» Archive for March, 2011

In the briefing room: Yammer

Thursday, March 31st, 2011 by Cody Burke

A Yammer site shown in Dutch, with the activity feed in the center.

Microblogs and activity feeds, à la Twitter and Facebook, are the kinds of technology tools that can be both alluring and confusing.  Being able to quickly send out short missives about one’s activity and see updates from others in a condensed activity stream is sexy; it is the interface we have grown used to thanks to consumer social software, and the movement to bring that metaphor of communications and collaboration into a business setting is only natural.

The problem is that few people can clearly articulate the specific benefits that an activity stream-based social software tool brings into the workplace.  There is much talk about the positive impact resulting from ambient awareness of what is going on in an organization, the reduction of e-mail loads as users use the software to communicate, and the ability to reach out to experts with questions.  The tricky part is actually demonstrating, in terms of cost, how knowledge workers are made more productive through use of these tools.

We recently sat down with Yammer’s CEO, David Sacks, and Dee Anna McPherson, vice president of communications, to discuss this very point.

Yammer is a social software tool for businesses that allows employees of an organization to set up networks using their work e-mail addresses.  The network is restricted to those within that e-mail domain, which allows for private groups to form organically within the organization.  This is a plus in our view because it allows smaller groups to experiment with Yammer and show the value of the tool before wide scale adoption.  Companies can then upgrade to Yammer Premium, which gives an organization advanced administrative features and allows it to consolidate various networks that have been created by groups and individuals in the company.

Yammer features user profiles, communities, direct messaging, tagging of topics in conversations, group creation around projects or interest areas, and mobile access.  The main point of the interface is the activity feed, which, although not limited to 140 characters in the manner of Twitter, resembles a microblogging platform.

Sacks told us that he believes that Yammer can reduce e-mail loads for knowledge workers by pulling some communications out of the inbox and into the activity feed.  He also noted that some companies have used the service to replace meetings, or utilized Yammer as an expertise locator and question answering solution.

In our view, the potential for services such as Yammer that provide the activity stream interface for communication and collaboration is huge, but far more research needs to be done to show the specific benefits.  Reducing e-mail is an admirable goal; for example, if a question that is sent out in an all-hands e-mail to 5,000 people can be replaced with a post on a social networking tool that saves 5,000 people from an unnecessary interruption.  The use of the social networking tool still might not be the most efficient way to ask the question, but in the absence of a true expertise location system, it might be the best option.

While certain efficiencies can be created by reducing e-mail, it’s worth noting that the introduction of a completely new tool also has the potential to actually increase the amount of information that the knowledge worker is exposed to daily.  This is precisely why it is imperative to proceed with some caution when adopting these tools, although we do believe that tools such as Yammer have great potential for positive impact.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Winners and Losers in the T-Mobile-AT&T Deal

Thursday, March 24th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

History tells us that mergers take years to plan, years to execute, and years to resolve post-merger problems.

Who's next?

As a result, the big winner in AT&T’s merger with T-Mobile USA is likely to be AT&T’s largest competitor, Verizon Wireless.  Indeed, Verizon is starting to sound like a cheerleader for it to take place.  “We’ve been through a series of great acquisitions and great integration into our company,” said Dan Mead, the company’s CEO.  He added that he does not concur with those who say that the deal is bad for consumers.

Although AT&T is projecting that the deal will close within 12 months, given the likelihood of resistance from competitors, government regulators, and consumer groups, it could take far longer.  Once the deal closes, AT&T will have to integrate T-Mobile’s customers into the fold, which includes replacing incompatible 3G devices with ones that will work on the AT&T network.  Integration can take years.  Just ask Alcatel and Lucent, which lost billions in the years following their merger, or US Airways, whose integration took three years.

Verizon Wireless, however, will be content to sit on the sidelines.  Indeed, the longer it takes the better for Verizon.

Opposition didn’t take long to appear: competitor Sprint, which will be a distant third in the post-merger marketplace, was leading the charge against the deal within a day of the announcement.  Speaking at an industry event this past Tuesday, Dan Hesse, the company’s CEO, said to great applause that he has “concerns that it would stifle innovation and put too much power in the hands of two.”

Groups such as Consumers Union, Free Press, the Media Access Project, and Public Knowledge have come out against the deal on the grounds that it is anti-competitive and will most likely hurt consumers.  These groups wield some influence with Democratic members of the FCC and as well as on Capitol Hill.

