Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Thinking outside Bar Code!

Am sure you are familiar with Taco bells’ caption – Think Outside the Bun!  This post is intended to explore the ways where we can think outside the Bar code!  In this post, Bar code is used as the metaphor for representing Standardization and Automation!

While the last post is all about certainty, this post is all about Standardization and Automation.  This is an extremely beloved topic in Enterprise application space, because standardization and automation leads to certainty and predictability.  Standardization, Automation also leads to mass production, cost efficiency and eventually commoditization.

Absolutely, nothing wrong with this concept. However, as we discussed earlier, the business that focuses only on cost eventually will get devalued. A business that focuses only on cost will not be able to improve its business performance.

The challenge becomes apparent when we stretch the concept of standardization and automation to almost all areas of enterprise applications. They are extremely good at digitizing transactions, but not relationships. They are extremely good at addressing complexity, volume/scale, and computation/analysis.

For example, I visit a rental library in Bangalore – called Just Books. It’s a professional business model that has standardized the business process, service catalogue, digitization/web presence, etc. Pretty neat model. When an existing customer does a transaction in the branch (issue of new book, or return of old book), absolutely no social contact / conversation required with branch staff. The firm follows a self-service model enabled by technology. The books are tagged with RFID. Hence, the books can be issued or returned by interacting with a digital kiosk. Job gets done!  Customers are so happy. Even kids could do it!  So simple!  No learning curve required!  This is a perfect example of automating a simple business process/transaction with a customer leveraging technology!

But remember, it’s a transactional scenario. How do you understand the customer, if you don’t talk to them, converse with them, and understand their customized needs or wants. How do you grow your business?  How do you get new ideas based on customer insights?  That’s the challenge!  The Bar code attitude will help us to reach only certain heights. Moreover, Bar code attitude is replicable and A better technology, better invested business could put the current model at risk any time.

Am not talking about digital businesses or e-Commerce here. That’s a different beast altogether!  Will discuss more on the same in a different post.  But, my concern is that even in brick-and-mortar businesses, in the name of standardization and automation, we are steering away from customers. We miss the opportunity to understand their customers, build relationships, build new business models, new growth engines.

So whatz the alternative?  I would have loved to see JustBooks creating community groups around different book genres, discussions/connect sessions with book authors, friend referrals based on book interests, etc. That would have been fantastic!  Then, JustBooks becomes a platform for sharing knowledge/interests and insights. This increases engagement with the business and would lead to new business opportunities! But, it may not be easily replicable across branches. The TCO may be high!  But, the brand as such may gain unbeatable value!

This whole new set of ideas can be enabled by deploying new set of technologies. That’s what I call systems of engagement, systems of personal fulfillment.  The system of engagement and personal fulfillment will become applicable only when it intersects with individuals/communities interests, desires, needs and wants.  The intersection is possible only when the conversation happens. When conversation is limited or eliminated as the increased cost to business, businesses will lose out all opportunities to sustain and grow!.  And these conversations could happen anywhere be it physical or digital media. It doesn't matter. The question is are they engaged. Are they engaged with your business.

The challenge of future businesses lie in creating context for customers to interact, socialize, work together towards a compelling interest/purpose.  This context needs to be created proactively by businesses.
From enterprise technology perspective, Analytics could help in identifying the context, social could provide the platform for engagement and mobile would become handy in providing personalized fulfillment services. All this could be powered by Cloud Infrastructure by serving elastic/scalable computing needs.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Design with Uncertainty!

Recently I read the quote by - Mario Andretti, one of the world’s most reputed automobile racing driver.

“If everything seems under control, then you are just not going fast enough”

I also like few other quotes on similar lines  

“If you know what you are going to do, its not research”

“If you absolutely know what the solution is, then you are not doing a strategy”.

I would like to slightly revise the first quote by saying

“If everything looks certain and absolutely measurable, then probably you are not innovating enough”

In a tough business climate, we all long for certainty. I see the micro-metering capability of our cloud computing models is exactly the reflection of our business sentiment.  We want to absolutely know measure and have a handle on the cash outflow on our computing needs. Perfectly understandable, if our focus is on cost!

However, if someone wants to build a whole new business model that makes breakthrough revenue, no amount of certainty is going to help.  Here, the focus is on performance and growth.  A business that constantly focuses only on cost will get devalued.  In order to generate growth and new revenue, it’s absolutely required to come up with new products/services.

