Monday, August 29, 2011

Tech research without spending big bucks: four information streams for business

Vermeer's "The Geographer" from wikipedia:
the search for new knowledge

This is the third in a series about research for IT and business: designed as a practical guide for those tasked with gathering the information needed to make better decisions, this article presents alternative, lower-cost research resources that should be part of every businessperson’s toolset.

By the time you’re talking about the research buys for a Global 2000 or Fortune 500 company, it’s not too unusual to see annual budgets of $200-500K. Tech research is big business. Say “research” in a business context, what comes to mind?  Usually, some contact with one of the big research vendors, Gartner, Forrester, or IDC.

What are people asking for when they say “research?” Based on the requests I got from business and IT people over the years, it’s usually “vendor comparisons,” “benchmarking/ knowledge of what peers are doing,” “best practices,” and “planning/strategy.”  

Ironically, for all those dollars spent, even the best of the commercial companies can only help you part of the way toward having good answers. In practice, no one company has the depth or impartiality to be your single source of information.  In previous articles, I discussed ways to evaluate and choose from among the big companies as a research portfolio buy.  But many companies will not choose to spend that kind of money.  

Furthermore, just plain good practice for business suggests that the best decision support mechanism you can build should include not just “bought” sources, but also other voices motivated in different ways, and with different resources and different ideas.  

In fact, benchmarking and peer practice, one of the most sought-after answers, is--in my opinion--only available in a paid way at the least granular, least useful level.  I think you’ll be more successful, and get better answers, by following and communicating with peers than via paid research.  The good news is, although the multiple-source approach needs more direct involvement from you it also comes with a dramatically lower price tag.  If you can’t budget for the big research companies, these sources can go a long way; if you do have that budget, the chorus of voices giving you information will be much richer if you add these.

I recommend four information streams in addition to a paid research portfolio:
HP Labs, 1501 Page Mill Road, Palo Alto CA.
High tech from a midcentury flight of fancy
  1. Strategic partners and other vendors: there is a lot of mutual self-interest between the companies that make technology and the people who buy it.  At the simplest level, a vendor you are considering is usually happy to share Gartner or Forrester comparison reports with you, especially if they are favorably reviewed.  If you can’t afford contracts with the research companies, this can be an alternative.  You can get some best practice information and peer benchmarks from vendors as well, but be mindful of the inherent bias.

    Several of the major companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on their own research and development, but your main point of contact with vendors is likely to be the sales organization.  Sales does not often volunteer an engagement with R&D, but I’ve almost always found them receptive when asked.  Among the best I’ve worked with are:
    HP Labs  When I visited HP Labs in 2003, they showed me an IPAQ PDA equipped with GPS, an internal compass, and the ability to interact with a virtual map.  With the exception of the mobile phone component, it was a spot-on prediction of the location-aware mobile services we use today.  The Mobile and Immersive Experience lab is doing some groundbreaking work on displays, printing, mobile devices, and social interaction.  Every division has a public-facing web site and downloadable research papers, all at no charge.
    IBM research is legendary. While some of the resources here are highly technical, there is a wealth of information for businesses, including the “First of a Kind” program for collaborative innovation on new products and services, and the Experimental Technology Site, which invites users to try new ideas out firsthand.  
    Others who are deeply involved in research include
    Microsoft, Alcatel-Lucent (including another R&D legend, Bell Labs), and SAP.  No discussion of technology research would be complete without mention of PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center run as a separate company by Xerox.   “In the business of breakthroughs” is their own description of the company; PARC invented the laser printer and the graphical user interface (the window/mouse convention at the heart of nearly all computing today.)
  2. Communities:  the tools of social networks we first used as private consumers are in wide use by professionals and businesses.   You can read entire books on this topic alone--and the chances are, you’re already using some combination of these tools.  For the purpose of this report, this section is a beginner’s guide: a social-network way to consume tech and business news, and to establish community with peers and thought leaders.  In the case of nearly every analyst, author, or company you can follow through social channels, you will also find an associated blog or website. Twitter: for a service that conveys information in 140-character tweets, Twitter can be a truly valuable way to get breaking tech news, follow a topic of interest, and have conversations with some of the leading tech minds.  It can also be somewhat daunting; the site is not inherently user-friendly, the short-entry format is awkward, and once you’re following more than a few dozen names, the information stream becomes a torrent and a distraction. There are ways to mitigate all three problems, starting with these fundamental things:
    --you can
    follow someone by name, and see every tweet they post
    --you can
    search by keyword. Put a “hashtag,” or pound sign, in front of search words, to see all tweets so tagged.  For instance, “#ENSW” stands for Enterprise Software; you can then save the search, and generate a list of tweets any time.  See Mashable’s “How to: Get the most out of Twitter hashtags” for a closer look.
    --you can organize the companies and people you follow logically with
    lists, you can follow lists created by others, and you can share your own.  You’re welcome to try out some lists I use, all of which are shared: All Tech Considered (with apologies to NPR for using their title), High Frequency Analysts (valuable, but publish so often they need their own category or their voices would overwhelm everyone else,) and The Business of Business.  
    --Twitter recently acquired
    Tweetdeck, a third-party tool to manage lists and searches by breaking each into its own column in a constantly-updating desktop or browser window. Tweetdeck can also manage and display feeds from Facebook and LinkedIn.

