Thursday, May 26, 2011

The business of research: map higher value, make smarter choices

You can buy all kinds of business and technology research; I spent years buying research, almost $2 million in contracts over 10 years.  But for obvious reasons, the research firms are not doing evaluations or best practices about their own work: about the art of being one of their customers.  

Unlike many parts of business and technology, research is not planned carefully.  It’s just something you do when a question comes up: “Who is the best vendor?” “How do I do this the best way?” “How has this been done before, and what did they learn?”

Research is the art of finding subject matter experts and adding to your own expertise.  It’s facts and figures, yes, but at its best, it’s also insight and “aha” moments.  But for many, it’s not something that happens all the time, and the “expertise of finding and becoming experts” is limited.  At its worst, technology research is a wasteful CYA exercise.

Are you spending smart? Are you measuring the right things?

A lot of money is spent on contracts with Gartner and Forrester and their competitors; are you confident you’re spending the right amount in the right place, for the right results?

In my opinion, the obvious metrics--number of engagements, reports pulled, users signed up--are essentially meaningless. Months of work with a contracted analyst may lead you to make a faster version of a paper form, instead of a better business process. Unwittingly, you might have gotten just what you asked for from your research, and thought you had been served well. Because in traditional measurement, that bad work might show up as terrific engagement for the research company.  As consumers, we have taught research companies to perpetuate that issue; being genuinely engaged with a client, especially if it means saying something they might not want to hear, does not feed the contract renewal machine.

One really meaningful insight based on thoughtful dialog between you and an expert can make millions of dollars of bottom-line difference, and still show up as a measurement blip.  At its heart, research is a subjective field.  You’re going to have to trust yourself--and your staff--that they know value when they see it.   

This does not suggest that research is all touchy-feely. This article presents a framework to help you think about research as a business-linked process.  It lays out the fundamental parts of those ties, and includes a chart to map research needs for yourself, your team, or your company.

Mapping business and technology

Almost every business (and by association, IT) function exists across two planes:

  • Is the work strategic or tactical? Are you planning things, or making things work?
  • Is the focus horizontal or vertical?  If many people come to you to solve a similar need across many departments, your focus is likely horizontal.  If you bring together people from many departments to achieve something that wouldn’t happen without that coordination, you’re more vertical.  

    A datacenter manager is tactical-horizontal, a marketing manager is strategic-vertical.  Your plant manager is tactical-vertical, your legal department is strategic-horizontal.

We can now chart that, and get a “research personality map.”  Where would you land?

Here is the same map, with major business areas included:

Seeing the business this way can help you ask better questions of a potential research vendor.  In my previous role, it was my job to analyze the research needs of IT organizations and recommend research as a portfolio to offer the best possible combination.  This map shows Gartner, Forrester, IDC, and AMR (acquired by Gartner in 2010) plotted against the same criteria; it represents my opinion of their coverage and strengths based on experience.

This is not a complete list of research companies, and certainly not a complete list of the expertise resources.  It’s an example of some of the largest.  In my opinion, there is much excellence in the research world, much hype and some laziness.  The idea here is to help you tell them apart, be more resourceful, and be a better shopper.  Map your work and your interests to the right research tools.

Also in this series on research for IT and business:

 --comparing the big research companies,

and other information streams that let you do research if you don't have a big budget. 

--An business research consult day: money well spent

Monday, May 23, 2011

Arise, free your machines!

This is an article about a fundamental change in the way we think about technology. I say it's time to apply the network effects of social communities to the design of the machines we use.  

Furthermore, based on the idea of technology triggers and inflections, I believe this is part of a bigger picture shaping the future, and represents a logical, perhaps inevitable shift.  It will have a profound impact on our daily lives.  It will mean the end of some business models and the birth of many others. 