There is a whole lot of discussion happening on the Net around the topic – Design Thinking.  Not sure how many people believe in it. I have started to believe in it as I study and practice more and more on the topic.

Am not going to explain and defend in detail about Design Thinking in this post. That’s for another time!. But, In essence, Design thinking is just an attitude. It’s a way of problem solving – applying a designer’s techniques/methods in solving real business problems!.  Some of the key distinguishing aspects of Design thinking are – Applying Abductive thinking (Asking what might be possible?),  Applying Divergent thinking before making a conclusion (Coming up with variety of options before concluding a solution).

The issue which I wanted to highlight is businesses hate uncertainty. Finance hates uncertainty (That’s why we hedge). Project Management methods hate uncertainty (as cost increases).  IT service contracts hate uncertainty.  Eventually, business suffers. Creativity suffers.  Innovation is hard to come by.

The more we apply our scientific, statistical, monte carlo methods, continue to baseline our plans (in agile), We constantly move away from ‘Artistic’ side of problem solving.  Scientific, Structured methods are absolutely necessary, critical in solving structured problems, where stakes are high and risks are unacceptable.  The artistic methods are people-centric, inherently learning (doesn’t assume a certain solution upfront) and may waste resources.

In order to solve wicked problems that are chronic, unstructured, Design thinking methods could certainly help.  Applying Design thinking in the project means you may come up with variety of ideas/solutions in the project, discard a few, combine one or two and form the final solution. Now this whole process may take its own course of time, based on the team dynamics.  How do you arrive at an estimate for such a scenario?  Certainty goes out of the window, when team dynamics comes into the picture.  That’s the reason we take people out of the equation and shift the focus on the process. Agile could be the answer? – Agile campus agree that a different approach needs to be taken for design thinking projects and Agile methods like Scrum can complement those projects.

Design thinking process necessarily involves understanding, observing, ideation, prototyping and testing.

The key question is – How do you package the design thinking projects in conventional IT services contracts?  There are various models such as Time & Materials, Fixed Cost, Outcome-based, etc.  Each one has its own flipside as they are suited to solve structured problems with certainty as the key metric.

Remember, compensation structures of sales executives are highly variable, dynamic based on revenue/growth. Unless such variability is introduced into business contracts, there wouldn’t be an incentive for the teams/partners to come up with fantastic ideas applying design thinking solving real business problems.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Industrial Internet - GE's Grand Renewal?

Recently, GE announced its new strategy called 'Industrial Internet'. Its based on well-known trend 'Internet of Things'.

By using Industrial Internet, GE intends to offer smart software services over their existing hardware product lines across various sectors - healthcare, aerospace, energy. They intend to do this by gathering massive amounts of data from those devices and then utilize the data for further analysis and subsequently towards the optimization of GE's own product configurations as well as the processes involved in those products. GE projects that a mere 1% of productivity achieved out of this initiative could lead to billions of savings. That's astonishing!. 
For example, a General Electric power could transmit valuable data about electricity usage that can then be optimized in isolation or along with other parameters/interrelated devices!.
Couple of aspects in this initiative are really interesting!.

- A Company articulates a strong conviction for future. In today's volatile times, by all means, this is a brave attempt by GE!.
- GE being a industrial conglomerate, articulates its strategies in terms of cutting-edge technologies - Big Data, Analytics, Data Visualization using Natural User Interfaces. The whole Industrial Internet idea is driven by GE's R&D
- At times when leading social/online startups are struggling to find their business value, GE articulates a compelling business value proposition of its new idea
- GE takes a architectural-approach to the solution. In one of the sections in the recently released report, it says traditional ERP products encourage only local optimization - optimization at product level or transaction level. Taking a industrial internet approach that gathers data from a variety of sensors and devices will have the ability to integrate and encourage a systemic approach to problem solving!. To me, that's profound value that was not possible before!.
- Declining cost of sensors and computing infrastructure, affordability of communication networks, increasing capabilities of statistics and algorithms all have been put to form a cohesive story that delivers a business value.

