 2)

    1. Attachments Management: A central repository can be created for managing attachments, such that attachments are referenced “by value”, i.e, a link is sent to the attachment, rather than the actual attachment itself. This ensures that email sizes become smaller, multiple copies of the file do not get made, and the recipient can always access the latest copy of the attachment. In the case where Internet connectivity is not reliable or intermittent, it may become necessary to replicate the attachments repository at each location (depending on the recipient list).
    2. URL-addressable Emails: Emails cannot be references from other emails. The problem is that they end up being in a private store, and do not have a unique address. The only option is to “cut-and-paste” the relevant message when referring to it. One way around this is to allow emails to be treated just like HTML documents and thus be given URLs. Of course, the message owner should have control on who gets to access the mails. Considering that emails are becoming the de facto way we communicate and where we think, the ability to uniquely reference emails (within emails and in documents) is much needed.
    3. Mail Memory: It would be nice if emails could remember what happened to them. For example, if I reply to an email or forward an email, this fact could be stored in the email itself and be visible to me (some messaging systems store this information as part of mail headers). This, combined with the Message Metadata, can help in sending reminders and keeping a timeline of emails and what actions were taken by whom. For example, emails coming in to a help desk, tagged with the actions, can help in checking on the speed of responses.
    4. MailBuddy: Instant Messaging (IM) and Email can be integrated together to provide a friendlier, real-time interface to actions. Jabber can be used as a possible IM platform. Instead of communicating between people, this IM “buddy” allows for communication between the mail client and the mail server. For example, this interface can be used to make quick updates and interact with the calendar folder, or the global address book.
    5. Personal Communications Portal: A web-based front-end allowing a user to manage all the mail and collaboration options is needed. This interface can be used for forwarding or replication of mails to other mail access points like wireless devices or cellphones (“send all messages from my boss to my cellphone; tell others I am on vacation this week”), for the settings of shareable IMAP folders and for setting filters.

    Email is good for many activities which involve one-to-one or one-to-many communications. For many-to-many communications and for capturing the “tacit Knowledge” I the organization, one needs much more than email. The answer to that is the Weblog.

    TECH TALK: Collaboration: Enhanced Email (Part 1)

    To make collaboration effective, Email needs to become more useful. Here are 10 ideas. These involve the use of the standard mail client, so that no download on the client side is necessary, and can be built on software available freely in the public domain.

    1. IMAP Mail: IMAP is a much more powerful mail protocol than the widely prevalent POP. IMAP stores messages on the server (with a copy on the client, allowing for offline use). Mail can be accessed via a Mail Client or a Web Browser, thus allowing for truly universal access. Using IMAP-based mail can serve as the platform for two features (Filters and Folders) which can enable collaboration:
    2. Filters: IMAP supports Sieve for writing both server-side and client-side filters. Filter can be used to determine the action to be taken before the messages reach the Inbox. For example, as a starting point, one can create folders for “Internal Email” (all email from others in the company, filtered based on the domain name), “External Email” (all email where my address shows up in either the To or the Cc fields and that is not from within my company), “Lists” (email lists which I subscribe to), “Delete” (for spam messages). This way, the Inbox will contain messages which I periodically need to see but with non-critical messages. The overhead here is that I need to check multiple folders.
    3. Directly Addressable, Shared Folders: IMAP allows for folders to be shared, and for emails to be sent directly to a folder. Thus, the project leader can create a folder which is shared by everyone on the project. The project leader can control the access permissions on the folder.
      All email addressed to this folder (eg. rajesh.ProjectName@indaworld.co.in) is
      routed directly into this folder and instantly available to all other members of the group. This way, one get the latest status at any time by just checking a single folder. A person coming on board the project team at any time can get the entire correspondence in a single place.

    4. Message Metadata: It would also be useful to attach details to a message like DocumentType, ActionRequired, etc. This would then allow for finer search and classification. The big question of course is how to attach metadata without altering the Mail Client. One way is to define a simple scripting language (on the lines of BASIC) which the user can write as part of the message itself (a template can be created and inserted as part of the signature). These commands are for use by the server (along the lines of a Form with a “For Office Use Only” portion). For incoming messages, this form could be attached by the Mail Server itself at the top or bottom of each mail.
    5. Dynamic Email: With the ability to control and extend the Mail Server, one can think of even updating emails in place. For example, like in Outlook, there can be a folder called “Calendar” with a single message, which has the schedule for the day. As new events are added, the server can directly update the user’s calendar. The user can make updates by either filling out a form or sending an email (so I can even update my desktop calendar from a cellphone). This idea can be extended to getting reports on various internal functions. Rather than getting a new message daily, the same message can be updated “in place” so that there is less clutter in my mailbox, and I can get the latest status whenever I want.

