Friday, October 31, 2008

Branson, Blue Oceans and Entrepreneurs

I'm reading two books at the moment - Blue Ocean Strategy from Kim and Mauborgne and Business Stripped Bare from Richard Branson. Both are fascinating. I love reading about new approaches to business - same reason I subscribe to Harvard Business Review. If you consider the current economic crisis, these books take on a whole new importance. In a previous post, Opportunities from a Banking Meltdown, I talk about the need to look at the positive rather than focusing on the doom and gloom going around at the moment. These books may help you to think differently about the world.

As an aside in relation to the financial crisis. A colleague in London said it wasn't at the point where he needed to invest in a hard hat to protect against fallers from the ledges above!

I haven't finished either book yet but from what I have extracted so far from Branson he talks about business in a really straightforward and refreshing way. I saw him on CNBC recently and he was saying Virgin are even considering going back into the mortgage lending market because opportunities are opening up! This is not quite a Blue Ocean strategy but it resonates with me because I believe (as does Branson apparently) that now is a great time for creating new market offerings. It could be a new service or a new product but if you have any entrepreneurial spirit inside, there are openings presenting themselves now which would never have been considered possible only a few weeks ago. All bets are off (well, maybe not all, but certainly many).

I know lots of people have been affected by recent events but it really annoys me that so much coverage in the media and general day to day conversations focus on the bad stuff. People say we can't talk ourselves into a recession. I disagree. I believe we have talked ourselves into one and the only way out will be to change our perceptions about the state of the world. That's why entrepreneurs are so important and why they should be supported and why the media should be talking about them at every opportunity - especially now.

If you have any spare time and want to read a couple of books that might help you think about business in a different way, I can highly recommend both of these.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Is Microsoft going to take over the Cloud?

I'm not so sure. However, I was reading Steve Ballmer's executive e-mail today about Microsoft's take on the emerging world of Cloud computing. I have to say I was really surprised. Over the last few years I had moved away from thinking about Microsoft and Cloud computing in the same breath. It struck me how much thought leadership and innovative development Google has actually brought out since it started. They really have quite a lead.

The only Microsoft products I use regularly these days are Office and Windows XP. I use Google for nearly everything else. I'm resisting the move to Vista and I don't feel the Open office environments are as good as the original Microsoft version. Plus, it's a whole lot easier to share docs if you're living in an e-mail world. I know, I know, there are loads of other ways of sharing and collaborating on documents more efficiently than e-mailing them around the place but it is still kind of a popular approach you have to agree. Maybe one day I'll move away from MS Office - the new Office 2007 document formats nearly did it for me. Anyway, I'm going off topic...

I was setting up a new domain the other day and after registering I couldn't think of anything better than to move to Google Apps for e-mail, cal etc. I didn't even consider Microsoft.

This latest mail from Steve B has left me intrigued and I'm going to start studying what the guys in Seattle have in the pipeline. Will they be able to turn the ship around like they did when they embraced the Internet all those years ago? Remember his memo, The Internet Tidal Wave [pdf]?

Check out their Software plus Services vision if you haven't already read about it.

I know they aren't the force on the web like they are on the desktop but I wouldn't count them out. They have one quality which Google and co will have to bear in mind. Relentlessness.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Cluetrain is back and more relevant than ever

About 10 years ago I read The Cluetrain Manifesto and was seriously intrigued with its message. Back then the tools to foster this open and honest communication were only emerging and only a few companies and individuals were really using this style. All that has changed now. Have a look at this post from Michael Specht which will bring you right up to date. It even includes a nice online slide deck of the Cluetrain thesis.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why not use the Cloud?

Have a look at this interesting survey from on cloud computing. CIO Cloud Computing Survey

It brings up some very interesting topics and some not so surprising results. I was also reading an interesting blog post from JP Rangaswami about complex adaptive systems and was thinking that the addition of cloud computing into the mix will create some interesting scenarios down the line. The environments in some companies will become even more complicated with the addition of Cloud or SaaS applications and environments. However, some companies will emerge with arguably simpler environments by embracing everything the Cloud stands for.

I know there are loads of different definitions of what is and isn't Cloud Computing. Here's a few discussions:

In my opinion it boils down to whether a company decides to run the service themselves or get somebody else to do it for them. The important point is not what it is called but how and who is running it. I've been in a few organisations over the years who were either building and running hosted / SaaS / ASP / bureau / Cloud environments or using them to run or support parts of a business. I am a strong advocate of moving as much as possible of traditional IT to external providers. Why try to do it all yourself? It doesn't make long term economic sense.

Typically, what happens with IT? It gets more and more expensive to maintain and run it as existing applications are extended / upgraded and new applications and environments are added. Never mind the addition of new staff and acquisitions and mergers etc. The IT bill mostly keeps getting bigger. This trend needs to be reversed so the costs can be contained or even reduced. Particularly with the current economic mess effecting most companies.