GE is going to rally around a large ecosystem of technology and service provides to pursue this vision in coming years.  To me, it sounded like GE's vision has lot of similarity with SAP, when it pursued Enterprise Service Oriented Architecture along with its partners as its Grand Vision a few years ago. Not that, GE could potentially reverse this direction or fail, but there are certainly significant challenges to overcome in its journey:

- All GE's products may not have the capability to emit data as required by the new ecosystem. Some products may need to be re-engineered / redesigned altogether to support this vision. Customers need to upgrade to new products if they need to avail smart services!. 
- Once hardware devices support emitting data, the next challenge is Quality of Data. All downstream activities such as analytics, visualization will be of value only when the underlying data is useful.
- GE's taking an architecture approach which is extremely difficult to implement. We know why - it is very similar to the challenges that I articulated in the post Why Enterprise Architecture is fundamentally failing. Though GE's vision is no where related to Enterprise Architecture, both are similar in terms of applying systemic thinking. And systemic thinking is hard, especially when it comes to siloed organization models.
- Is it GE's Grand Renewal?. Is GE attempting this whole thing only because it reached a saturation in its traditional businesses?. Is GE trying to move up in the value chain further?. Is GE moving into Services business?. Of course, its not trying to become a IBM global services or a SAP product vendor?. Of course, Not.  It pursues this vision purely an organic growth strategy, that builds on its own products/services targeted to their existing/new customers. 

In one of the interviews, a GE executive said - When it comes to devices, We are reaching the end of Physics. The next phase is to integrate digital information technologies to those devices to offer smart services to the client.

The future possibilities look very interesting!. And its all hybrid and versatile - mechanical with electronics, electronics with information technologies, information technologies with physical spaces/natural user interfaces.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

Continuous Clients - Holy Grail of Mobility and Cloud Computing!

Recently came across an interesting article by Gartner – differentiating apps Vs applications.  Most of the organizations are simply taking the ‘appification’ route by creating the miniature versions of their corporate applications to support Mobility.  Is it the right thing to do? Of course, NOT.

What is the fun in accessing online banking from mobile when you can comfortably access account details online. You wouldn’t want to heavy-lifting usages from your mobile, not just from security point, but also from usability perspective.

Some other companies prefer to deploy bare minimal, marketing apps onto the customers’ mobile devices.   Is that the right thing to do?  May be. But, it’s certainly underutilizing the potential of mobile devices.

Then, what’s the right thing to do?  Per Gartner, it is best to create ‘apps’ that are personalized and provide proactive services to the customer. In short, ‘apps’ should function like ‘virtual assistants’/’agents’ installed on their mobile devices which act as customer advocates to the organization. The traditional ‘applications’ provide ‘reactive and canned’ services to the generic customer base. And that’s the difference. How many ‘apps’ have you seen or used in your mobile devices, which truly understand your needs and wants?

In my view, Banking and Retail were the first few verticals to embrace multi-channel strategies. They were the ones started servicing customers by providing multiple delivery channels. Customers felt empowered and they could choose the channel based on the transaction/service needs or their personality/convenience levels.  People who were not comfortable interacting with technology can walk-into the branch and perform the transaction.

Few years before, when I worked in Banking IT, one of the key dream use case that was prevalent in Multi-channel was to provide the ‘continuity’ feature – continuity across channels.  For example, a person who starts an ‘Account Opening’ transaction in Branch should be able to continue in online banking and complete by Phone Banking. Isn’t that amazing?  Yes, it was a dream.  I have not personally come across any bank that claims to provide that kind of continuity across channels. 

The dream that the industry had in last decade has the potential to be realized NOW. I spoke about the reality of multi-screen customer experience in InformationWeek few weeks ago.  One of the key tenets of multi-screen user experience is to provide continuity across channels/ screens. 

I sometime think our daily lives are nothing but sifting through multiple screens during the course of the day – mobile in morning, PC/Laptop all through the day, TV or Tablet in the evening and mobile late night. Isn’t it true?

Now, all  through this day, you are shifting from one device to another. But, you wouldn’t want to explain your preferences to each device individually. Or you wouldn’t want to stop and restart your work on every single device that you use…including TV.  Nowadays, TVs are coming with processors.

And that’s exactly called as – Continuous Clients.  In my view, Continuous clients is the Holy Grail of Mobility and Cloud Computing. Why Cloud? – Because the continuity can actually be provisioned by managing the user state in the Cloud. And mobility in this case, applies to all kinds of devices that we use throughout the day.

The term Continuous client was coined by Engadget Blogger – Joshua Topolsky – and it’s widely referred in several implementations.  

More than this underlying concept, the scenarios and applications that can benefit from this capability would be more interesting.