    TECH TALK: Collaboration: The Building Blocks

    Collaboration systems must be designed using the two most common components on computers today: email and the Internet browser. This hybrid approach must be extended to designing solutions where computers can serve to amplify human effort, and which work in the online and offline modes.

    The glue between email and the browser is HTML. Today, most browsers support HTML email, which means documents can be sent through as messages, and can have the rich text formatting provided by HTML. This means that hyperlinks can be embedded within mails, which can make the recipient interact with web servers at the backend. Email and the Web browser are thus the building blocks for collaboration solutions.

    The good thing about email is that if one uses a Mail Client (like Outlook Express or Eudora), access to emails is also available offline. Thus, the collection of emails becomes the file system. While a web-based solution can offer much greater flexibility, one needs to be connected all the time to use it.

    Email too has its limitations. The email flood overwhelms most people. Even though filters and folders can help in sorting out mail, most people don’t tend to use them. The result is an overflowing Inbox. Sharing of information or setting up meetings via email means sending messages to each other (and inevitably, to everyone on the list – just in case).

    Email also lacks context. There is no metadata attached to emails. The “From” field and the “Subject” field are what most people rely on.

    The end result is that even as HTML email becomes the window to the enterprise, the sheer flow of messages being received makes people less productive as there is a finite time which has to be spent to process each incoming message and decide what to do with it (file, reply, forward, delete).

    Of course, there are alternative solutions for collaboration. Microsoft has the Outlook-Exchange combination and Lotus has Notes. The primary problem with both is the cost on both the server side and on the client side. Per-user costs can be as high as Rs 3,000 (USD 60), putting it beyond the reach of many small and medium-sized enterprises. Besides, it also means getting people to learn new interfaces. Small wonder then that in many organizations, Lotus Notes with all its capabilities gets used for little more than messaging.

    The challenge therefore is to use HTML email and the Web browser as building blocks for collaboration. A new approach is needed to make the two gel together to make us more productive and effective in the workplace.

    THEK TALK: Collaboration: Collaboration

    We are all part of groups. We need to work together with other people to
    accomplish our tasks. These people may be within our company or outside.
    This “collaborative” facet of work has not changed since time
    immemorial. What has changed are the tools and technologies we use to
    collaborate.

    The primary collaborative activities that we do are:

    • Setting up Meetings: We need to fix up a date, venue and agenda
      for meetings, and at the same time check on the availability of all who
      need to attend. Given the busy schedules of everyone, this is no mean
      exercise!

    • Group Discussion: Meetings are a “synchronous” forum for
      discussion where everyone is present at the same time. This is not
      always possible. So, a lot of discussion also takes place asynchronously
      – through conversations and voice or electronic conferences.

    • Writing and Sharing Documents: Memos and proposals are what we
      need to write on a regular basis. These then get circulated to the group
      for comments. The document is then perhaps revised and re-circulated.

    • Tracking and Sharing News: What is happening within the company
      and externally needs to be not only tracked but also communicated to the
      right people. Every organization has its “reflectors” – people who have
      a good idea of what is happening and then share news and their thoughts
      on these events.

    Embedded in the above are a number of common activities that need to be
    performed like communicating with many people, accessing and storing
    documents, and sharing and accessing calendars.

    As the pace of business gets faster and more information flows our way,
    it becomes important to be able to use new technologies to become more
    productive and effective. The time we have to make decisions becomes
    shorter even as the information that we have to process becomes greater.

    In this context, what becomes necessary is to be able to place events in
    context, be able to view them as part of the larger picture, be able to
    access the right information quickly, and be able to communicate with
    the right people – internally within the organization and externally.

    From an organization point of view, it is important to capture the
    knowledge embedded in its people. Much of this knowledge is “tacit” (as
    opposed to explicit knowledge which can be captured in documents and
    process workflows).

    How can technology work to meet these goals – cost effectively? There is
    no dearth of collaborative, groupware and knowledge management solutions
    in the marketplace. What is needed is to use existing technologies
    effectively, rather than making people learn something new.

    TECH TALK: The Indian Software Factory: The Indian Software Factory : Opportunities for India

    India has been a source of many innovations. As pointed out by CK Prahalad in his acceptance speech for the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Award for Excellence, India has ice-cream cones for Rs 5-6 (HLL and Amul), a Rs 1000 banking deposit (Citibank’s Suvidha), a Rs 200 logistics service/month (the Mumbai dabbawallas) and a Rs 500 cataract surgery (Aravind Hospital in Madurai).

    Says Prahalad, “The most intriguing thing about India is its sheer size and the nature of problems facing the bottom of the pyramid. Each one of the problems can be turned into a major test bed for innovationShould we believe that it is the poor at the bottom of the pyramid that are not ready or the elites of India who are unwilling to change their beliefs about the opportunity? India is not opportunity or resource starved but starved of imagination. We have to start with that assumption we have to create a global laboratory for innovations for the world’s poor.”