    Facebook, Google+: Although the two competing sites might not like being grouped together, they both feature richer posts than Twitter, with the ability to incorporate photos, video, and links to websites more easily. Both offer comment threads, and the ability to feed posts to specific groups (G+ through “circles”, Facebook through user-created friend lists.)  In my opinion, because of the threaded nature of comments, these are easier to follow than Twitter.  Early in the life of Google +, it took on more of a business “bent” due to heavy tech community adoption, so I’d recommend giving it a try: LinkedIn: started as a business networking site, LinkedIn can be a really valuable way to connect directly with peers, and with thought leaders.  Companies can have LinkedIn identities, and share posts and discussions. There are groups as well, searchable by name or topic, or you can create one yourself.  In my experience, LinkedIn groups are not often well moderated, so the value-to-noise ratio can make them a challenge.  Because LinkedIn allows you to do status updates in the same manner as Facebook or G+, it can be a pre-filtered way to communicate with business contacts, a useful step.  Useful advice: if you have favorite analysts within the paid research community, make a point of connecting with them through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and/or G+ while you are in regular contact.  Analysts sometimes leave the companies where you know them, this protects in advance your ability to stay in touch if that happens. Quora: the value of this question-and-answer site is directly connected with the credentials of the communities of people using it and answering questions; so far, that community seems to be very professional, the dialog is high-level, and there is a great deal of self-moderating.  You can follow individuals or specific questions, and see lists of others who are following them, oftentimes a shortcut to building an expertise community. YouTube: your source of videos about cute cats and flashmobs is also a huge library of free information from major tech companies, research firms, individual analysts, and universities.  As a portal into this side of YouTube, visit the Infrics Channel, where you’ll find playlists by major tech topic, and subscriptions to channels from recommended sources.
  3. Academic sources:  the case for business and technology research with an agenda not driven by either a sponsoring company or the sales cycles of commercial research is self-evident.  Universities are the natural source.  Here are some of the ones I know: Center for Information Systems Research at MIT Technology Review from MIT Sloan Management Review from MIT Harvard Business Review Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Information Science Research in the Interest of Society at the UC system
  4. Conferences, and the 80/20 rule applied to research: most everyone speaks of the 80/20 rule at some point: 80% of business comes from 20% of your customers.  If you would like to get a very large chunk of the value of an annual contract with one of the big research firms without spending as much, the best answer lies in foregoing the contract, but paying for some of the big events held by research companies.  Here are the ones I recommend:

    --Gartner’s Symposium may be one of the great bargains in the research field.  Gartner lumps together nearly all the content from every specialized conference they hold each year, does a few minor updates, and packages it with some new presentations, some good keynote speakers, and flashy keynote sessions that would do a Vegas showgirl proud.  Participants have access to ALL the content, including sessions they did not attend, for a year.  Without an annual Gartner contract, you won’t see breaking-news reports or have the ability to talk with an analyst after the conference ends (some analyst one-on-one meetings are included during the event at no extra charge,) but you will have vendor evaluations, a lot of product comparisons, and a huge range of best-practice reports.  At $3795 (2011 pricing,) it’s well under 20% of the cost of many of their annual contracts.

