» Archive for August, 2007

Collaboration and Five-Nines – Just What is «Good Enough»?

Friday, August 31st, 2007 by David Goldes

Until recently, if you wanted to talk to someone, you picked up a phone.  It could be a mobile phone or a landline, but it looked like a phone and used fairly standard telephony technologies to place the call.

Now we have more ways than ever to communicate.  In addition, we have become very accustomed to a world in which we are always reachable by a variety of modalities, constantly connected to something.  This has made it so that I am surprised if I actually hear a busy signal.  I also receive fewer voicemail messages because people who need to reach me usually do reach me on the first try.

If you tried to make a phone call on August 16 and couldn’t, you weren’t alone.   Skype, which today (I’m writing this on Wednesday, 29 August) celebrates its fourth birthday, went dark for several days.  Granted, Skype is not an enterprise tool.  But many of the 220 million Skype users around the world work in large organizations.  Moreover, 30% of Skype users have told Skype that they use Skype at least in part for work-related calls.

Some users have even ditched their landlines and use Skype as their office (or personal) phone system.  Those users probably never thought that Skype would be unavailable to them.  Moreover, Skype is not intended as a replacement for a landline (something the folks at Skype have reiterated over and over) yet some knowledge workers see Skype as being good enough for what they need.

It turns out that “good enough” may not always be good enough.

In the post Second World War era, dial tone was something that more and more people took for granted as penetration actually became over 100% as more than a few households added multiple phone lines.  People in the telecoms and IT industries began using the term “five-nines” to describe dial tone availability.  People think of this as being equivalent to “uptime”.  But I would go so far as to hazard a guess that 99.999% really don’t know what it means and even fewer understand where it’s applicable.  The term originated with AT&T’s #1ESS switch.  The switch’s development team’s goal was to have less than one day of outage in 40 years.  Needless to say, it met this goal admirably.

When we speak of five-nines, however, we generally talking more about availability than reliability.  Availability is a function of Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) and Mean Time To Repair (MTTR).  Today we might think of MTTR as Mean Time To Restore, given our predilection for swapping out faulty components instead of making a repair on the spot.  These factors are usually expressed in hours.  They can be an excellent measure of reliability but they don’t tell you everything you need to know.  As the maker of the Concorde found out, a machine can enjoy a lifetime of reliability and still suffer a disaster, in this case causing the aircraft after one crash to go from having the best safety record to having the worst.  Its zero per million flights fatal accident rate suddenly became 12.5 per million flights, more than three times the rate of the airplane in second place (source: www.airsafe.com).

As we rely more and more on technologies that aren’t quite ready for prime time in our quest to remain connected, the question becomes “how do we strike the appropriate balance?”  Where does “always on” leave off and “good enough” start?  As more and more knowledge workers decide to rely upon online tools, some with limited offline support, this question will come up more often. This of course entails a certain amount of risk.  On July 24, a power outage in San Francisco brought down a variety of Web sites frequented by knowledge workers, including Craigslist and TypePad, for several hours.

On Thursday, August 16, the Skype peer-to-peer network in Skype’s words “became unstable and suffered a critical disruption.”  The disruption was caused by a “massive restart of our users’ computers across the globe within a short time frame.”  The rebooting, Skype explains, was due to a set of patches through Windows Update.

Skype was unavailable for almost all users for almost two days.  The high number of restarts impacted Skype’s network resources and resulted in the lack of network availability.  Skype later cited a “perfect storm” and took pains to avoid placing blame on Microsoft.

So what is the appropriate level of risk?  That is something for each individual or company to determine.  We are so used to ubiquitous connectivity and communications that the miracle of how much we do have goes unnoticed.  Years ago, when mobile phone coverage was spotty, it became common place to become disconnected in a tunnel.  Now we can’t even use that as excuse to end a call early.  But whenever one steps away from a landline, still the gold standard of availability, one assumes that risk.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

Microsoft Speaks

Friday, August 31st, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

Parlano, Italian for “they speak,” developed MindAlign, a technology that supports persistent discussions, i.e. those that persist over a long period of time.  The application was originally envisaged at Swiss Bank (now UBS) and led to the company’s formation.  I recall the announcement, in September of 2000, proclaiming a “new class” of business tools.