These triggers are present:

  • Processing power and memory: better, faster, smaller, cheaper
  • Displays: flatter, brighter, touch interactive...and cheaper
  • Networks: faster, nearly ubiquitous in wired and wireless forms...and cheaper
  • Cloud-based computing, storage, services: expanding at near- exponential levels; prices falling, capabilities growing
  • Ways to interact with machines: moving from keyboard/mouse to touchscreen, haptic surfaces, voice, gesture, recognition of objects and faces
But these things are true as well:

  • Hardware and software:  proprietary and inflexible.  
  • Access to documents, presentations, data, music, video, ebooks: for the most part, tied to a specific device where it is stored, and frequently to a piece of software that needs to be present.
  • And all those important parts of our lives are at risk if backups are not done, if machines malfunction, or are damaged, lost, or stolen.  In many cases, we have to pay to replace not just hardware, but software and data as well.  We pay for actual bytes that are in our possession, not the rights to them that represent real intellectual property.  The market for those bytes is a jumbled mess of confused and failing business models.
  • Companies using technology for business spend untold fortunes managing these devices and the information they hold within, money that could be better put to use on business value.  To perpetuate the old model, the machines themselves are far more expensive than they need to be.

A central point I’ve been making on is that the engines of the future are driven by the abilities of several core technologies, like networks, applications, interfaces, and machines.  I believe that the triggers represented by the abilities in the first list now show us a clear path to help us get rid of the limitations in the second list.

There is a supreme irony at work in technology now.  It was the same systems listed above--and their associated pain points--that made online communities possible. But we have reached a point where the social networks, our communities of interest-instead-of-place, are a more fully realized version of the future than are the machines that got us here.  

Where our phones and our computers have blown apart the limitations of “I have to be in a certain place to have this community,” we’re still anchored by the ties that bind machines, data, and software to each other. The world of our machines needs to catch up, so that we can get everything, everywhere, on whatever machine is handy. Free your machines, and the rest will follow. 

My point is:

It’s time to decouple the devices we use from the data they handle, and the programs they use.   Devices should be user interfaces, and little more.  They should be stateless.

Are stateless devices fully realized right now?  Not yet. Are they inevitable? Maybe. Let’s look at what stateless would mean in practice:

  1. The storage and delivery of data and applications is cloud-based.  Protocols like AJAX and rich internet applications tools from companies like Adobe and Microsoft use local caching to improve the web-based experience.
  2. Resources on the local machine, and the software it runs, are devoted to a very lightweight operating system that delivers the user interface and the connection to the cloud. We are used to thinking of that interface as a “browser,” but the idea of a “browser” as an application installed on top of a discrete operating system is no longer useful. The OS is the browser, and vice versa.
  3. Some devices will need more OS than they have now--televisions, for instance, need an integral web interface to become the cloud-based delivery form factor of choice for video (which itself will be cloud-sourced, as physical DVDs and the like become unnecessary.)
  4. Most devices will need far less OS than they do now.  We don’t move the data and the heavy lifting on processing to the cloud because we aren’t capable of doing it locally.  We do it because it frees us from so many limitations and offers so many benefits. A simpler device is a less-expensive device.

We are probably close to versions of the form factors we need now: television/home entertainment, workstation, tablet, phone, in-car.  The problem is, they operate piecemeal and don’t give us the benefits of stateless life.  We’re in the midst of cobbling together something that feels a bit like stateless life will feel. However, we’re still dragging along the baggage from the last generation of computing.

Look at your smartphone; it’s the handheld form factor, but what percentage of the time is it used for voice calls?  10? 20?  It’s now your text message center, your e-mail, your connection to your online social world, your shopping aide, your GPS, your music, and most likely your primary camera for still images and video. “Phone” is now just a convenient word to use because we’re used to it.  But it’s still proprietary, likely backed by Apple or Google, maybe RIM, and if it were lost or damaged, you’d be in scarcely better shape than someone who lost a laptop in 1998.

Let’s think about the same handheld device as stateless.

  • Your "community", represented now by your social connections AND all your documents, data, video, music, and books, has been freed from the limits of place and of specific device.
  • Your entire world of apps and data would be provisioned the moment you signed in to your phone for the first time.  They’d all be where you’re used to, they’d all work just as you expect.
  • Lose or break the machine, and it’s a blank slate. Nothing to wipe, nothing for a thief to exploit. And nothing lost for you as the user.
  • You’d be free to have as many as you liked to match color, style, or status needs, because all the phone does is separated from all the ways you express the form factor.
  • You could get every experience your phone offers on any other form factor.  And vice versa.  Watch movies and TV on the phone in a pinch, or make calls from your TV.  Carry what machines you like with you, but always know your whole world is there any place you sign in.  EVERY part of your digital life is finally connected.
I’ll revisit the stateless idea often.  We need to look at the vendors who are likely to make stateless work--especially Google and the Chromebook concept--and the competitive pressures that are standing in the way.  After all, if a proprietary world is what is keeping your company alive, you may fight the stateless future with all you have.  