    Forum event is similar, but on a smaller scale: fewer days, lower price ($2095 for the 2011 event.)

    --IDC, not big on multi-day events, does put on one of the highest-value one-day events, their annual
    Directions conference (usually held in March, in Boston and repeated in San Jose, CA.) Directions is notable for an morning spent predicting the coming year for tech and business, and for excellent keynote speakers in the afternoon.  Among the keynotes I’ve seen at Directions are Geoffrey Moore (“Crossing the Chasm,") Nicholas Carr (“The Big Switch”,) and Don Tapscott (“Wikinomics.")   

    EmTech, the emerging technology conference presented by MIT’s Technology Review magazine, is not the place to go to get vendor comparisons or best practice information. But it is the event to renew your faith in the future, and to hear important ideas firsthand from the people creating it.  As an example, when I first attended in 2006, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos introduced a new service: the Elastic Compute Cloud, perhaps the very first use of the term “cloud” I ever heard applied to delivery of IT services through the internet from a third-party vendor.  
Give these a try. Speaking of "best practice" requests, these articles represent my ideas about best practice for IT and business research; one professional service offers is research planning, portfolio and resource evaluation, and in-service training for executives and their reports.  Let me know how I can help.

An business research consult day: money well spent

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Are you using

A model of a high value social site, Quora offers direct dialogue with some of tech's leaders and some of your most knowledgeable peers.    Like Twitter or Facebook or Google+, you can follow people and topics, and see who is following the ideas you're interested in. Like Digg, participants can vote answers up and down, so those with more votes appear first. It is remarkably well-self policed, and is almost completely rant-and-invective-free.

From Wired: Does Quora Really Have All the Answers?

As examples, here are a few sample questions I've been following:

" While some competitors thought the killer app was content, and others thought it was commerce, we always believed it was community (what is now known as social media)"

Marc Andreessen is among those replying, so is one of Mashable's editors.

What sucks most about enterprise software?
Something everyone wonders, but few phrase the question so well.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fast Company: Your Face Is Your Key

Facial recognition is getting much more accurate, faster, and cheaper.  Fast Company reports on the latest:

Your Face is Your Key

If you didn't see the videos on Microsoft Kinect and the Samsung image recognition marketing program, they're both worth a look as part of understanding the ways technology is recognizing us and changing the ways we interact with machines:

Monday, August 1, 2011

How Technology Disappears: Part 2 of "A World of Services"

Thinking of technology delivery as an expression of services is a big idea.  Services help technology in business disappear.   
Cheshire Cat image from

Why is this important?  What’s the payoff?

  1. Agility: The holy grail of business technology is to get to value more quickly.  Services move IT toward plug-and-play, and away from custom-tailored, take-forever-to-deploy solutions.
  2. Cost: standardize, externalize, gain economies of scale. Spend time and money on the things that make you competitive.
  3. Services are a foundational part of the move to stateless devices.  “Your-business-as-a-service” is a perfect match for “any device/any time/anywhere.”
  4. Services are foundational as part of moving decision-making about technology away from those who provide it (the traditional IT department) and toward those who use it.
As we focus on what that means as a trend, let’s examine the idea of services and think of them as part of the future of business.  

Service definition 1: simplify and standardize complex processes

Building a house is a good example of simplified services. Doors and windows are simplified and built to standard sizes.  You can buy what you need off the shelf and install it without customization, secure in the knowledge that it will fit and meet regulatory codes.  Because it was manufactured in large quantities in a standardized way, economies of scale make it much less expensive than a custom-made equivalent.  In exchange, you accept the range of sizes, styles, and colors, and design the house to accept the standards.