“In order for organizations to realize faster and better use of information, a whole new class of business collaboration solutions is required,” said Tim Krauskopf, CEO of Parlano at the time.  (Krauskopf was also co-founder of Spyglass, an early developer of Web browser technology.)

Parlano had a clear vision of its mission at the company’s inception and, despite the vagaries of the marketplace, it managed to follow through on this vision without any detours.  Indeed, the company continuously improved the group chat experience, developing products that could be integrated into a Collaborative Business Environment such as the 2007 Microsoft Office system.

In 2004, Basex recognized Parlano and MindAlign with a Basex Excellence Award, or Basey, noting that the application could “change the face of communications for organizations with a distributed workforce that crosses time zones and borders.”  According to customers we spoke with, it did.

In 2006, Microsoft credited MindAlign with the creation of “a new paradigm for collaborative software” in a book called “Innovation Starts Here,” published by Microsoft’s Emerging Business Team.

Now, going one step further, Microsoft announced the signing of a definitive agreement to acquire the company and its technology.

Parlano’s vision ties directly into what Microsoft’s Gurdeep Singh-Pall commented about the deal: “The acquisition of Parlano and the integration of its leading group chat application will advance Microsoft’s vision to use the power of software to deliver the most complete unified communications experience.”

Nick Fera, Parlano’s current CEO, who was vice president of business development back in September 2000, commented this evening in his Weblog about Singh-Pall’s statement, noting that “[O]f course we share that view and are excited to see MindAlign become an enormous commercial reality and success.  Microsoft is soon to inherit a team of talented and passionate professionals who really understand the value of group chat.”

After the deal closes, Microsoft will add the group chat functionality to Office Communications Server and Office Communicator, and plans to offer group chat as part of the standard client access license for Office Communications Server 2007 Software Assurance customers.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Efficiency, Productivity – Just What Are We Talking About?

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

If you listen carefully, you will hear almost every software vendor use the term “productivity” in their message.  Everyone’s software, it turns out, makes knowledge workers more productive.

I beg to differ.  That’s not to say that the software doesn’t necessarily enhance productivity.  But that’s not what the software companies, really  mean to say.  Their software is intended to make workers more efficient.  Once the workers become more efficient, they can become more productive.  But productivity doesn’t necessarily follow in the steps of efficiency.

Productivity is defined in economics as the rate at which goods or services are produced.  We tend to view this as output per unit of labor.  When the workforce was still largely industrial, we knew exactly what productivity was: how many widgets go flying out the factory door and how fast we are able to make them.  To make them quickly, however, had little to do with productivity and everything to do with efficiency.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) measures productivity by comparing the amount of goods and services produced with the inputs that were used in production.  Labor productivity is the ratio of the output of goods and services to the labor hours devoted to the production of that output.  The broadest measure of productivity published by BLS is for the U.S. business sector, which is responsible for ca. 78% of the value of the GDP (as of 2000).

Efficiency, on the other hand, is accomplishing a job or task with a minimum expenditure of time and effort.  In industrial settings, companies have developed processes, such as just-in-time manufacturing and factory automation (think robots), that were more efficient than older methods.

It is possible to be very efficient without producing something even nominally useful.  E-mail is innately efficient but if an e-mail exchange takes three weeks to cover the same ground that a five-minute phone call could have achieved, one isn’t being efficient at all.

I should also point out that we truly do not have a good way of measuring productivity for knowledge workers.  For the knowledge economy, the first question might be “what’s output?”  The answer is not as straightforward as what good or service are we producing?  Is it the actual document or design – or the thinking behind it?  Is it crossing things off one’s to-do list and getting things done?  One can be quite busy being efficient without having much to show for the effort.

Software companies make tools designed to make knowledge workers more efficient.  Improvements in efficiency will (one hopes) lead to improvements in productivity.  This is far from straightforward and we’ll need to do a lot more work to answer this question (and we will attempt to do so over the coming months).

I recall a comment made to me years ago by a client, the CFO of a company in the fashion industry, while we were standing outside the bookkeeping department.  “What are all these people doing?” I had asked.  His reply: “I don’t know but they are always very busy doing it.”

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

From Harriet Held’s Friends

Friday, August 17th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira and David Goldes

Over the past week we learnt how many friends Harriet Held had as we received dozens of notes mourning her loss.  Everyone was as shocked as we were.

