» Archive for October, 2008

Towards a Friction-Free World

Friday, October 24th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

Friction denotes resistance.  Within the context of work, friction implies a resistance that slows down a task or prevents it from happening at all.

Most knowledge workers are too busy to learn new applications or even to keep existing ones updated.  Indeed, many so-called productivity tools remain as shelfware as a result.  Vendors that can eliminate this kind of “friction” will have the upper hand in gaining adoption and helping companies increase efficiencies in operations.

We even have a term for it: “Friction-Free Knowledge Sharing.”  This connotes tools that remove inherent friction, such as multiple steps (logins, cutting-and-pasting or dragging-and-dropping of text or documents) or other obstacles (search results numbering 564,768) that make knowledge workers more into knowledge engineers and stop them from actually accomplishing much work.

Fortunately, a few smart vendors recognize that the secret to adoption and knowledge sharing is to reduce or eliminate such friction.  One such vendor is Smartsheet.com, a provider of a collaborative work management tool that is an intelligent spreadsheet, which functions as a worksheet capable of managing a variety of tasks and work items.

Smartsheet 2009, just released this week, is a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) that does not require most users to register or log into a system.  Instead, the owner of a project (who is logged in) sends an e-mail to a colleague or group that contains a link that is active until each person completes whatever is required of him, for example entering updated figures or other information.

Smartsheet has an extremely low friction quotient and is therefore fairly nondisruptive.  Through Smartsheet, knowledge workers can define, manage, and control tasks.  Smartsheet also enables management of the work behind the task by providing the linkages and showing the related actions that must be taken.  To collaborate, colleagues can use Smartsheet without training, downloading, or even signing on to an application.  Everything they need to know, from project status to changes made in a document, is available in the format that creates the least friction for them, either through e-mail, or through the Smartsheet online interface.  Users can choose the method best suited for their personal work style.  Either way, they will be made aware of what is going on with their colleagues, as well as what is happening in the organization as a whole.

This is clearly not intended for knowledge workers who need to stay in an application throughout the day, but for organizations where many knowledge workers need to provide or tap into applications on an occasional basis.  Smartsheet 2009 provides a path with a lot less resistance.

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

Microsoft Turns Blue

Friday, October 24th, 2008 by David Goldes

Is Microsoft feeling blue, taking a subtle swipe at Big Blue, or seeing blue skies ahead?  On Monday, Microsoft proclaimed a possible third era of operating systems with the introduction of Windows Azure, a cloud operating system, essentially an OS that exists within a network framework.

Azure manages the relationship between software residing on computers and the Web, where data and services may reside.  This paves the way for a wave of applications that support a broad range of devices but it can also be viewed as yet another cloud computing initiative by a major tech company.  It also puts Google and Amazon.com into even more direct competition with Microsoft.

Windows Azure is part of the Azure Services platform, a development platform for applications that will use the service.  By integrating Windows Azure with programming tools such as Visual Studio 2008, Microsoft is making it easy for developers to create applications for the new environment.

Microsoft unveiled Windows Azure at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference this week because it needs to win this community over; without a corps of developers creating compelling applications, customers will go elsewhere.  The company faces some additional obstacles, not the least of which is whether companies will trust it sufficiently with proprietary data and applications.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

Collaboration: Let’s Make Some Music

Friday, October 17th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

When companies speak of collaboration, they usually think of team rooms, workflow, and instant messaging.  What they don’t think of is a philharmonic orchestra.  But not every company is Sony.

Technology companies such as Sony usually make technology.  In some cases, they even make music players (Walkman, iPod).  But it’s rare that the employees of such companies make music.

The orchestra is, however, a perfect example of collaboration and in Sony’s case it’s one of collaboration across the company’s divisions.  Founded in 1995 by then CEO Norio Ohga, a former opera singer who had conducted professional orchestras, the Sony Philharmonic is made up of Sony employees from different parts of the company (Sony Corporation, Sony Computer Entertainment, Sony Music, Sony Life Insurance).  60% of the musicians are engineers.  Since its inception, the orchestra has mostly performed in concerts in and around Tokyo.  Indeed, Japan has a strong tradition of amateur orchestras at companies; tech firms Pioneer and Ricoh also have their own orchestras.

