SMEs and IT

The Economic Times had an article yesterday which had a few quotes from me:

If you were an SME, you almost certainly managed all your business processes manually, the way it has been done very smoothly thank you very much for almost a century.

But now, it is almost safe to say that IT is becoming mandatory even for SMEs. There is a lot to gain by doing it with IT, and IT is becoming affordable.

But like every other investment, one needs to understand the ‘WHY’ and ‘HOW’ and whether ‘WHY’ is greater than the ‘HOW’ meaning whether ‘returns’ justify the ‘investments’.

How would you manage your operations differently if everybody in your organisation had a computer, is the question that Rajesh Jain, MD, Netcore, wants every SME to ask itself. It is not just the automation of flawed processes, but the potential to re-engineer every business processes and the benefits that come along that needs to be considered.

Rajesh points out that there are almost 4m SMEs in India and they employ close to 40m people. But the number of computers in the SME sector is hardly 4m. This means only one in 10 personnel in the sector has a computer.

This hinders collaborative use of IT. Rajesh strongly believes that intense deployment of information technology will help small organisations to grow business and become mid-sized organisations.

And mid-sized organisations, on their part, could deploy information technology to bring in efficiency and cut costs.

One should choose a technology that delivers required functionality at the lowest cost. SMEs should deploy CRM type applications to grow their business, advises Rajesh.

He says that ERP companies are realising that their next growth potential is in small and middle level enterprises and, hence, are tailoring their offerings to suit the SME sector. These typically cost as low as Rs 5 lakh and are certainly affordable.

Vendors, both hardware and software, are gearing up their offerings so that SMEs can spend on IT as if it is an operating expense and not a capital expense. Of course, SMEs have an option to get software developed by an independent software vendor too.

When getting customised applications developed, the focus, Rajesh advises, should be to get the information on the change happening, and not report the norm. The need is to distil information and get the right kind of information. Another good examples of keeping IT costs on the lower side is Crossroads mall and Piramyd group of stores.

Rajesh says that the vendors should gear themselves up to provide hosted IT services to SME clients. SMEs should be able to receive one bill that includes the use of hardware, software and communications.

He says that while the ASP (application service provider) model failed a few years ago, as it focused on organisations that already had IT infrastructure, there is a clear case for redeploying ASP.

E-Commerce Gets Smarter

Technology Review writes:

The business jargon for this model of integrated retail sales is multichannelingthat is, fusing digital services with in-store, mail-order, and telephone sales, and with any other retail channels. The digerati have called it clicks and mortar since the Internet boom of the 1990s. No matter the term, it is now the driving force in retail. For while the Internet works fine for some types of goodssuch as books, computer products, and musicmany shoppers dont want to purchase and pay shipping costs for things like canoes, cars, clothes, and entertainment systems without trying them out, trying them on, touching them, or maybe even talking to a knowledgeable salesperson.

New technologies and ideas are allowing retailers to remove the wall between online shopping and in-store shopping, and to make the gathering of customer data both easier and more valuable. Advanced data-mining and Web analytics techniques now examine not just what you bought online but what you viewed, helping retailers design promotions that will entice you to shop online and in stores. These enticements will themselves arrive over multiple channelsthrough magazines, regular mail, e-mail, the Web, and wireless transmissions to your car or shopping cart. By looking at just a few of a customers purchases, a retailer will even be able to predict how much shell spend over her lifetime, and adjust the deals and promotions it offers her accordingly.

The ultimate goal is more-customized, personal service. The best retailers have always striven to provide the most-tailored service possible; however, as more and more retailers expand nationally and even internationally, building close relationships with customers is increasingly difficult. Retailers cant do that now because they have millions of customers all over the country, says Dan Hopping, senior consulting manager for IBMs Retail Store Solutions Division. So they use technology to make the connection.

Web-based Real-Time Group Outliner

John Robb has a wish: “Here’s a product I would like to use. When I was at UserLand we used a group instant outliner to coordinate our efforts. It was very, very helpful. The only problem was the desktop to desktop synchronization. One way to fix that would be to offer a group outliner as a subscription-based Web service. A group instant outliner that works like Google Maps (as an example of the real-time, responsive, visually intensive Web service) would be amazing. Let me say it again: it would amazing.

Information Organisation

David Weinberger writes:

We’ve organized knowledge into trees, from Aristotle to Linnaeus to Dewey. You get a tree by doing the basic thing of lumping and splitting, and then splitting the lumps until you get to a lump that is too unitary or miscellaneous to bear any more splitting. But lumping and splitting has been constrained by physical limitations. For example:

1. A thing has to go in one pile or another. For Aristotle, this was expressed as the Law of Identity (A is A and A is not not-A), a pretty basic rule.

2. The way we lump and split is the same for everyone: If you own a clothing store and separate it into men’s and women’s departments, it’s separated that way for everyone who enters.

3. The lumping and splitting is done by experts.

4. The person who owns the stuff also owns the organization of the stuff. You can’t come into the clothing store and rearrange it the way that suits you.