In business, most IT functions labeled “-as-a-service” are built on a model like this; users accept some standardization and buy the service as offered.  But that doesn’t fit for every business need, especially when the legacy technology grew up around ever-increasing levels of customization and complexity.  Which leads to:

Service definition 2: abstract complexity

Frankly, some parts of business are complex, and there is no magical way around it.  Even if you overcome the change management issues around greater simplicity of business processes, there are still regulatory and legal complexities that cannot be avoided. There are some complexities that deliver competitive value. But there are ways to abstract that complexity and mask it so that it appears simple. Someone has to manage complexity, but they can deliver it in such a way that those who use the service neither know nor care what is going on behind the scenes.

For an example of this, look to your car.  In the last 25 years, something remarkable has happened to automobiles.  Engines and transmissions, even in inexpensive cars, have growth dramatically more complex than before: turbochargers (sometimes 2 of them), multiple valves per cylinder, with continuously variable valve timing. Direct injection of fuel, electronic automatic transmissions with up to 8 speeds--all controlled by a computer system more powerful than mainframes of the recent past.  

It’s all abstracted from the driver. Start the car and it goes, without you having to care about a single one of those technological marvels.  Furthermore, during the 100,000 mile warranty period, the only maintenance required is fluid and filter changes.  Most of the engine is shrouded in molded plastic, looking more like a plug-in module than a piece of machinery.  Motive power as a service.  

The technology disappears, the benefit is what’s consumed.  

That’s the model current businesses and their IT departments can aspire to as a means of managing the complexity that can’t be eliminated.  The central questions

  1. Does this have to be complex? Is this a complexity of heritage process or legacy technology that is not needed?  Is it a worthwhile tradeoff to lose some customization to gain agility and lower cost? If so, you can move to the “simplify service” route.  Classic examples, standard office applications like word processing and e-mail.  
  2. Is this complexity that adds value, or is unavoidable for structural reasons, such as regulatory compliance?  If so,  the goal would be to abstract that complexity away from processes or people who use it, so that to them it appears simple.  For each complex service, ask question 1 again: are there components of this complexity I can simplify to make the abstraction process faster, easier, cheaper.

If you have succeeded, the result will be “building blocks” for technology and business processes, standard-appearing components.  They can be consumed--used as-is--or recombined to create other services.  

A hallmark of service orientation: those who provide a service know and care about the way it is provided, those who consume it don’t have to: DKDC (don’t know, don’t care.)  As service orientation spreads through IT and a company, DKDC spreads downward from the top, while power to deploy technology and combine services spreads upward toward users.

Service delivery starts with the end user, and works back until it reaches infrastructure. At the top, the main deliverable is “IT as a service.” That service is itself composed of individual and federated services.  This chart shows what that would look like:

The lower levels are foundational for those above. The Service Management level and Service Federation levels represent what I believe to be the future of IT within companies:

  • Definition and management of services becomes a central role, highly technical and specialized positions in the organization tend to be externally sourced as individual service components or packaged as third party services. Internal skills include high levels of focus on service contracts and service level agreements.  The orchestration of services and the management of quality of service delivery take on new importance.
  • Business applications are delivered as a service, either directly by a cloud vendor, as composite applications created in-house through federation of other services, or as legacy applications delivered through desktop virtualization.  
  • At the Delivery level, the close tie-in with stateless computing shows its value.  The entire “business as a service” experience is delivered through a web interface, and IT gets out of the user device management business.  
  • Key vertical roles within the services organization are the technology architect, who works across the various disciplines on service design, integration, and delivery; and the business technology analyst, a main point of contact between top-level service consumers--the users and the business departments--and the various service delivery teams.  But note, DKDC even extends to this level of consumer; if infrastructure-level services are deployed correctly, the analyst does not need to know or care how they are delivered.  

When technology disappears, information technology will have grown up; delivery of business capabilities through services is how that happens.

Next in the Big Ideas series, we’ll look at how stateless computing and a world of services become success triggers for the third major idea: flattening of organizations, and the movement of tech power ever closer to those who use it.