    Indian software companies are well-positioned to take on the challenge for creating software for the world’s corporate poor. They have the talent, the capital to make the necessary investments, the understanding of business processes, and a local market. What is needed is a change of mindset, and that may turn out to be the hardest thing to do.

    In India, IT-enabled services are seen as the next big opportunity. Yet, there is very little differentiation in the types of the services offered or the markets targeted. People Arbitrage by itself can only take a company that far. Whether it is software services or IT-enabled services, the toughest part is getting the customer. While the Global 10,000 companies may be very alluring, they are also the ones for whom the outsourcing decision is also the hardest, because they have many options.

    Targeting the enterprises at the bottom of the pyramid may seem counter-intuitive, but makes sound business sense. The software solution works as the entry point – it is just the start. There is potential to downstream the relationship built through providing software to outsourced services, targeting the same enterprises for people-intensive requirements.

    My guess is that the next few years will see India leveraging this software opportunity, but it will be driven by entrepreneurs who come together with a missionary zeal to make a difference, and build a sustaining, profitable, business by targeting the bottom of the enterprise pyramid. The Internet has created a discontinuity in the world of software, and therein lies opportunity for the ones willing to take the risks, and envision a different future. One can draw inspiration from the motley village cricketers of Aamir Khan’s “Lagaan” who through sheer grit and determination beat the British. Rather than follow, India and Indians must aim to lead and win.

    TECH TALK: The Indian Software Factory: The Indian Software Factory – Part 2

    Horizontal and Vertical APIs: The software modules developed will not satisfy the needs of every company or every industry. Even across countries, the requirements may vary. For this, it is necessary to define programming hooks (an Application Programming Interface) which can be used by developers to localize and specialise. This is akin to the approach software companies like Microsoft have used to win over the software developers.

    Integration: What the customer needs to see is an integrated suite – like a car. The customers do not have the money to pay for mechanics to assemble the car and don’t really care who makes the components as long as what they get is a working car. (Marutis still sell a lot in India!)

    Internet for Distribution: While the current flavour of the day is for Web services and ASPs (software on tap, or software as subscription), I believe that the connectivity challenge on the last-mile is not going away anytime soon. Countries like India have state-of the-art LANs but their wide area networks (WANs) lag the world by 5-6 years in terms of price-performance. While fibre optics will solve the problem, the ideal solution is to deliver the software to a server on the LAN, with replication on the Internet. Employees and managers within the enterprise need to only access the local server for the applications and the data.

    Whole Solution: The bottom of the enterprise pyramid needs a “complete product”. They have neither the IT staff to integrate various technologies together, nor do they have the money to pay for consultants to evaluate needs and recommend solutions. They are more than willing to change business processes to fit the solution.

    The three critical building blocks for the software solution are Messaging, Collaboration and Enterprise Software. Messaging (email and Instant Messaging) help people communicate. This can help bring down the communications costs for the enterprises. Collaboration software helps in sharing of information, and for people to work together in teams – within the informal business network (which can go beyond the enterprise). The Enterprise Software suite helps automate business processes. The first three applications needed as part of the enterprise software are modules for managing money (Accounting), customers (customer relationship management software) and inventory (supply chain software).

    TECH TALK: The Indian Software Factory: The Indian Software Factory – Part 1

    The world’s “corporate poor” (at the bottom of the enterprise pyramid) need software solutions at affordable prices. The software they need is not a generation-old, but the state-of the-art. They have the same need for the latest information. They have the same need as their bigger counterparts to keep in touch with customers, suppliers and partners. This world needs its Windows, its Office, its Notes, its Oracle and its SAP. What they do not have is the money to pay for the dollar-denominated software or for expensive consultants to integrate everything together. The functionality needs to be there, not the names.

    The market is there: the 20 million small and medium “aspiring” enterprises employ no less than a billion people. What they can afford to pay is perhaps no more than USD 5 (Rs 250) per person per month for the entire software infrastructure.

    This, then, is the challenge for Indian software companies. Can a “software factory” be created which fulfills the software needs for the “rest of the world”?

    Here are some ideas on the possible approach that such a software factory can take:

    Intelligent Cloning: The world’s best software companies have done a lot of the thinking on what features need to be packed into their software packages. What is needed for the software factory is to (a) identify the utilities and packages that their target market needs, and (b) use the 80/20 rule to decide on the feature subset: build out first those 20% of the features that are used 80% of the time. What one gets is a functional product which may not meet every need of every company in the world, but will take care of the most important requirements. Cloning does not mean eschewing innovation or using lag technologies. It means using the state-of-the-art software development environments, the best programming techniques and the smartest engineers and managers, to deliver the best solution at the lowest possible price.

    Lego-like modules: The key challenge for the software factory is to define the modules and the features well, so that the work for the development can be outsourced within the software community. This Lego-like approach to developing the software components can help speed up the development and at the same time leverage existing resources and talents in the developing markets.