The list of opponents seems to go on forever.  The Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), an industry group that counts Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo as members, has already stated its opposition.  “A deal like this, if not blocked on antitrust grounds, is of deep concern to all the innovative businesses that build everything from apps to handsets.  It would be hypocritical for our nation to talk about unleashing innovation on one hand and then stand by as threats to innovation like this are proposed,” said Ed Black, the group’s president.

T-Mobile customers are also unlikely to be looking forward to the merger.  Basex has been a corporate customer of T-Mobile for 13 years, in part due to the excellent customer service that the company has always provided.  From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that every call I have ever had to make for technical support was handled as if I were the only customer the company had to deal with.  Service was personalized, the reps have always been friendly and knowledgeable, and they seemed genuinely concerned about whatever problem I was reporting.  They also had an excellent track record of resolving these problems.

The future of this deal is far from certain.  AT&T, by virtue of a $3 billion breakup fee due to T-Mobile USA parent Deutsche Telekom if the deal doesn’t close, is betting it can win approval.  This is one bet I wouldn’t necessarily make.

This Analyst Opinion is also available online at

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

In the Briefing Room: Harmon.ie

Thursday, March 17th, 2011 by Cody Burke

E-mail and SharePoint, living in harmony?

One of the weakest points in knowledge worker productivity and effectiveness is the constant need to switch among applications and windows while working.  These additional steps take extra time; they also increase the likelihood of errors.  The reasons for this are myriad and range from the time penalty of moving between applications to the exposure to interruptions that sidetrack and delay work.

The concept of a Collaborative Business Environment, which includes the vaunted One Environment Rule, both anticipates and describes this problem.  It also provides direction in terms of how to address this problem. Simply put, the One Environment Rule states that the more knowledge workers stay in one overarching environment to do their work, the more likely it is that the initiative will succeed, and the knowledge workers will be productive.  Conversely, the more the knowledge workers are forced to switch work environments, the more likely they are to fail in their tasks.

We are increasingly seeing products in the marketplace that adhere to the CBE philosophy.  Last week met with Harmon.ie, a company whose eponymously-named product promises to deliver “social e-mail”.

To do this, Harmon.ie provides a sidebar that works with Microsoft Outlook and IBM Lotus Notes e-mail clients.  This sidebar provides access to SharePoint files from the respective e-mail clients, as well as collaboration features such as presence awareness and instant messaging, via integration with Microsoft OCS or IBM Lotus Sametime, depending on the edition.

The mantra behind the offering, as articulated to us by David Lavenda, vice president of marketing and product strategy, is “One window, one context.”  Obviously, this appeals to us as the creators of the One Environment Rule.

Where Harmon.ie really shines however, is the way in which it deals with poor e-mail behavior, namely the gratuitous sending of attachments.  If users send a file as an attachment, they are prompted by the system to confirm whether they actually want to send the attachment, or have the system instead automatically place the file into SharePoint and replace the file in the e-mail with a link.

Research conducted by Basex in 2010 revealed that 60% of knowledge workers e-mail documents as attachments to colleagues for review.  Due to the resulting confusion when managing the multiple copies of a document this method creates, over 40% of knowledge workers miss edits and changes in documents that they get back from review.  Keeping documents in a repository and sending links not only keeps inboxes from becoming overcrowded with large files, but also avoids the many problems that creep into a document review process when reviewers work on stand-alone copies of the document.

Our research and observations at Basex have shown that modifying individual behavior patterns is extremely hard to do.  Knowledge workers, like all humans, tend to resist change and by default will fall back to what they see as the path of least resistance, even if that path is actually harder and more time consuming.  Managing document review by e-mail attachments, and making the inbox the hub of one’s work both fall into this category.  For a variety of reasons, the inbox may not be the best place to center knowledge work around, but the reality is that knowledge workers spend vast amounts of time there, and are unlikely change that behavior anytime soon.

Solutions that take the approach Harmon.ie is taking, which is to improve the tool that is already in use (e-mail) by streamlining processes and automatically correcting bad behavior (such as sending files as attachments), have great potential in terms of improving everyone’s effectiveness and efficiency by precisely adhering to the principles of the One Environment Rule, and because they do not force a large scale behavior change on the user.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Indexing the Web, One Book at a Time

Thursday, March 10th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira
What if the index is longer than the actual book?

Is too much indexing is hazardous to the author?

If you have ever wondered how much work it is for Google to index the Web, try a simpler project, namely indexing a book.