Most exciting of all, it’s time to think about stateless devices as one of the next big trigger points--and run with the idea to think of the innovations and the business successes it will bring.  

This is the first of a three-part series, my analysis of the biggest fundamental elements of the tech future.  Part 2, "A world of services" will explore new tech delivery models and evolving business/IT models that promise--finally--to increase agility.  In Part 3, "Power to the people," I'll look at the flattening of the technology delivery cycle, consumerism, and extend the social-as-community idea to look at the tech-fueled promise of "the world as my village."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Objects in the Future are Closer Than They Appear

I created this presentation to help people look across boundaries of technology innovation, and think about the interconnectedness of progress; it's kind of a youTube exploration of the ideas  I introduced last week about tech timelines and triggers.  And it is especially geared toward those who don't work in IT departments, but who use technology every day for work and everyday life.

The slides are just a framework to contain some really interesting videos others have commissioned, and to see them in a sequence aligned with the biggest themes of the technology-enabled future:

  1. Everything-as-a-service.  Recent problems with major cloud deployments (including Blogger, which hosts this site) are not death knells, but speed bumps.  Cloud computing is the catchphrase upon which a lot of the services-based discussion hangs right now, but it's only one aspect of a bigger change.
  2. Application stores and proprietary products notwithstanding, stateless devices are a huge enabler for service delivery everywhere.  Google's Chromebook is the first major commercial expression of this idea.
  3. Personalization of community, of business technology, of tech-enabled lives finds its voice from the interactions of users, when the ideas they create and share extend the value-from-users Web 2.0 concept.
Feel free to jump around if you like, or go in order for the story to unfold.  Don't miss the 1987 Apple Knowledge Navigator video in the extra features at the end.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Eli Pariser's "Filter Bubbles", and Community: Curation now, AI later?

My colleague @Neil_H_NYC tweets, "Don, any comments on this TED lecture?"

I hadn't seen Pariser's talk, but it's a great one; his point being that Facebook and Google are among sites that use algorithms based on your own search and interaction patterns to give you feeds/results that are more like what you want to see.  That's a good motive, but as he points out, it results in "bubbles," in which your worldview is limited.

Bubbles represent the current state of curation-by-machine--give me more like what I've gotten before.  But part of the community concept I've advocated  is the idea of human curation.  E-commerce analysts already recognize that recommendation from a trusted friend is among the most powerful online shopping influences; the idea of news or search from a trusted friend is not really a stretch. 

This recent blog post discussed this idea, and quotes a Mashable report in which an NYU professor says, "Curation comes up when search stops working." 

In the near future, I'll be talking more about using the idea of community to see where social business and social networking is headed.  The elevator pitch for that article is this: "technology is giving us the ability to make connected life like the very best parts of life in a village--where you know everyone, your rights and tastes are part of the fabric of everyday life, and every experience is personal and relationship-driven."

Computers are just not smart enough to replicate that--yet.  But why do you think Google is Very Heavily Involved in artificial intelligence?  One of the huge tech fortunes yet to be made will come from AI-based personal assistants--also the subject of an upcoming post.

In the meantime, filter bubbles reflect our own behavior: you can live in a gated online community as much as one created by a suburban developer, where the people you see and the ideas you're exposed to are all just like you, and agree with everything you believe in.  We can choose otherwise, as Yes told us: "don't surround yourself with yourself."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Technology maturity timelines and triggers, a tool for innovation

Technology change doesn’t happen uniformly, nor does is it equally spaced across the tech landscape. These core concepts and a graphical look at their evolution provides a framework to enable greater insight into the way innovation happens. If we can understand where we’ve come from using this tool, it may help us discover other innovation opportunities.  They core ideas are:

  • Devices--the machines and tools we use
  • Connections--how machines communicate with each other, the networks, and how “pipes” evolve
  • Applications--the programs we use. Also the evolving architectures around cloud computing and how information flows and interacts
  • Interactions--how we manipulate the world, and how it communicates back to us
  • Authorization--in its first iteration, this would have been about authentication and security.  It is in the process of growing to encompass a big new field around role management and personalization.  
  • Community--social networks, social marketing, social tools--these are the sites, companies, and programs we use to create and live in our communities.  Some are communities of place, but in most cases that involve technology, they are defined by shared interests.