How many times you have felt – you are watching a movie in your TV and you want to continue later in your tablet later in the day in different location?.  All this needs to be done without major plumbing!. And that is the wonder delivered by Continuous Clients.  Continuous clients need not span just devices. They can span across locations and platforms and media as well. All that matters is the user's state continuity across these transits.
Continuous Clients are the way to build Boundaryless Experiences!.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Analytics and US Presidential Elections!

Have you observed the statistics or mathematicians views on Big Data or Analytics?  They probably wouldn’t stress those jargons too much in their conversations.   Checkout Political Statistician Nate Silver’s interview and a question on Big Data.

In the world of Enterprise IT, there is no dearth of jargons – Business Intelligence, Analytics, Big Data, Insights, Data Mining, etc. There is good amount of time one needs to spend NOT on applying these techniques, but to get a perspective on what is real and what is not.  In Nate Silver’s words, in analytics world, one needs to have the ability to differentiate noise from the real signal, ability to differentiate real data from insignificant information.  I believe, in the World of Big Data, its lot more critical to understand and differentiate noise from the signal. Else, we could be easily misled in our decisions.

In the upcoming US presidential elections, Nate Silver predicts President Obama has a 73.6% chance of victory. Yes, 'Chance’ of victory, even though the number 73 is far more significant. Nate Silver humbly claims that he is by no means certain and that his analysis is a mere probability of a given result.  As this article points out, If a Weather forecaster tells you there’s an 80.9% chance of rain, she is not guaranteeing rain. But she is saying you should probably take an umbrella when you step out.

That’s exactly the perspective we should take when we approach Analytics in Enterprise IT – As Nate puts it, any model of real world is an approximation.  He also adds Data driven predictions can succeed or fail. Its when we deny “our role” in the process that the chances of failure rise.  To me, “our role” indicates the magnitude of organizational changes and people behaviors required to adopt analytics successfully.  We discussed about it in my previous post – Big Fat Truth behind Business Intelligence.

The need of the hour is to have a more people-centric, personalized view of analytics that doesn’t blindly believe in data, but to blend in people’s confirmation biases (based on social context – We find what we generally search for and We like to stand confirmed with the data that we find) and big picture (The same data could translate to a different interpretation in a different context) in which data is analyzed and interpreted.

Another news that caught my attention this week on analytics was around disaster modeling. A company named - Eqecat - does catastrophe risk modeling that helps to forecast losses from catastrophic events such as Hurricane sandy. This forecast helps government agencies and insurance companies for further planning and action. 

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Visual Web - Rising Trend in 2012 and in Future!

What is common in modern platforms and devices - be it Windows 8, Apple iPhone/iPad and Android devices?

Very simple - Visual Appeal & Presentation.

All the latest devices such as Samsung Galaxy S III, Samsung Note are designed and marketed to the visual senses of end customers. All major platforms are researching and adopting design innovation in user interface/interaction.

Is this the next big thing?. Not really. The next big thing in user interface and interaction is claimed as invisible interfaces - meaning technologies will become embedded in real-word objects so that there is no specific or separate interface designed for it. Designing a separate interface to activate actions on the computing platform brings a separation in cognition and leaves an impression of operating on a secondary medium. Its not fully immersive!. So, We will soon be moving away from fantastic graphical user interfaces to invisible, natural user interfaces. But, I believe, even with the advent of immersive/natural user interfaces, graphical user interfaces will not go away completely.

With all your computing requirements can be addressed by cloud platforms, what do service providers do?.
If you have so much of computing power in edge devices - dual cores in mobile devices and tablets - what can you possibly do with such abundant compute power in the hands of end users?
When there is red ocean in the industry, and too many competitors, how do you stand out in the first place?. How do you make yourself deserve user attention, even for couple of minutes?

By designing visually appealing and useful services.

This decade belongs to visual design. Access any medium - be it newspaper, hoardings or main roads, websites - all are designed to appeal to your visual senses. The saying 'a picture worth 1000 words' is taken pretty seriously.

Have you observed the marketing campaigns of McDonalds and KFCs?. It is so flawlessly designed that you would feel the food is so good. That's the point. It may or may not taste good. But that's different. But, it looks stunningly good.

Going by its signature design, Windows 8 advises clients to invest in designing a good 'Tile'.

Going by the reality shows like American Idol, Indian Idol, one critic says 'Music is more seen than heard today'. Yes, everything is seen today - be it Music or Food - that are typically heard or tasted.

Why do you think Facebook acquired Instagram, a photo sharing site, for a billion dollar?