Over the past few days, along with Basex analyst Cody Burke, I worked on creating the index for my forthcoming book, Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Indexing is hard work. My brother Greg, a veteran of numerous books who is far more knowledgeable about the publishing world than I am, said, more or less, that publishers hate doing indices, most aren’t done terribly well, and they are costly to do properly.

If you think it’s as simple as using a word processor’s index generation functionality, you haven’t created an index recently.  What that type of software will do is create a concordance (essentially the alphabetical index of words in a book), which isn’t the same thing.

A high-quality index provides readers with quick access to information and improves the book’s overall usability.  It anticipates what a reader would want to search for and surfaces relevant information.  It should therefore accurately reflect the book’s contents and ideas, but without overburdening the reader with excess information.

In addition to cross-referencing terms and connecting them, an index also needs to drill down on frequently used terms to indicate in what varying contexts they are used.  For example, the term productivity had to be broken up into eight sub-categories, such as “defined”, “and e-mail”, and “of labor.”  Other times, an entry in the index is more conceptual, such as “Time, as a resource.”  Those exact terms may not appear in the text, but the reader needs to be able to find where that topic is discussed.

Book indices are somewhat taken for granted, although no doubt you have found one useful in your own reading and research.  Indeed, if you’ve never really thought about the index in the back of a book until now, except to use it, this may be food for thought.

An index is an ontology, a hierarchical structure of knowledge, and building that ontology is no mean feat: it requires thinking about information, be it a book or the entire Internet, in a nonlinear fashion.

As I worked on the index with Cody, it occurred to me the enormous task that developers of search engines have.  They essentially create software that does to the Internet what we were doing with a single book.

Consider the following words, written in 1465 about a book’s index:

“The index and figures of this book are indeed alone worth its whole price, because they make it much easier to use… so that everybody who wants to quickly find something that is contained in this little book can find it.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

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

You can pre-order your copy of Overload! on amazon.com.

Tablets Rising?

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 by Cody Burke

Where do I click for technical support?

When I attended IBM’s Lotusphere in early February, I was struck by the number of people who were using an iPad.  Indeed, a significant number of attendees did not seem to have brought a laptop at all, and were relying on the tablet to take notes, keep up with work e-mail, and of course, tweet the proceedings.  The number of the laptop-less was still dwarfed by those still typing away on their traditional laptops, but tablets are clearly beginning to establish themselves as a viable mobile computing solution.

Despite the fact that the first tablet was introduced in 1989, the tablet market is still in its infancy.  Today, the iPad dominates the landscape thanks to its legions of Apple-fans, an early start in the market, a plethora of apps, and a polished and popular user interface.  Other companies are pushing out tablets at a furious pace, with options set to explode as numerous Android-based devices, BlackBerry’s PlayBook, and HP’s TouchPad (running Palm’s webOS) hit the shelves.  Not to mention yesterday’s unveiling of the iPad 2.

Tablets are clearly making inroads with knowledge workers.  Some companies who see value in the form factor and the mobile capabilities are providing the devices for employees, or simply extending support to employees’ existing devices.  The New York Times reported last week that General Electric has distributed ca. 2,000 iPads internally and has developed applications for approving purchase orders and monitoring transformers in the field.  The article also cited companies such as NBC Universal, Hyatt, and biotech company Life Technologies that have begun both supplying and supporting employees’ iPads.  Just this week, the FAA approved the use of iPads to replace paper charts for pilots who fly for Executive Jet Management, a charter company.  Although the approval is limited to just one company, it is indicative of tablet computers moving into professional settings, even those under strict regulation such as the aviation industry.

As noted previously, tablets aren’t new.  What’s changed is that they actually work well and, unlike earlier versions, can tap into the Internet and a vast store of business apps that will support everything from e-mail to CRM systems to enterprise social software.

A glance through past issues of Basex:TechWatch shows the launch of business applications for the iPad from the likes of Confidela, IBM, iEnterprises, Jive, NewsGator, Open Text, Oracle, Salesforce, and Sybase, to name a few.  And this is just in the last year.  Even the competitors are getting in on the action; at Lotusphere, the BlackBerry PlayBook was showcased as a secure and viable business tool that features tight integration with Lotus offerings.

Although it is unlikely that laptops will go by the wayside, tablets are increasingly being added to the knowledge worker’s toolkit, and will only increase in prevalence as more use cases and business applications are developed.  If only I had written this column on a tablet…(hint hint).

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.