So how do these elements interact to provide innovation insight?  Here are examples:

Innovation 1  PCs made “what if” questions answerable on individuals’ desktops, disrupting the previously-unchallenged domain of mainframes. Each program: stand-alone, the only data sharing was by floppy disk and “sneakernet.”  Trigger from other domain: local-and-wide-area networks. Innovation in third domain: client-server computing, and the rise of shared data.

Innovation 2 Cell phones for voice reached low-enough cost for mass adoption.  Trigger from other domain:  Internet 1.0, e-mail, PDAs created demand for mobile access to more than voice.  Innovation in third domain:  BlackBerrys, and the rise of the smartphone.

Innovation 3 Cassette recorder and VCR enable culture of user-recordable media, and of sharing.  Introduction of CD enables tripling of cost of albums, from $5 to $15, music industry clings to cash cow. Trigger from other domain: broadband internet connections become common. Innovation in third domain: Napster,, BitTorrent, and the near-collapse of music industry (but also the rise of youTube, iTunes, and the Web 2.0 revolution of user-added value.)

Here is the graphic.  Although the timelines are not precise in the interest of listing major milestones, the important idea is about the way we think of innovation.  Not just “I have this great idea,” which will always be with us, but “If I know A, and I see B happening, what consequence C is likely?”

This is the highest-level view, but now that we envision the framework, we can also zoom in and create a more detailed version for a more specific need, such as barriers, triggers, outcomes for cloud computing.  Or on an enterprise level, relative internal maturities of IT services, mapped against culture, competitive pressures, and economic conditions.  

I propose two patterns of investigation you might consider for this model.  

  1. Working forward: what are the consequences of the horizontal maturity graph? (in the example above, several are suggested by the rightmost entries)  If you create your own graph based on your specific situation, what is implied by the possibilities of current or emerging abilities?
  2. Working backward: “I know I want this consequence to occur. What triggers are missing between what exists now, and the innovation I want to see?”  In this case, you may have multiple opportunities to exploit: not just the end state you want, but to be the creator of the enablers that will make it possible.

The point is this: genuine innovative thinking needs a big-picture approach, and some insight across multiple ideas and histories.  The better grounded you are as a generalist, the better prepared you are for that “great a-HA!” moment as a specialist. Or as a company. Or as an entrepreneur. Or as an agent of social change.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Why "Social" is the right concept...but it may be the wrong word

"Social" has become one of the most-used terms in technology discussions.  Social networking, social commerce, social enterprise, social soon sounds like Forrest Gump reciting his litany of ways to prepare shrimp.  If there's a phrase you can make by hanging "social" on it, or a marketing ploy you can ramp up with the same approach, chances are it's being done right this minute.

It's not just hype; there are important things going on.  But the underlying reality is not new:

Enabling communities of interest, not just of location, may be the single most important benefit of the internet.  The social explosion is all about community.

That was true in the days of e-mail lists and Usenet. It was true of BBSs using dialup modems.  Smart merchants like understood this early on. A bricks and mortar store is an in-person expression of community.  So is the long-tail aggregation of demand made possible by online merchants--it extends that core idea, but takes location out of the equation.

We rarely think about long tail effects in terms of noncommercial interactions, but that is precisely what is happening, as shown by the hundreds of millions of interconnected friendships online, and it's worth a LOT of money: in May, 2011, Mashable reported estimates of Facebook's value near $100 billion.  So what is different today?