We wanted to share with you a few of the comments we received (without attribution and slightly edited to fit this space).

I really cannot express how so sorry I am to hear this.  I was one of the people that Harriet connected with, as you say, and she shared her struggles with me.  Like you, I really expected her to soar past her difficulties.  We’ll be sure to send a donation in her name.  Please give our condolences to all of the Basex family.  We’ll miss her too.

I’m saddened to hear about Harriet.  While I’ve never met her in person, we spent multiple hours on the phone over the years.  Mostly the soft-sell but also developing a relationship.  I had expected her to be on the call the other day and when she wasn’t thought that soon I’d get a call.  I’m afraid I’ve been a tough sell over the lean years here but was looking forward to her cheery banter as she tempted and tried to persuade me.  I’m sure it’s a big personal loss for you so please accept my sincere condolences.

And an entry on the memorial page:

Harriet’s infectious zest for life and animals were a blessing and lesson for us all.

If you would like to make a donation in Harriet’s memory, please consider the American Cancer Society or the Troubadour Theatre (http://www.troubie.com).  We have established a memorial page that you can visit.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  David Goldes is president of Basex.

Speaking of Collaboration 3.0

Friday, August 17th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

The purpose of the exploration and research we are doing here is manyfold:
1.)  to find the best ways to help organizations transition from industrial age-methods of doing things to ways more appropriate for the knowledge economy
2.)  to describe what companies (who have figured this out) are doing so we can learn from both their failures and their successes
3.)  to examine tools (software, platforms, etc.) and let you know what works better and under what circumstances
4.)  to separate legitimate new ways of working from the hype

There’s one more thing, and that is to provide the context for all of these points.  When we last looked at what we somewhat irreverently named Collaboration 3.0 a few weeks back, we focused on how some of the smartest, most innovative companies are building platforms that change everything in how business is conducted.  They are no longer content to passively share specifications with suppliers; instead, they invite the suppliers in from day one to support the design of critical parts.

They are no longer content to be mere purchasers standing by; instead, they take control of their supply chains and make everyone involved more efficient and productive.

Whether or not we continue to call it Collaboration 3.0 (but for the time being, we’ll continue), the impact of using platforms that support cross-organizational knowledge sharing and collaboration efforts continues to be felt and we are only at the very early stages of figuring out how to support cross-organizational work.

Typically, companies do business with people they trust.  But in a global economy, finding such people is not the most expedient solution.  How does one know which people and companies can be trusted – and by trusted, this implies with confidential material and information not to be supplied to one’s competitors.

Meanwhile, internal to many organizations, knowledge workers are getting more and more comfortable with a higher level of collaboration.  Some organizations are building true Collaborative Business Environments and others are deploying fairly advanced collaboration and knowledge sharing tools, allowing far-flung knowledge workers to work together as if they were in the same physical space.  This could be as rudimentary as instant messaging and e-mail or it could extend to team workspaces and desktop or video conferencing.

In general, such tools are being deployed for single organizations or business units, not as gathering spots for knowledge workers from multiple companies for cross-organizational work.

There have been rudimentary methods of approaching cross-organizational work for years but they generally do not involve bringing knowledge workers together.  One term we’ve been hearing is supply chain automation.  This usually speaks to managing the process of ordering and receiving raw goods or components through the delivery of a completed product.  Everything is automated; orders flow in and goods are ordered, built, and delivered, sometimes untouched by human hands.  This is a start but it doesn’t address the need to collaborate on a more basic level.

Fifteen years ago it was virtually unheard of to e-mail people in other companies; today, this happens more times than anyone can count.  (Come to think of it, we really hadn’t heard of spam either back then.)  Fifteen years ago we were busy sending faxes and overnight pouches; indeed twenty-five years ago faxes were first becoming ubiquitous and telex was still a mainstay of communication.

Today, knowledge workers expect to be able to e-mail colleagues in other organizations – although this can open up myriad issues (which we’ll look at in an upcoming column) – as well as to be able to engage in instant messaging sessions and ad hoc online meetings.

Of course, this is still a back-door approach to cross-organizational work and it is, quite frankly, less than satisfying as well as unlikely to bring about the dramatic changes in organizational efficiency that every organization aspires.  We still have a lot of work to do before we can go in through that door.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.