I'm not saying that IT is irrelevant. But I am saying that most companies spend most of their time, effort and budgets supporting basic IT environments. They are not spending half as much time as they should figuring out how to really support their businesses and how to really utilise technology to drive their business forward.

So where does Cloud Computing (and all it's derivatives) come in? Cloud computing principles can (over time) help companies change the cost / complexity curve. Move more and more applications, infrastructure, and even support external to your company and into the cloud. This can free up precious time, effort and budgets to concentrate on the real job of exploiting technology to improve the mission of the company.

It really comes down to figuring out what you are good at and focusing all your effort on that and letting others (who are better at it than you) focus on all the other peripheral stuff. Don't try to tell me that your environment is different and won't work in the Cloud. There are so many examples of things that people said were impossible which are now commonplace. Don't be left behind. There are some real business benefits to be gained using what is available today and will only get better as the technology and services improve over time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Should everybody telecommute fulltime?

I was reading the Oct 2008 edition of Wired magazine and Brendan Koerner wrote an intriguing article about telecommuting. One of the main ideas put forward in the article was that it could make serious economic sense for companies to forget offices and just have all their staff telecommute. Since I do some telecommuting myself I started to think about the pros and cons.

There is certainly a huge attraction to teleworking. The amount of commute time saved is incredible. It also allows a certain freedom with regards to work / life balance. The telecommute supporting technology is also readily available and fantastic to use. A lot of people use these tools as their primary communication mechanism even when they are in the office. Over the years I have had to remind colleagues to stop e-mailing each other (and cc'ing everybody else) when they could just stand up and talk to each other over the partition!

The concept of companies going completely virtual is an interesting one. For many companies it could be a real possibility and could achieve the financial savings mentioned in the Wired article. However, would it be practical?

Companies need customers. Most of these customers want to meet you from time to time and like to see an office with people in it. Is this the only reason for an office? No, but breaking this cultural norm will take a long long time.

I believe there are two other reasons why a fully virtual environment may not be fully achievable. Firstly, the social interaction. Humans like contact with each other in person. Phones, e-mail, online forums, video conferencing don't quite go far enough. We still need contact in person.

The second reason is a more practical one. Not every employee (and in fact, probably most) don't have the space at home to facilitate a good working environment. Many are not disciplined enough to work efficiently and equally, many managers are not equipped (with skills or tools) to manage in a virtual environment. Out of sight, out of mind. Can all of this be overcome? Absolutely. But it won't be tomorrow.

In my opinion the best approach is a hybrid one. Don't rule out telecommuting because there are huge benefits. But don't go all extreme and knock down your building either! Embrace the best of both environments. Invest in the technologies to make seamless working environments for employees no matter where they are. Embrace changes in business processes to allow for remote workers.

Finally, stop calling it telecommuting or teleworking. Change your thinking, your business processes, your technology to just talking about interacting with your people. It shouldn't matter where they are - in an office, at home, in a hotel, in a coffee shop, in another office in a different country, in your customers office. If you start thinking like this then you can really move that dial.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The great Twitter debate

Looks like Twitter is undergoing some changes itself. Twitter sidelines one founder and promotes another.

The comments on the above NY Times article are pretty divided between those who think it is the most valuable service on earth and those who think it is a waste of time and everybody in between.

My view is not changed from before. I can't see the value.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Opportunities from the banking meltdown

I just read a seriously interesting article from one of my favorite business authors, Seth Godin. His 16 boxes post from yesterday was brilliant. It puts so much in context around what's going on in the world today and what we can do about it.

I found it particularly interesting because I have been spending a lot of time recently thinking about what opportunities are created as a result of the recent credit / mortgage / banking / recession / economic crisis. We can all go around in gloom-and-doom mode with one of those little cartoon clouds above our heads raining on us or we can think about capitalising on it or re-training or re-positioning ourselves. I'm planning on doing the latter.

There are so many opportunities being created as a result of this crisis and so many new ones coming down the tracks. If we look at just financial services and technology, which are two areas I'm quite familiar with, we can immediately see opportunities. The fact that lots more regulation is going to be a factor in financial services isn't a eureka moment but think about all the products and services which can be created to help companies deal with it. On the technology front, I don't believe there are going to be lots and lots of million dollar technology deals in the future of financial services. There will of course be some but many tech companies and service providers are going to be forced to radically rethink their offerings and price points and ultimately their entire company. This all equals opportunity.

Don't just sit there. Go for it...

Twitter economics and the .com era

Yesterday I brought up the question about Twitter and its value to the world in general. I've been trading e-mails with some people who don't necessarily agree with my point of view. You can catch one conversation snippet here with Stowe Boyd. You know, I'm just not convinced about all of this and the more I read the less convinced I get. Granted, I haven't ever used Twitter for anything so maybe I won't get it until I do. However, I can't find a good reason to actually start using it. Catch 22.