  • The number of people who are connected often enough, reliably enough, has enabled  more communities, and larger ones like Facebook.  We're seeing the network effect in action.
  • The portability of communities has exploded thanks to smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. The idea of community-of-interest was limited when you had to be in one particular place (at your desktop computer) to be a part of one. Location awareness via GPS magnifies this effect (see Foursquare.)
  • The community gestalt has shifted; a critical mass has experienced internet community for a long enough time that communities-not-of-shared-presence are the norm rather than the exception for many cases. Have you ever felt you knew an online friend better than some of the people you see every day?
As Ellen Degeneres says, "my point, and I do have one," is that the whole "social" world is not a revolution, but a logical--and predictable--outcome of bigger trends that have been in play for a long time.  And by saying that, I'm laying groundwork for a toolset I'm developing to help us examine timelines across a set of core technology concepts, think about how trigger points in one technology can suggest innovations in another, and give us insights to see the bigger picture about what's going on.

There are fortunes to be made, and influence to be gained, by those who successfully understand this reality, and see the opportunities.  We can use innovation and common sense to be those people and those companies, and take advantage.

Tomorrow, I'll publish an infographic that is the first iteration of this idea, and begin a discussion in which we think about tech inflections and likely outcomes.  I've come up with 6 core themes, and Community is one of them.  What would you list for the other 5?  That may be something for the community to decide.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What is Infrics?

Infrics is a "created" brand, like Xerox, which gets its meaning from context.  In that way, it's also a bit like the technology-supported communities we live in now, where value is created by the actions of users.  (See Web 2.0)

The Infrics idea is to look at technology as a big picture, one that touches business and society alike. I'll have opinions, and will do my best to label them as such; but when you visit this site, I'd like you to sense that there is curation going on.  Look for that in what you don't see here.  Gartner and Forrester already do a big business in vendor evaluations, that is not Infrics' role; but I will be watching vendors' business practices carefully, and we'll often look at their products as a reflection of competitive and market actions rather than as a pure tech offering.

"Curation" can be the preservation of the old, but in this sense, it's more about looking through the mass of information to pull out the valuable news and ideas

You'll see me at work filtering through news and ideas, asking questions of experts and laypeople, and incorporating your input as part of the online community.  One of my opinions is that technology research tends to be more about pronouncements from analysts and less about dialogue.  Well, I've spent many years working with both analysts and with those who consume the analysts work, and I'm here to tell you that there is a lot of expertise on the other side, with those who choose and implement technology every day. 

The tech world is flattening rapidly, meaning that end users are making more and more of their own choices about products and services; they create amazing business opportunities, and serious threats for the conventional corporate IT model.  I'll cover both, and look for people who are doing creative things amidst a staggering technology change rate. 

(by the way, I'll be in the bay area to attend the Cloud Leadership Forum in Santa Clara, June 20-21.  Let me know if you're attending.  I'd also welcome the chance to say hello to any colleagues while I'm in the area, and gather some interviews for future articles.  What are you doing? What would you like to share?)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Introducing Infrics

At least for now, this site is a sole proprietorship.  I'm Donald Ham, who spent the last 10 years running technology research at Avon Products, the direct sales cosmetics company; and at Wm. Wrigley Jr., the gum and confections company.

I was a lucky man. I got to work with some of the brightest minds in enterprise IT.  I designed and implemented research portfolios, which meant I also got to work with some of the brightest minds at Forrester, Gartner, Meta Group, AMR Research, and IDC.  Few people other than CIOs are asked to know something about every aspect of corporate IT, but I was one of them.  I attended every Gartner Symposium for the last 10 years, a good number of Giga and Forrester Forums, plus dozens of conferences in areas like mobile, SOA, Cloud computing, enterprise architecture, and supply chain.

To put it mildly, there is a lot of noise in what you hear from research companies and from the companies who are trying to sell their hardware, software, and services.  On the other hand, there are corporations struggling valiantly to put out fires, but rarely getting to raise their collective heads and work on innovation.  On top of all that, societal changes in the ways we use technology and interact with one another are bearing down fast on tech vendors and buyers alike. 

It may be immodest, but I think I have something useful to add, a point of view you'll find valuable, and a place for a dialogue that's low on noise, high on insight and ways to act.  And since this is the way I propose to earn my living, soon you'll see a set of consultation and service offerings, and I hope you will consider engaging me for both.   But let's get started first.  I'll post alerts to updates on Twitter, and you can add this site to your RSS feed.   Let me know what YOU would like to see, and it will help guide the articles and the research.