5. Lumping and splitting results in a neat and clean order. It’s clean-edged.

But now we’re digitizing information, resulting in a third order of order in which we break the rules of real-world order:

1. Things can go in more than one pile – You put your e-store’s hiking boots under shoes, men’s and women’s apparel, outdoor wear, popular items, items on sale, etc.

2. The arrangement can be different for each person.

3. You or your social group are the experts.

4. Users get to control the organization of the stuff.

5. Messiness is a virtue on the Web.

You can see much of this in the rise of tagging: Users create the metadata and anyone can figure out how to sort through it and organize it. It’s out of the hands of the owners of the stuff being classified.

So, what I’m saying is that we’re moving from thinking that the right way to arrange and understand things is to figure out the taxonomic tree ahead of time. Instead, make a big pile of leaves, each with lots of metadata, and allow users to add more metadata and to sort and categorize it as they need.

But there are problems with this, especially with regard to tags:

– One word can have many meanings, and one meaning can have many words. As tagging gets more popular, that’ll be a bigger issue.

– If we form social groups based around how we use words, we run the risk of fragmenting ourselves further, this time around semantics.

– Folksonomies can reinforce homogeneity.

David also blogs about an eTech talk by Clay Shirky on related topics. There is another post about a folksonomies panel discussion.

Web to Mobile Search

Russell Beattie writes:

Imagine if we applied a message queue system to search. Your phone regularly uploads a small index file of the contents on your mobile, then searches are applied against that, not the original data. Then if a match is found, a request is sent back to the phone asking for the file to be uploaded as soon as possible.

Imagine this: If I can tell your phone that I want a piece of info dynamically, there’s no reason I couldn’t add a bit of security on top and then “check it out”, right? So, I want to listen to the latest Brittany Spears song. I don’t have a copy of it, but my friend does. Now, it’d be illegal for me to copy it off his phone since we could conceivably listen to it at the same time then. But what if I wanted to just “check it out” (like from a library) for just that amount of time. Would that be illegal? Now imagine if this was world wide? I can check out my songs to anyone, one person at a time, on a global scale… all accessed via a simple web search.

All this goes back to my epiphany about search a few weeks ago. It’s really about asking for anything and then getting it. To me search isn’t just about finding stuff that’s been indexed on the web, it’s the Quicksilver type interfaces as well: Ask and you shall receive. Now the rest of the problem is just figuring out 1) How to find the data (where ever it may live) and 2) How to get it back to the person who’s asking for it. With mobile phones, this means jumping through some hoops because of bandwidth and use cases, but it can be done, right?

TECH TALK: The Future of Search: Information Dashboards Rationale

Let us first summarise the discussion leading up to the Information Dashboards, and then we shall consider what lies ahead. Ill begin by condensing my key points in this series so far.

There have been three versions of search engines in the Internets first mass-usage decade. The first search was actually Yahoos directory with sites handpicked by editorsThen, along came Altavista which used a crawler to get web pages and run indexing algorithms on them. This allowed for keyword-based searching Google improved on the relevance of results PageRank technology which ranked pages based on incoming links a measure of authority. From Yahoo to Altavista to Google, the focus has been on providing the most relevant results in the quickest possible time to information-hungry users.

In the five years or so since Googles launch, there have been plenty of new developments in the world and Web around us. The five most important developments in recent times have been: user-generated content, RSS, mobile phones, broadband and internationalisation.

User-generated content: Beginning with do-it-yourself publishing via weblogs to image capture via digital cameras and mobile phones, new content is now being created by millions. While the earlier model was that of a few creating for many, it is now many creating for few.

RSS: RSS can be used for making available incremental updates available. Interested users can subscribe to be alerted when the updates are available, and can view the updated content in an RSS Aggregator.

Mobile Phones: The PC is now no longer the only personal device in our lives. The mobile phone has usurped the personal space. Mobile phones are moving beyond just voice communications and becoming part of the primary information platform in our lives.

Broadband: What always-on, broadband does is fundamentally change our expectations of content in three ways: the network is always-available and so we turn to it for even the most trivial of queries, the content offering can be beyond text and combine the rich media elements, and it allows consumers to also become producers of content.

Internationalisation: The Internet was for long the domain of the English-speaking developed markets. No longer. Even as content in other languages has grown, we are now seeing millions in countries like China and India get online. English is no longer the first language of the Internet as the non-English-speaking world goes online.

The Four-Web Model: The Search game played so far has only focused on the Reference Web. My Incremental, Archived and Community Webs have yet to be tapped effectively The Reference Web is built on the work of others. The other three Webs (Incremental, Archived and Community) is built by us. The Reference Web is a database of all that has happened (and been published). The other Webs are a snapshot of whats happening more of a real-time datastream rather than a database, more here and now than then and there. The Reference Web is about information. The other Webs are about Events, Insights and Experience. And therein lies the opportunity to build the next-generation search engines.

Tomorrow: Information Dashboards Rationale (continued)

Continue reading