Ohga-san’s successor, Sir Howard Stringer, evidently wanted to address the age-old question, “how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”  So the orchestra practiced and practiced and made its United States debut this past Tuesday at the iconic concert hall with cellist Yo-Yo Ma (a Sony recording artist) and conductor Daniel Harding in tow.  Proceeds from the concert are being donated to the Harlem School of the Arts, Midori & Friends and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Arts Education Program in support of arts education.

The program featured Dvorak’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B Minor, Op. 104; Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture, Op. 21 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64.  The playing was competent and even graceful at some points although some of the playing was lackluster.  The orchestra did come alive in the second movement of the Tchaikovsky symphony as well as with the encore, Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin.

Maestro Harding conducted with vigor and by the middle of the Dvorak concerto he figured out how to ensure that the crowd did not applaud at the end of movements (which it did after the first movement, quite loudly and enthusiastically).

Contacts made by orchestra members have led to new products including noise cancelling headphones and home theater amplifiers.  In fact, Sir Howard himself is a great believer in getting different workgroups together for meetings, according to a recent interview in the Financial Times.  So if you are looking for new ways to collaborate, the example of Sony is worth looking into.

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

Avoiding a $5000 Phone Bill on Your Trip

Friday, October 10th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

Whether you know it or not, your smartphone may be surfing the Net – and running up your bill – during trips abroad.  Discussion forums are full of reports from business travelers with high phone bills due to unintended data access: comments such as “one day, $768,” “one trip, $4800″ abound.

This can happen even if you don’t think you are using any data services.  For example, users of SimulSays, a clever visual voicemail application that allows the user to scroll through and select voicemails on screen similar to the Apple iPhone, receive voicemail messages in the form of data packets.  When I tested the service on a quick trip to London, I inadvertently ended up with a $200 data roaming charge.

AvantGo, a mobile news and information service, frequently updates itself with the latest news, weather, and feature stories.

Users of such services could unintentionally incur charges of hundreds of dollars in the course of a similar trip.

If you don’t have a BlackBerry device, your options are limited and expensive.  Business travelers can either purchase flat-rate data (AT&T charges $24.99 per month for a 20 Mbyte plan for PDAs and smartphones and $59.99 for a 50 Mbyte iPhone plan;  T-Mobile charges $10.24 per MB in Canada and $15.36 per MB elsewhere) or simply turn data or data roaming off (something not possible on all devices ).

Both AT&T and T-Mobile also offer BlackBerry customers a $20 per month “bolt-on” option for international e-mail data roaming in addition to the domestic monthly fee for BlackBerry service (Web browsing is not included in the fee).  Considering the costly alternatives, this option could easily pay for itself.

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

Financial Crisis: A Question of Information Overload?

Friday, October 3rd, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

The breakdown of the nation’s financial industry plus recent events in financial markets worldwide have made me wonder about the role of information overload in the current financial crisis.  Headlines have made it painfully clear that financial institutions were unsure of their assets and liabilities.  Usually, this would be attributed to an inadequacy of available information but that’s far from the case here.

The Panic of 1907, a financial crisis in the U.S. during which the stock market fell almost 50%, was accompanied by a recession and numerous runs on banks.  Bank panics were not unusual at the time; the Panic of 1907 was the fourth to occur in 34 years.  [It's hard to compare recent bank failures, of which there have been 14 this year and only three last year, with the thousands of bank failures at the onset of the Great Depression.  Today's banks have far more customers and accounts than those much smaller banks.  As of today, JPMorgan Chase has more than $2 trillion in assets and is the largest depository bank in the U.S.  By comparison, Citibank has a mere $1.3 trillion in assets.]

Unlike the bankers of today, who cannot give clear and comprehensible explanations of their assets because their instruments are so complex they themselves do not understand them fully, the bankers who visited the home of J.P. Morgan in 1907, which had become a revolving door of New York City bank and trust company presidents as he attempted to stave off a complete collapse of financial markets, were able to present everything about their banks’ financial conditions on simple balance sheets that did not require pages of footnotes.

The financial markets have become far more sophisticated in the past decade; ever notice just how many screens a typical trader works with?  L. Gordon Crovitz recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal that better and more complete information was available in 1907;  the workflow device for traders then was a “simple pencil and scrap paper” but that’s all they needed.

The point is simple enough: rather than too little, we have far too much information today and that impedes our decision-making abilities and throttles our ability to resolve crises.  While Information Overload is certainly not a direct cause of the current travails, it nonetheless is playing a key suppporting role.

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