Today I see another series of conversations about how will Twitter make money. See here. I guess I'm just a skeptic about Twitter. Interestingly, I find this position really intriguing because I love to embrace technology but I find myself looking at some of the new trends and thinking "why on earth would anyone use that?". Mostly this happens when I come across services or products which look or sound a lot like some of the crazy .com trends of the past with their similarly crazy economic models. Seriously, did anyone really want to buy a couch online without actually testing it out? My gut told me then that some of these things were not sustainable ( I was right a lot) and I'm finding my gut telling me the same thing about some things today. Right now, this mostly centers around Twitter.

I used to be an investor and I like elevator pitches. So far, nobody has been able to give me an elevator pitch on Twitter which would make me want to use it. I'll keep looking for that pitch ...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What's the point of Twitter?

Okay, I really don't see the point of Twitter. Why would you want to spend time constantly telling the world "What are you doing?" - which is the core mantra of this "service". Even worse, why would you want to listen to what others are doing all the time?

It just seems to me a big waste of time. There is a huge amount of discussion in magazines and blogs about how innovative Twitter is and how it enhances the flow of information. For me it looks like just another way to generate useless background noise.

I'm going to do a bit more research into this but for now I'm putting it in the "just another fad" category. Maybe I'm coming at this with a European perspective and Twitter is just a US fad? Here in Europe we use SMS text messages quite a bit (understatement of the year), but we use them for a purpose to communicate specific things, rather than what I see as Twitter just sending out nonsense data and hoping somebody picks it up.

I'll post further thoughts on Twitter once I do a bit more research to see if I've missed something.

Friday, October 17, 2008

My blogging experiment

Since I've started this blog a couple of days ago I decided to test the effectiveness of subtle marketing. I'm not going to publicize the blog except by adding a reference to it on my e-mail signature. I'm also not going to add it to the sig in every e-mail just to keep things interesting! I'll post in a few weeks with the results of my little test. Hopefully I'll have got at least one reader by then :-)

Are magazines dead?


Maybe I'm a dinosaur but I love magazines. Right now I subscribe to Portfolio, Fortune, Harvard Business Review and Wired. As a member of IEEE I also get some magazines from them.

I also get a huge amount of my daily, weekly, monthly information from the web. But, you know what? I don't want to sit down in the evening on my couch with a laptop. I want a magazine. If I'm sitting out in the car waiting I don't want the hassle of having to bring a laptop. Give me a magazine any day.

You can fold it over. Mark pages with dog-ears. Write on pages. Tear out pages. The ads are even better!

Will electronic devices like the Kindle replace magazines or even books? My belief is no. A relatively small niche market will go electronic but most people will stay with paper. As much as I like technology, paper is just easier to use.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What's cooking got to do with running a team?

A few years ago I was reading a technical book (can't remember title) and the author mentioned that if you really wanted to learn how to run a team you should study how professional kitchens are organised. He (or she) recommended a book by Anthony Bourdain called Kitchen Confidential. I bought it, read it and have been hooked ever since on studying the world of professional kitchens. Good professional kitchens don't have the luxury of muddling through teamwork - it would be a disaster. The author was right, the corporate world can learn a lot from good professional kitchens.

Granted, I can't cook myself. I'm lucky that my wife is a fantastic cook. I do all my study through books and mostly the sad practice of watching TV chef programmes! My favorites: Hells Kitchen, The Restaurant, Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares and the most ironic of all since I can't cook myself - MasterChef. I can't help myself! I just think they are a brilliant study of the dynamics of human interaction and teamwork in a high pressured environment. Remove all the stuff designed to improve TV ratings and look at the core interactions. Surprisingly, I've learned some things which I try to incorporate into my own teams.

Think about this. Imagine your work team trying to do a full professional dinner service in a busy restaurant. Now think about what you could learn from the kitchen professionals by applying their practices to your own team.

What have I learned? Communicate, communicate, communicate. Leave ego's outside. Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you're wrong, say so. Learn from your mistakes. Give credit where credit is due. Support your team members (particularly if you are a manager). Everybody should be clear about their jobs. There should only be one boss.

Fairly obvious stuff, right? How often does the corporate world get it right?

What's an Inch Pebble?

My first post!

I came up with the corny concept of an Inch Pebble years ago when I was trying to describe a form of iterative development to someone. They were used to MileStones being major events in a project. I suggested Inch Pebbles as the mini targets between these major milestones.

Inch Pebbles. Mile Stones. Get it? I know it's corny. What can I say.

I suppose it is really about evolutionary progress towards a vision. Anybody who knows me will tell you that I'm not one to give up an opportunity to come up with a grand vision or two. There's a relatively famous Chinese proverb which states "you can't leap a cavern in two bounds". As much as I like this, I believe implementing these grand visions needs lots and lots of InchPebbles to be achieved along the way. Even if you've come up with the next iPod.

Why did I call my Blog InchPebbles? All the other cool names were taken!