Why Pinterest, a visual intensive bookmarking and sharing site, gaining millions of visitors in couple of years of launch?

When I say 'Visual Design', its not the conventional, linear,navigational, user interface design. It is so web 1.0. The new Visual Design is all about Creative Design.

The new phenomenon is called as Visual Web.

Apu Gupta, CEO of a startup - Curalate - a marketing suite, says - "Images provide a visceral emotional reaction. Emotions drive discovery. Discovery drives clicks. Clicks drive revenue".  

Hence, investing in good images/visuals is actually designing for reaping greater ROI in user's emotional reactions and eventually greater financial returns.

If you are designing any new application for large scale users in 2012 and in near future, this is one aspect that you cannot afford to ignore!.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Calm Computing - Need of the Hour!

We have heard about Cloud Computing. I have written about Klout computing. I said in my LinkedIn status that my next post would be about Cognizant Computing. But, before that I found this ‘Calm Computing’ intriguing and need of the hour.

Before I start discussing about the term, would like to narrate few scenarios that would set the context.

Have you ever wondered why you end up spending more amount of hours in Internet than planned?

Have you ever started searching something specific in Google, clicked on a set of results and then you navigated from Google and you kept your reading / scanning on and on and lost the time and intent on where you started?  In search results, any hyperlink that you click ‘initiates’ or leads to a diversion.   

Have you ever clicked on the links recommended for you on news sites  (e.g. Harvard Blogs) and spent good amount of time without actually noticing the time lost?

Have you noticed the Facebook’ design of displaying your contact’s recent updates?. It will show the picture of yourself followed by a text box, waiting for you to add your comments. Pls note the ‘initiation of update’ is already done for you. All you need to do is to ‘complete’ the same. That’s good enough stimulant for the end user to add his comment.

Am sure most of us would have had these experiences. Internet sites are inherently designed to be ‘sticky’.  Sticky experiences help to generate relationships and transactions for the business. That’s the key. But, the flip side is that the end user ends up spending quite a lot of time involuntarily.

Distractions are everywhere. Email beep, Blackberry buzz, facebook social updates, advertising messages, phone calls – interruptions are pervasive.

While the biggest boon of today’s trend is abundance of technologies and devices, the bane is the attention deficiency. People are constantly distracted and there are tons of books, tools, techniques to help them to get focused on their work.

Have you ever wondered why so many to-do list apps are there in the industry?. Just search for a perfect to-do list app, and you will get tons of them.

I believe people want to get focused. And To-do list app does just that.

I believe today’s web user interface design is meant to facilitate constant information flow and constant feedback loops.  Starting from Google’s all-white web page design with list of clickable search results to Facebook comments update - all commercial internet sites apply the same principles.
This phenomenon may not apply to business applications. But with advent of Consumeration of IT, We may apply these practices to business applications as well unknowingly. 
So, if someone is addicted to Internet, its no surprise. The design leads to constant use and potential addiction.

So, What’s the solution?.

If User Interface design experts are helping to design ‘sticky’, same geeks are giving ideas to design for the opposite – to design for focus, to design for user attention.

Before getting to the solution, let us see what are the alternate user interfaces that we are used to, that helps us to focus our attention?

-          Conference rooms in offices which have small window and rest of the wall in the rooms are either covered with tinted glass or sealed. This helps the participants to focus on the meeting without getting distracted by the outside noise and whenever the participant wants to get the view of the office outside the room, they can always look through the small window.

-          Have you been to meditation halls where the hall is devoid of all unnecessary objects except one or two objects of focus?. (e.g. a glowing candle)

-          You can add lot more here… J

Is there anything that we can take from these physical interface designs and apply in our virtual world? This should help us to design user interfaces that would help users to focus and converge their attention on specific tasks/actions.

I have thought about this problem and potential solution a while ago and believed it was innovative. Not true. As the saying goes – Innovation happens elsewhere – and there are user interface design experts who have formalized this design paradigm and identified certain design principles for implementing encalming experiences.

They  call it ‘Calm Computing’. Its all about designing or engineering user interfaces for calming the human attention, helping to achieve focus. Search for this term and you will get tons of links that will direct you to more information on this topic.

Charlie Bess of EDS has been blogging about it in the topic of ‘Attention Engineering’.

With the abundance of devices and services, the critical need of the hour is to design applications that will apply Calm Computing principles that help the users to achieve their objectives without loosing too much of their precious resource – Time!.